- - Thursday, August 22, 2019

Thirty years ago two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians along with other nationalities living in our countries held hands in a continuous 370 mile-long human chain, and doing so moved  the course of history in the direction of freedom. This event was the Baltic Way. A quarter of the population of all three Baltic countries stood together on Aug. 23, 1989, to literally connect their capitals of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. In peaceful political protest they demanded the return of freedom and sovereignty to the three countries that had established their modern statehood in 1918.

It was no coincidence that this miraculous event, later recognized by UNESCO and recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, was organized on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On Aug. 23, 1939, the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his Nazi Germany counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Soviet-Nazi Non-aggression Pact, in essence a treaty of Alliance. The Pact included a secret protocol, which divided Europe into spheres of influence giving the two totalitarian regimes free hand in occupying and oppressing the formerly independent States between them.

Whereas World War II ended with the liberation of most of Europe, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as other countries in the Soviet Union sphere of influence were forcibly occupied. These nations lost their freedom as a direct consequence of the grotesque Soviet-Nazi deal.  

But hope was never lost. Even when the Soviets carried out mass deportations tens of thousands of women, men, children and the elderly to perish in Siberia, the Baltic peoples continued armed resistance to the occupying regime well into the 1950s. Despite tremendous hardship, the ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy lived on within the oppressed societies. And Baltic refugees who found new homes in the West, including the United States, kept their resolve. 

The role of the United States, as a beacon of freedom and democratic ideals was crucial  for the liberation of the Baltic nations and the spirit that helped form the Baltic Way. What was taken for granted in the United States during the Cold War, the people in the Baltic countries were dying for, were deported or imprisoned. But our nations always retained the links to the free world, contacts with the diaspora or the efforts of programs such as the Voice of America, helped to keep the hope for a better future alive.

The United States adopted a firm and clear non-recognition policy on the Soviet occupation, expressed in the Sumner Welles Declaration of 1940. Latvia and Lithuania maintained legations in Washington, and Estonia was represented by a consulate in New York. Symbolically, the three national flags of the Baltic countries were never lowered at the U.S State Department. Our societies remember that. Over a million Americans of Baltic heritage organized in their communities and reached out to their elected representatives to persistently remind them and the world that, behind the Iron Curtain, an inextinguishable flame of freedom still burned in the Baltics.

The importance of the Baltic Way far transcended the borders of the Baltic countries. The Baltic Way inspired other captive nations on their way to freedom, contributed to the peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism in Europe. It is still valued as a symbol of what peaceful protest can really achieve. After the fall of communism, the 23rd of August has become an official remembrance day in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, in the European Union and in other countries, known as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, or the Black Ribbon Day.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the freedom that followed has unleashed the potential of our nations. Thirty years after the Baltic Way we proudly see that liberty and democracy have built the foundations for dynamic, open, fast-growing, digitally savvy and environmentally conscious countries. In 2018, we all celebrated the centennial of our independence and we feel that as members of NATO and the European Union, our future is better protected than ever. 

To honor the determination and achievements of the Baltic countries, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Americans and many other nationalities will gather on Aug. 23, 2019 at 1 p.m. on the West lawn of the U.S. Capitol to mark the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. We are certain that our shared values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and self-determination continue to be vital and must always be defended. Please, come join hands with us to celebrate #freedom and #BalticWay30.

• Rolandas Krisciunas is Ambassador of Lithuania in the United States. Jonathan Vseviov is Ambassador of Estonia in the United States. Juris Pekalis is Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of Latvia in the United States.

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