On 27 August 1991, five days after the coup in Moscow had collapsed and Estonia and Latvia had joined Lithuania in declaring that they had restored their de facto independence, Estonian foreign minister Lennart Meri telephoned me. “Paul,” he said, “no one here expected the US to be the first” to recognise Estonia’s independence, “but at the current rate other countries are doing so, you’re not going to make the top 25”.
On the one hand, Lennart Meri’s remark reflected the frustration that he and many others (including the current author) felt with Washington’s go-slow approach, one that meant that US President George H.W. Bush did not announce a change in the American approach until 2 September, six days after Meri’s telephone call. But on the other hand, the Estonian diplomat’s comment reflected a lack of appreciation of the very different situation in which the US found itself compared to almost all these other countries, and has contributed to the spread of the notion that the US—having so proudly declared and maintained its non-recognition policy for almost 50 years—failed to act promptly when the primary goal of that policy was achieved: the restoration of the de facto independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
There were three reasons Washington moved more slowly than many wished, then and even now. First, due to its long-standing policy of non-recognition, the US did not need to recognise Estonia’s independence; it simply had to figure out how to restore the exchange of diplomats with the government in place. Second, it had to be cautious in the troubled aftermath of the coup in Moscow, lest by more precipitate action Washington might have triggered a new upsurge of Soviet revanchism or a new wave of moves by the non-Russian republics of the USSR to leave more quickly than otherwise—or quite possibly both things at once, with risks for all involved. And third, Washington had to manage the shift from a policy that some of the co-ethnics of these three countries often felt they owned to a normal set of state-to-state relationships in which governments rather than diasporas would be the most important players. Each of these elements needs to be better appreciated by all those who care about the Baltic countries.
An Underlying Continuity
Despite the hopes of some, the US couldn’t recognise Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It already had—by virtue of its non-recognition policy, promulgated in 1940 at the time of the Soviet occupation and continued without interruption to this day. Indeed, to have rushed to recognise the governments in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius would have meant undermining that policy, one that reflected a core American value and had important consequences for the three Baltic peoples not only before 22 August 1991 but perhaps even more in the years since that time.
(The distinction between recognising countries and recognising governments also raised the issue of how to deal with the Baltic missions in the US and the remarkable people at their head. These missions had become closer to the new Baltic governments in 1990–1, but they were never viewed by the US as representing those governments and there were questions about how their heads were viewed in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, with some in those capitals even talking about immediately replacing the heads of mission because of their age. Had those voices been listened to, the transition from non-recognition to state-to-state relations would have been far more difficult.)
America’s non-recognition policy—as argued for in 1940 by Loy Henderson, a senior US diplomat specialising in Soviet affairs, and promulgated by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles—arose out of the Stimson Doctrine of 1932, which holds that the US will never recognise any change in the political status of a territory that is achieved by force alone. It mandated that the US maintain relations with the diplomatic representatives of the legitimate governments the Soviet Union overthrew and implicitly treated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as occupied countries, not in control of their own destiny and incapable of establishing their own governments.
Some American officials believed that the restoration of the ability of the Baltic peoples to elect their own governments meant that US non-recognition policy had achieved its goals and was no more. But most recognised, either immediately or some months later, that, as great as the Baltics’ achievement was, it did not vitiate non-recognition policy because that policy provided two things on which the Baltic countries continued (and continue) to rely.
On the one hand, it meant that the status of the Baltic countries was and would always be different from that of the Soviet republics. It was not just a question of history and culture but of law, and one of the reasons that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only escaped from Moscow’s imperial rule earlier than the other Soviet republics but also are now members of Western institutions is that the policy of non-recognition underscored just how different they were and how consequently they had first claim to be restored to their place in the West, including ultimately in organisations like NATO and the European Union.
On the other hand, non-recognition provided the basis for much of the legal action of the three Baltic countries, including in particular their laws on citizenship. Had the principle of legal continuity under occupation not been maintained—and maintained with the support of the US—it would have been impossible for the three to adopt the citizenship laws that they have. The policy of non-recognition has thus not been extinguished but rather reaffirmed, and American actions in August–September 1991 played a key role in that.
