14.06. 2010 70 years from the occupation of the Baltic states

Seventy years ago, in June 1940, three European states on the eastern coast of the Baltic sea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were invaded by the Red Army and  illegally annexed to the Soviet Union.  This was the direct result of the August, 23, 1939 pact between two dictators – Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler – who had agreed divide the eastern part of Europe between themselves.  Nazi Germany gave the Soviet Union free hands to establish its domination over Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, as well as parts of Poland and  Romania. 

Within a week after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet friendship pact, Hitler was able to launch aggression against Poland that resulted in the outbreak of World War II.  Stalin followed suit, occupying the eastern part of Poland.


Stalin's explanations to his Politburo members four days before signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact should dispell any remaining doubts about the intentions of the Soviet leadership:

"If we accept Germany's proposal to conclude with it a non-aggression pact, Germany will then attack Poland and Europe will be thrown into serious unrest and disorder. .. It is in the interests of the USSR that war break out between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc.  Everything must be done so that the war lasts as long as possible in order that both sides become exhausted.... In defeated France ... a Communist revolution would follow. ... Later these peoples who fell under the protection of a victorious Germany likewise will become our allies.  We would have a large arena in which to develop the world revolution."  

Stalin concludes:  "Germany has given us full leeway in the Baltic countries and has no objection to returning Bessarabia to the USSR."


At the end of September and the beginning of October 1939, immediately after the destruction of the Polish Republic was completed by the well-coordinated aggression of two dictators, the Soviet Union forced the Baltic states, under the guise of mutual assistance treaties, to admit Soviet army, navy and air force bases on their territories.  Officially Estonia had to admit 25,000,  but in reality more than 35,000 Red Army soldiers. They vastly outnumbered its own defense force of 12,000.  In the words of  a Swedish commentator, “Moscow proceeded swiftly to snap Stalin shackles on defenseless Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”


At the same time, Stalin explicitly promised to respect the sovereignty of the Baltic states and their form of government.   


Taking Estonia under Soviet control was conducted in coordination with the other partner of the August 1939 deal - Nazi Germany.  In October 1939, a week before Red Army units arrived in Estonia, Hitler ordered the historic German minority to leave that country  (some 17,000  Estonian Germans were "repatriated" to the newly conquered Polish territories). 


In spring 1940, Moscow began preparations to finalise the occupation of the Baltic states.  On May 28, 1940, the official Soviet newspaper Pravda suddenly accused Estonian „elites“ of sympathies toward England and of "hatred of Germany and everything German".   At the same time, larger Red Army units began to concentrate on the Estonian border.  By mid-June, ca 160,000 men and 600 tanks were ready to invade the country whose sea and air connections with the outer world were totally cut off.   


On June 14, 1940, when the world’s attention was focussed on the Wehrmacht’s  entry into Paris, Moscow presented an ultimatum to Lithuania, followed on June 16 by similar ultimatums to Latvia and Estonia. All three Baltic governments were accused of "plotting against the Soviet Union" and of "violating" the mutual assistance treaties. Ultimatums demanded the immediate formation of new governments acceptable to Moscow, as well as the stationing of additional Soviet troops.  In the Soviet military directives, the Baltic states are referred to as “the enemy”. 


On June 17, 1940, the complete military occupation of Estonia began.  An additional 80,000 Soviet troops entered that country of 1,2 million, bringing their total number well over 100,000.   This proportion of one Red Army soldier for every ten Estonian civilians was maintained over the next half century of Soviet rule. 


Under international law, the Republic of Estonia, a member of the League of Nations,  became an occupied state on June 17, 1940.  Two days later, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's plenipotentary, arrived in Tallinn to conduct a transfer of power from the legal Government to a puppet Soviet regime.  By that time, the Red Army had assumed total control of the country.  Estonian army units were confined to their barracks, the paramilitary Defense League was disarmed.  The Soviet security police, the NKVD,  began to arrest people and to purge Government institutions. To disguise the Moscow-organized coup d'ètat, Zhdanov ordered Estonian communists (at that time numbering 150)  to stage demonstrations against the incumbent Government.  Most of the participants were Russian workers from Soviet military bases, Red Army troops in civilian clothes as well as ethnic Russians from border areas who had been brought to Tallinn by trains.  They were accompanied by Red Army tanks. 


By that time, Estonian political and military leaders were completely isolated from the outside world. President  Konstantin Päts became a hostage of foreign invaders.  In the Soviet Embassy, Zhdanov prepared the list for a new Government which was to be led by some leftist intellectuals while the power positions were already controlled by Communists.  In the subsequent Soviet narrative, these events were called the "1940 June revolution".   The new Government initially promised to preserve the independence of Estonia as a close ally of the Soviet Union.


Immediately after the political coup, all public organisations were disbanded, Communists established control over media and the suppression of suspected opposition began.  Next, Stalin ordered extraordinary elections to be carried out in all three occupied Baltic states.  Only one official list of candidates was presented - that of the Estonian Working People's League.  Despite intimidation and harsh political pressure, patriotic groups succeeded in filing alternative candidates.  However, the latter were removed from the lists by force.  The July 14-15  "elections" left no room whatsoever for choice.  Polling stations were guarded by Red Army soldiers, citizens were threatened to be labelled as "enemies of the people" if they did not show up.  Even then, the results were grossly falsified as shown by the preserved protocols of the electoral committees. 

The final step to merge the Republic of Estonia into the Soviet Union was made on July 21, 1940, when the illegally formed  parliament, confronted with a row of armed Red Army soldiers who were lined up before the deputies, duly voted to transform Estonia into a Soviet state, petitioning immediately for its admission into the Soviet Union.   The petitions of all three Baltic puppet parliaments showed the same handwriting and were "satisfied"  by the Moscow's Supreme Soviet respectively on August 3, 5 and 6, 1940.


