Twenty years on: ex-Baltics reporters look back at 1993

  • 2013-06-12
  • By Paul Gould

ON MESSAGE: A life-long dream accomplished, the Pope delivered a Mass to 300,00 faithful at the Hill of Crosses.

LONDON - Baltic independence was barely two years old in the heady but still precarious days of 1993. After five decades under Soviet rule, there was optimism, renewal and many of the fruits of sovereignty – this was the year when a new Latvian parliament was elected, when Russian troops pulled out of Lithuania, when the Pope visited and when new currencies replaced the plummeting Soviet rouble.

Yet it was an anxious time too. That sovereignty was constantly undermined both by disgruntled Russians living in the Baltics and by the veiled threats emanating from the Kremlin, which still had thousands of troops stationed in Estonia and Latvia.

In 1993 The Baltic Observer was just one year old. It would now be celebrating its 21st birthday – but in 1996 it merged with The Baltic Independent to become The Baltic Times. Still, as a forerunner to TBT, it chronicled the politics, economics and people’s lives in that tentative post-independence period.

The Observer’s founding editors hailed from the Baltic diaspora – notably Canadian-raised Karlis Freibergs, son of Vaira Vike-Freiberga, later president of Latvia. Other colleagues had Baltic ancestry too, and arrived to explore the homelands that their parents or grandparents had left after the Soviet occupation. There was Victor Ozols, also of Latvian descent, now based in New York; and our then Vilnius correspondent Stephen Nakrosis, son of Lithuanian parents in New Jersey.
Back in those days before the Internet’s assault on newspapers, The Baltic Observer was optimistic enough to have a large staff and welcomed other budding journalists too (even those without Baltic pedigrees) from the U.S., the UK and Canada.

Journalism is sometimes described as “the first draft of history.” If so, then my ex-Observer colleagues and I are proud to have had a ringside seat at a moment in Baltic history. As journalists we were rookies: as green and fledgling, yet as enthusiastic as the Baltics’ own independence project. Still in our 20s, it was an adventure to find ourselves on the fringe of what had been Cold War territory.

The Cold War – or rather the aftermath of the Second World War – still felt like a reality when it came to Baltic demands for Russian troops to be withdrawn from their soil. Will-they-won’t-they negotiations dragged on throughout 1993, with the Russians finding endless reasons to stall. Moscow clearly wanted to keep a tight rein on its “near-abroad;” there was also the sticking point of Russians resident in the Baltics being denied full citizenship. Lithuania enjoyed a slightly less abrasive relationship with the Kremlin and was the first to be rewarded with a military pull-out at the end of August that year. Even so, in late November there were still over 4,000 troops stationed in Estonia, and 13,000 in Latvia.

Before moving to Riga in 1993, Paul Gould had been based in Moscow. As a Briton with proficiency in Russian, he was sent to cover the troop pull-out talks and was able to speak to both sides. Moscow’s veiled menace was ever-present. In November, Gould reported “Russia’s repeated insistence on keeping strategic military installations in Latvia... as well as allegations of discrimination against local Russian-speakers.”

He added: “Even if troop withdrawal were completed, Russia has a worrying offensive capability a stone’s throw away from the Baltic borders. Although troops left Lithuania at the end of August, 500,000 remain in the Kaliningrad region next door.”

In a November 1993 opinion piece headlined “Latvia: Almost a post-Soviet utopia,” Gould praised the country in comparison to its giant Russian neighbor, but warned that extreme nationalism would “fuel existing resentment and damage the prestige of a country that needs to rise above this immaturity to command respect.”

In Estonia, meanwhile, the Russian majority in the border town of Narva held a noisy (but legally toothless) referendum on whether to secede from Estonia and become part of Russia. Gould went to Narva to cover the event, and also visited the Russian town of Ivangorod, just across the border. What he found was an odd “symbiotic relationship. Narva residents come over to Russia for cheap groceries... while Ivangorod’s taxi drivers and currency dealers thrive on the flow of Estonian kroons.”

The Baltic nations’ new currencies and the transition from a command economy were a big part of a sometimes harsh post-independence settlement. American Matthew Newman and Briton Stephen Keeling (now a Rough Guides writer) reported for The Baltic Observer on how companies and regular citizens handled the rapid transformation. When they arrived in Riga in spring 1993, Latvia’s economy had contracted by half since 1990, and its government was only starting to get inflation under control after people’s meagre savings were wiped out in 1992.

Economic meltdown hurt the poorest hard. Newman lived with a pensioner who survived on $30 a month. She relied on friends with gardens for potatoes and cabbage. People who had worked their entire lives under communism were left with nothing. He recalls many Latvians having barely enough to eat and not being able to buy anything in stores. Riga’s central department store had few Western products, and what it did sell was extortionately priced.

Despite these hardships, Newman was a fascinated witness to the first signs of economic renewal. He and Keeling looked out for signs that the economy was stabilizing. Riga’s central market was a hive of activity, selling Latvian smoked eels and dense, black rye bread. Slowly but surely, Western products arrived in the stores too, starting with Mars bars and Kellogg’s corn flakes. Giant red Coca-Cola ads were splashed on the side of rickety Czech-built trams.
Privatization was in its infancy and the challenges were immense. The bulk of the sell-off of state-owned companies would come later, but a clear move to a market economy was under way. In contrast to the poverty of most, the Riga Stock Exchange was launched with a lavish champagne-swilling event on Dome Square.

