That action represented an implicit recognition of the very different past status of these states than that of the 12 Soviet republics. But equally important, it helped to set in train the very different pattern of development the three Baltic states have followed in the decade since.
On Sept. 6, 1991, in the wake of the failed coup in Moscow, the Soviet government officially recognized Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as both de facto and de jure independent, a step that more than 40 other countries had already taken earlier. Indeed, at the very moment when this Soviet recognition was reported in Lithuania, American officials were meeting in Vilnius with that country's leader Vytautas Landsbergis to discuss the resumption of the exchange of diplomats.
International recognition represented the culmination of the drive of the three Baltic nations to recover fully the independence they had effectively lost when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin occupied these three countries in 1940. Neither the people of these countries nor many major Western powers, including the United States, ever accepted the Soviet occupation as legitimate. And both the Baltic nations and the West saw this Soviet recognition as vindication of their stand.
But in many ways, Moscow's actions in 1991 represented even more than what the Soviet authorities, the Baltic peoples or the West recognized at the time. In many respects, the Soviet Union recognized not only the independence of the three Baltic countries but also their very different status in the past and their equally very different status in the future.
In announcing its recognition of the independence of these countries, the Soviet authorities were very careful not to say that they were finally recognizing either the illegitimacy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which Hitler and Stalin divided up Eastern Europe and left the Baltic countries in the Soviet zone or to say that they were in any way accepting the West's non-recognition policy.
Nonetheless, by taking this action when it did, the Soviet government implicitly acknowledged both, a fact that many Baltic leaders at the time called attention to. That is because it was a fundamental principle of the Baltic national movements that they were seeking the recovery of the de facto independence that was taken from them because they had remained independent in the eyes of most of the world.
Consequently, by recognizing all three Baltic countries well in advance of any acknowledgment that the U.S.S.R. would soon disintegrate, Moscow effectively treated the Baltic countries as a distinct group, something the Baltic national movements and Western governments had insisted upon.
Indeed, many in Moscow and in Western capitals took the view in the weeks that followed that Moscow's recognition of the independence of the Baltic countries did not point to the demise of the Soviet Union as a whole but rather was a step that would allow then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to stabilize the situation. Because that view proved mistaken, the distinctiveness of Soviet recognition of the Baltic states was obscured for many in Russia and elsewhere.
But even more important, the difference in Moscow's recognition of the Baltic countries from its later recognition of the post-Soviet states has played a key role in the very different trajectory of Baltic developments since that time. Unlike the post-Soviet states that emerged following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in December 1991, the Baltic countries were able to build on an identifiable and democratic past, something not easily available to the others.
More than that, the three Baltic countries never joined post-Soviet institutions like the Commonwealth of Independent States that embraced the 12 Soviet republics, and they have thus been in a position to pursue integration with Western institutions like the European Union and NATO more like the other countries of Eastern Europe than like the post-Soviet republics.
Precisely because both the Baltic governments and Western leaders in almost all cases have accepted this key distinction, many in Russia object to what they view as the West's Baltic exceptionalism – forgetting that Moscow made this exceptionalism not only possible but necessary first by the occupation and then by the key difference between the Soviet recognition of Baltic independence and the Soviet acknowledgment that the U.S.S.R. was no more.