RIGA - Distinguished leaders, academics and foreign diplomats descended on Riga this week in celebration of the 15-year anniversary of the restoration of de facto independence that followed the failed coup in Moscow. The historic event was marked with a public ceremony at the Freedom Monument, a reception at Riga City Hall and an international conference on democracy in the Baltics.
"The Baltic's non-violent restoration of independence from the crumbling Soviet Union surprised the whole world," said Juris Ekmanis, president of the Latvian Academy of Sciences.
A week of commemorative events began on Aug. 21 at the Freedom Monument, where Latvia's top officials and independence movement activists laid flowers in quiet commemoration.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, Parliamentary Speaker Ingrida Udre and Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks were among those to lay flowers.
Former Lithuanian President and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas was also present, along with parliament speakers from Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands. The laying of flowers was followed by a reception at the Riga City Hall.
Meanwhile, academics and politicians gathered at Hotel Riga for the conference "Development of Democracy: Experience in the Baltic States and Taiwan." The international roundtable focused on the Baltics' non-violent resistance and democratic model, while also discussing democratic aspirations in Taiwan.
"This conference represents our efforts to promote democracy around the world. Taiwan and the Baltic states serve as excellent models for all those countries that seek to embrace democracy," Matthew S. Lee, head of the Taipei Mission to Latvia, said during his opening speech.
Wen-cheng Lin, a Taiwanese professor and specialist in Chinese studies, echoed this point.
"Latvia and Taiwan are both young, developing democracies. In this respect, we can learn from each other," he told The Baltic Times. "Whereas Latvia has already joined the EU, Taiwan is excluded from the international community. We want to learn from Latvia's experience, as a small country, in the international community."
The academic also touched on politics, mentioning the fact that both nations struggled with a "larger, more powerful" neighbor.
"How can we, two small nations, get along with our bigger, more powerful neighbors?" he said. "This is one area where we can learn from the Baltics' experience with Russia."
Although geographically Taiwan and Latvia are very far from each other, a careful study of both countries reveals quite a few common features 's for instance, both countries are young democracies that have been oppressed by occupying superpowers in the past, Lin said.
Girts Valdis Kristovskis, a member of the For Fatherland and Freedom party and an MEP in Brussels, spoke about the Baltic state's freedom struggle, in which he played an active role. The MEP admitted that, at the time, he thought large-scale bloodshed was inevitable. However, Latvia succeeded in restoring its independence without numerous fatalities, and this was to be commended, he said.
Kristovskis underscored that there can never be too much discussion over democratic values since the "previous experience wanes and disappears as it is replaced by new generations and new experience."
Ivars Godmanis, who became Latvia's first prime minister after the restoration of independence, also highlighted the nation's change of generations. "The generation that follows us 's they are looking at democracy differently," he said, adding that young people are more critical and not ready to compromise.
Godmanis compared the situation during Latvia's first independence between the two world wars, with modern Latvia.
"We can congratulate ourselves, because we have exceeded the 14 year-long period of democracy" of the first independence, the politician said.
Several exhibitions were unveiled in memory of Latvia's de facto independence. "The Long Road to Democracy, Independence and Freedom," put on by the Warsaw Memorial Institute was the first to be opened to the public. Later this week, a travelling exhibit set up by the Museum of the Latvian Popular Front will begin its tour at the City Hall.