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A nation must think before it acts.
On Aug. 23, 1989, about two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians joined hands in a 690-kilometer human chain across the three Baltic countries in protest of Soviet occupation. The first reenactment of that “Baltic Way” took place in 1991, days after the end of Soviet power, in a line of bonfires and candles that again joined Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Planned as yet another demonstration of solidarity, the event became a celebration of Baltic independence regained. Since 1991, public organizations have regularly commemorated the Baltic Way. In 2019, the 30-year anniversary was celebrated worldwide — including in Hong Kong, where demonstrators drew inspiration for their own pro-democracy movement.
This year, the Baltic Way again shows its relevance — bringing support to the Belarusian people as they protest against the fraudulent result of the Aug. 9 presidential election. The Baltic Way of 1989 is today inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and allotted an entry in the standard reference for nonviolent activism, Gene Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle (2011, 149). But history may show Belarusian “re-awakening” as its perfected iteration.
The “Baltic Way,” as it is called in English, was organized by the three “nonformal” national organizations — the Popular Fronts of Estonia (Rahvarinne) and Latvia (Tautas fronte), and Lithuania’s Sąjūdis. Its purpose was to publicize and protest on the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet-Nazi nonaggression treaty’s secret protocols, in which the Soviets and Nazis agreed that during the coming war, Germany would take western Poland, while the Soviet Union would occupy the Baltic countries and eastern Poland (today, western Belarus). Formal Soviet annexation of the region was completed in summer of 1940.
Before 1989, the Soviet Union’s stance had been that there was no secret agreement with the Nazis. But later that year, Lithuania’s delegation to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies forced the recording of the archival documents in the Congress minutes. In spring 1990, the newly elected Supreme Councils of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia declared renewed independence, based on the principle that Soviet rule over the Baltic had never been legal. Another year passed before the three Baltic governments were internationally recognized in August and September 1991.
A human chain — a demonstration in which a large number of people hold hands in stationary positions — has advantages as a form of nonviolent political action. A line stretching over many miles is difficult to disperse. The adversary may break portions of the chain, but many kilometers can nevertheless stay intact or regroup. Because it is stationary (in contrast to a march descending on a police line or government building, for example), the chain poses no immediate physical threat to individual government enforcers. Nonviolent discipline is enforced by holding hands (or other connectors such as flags, posters, or ribbons). Thus a violent provocateur, be they a government plant or a radical participant, would first need to openly abandon the demonstration by letting go and stepping out of line.
The challenge is in assembly — first, motivating many individuals to participate; second, distributing them along the route; and finally, ensuring that all segments connect at the designated moment. It is here that the three nonformal Baltic national organizations shone in detailed planning and painstaking coordination, and above all — in mobilizing mutual trust across national borders, and at national and local levels — all while overcoming unexpected obstacles, such as suddenly disconnected telephone service (younger readers may need to be reminded that social media, cellphones, and internet were not available in 1989). To Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as observers abroad, the Baltic Way demonstrated the “people power” of the three organizations and their representative leaders. Landslide victories in the national elections of 1990 cemented the legitimacy of the Popular Fronts and Sąjūdis, whose candidates ran and won on a single issue: renewal of national independence.
The Baltic Way’s success went beyond publicizing the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. The demonstration’s effect on Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians was profound. A pan-Baltic group of musicians poetically expressed the atmosphere during summer 1989, in the trilingual song, “Baltic Awakening”: Three sisters standing by the sea overcome their fatigue and powerlessness, and stand up for their land. The sisters were a metaphor for the three Baltic nations, of course, but Balts could identify with them also on a personal level. A human chain energizes each individual participant. As they glance up and down the chain to their right and left, or when they later see photographs, they experience nonviolent solidarity. They do the math, multiplying 690 kilometers by the number of people needed to join hands per kilometer, and the movement’s embodied people power is palpable, as is the viability of its elected leaders. There is a long-shot glimmer of hope that liberation from Soviet power might truly be possible.
Plans for reenactments on Aug. 23, 2020 were forged only about a week in advance, after the awakening of public activism in Belarus. In Tallinn, a thousand participants formed a chain from Liberty Square to the Embassy of Belarus; in Latvia, 400 people in Riga passed the Belarusian white-red-white flag along the street from the Freedom Monument to the Popular Front Museum, while others hiked overnight along a 70-kilometer stretch of the Belarusian border from Meikšāni to Piedruja. In Lithuania, impressive gatherings in Klaipėda, Kaunas and other cities were dwarfed by a chain of 50,000 from Vilnius to the Medininkai border crossing point with Belarus.
Similarities are apparent between the current struggle for liberty in Belarus, and the Baltic Singing Revolution of 1987-1991. In the Baltic, when the floodgates of mass assemblies and free speech opened in 1988, their visual signals, as in Belarus today, were the banned flags of independence. In Belarus today, as in the Baltic back then, powerful songs of liberty are lifting and carrying spirits; impromptu folk dancing, fiddlers and bagpipers recall the Baltica folklore festivals of 1987 and 1988, when staged Soviet culture gave way to informal improvised street performances.
The Baltic Way is today but one colorful page in the world history of nonviolent political action. But future comparative studies are likely to conclude that it is Belarusians who perfected the art of human chains as a form of widespread, decentralized resistance. Examples abound: doctors, Academy of Sciences employees, and most dramatically, the 14 kilometer chain that gathered on August 21 to protest mass arrests in Minsk; and numerous women’s solidarity chains after violent repression restarted on August 27. Belarusians have proven human chains to be a versatile, flexible and yet also a disciplined form of nonviolent public activism that can converge spontaneously (Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya called one demonstration a “flashmob”), without the centralized planning or coordination required for the Baltic Way of 1989.
Decentralization is the greatest difference between the Baltic Singing Revolution and today’s political activism in Belarus: In the Baltic, the Soviet government did not remove the leaders of national organizations, even while it murdered spiritual leaders such as Latvian poet Klāvs Elsbergs (1987), and dissident Gunārs Astra (1988), and mercilessly executed six Lithuanian border guards at the Medininkai crossing on July 31, 1991; in contrast, the dictator of Belarus has over the decades systematically arrested or killed all potential challengers, scrupulously maintaining a belief that the invisibility of dissent equals public support for autocracy.
Cracks in the façade have been present from the very beginning: I recall the appearance of the banned white-red-white flag at a Belarusian performance in the 1997 Baltica Folklore festival in Latvia, for example; Lithuanian musicians told me repeatedly over the years that the recent grass-roots revival of folklore in Belarus is like the Lithuanian folklore movement in the 1970s and 1980s, an exuberantly liberating movement of noncompliance with government demands for public submission. And that Lithuanians could never turn their backs on Belarusian hopes for liberty. Others told me about the European Humanities University, which moved to exile in Vilnius, students and all, when it was expelled from Minsk in 2004. And in February this year, a Belarusian taxi driver in Vilnius gave me an impromptu lecture about Belarusian hero Kastuś Kalinoŭski, executed in 1864 for leading Lithuania’s, Poland’s and Belarus’s unified 1863 uprising for liberation from tsarist monarchy.
It is thus no surprise that Lithuania has spearheaded Western response to the crisis in Belarus. “We are with you, free Belarus, and we reach our hand out to you,” said Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda on August 23. Belarusian leader Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya thanked the Lithuanian nation for its support, expressing a hope that the future would see yet another human chain of friendship — from Vilnius to Minsk, from free Lithuania to a free Belarus.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.