The international legal status of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states was defined authoritatively by the prompt reaction of the US  Government.  On July 23, acting US Secretary of State Sumner Wells declared that "the people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried out by the use of force or by the threat of force".  

Referring to the Stimson Doctrine, the State Department stated that non-recognition of illegal seizure of foreign territories would be applied to the Soviet Union as it had been applied to Japan, Germany and Italy. 

This was the start of the important United States policy of non recognition of the Baltic states' incorporation by force into the Soviet Union - the policy that during decades to follow became the only line of hope for the enslaved and isolated Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.  As a result of this policy, Baltic diplomats continued their activities in Washington as part of the diplomatic corps, the assets of three Baltic states in the USA were granted protection and American authorities refused to turn over Baltic merchant vessels to the Soviet Union.

Responding on August 9, 1940 to a Soviet note, the State department concluded:  "it has become apparent that the governments and people of those countries were being deprived of freedom of action by foreign troops which had entered their territories by force or threat of force."

United States recognition of the legal continuity of the occupied Baltic states and their diplomats lasted until the restoration of Baltic independence in August 1991.  It served to encourage other Western democracies not to yield to Soviet pressure and to continue to regard the Baltic states as illegally occupied.    


The 1940 Soviet occupation resulted in the demolition of the state structures and civil society of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and wiped these three states from the political map of Europe for half a century. The Baltic States were subjected to terror and  the systematic suppression of basic rights to life, property, free expression and the rule of law.  Especially the national leaders, civil servants, entrepeneurs, policemen, military and Russian emigrés were targeted for destruction.  55 members of the pre-invasion Estonian Parliament and the mayors of 11 major cities were murdered.  Of eleven former Prime Ministers, four were executed, five died in imprisonment, one committed suicide. Only one managed to escape to Sweden.   A forced nationalization stripped practically all owners of their property without compensation. Industrial enterprises, banks, larger private homes and even motor vehicles were taken over by the Communist Government;  all bank accounts were confiscated.  Farms were limited to a maximum of 30 hectares. 


The Soviet regime’s first mass crimes against humanity in the Baltics were the deportations which had been planned by Moscow since the end of 1940.  Security forces were directed to repress first of all “activists of the counter-revolutionary parties”, members of “anti-Soviet” and “nationalistic” organizations, owners of sizeable properties, civil servants etc.  These definitions covered all non-Communist parties, all NGOs and patriotic organizations, including Boy Scouts, members of the Red Cross and clergy. 

More than half of the approximately 10,000 persons deported from Estonia on June 14, 1941 were women, children and elderly people, who were crammed into railroad cattle cars.  They were transported for thousands of kilometres to Siberia and unloaded in primitive conditions as slave labour, facing cold, hunger and the denial of their basic rights.  As a rule, men  were arrested and separated from their families.   By the spring 1942, of more than 3000 men only a couple of hundred were still alive; hundreds of them were shot in prison camps as a result of court martial verdicts.  After many years only 4331 deportees – less than half – were able to return to their homeland.  The 1941 deportees included about 10% of the Estonian Jewish community.

These deportations from the annexed Baltic states constituted massive ethnic cleansing operations against civilian populations, conducted by Soviet Communists in peace time.  Approximately 50,000 nationals were deported from the Baltic states in June 1941.

As the first trainloads of deportees were arriving in Siberia, the next wave of deportations had already been prepared by the Soviet authorities.  However, due to the German invasion in June 1941, the NKVD managed to implement it only on the island of Saaremaa.  


The first year of the Soviet Communist regime (June 1940 – August 1941) made a profound impact on the Estonian people.  The scope and cruelty of indiscriminate violence and destruction was so shocking that the whole nation reached one and the same conclusion – nothing could have been worse. 


The annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 did not remain an isolated act of international aggression.  The Baltic model of using military occupation disguised as “social revolution” was used by Stalin during the second half of the 1940s throughout Eastern and Central Europe, where, based on the presence of Red Army,  Soviet vassal states, so-called “peoples’ democracies” were created. 

Marek Kornat, the Polish historian, concludes his study with the following words: “if there are any lessons to draw from European history of the 1938 -1940 period, it is the understanding that Europe can never be divided into spheres of influence and that no part of the continent can be regarded from the viewpoint of all-European security interests as more or less important.  The European continent is an integral whole. Consequently we need to bridle aggressive states because history teaches us that any policy of one-sided concessions will have a high price and can lead nowhere.”


The European Parliament was the first international body to pass in January 1983 a resolution on the Baltic nations, condemning „the occupation of these formerly independent and neutral states by the Soviet Union that occurred in 1940 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact...”. Led by Otto von Habsburg, members of the European Parliament stressed that “the Soviet annexation of the three Baltic states has still not been formally recognized by most European states and the USA...”.  The resolution called on the Foreign Ministers to form a common favourable approach to the 1979 appeal by Baltic freedom fighters with the aim of recognizing the rights of the Baltic states to self-determination and independence. 


Representatives of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have on numerous  occasions voiced their gratitude for this authoritative support by the European Parliament for their aspirations to restore independence and democracy.  This June, we commemorate the tragic events of 70 years ago not alone, but together with our friends and colleagues from all over Europe.  The ordeals, sufferings and also achievements of the Baltic nations in restoring freedom and democracy will from now on be an important and inseparable part of our common European history.


Strasbourg,  June 14, 2010


Tunne Kelam MEP, Estonia