Worries about Russia and Other Soviet Republics
Twenty-five years on, it may be difficult to recall how close the coup plotters came to winning and how ready so many officials in the Communist Party and the Soviet state were to go along. Had the coup participants killed Mikhail Gorbachev or even managed to detain Boris Yeltsin—and they came within minutes of doing the latter—the history of August 1991 would be very different.
As the coup collapsed, many both in the region and in the West decided that this effort had had no support and was doomed, something that the more recent actions of the Putin regime call into question. But at the time, at least in the first few weeks, the picture was very different in two respects that might appear mutually exclusive but in fact were tightly interrelated. And that reality was something that the US—on the winning side in the Cold War and the last remaining superpower—could not ignore, lest by its actions it trigger potentially fateful moves by others.
There were many in Moscow and throughout what had been the Soviet Union who supported the aspirations of the coup plotters even if they did not take action at the time. Might they have coalesced under some other leader, even Gorbachev himself, to ensure the survival of the empire? That was a very real risk, as many of the memoirs from that period (but remarkably few of the histories of what happened) make crystal clear. If the US moved too quickly, this could have provided such an individual with the kind of casus belli that might have saved the Soviet Union and even led to the re-conquest of the Baltic states. As we now know all too well, there is plenty of support for that position in 2016; there was even more in 1991.
At the same time, an overly rapid American action, besides its legal consequences for the future of the Baltic countries, might have led other Soviet republics to move to declare their independence at the same time—outraging Moscow still further, possibly to the point of violence, and undermining something that has mattered a great deal to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Such timing would have established a pattern that inevitably would have undercut Baltic exceptionalism and reduced support in the West for treating Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania differently.
Dealing with a Domestic American Problem
Finally, Washington’s slowness was complicated by a unique feature of the US during the period when non-recognition policy was the only game in town as far as Baltic-Americans were concerned. While the US government made it very clear that the Baltic representations were those of the pre-war governments and paid for with money from their governments’ deposits in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, many Baltic-Americans viewed the representations as “theirs” as they were the most enthusiastically consistent supporters of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian diplomats and, it must be said, of the non-recognition policy itself.
When the Baltic peoples and their governments declared the recovery of their independence on 22 August, Baltic-Americans were among the happiest of those who celebrated this triumph of justice over brute force. Unfortunately, being human, some of them decided that they should be rewarded and that Washington should name its first ambassadors from among their ranks. And they were encouraged in this when rumours began to circulate that the first US ambassador to Latvia would be Ints Silins, the only person of Baltic origin in the US Senior Foreign Service.
But the question of moving from non-recognition to bilateral relations was complicated by the aspirations of some Estonian-Americans and Lithuanian-Americans, who suggested that President Bush should name one of the former to go to Tallinn and one of the latter to Vilnius. Rumours in the media about this finally compelled the White House to announce that the president had decided that the first American representatives to all these countries would be professional diplomats rather than political ones.
Not everyone in the diasporas was happy about this, just as they were not happy that the US should recognise the governments in situ in the Baltic capitals. I will never forget hearing from one Estonian-American who speculated, even after President Bush announced on 2 September the restoration of the exchange of diplomats, that it might be a mistake to recognise “little Red Estonia”. But the decision to use only professionals was important and set the tone for the shift to bilateral relations.
This policy served notice that, from that point on, Washington’s relations with Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius would be like those with other countries and that they would be treated as countries rather than as exemplars of a principle or as an extension of diasporas in the US.
On 2 September, everything came together, and President Bush announced that he was sending Curt W. Kamen, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Eastern Europe, to the Baltic capitals not to recognise those countries but to negotiate and sign memoranda of understanding with them allowing for Baltic diplomats in the US to represent their respective countries and for US diplomats to go to the Baltic capitals to represent Washington.
Five days later, that process was completed in Vilnius at the very moment that the Soviet Union recognised the independence of the Baltic states. Indeed, Kamen was in the office of Lithuanian president Vytautas Landsbergis when that happened. And six days later, US Secretary of State James Baker visited the three Baltic capitals, thus completing the shift from non-recognition as the basis of the relationship to state-to-state ties.
It didn’t happen quite as fast as Lennart Meri might have liked, but it did happen in a way that reaffirmed the non-recognition policy rather than vitiated it, that maintained Baltic exceptionalism and that helped ensure the eventual demise of the Soviet empire was largely non-violent, and that Americans of all kinds saw that US relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were relations with three countries and not with three diasporas.