But the biggest economic story was Latvia’s adoption of the lat, which handed control of the economy to the Latvian Central Bank. Newman was impressed by the stability of the lat – a freely convertible currency that traded at about 0.5 lats to the U.S. dollar in 1993. Latvians were filled with pride, he writes, when they switched from the transitional Latvian roubles to brand-new lat banknotes, adorned with national symbols such as the oak tree.

In January 2014 Latvia is set to adopt the euro. While public support for the European single currency is low, the country’s recovery from the economic crisis that began in 2008 is a testament to Latvia’s resolve and resilience.
It was thanks to a chance encounter in Vilnius that David Pantalony, now a historian at the University of Ottawa, ended up as a reporter for The Baltic Observer. Pantalony had been travelling across Europe in fall 1992 – but by February 1993, he was covering a visit to Riga by former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Although Baltic relations with Russia were tense, Nixon broke off in the middle of a trip to Moscow to visit Riga and to hear the Latvian side for himself. Interviewed briefly after a press scrum, Nixon told Pantalony he had been approached by Russian officials on the subject of Latvia - but Nixon was suspicious of the Russian claims. As Pantalony puts it, “his notorious distrust of people was, in this case, a diplomatic virtue.”

But it wasn’t only politicians who made the news. True, The Baltic Observer’s Vilnius bureau chief Stephen Nakrosis personally interviewed Lithuania’s then president, Vytautas Landsbergis – but he also covered the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Baltics in September 1993. Although the pontiff landed in Riga, the bulk of his visit was to Catholic Lithuania, Nakrosis’ turf. As a son of Lithuanian parents and having done scholarly research in theology, Nakrosis was an authoritative reporter amid the media scrum that followed the Pope to the famous hill of crosses in Siaulai. But he made light of his journalistic drive, telling a Baltic Observer news meeting that “I’ve pencilled in a round of golf with His Holiness.”

Stephen Nakrosis remembers;

I arrived in the Baltics on April 19, 1993, landing in Riga airport. I remember the day for another reason: it was the day that U.S. law enforcement stormed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Every television in the airport was tuned to CNN.
After a few weeks in Riga, I was sent to Vilnius to run the bureau there for The Baltic Observer. My family on both sides came to the United States from Lithuania, and being able to live and work in the country was something of a homecoming for me.

Lithuania had been independent for less than two years. It was busy creating a system of government, formalizing its currency, and putting into place the democratic and business structures that had been denied to them for decades under Soviet rule. And there I was, the only Western journalist living in the country. Even though I was working for a small, English-language paper, I was able to speak to the president [Vytautas Landsbergis], to members of the Seima, to the head of the Central Bank, and to military generals. It was an exciting time.

The highlight of my tenure was the visit of Pope John Paul II. The people of Lithuania turned out in droves to see the pontiff. For many who had lived under Soviet rule, it was a day they never thought would come. In the pouring rain, hundreds of thousands flooded into Vignis Park to hear the Papal Mass. Huge crowds followed him to pray at the Hill of Crosses near Siaulai. Citizens who had been denied the right to worship were able to participate, out in the open and free of fear.

And finally, away from the politics, a more personal Baltics memoir – this time by Victor Ozols, and in his own words:
“I went to the Baltics in an attempt to become a more interesting person. I was looking to connect with my family’s heritage, of course, as both my parents were born in Latvia (I was born in Washington, DC and raised in Virginia). And to be honest, I was looking for kicks too – the kind of escapades that American expats were supposed to get into when living abroad.

“I’d decided in college that I wanted to be a writer, but I grew up in what I considered a typical suburban American household, with few incredible or traumatic experiences to write about. So I wanted some genuinely trying life experiences to draw upon, and decided the best way to do that would be to move to a country that was experiencing its own rebirth. And so, in November 1992, I landed in Riga for what would be an amazing two-year stay in Latvia.

“I’d secured a job at The Baltic Observer through the American-Latvian Association, which put me in touch with Andra Raudseps, one of the newspaper’s founders, and she brought me on board, introducing me to editor-in-chief Karlis Freibergs. I moved into a cold-water apartment on the fifth floor of a Stalin-era block in Agenskalna Priedes and began working three different jobs. I was a private English teacher for a group of school administrators, an elementary English teacher in Riga Public School no. 58, where my young cousin Alise was a pupil, and a reporter at the Observer.

“All the jobs were very fulfilling, but I wound up embracing my job at the Observer the most, learning the ropes from Freibergs and developing my writing. During my tenure, I interviewed dozens of fascinating characters, from the editor of an underground newspaper that was a constant critic of the government, to Evalds Valters, who was at that time the world’s oldest working actor. The work was important to me, and even when I wrote light-hearted travel and nightlife columns, it felt like we were providing a model of a free press to a nation whose voice had been stifled for decades.

“I grew to love the Baltics, and often travelled between the three capitals of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. I made friends who remain close to this day, despite being scattered around the world. I had plenty of adventures, often book-ended by overnight train rides in creaky old carriages. And I connected with my own history, getting to know relatives I’d never met before and seeing the farmhouse where my father was born. It also helped to give me a broader worldview, on which I draw to this day in my career as the editor of BlackBook magazine in New York.

“I’m pleased to see The Baltic Times continue to flourish now that the Baltic countries have matured into their independence, and I often wonder if there’s somebody like the younger version of me working there now, an awkward but curious Latvian-American guy trying to find himself, and having lots of fun along the way.”