Bonfires of freedom

  • 2011-01-19
  • Staff and wire reports

RIGA - A ceremony was held on Jan. 16 on Vecmilgravis Bridge in Riga as part of the commemoration of the 1991 Barricade protests which marked the struggle for independence sweeping Latvia 20 years ago this month. It was on this bridge where, on Jan. 16, 1991, Roberts Murnieks was killed when OMON (Soviet Special Forces Police Units) forces attacked, reports news agency LETA.

Commemorative events are being held all week, with the main ones taking place on Jan. 20 on Dome Square and in Dome Cathedral.
Saeima Chairwoman Solvita Aboltina (Unity) was in Vilnius on Jan. 12 on an official visit where, at the ‘Freedom Bonfires’ remembrance event, she addressed participants of the 1991 Barricades and the people of Lithuania. A portion of Aboltina’s speech was in the Lithuanian language.

“We know what freedom is. We know what justice is. And we know what captivity, injustice, oppression and aggression are. It is said that nations that do not remember their past mistakes are bound to repeat them. However, it can also be added, that nations that forget their heroic moments of strength are bound to lose these qualities. I urge the people of Lithuania to remember the 1991 Barricades due to the people’s heroism, strength and faith, because these values will be needed,” said Aboltina.

Even though the restoration of the independence of the Baltic States is referred to as the non-violent ‘Singing Revolution,’ Aboltina urged all gathered to remember the names of those who died during these days. “In January 1991, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were the center of international attention. None was able to predict at that moment how fast the USSR would collapse. However, we knew changes were imminent. We knew that our desire for freedom had been ruthlessly oppressed in the Soviet Union. Our hopes could have been trampled down with the same boots as in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. The Lithuanian people felt it when Soviet OMON soldiers stormed Lithuanian television, while it was still broadcasting. The Baltic States felt it when tanks drove over people near Vilnius Television Tower,” said Aboltina.

The chairwoman emphasized that she was very grateful for the opportunity to stand together with the Lithuanian people in 1991 Barricades commemoration events. She pointed out: “We remember the events that changed the course of history twenty years ago not only in the Baltic States, but also, possibly, in the entire world. The Baltic States were not only a part of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but also the ones that started these global changes.”
Also in Vilnius for the events, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers said that “It was worth being part of the 1991 Barricades, because in 20 years a whole generation has grown up and is able to enjoy this freedom now.”

Zatlers addressed the Lithuanian president, Seima deputies, Barricade participants and the people of Lithuania. “I bring you warm, brotherly greetings from Latvia, from the Old Town of Riga, where, in January 1991, an impenetrable fortress was built by the selflessness of the Latvian people. A similar fortress was built by the defenders of Vilnius Barricades in their efforts to protect Lithuania’s independence symbols. The strength of the barricades did not lie in concrete walls and steel anti-tank grating; they were strong due to their defender’s selflessness and self-sacrifice. The unarmed defenders stood up for the symbols of our independence - Lithuanian and Latvian Supreme Councils that proclaimed the restoration of our independence,” emphasized Zatlers.

“January 1991 marked the culmination of our National Awakening and the Singing Revolution; it is a moment we are truly proud of. It is not only a source of pride for our generations but also for the generations that grew up afterwards. Many wars are waged in the world; there is violence, but we can tell the world about our unarmed struggle, which we won. This is a value created by our people and it will last forever. Let us not forget it,” Zatlers wished the Lithuanian people.

The 1991 Barricades commemorative events on Jan. 13 in Vilnius were dedicated to the events of Jan. 13, 1991, when Soviet OMON forces tried to interrupt the restoration of Lithuania’s sovereignty with violence. OMON held the Lithuanian Radio and Television Center, Telegraph Central, Press House and Vilnius Television Tower from the beginning of January until the end of August. However, the parliament of the independent Lithuania preserved its legislative and state administration powers. Thirteen civilians were killed.

OMON forces in Riga on Jan. 2 attacked the Preses Nams publishing center. Latvia’s Popular Front then organized protests in front of the Communist party building. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders, on Jan. 7 Dmitry Yazov, the last Marshal of the Soviet Union, sent commando units into Latvia.

Escalating tensions and protests brought out Soviet troops and tanks onto the streets of Riga. The Jan. 11 attack on Lithuania and ensuing occupation of its TV tower led Latvia’s Popular Front to call for nationwide demonstrations for Jan. 13 to support its freely elected government and to guard strategic buildings. Over 700,000 people came out to support the cause, erecting barricades made of all sorts of materials including agricultural and construction machinery.

On Jan. 20, about 100,000 people gathered to protest in Moscow to support the freedom movement in the Baltic States, though further violence in Latvia that evening led to 5 more murders by OMON forces during the peaceful protests. By Jan. 25 the events had played out as the barricade defenders had dispersed for home and threats to overthrow the government were over.
 Latvia’s Foreign Ministry is hosting a photography exhibition titled ‘Our Path to Independence,’ designed as documentary testimony which follows the chronology of the January 1991 events, not only reflecting the most important historic moments in Latvia at the time but also devoting close attention to the people’s mood and emotional experiences.

The pictures not only mirror the events in Riga and Latvian regions, but also parallel processes in Lithuania and Estonia. It consists of 50 framed large-format photographs in digital print, with annotations in four different languages - Latvian, English, French and Russian.
The exhibition can be viewed from Jan. 14 to 21, but prior sign-up is required at the Foreign Ministry’s Public Relations Division.