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When Great Moments Occur

Author: Uffe Ellemann-Jensen
Council on Foreign Relations


Article by Uffe Ellemann-Jensen with accompanying interview.

Related Program: Center for Preventive Action

Throughout history the vast majority of new states have been formed within the boundaries of losing powers and alliances or at the borderlines between the former great powers.

The Baltic countries on the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea were indeed placed on the borderline between the great powers of the Cold War. The struggle for independence had been mounting for several years but it would be difficult to imagine Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania becoming free and independent European countries peacefully if the bipolar world had not fundamentally changed as it did in 1989–1991. Neither did anyone expect Baltic membership of the European Union [EU] nor NATO ten years before it happened.

The failure of one of the world’s two great powers permitted the Baltic countries to move from occupied territory to free and independent states with only little bloodshed. The Baltic countries were handed a window of opportunity and used it to resume and preserve their independence, which they had lost half a century before.

The reflections in this article are solely mine and are based on my time as minister of foreign affairs in those remarkable years that led to the liberation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and later the successful enlargements of both NATO and the EU.

I became Denmark’s foreign minister in 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev seemed at the height of his powers. Economically, the Soviet Union had greatly benefited from the oil crises of the 1970s and was building missiles in large amounts. They had acquired an international influence that resembled that of the United States. The United States almost seemed weak on the brink of the 1980s.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took office. He understood better than any that NATO and the United States had to bargain with the Soviet bloc from strength, not weakness. He dared calling evil by its name and insisted that in order to persuade the Soviets to arms reduction, you needed a dove in one hand and a sword in the other. The Soviet Union needed to be defeated, not contained, and capitalism itself was the most powerful weapon against them. They could never outspend the United States and the Western alliance and thus win the arms race.

Within a few years the arms race had left the Soviet Union with daunting economic troubles. Its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated rapid and radical changes to invigorate the Soviet economy announcing Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”).

Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost allowed critical debate. In the Baltic countries, fearless, bold leaders of the Latvian Popular Front, the Sajudis in Lithuania, and the Popular Front of Estonia quickly took full advantage of the new policies and widened support for their movements beyond the dissident groups.

The opposition groups called progressively for national independence during the so-called “calendar demonstrations” commemorating key events in their national history. Most striking of all was the so-called “Baltic-Way.”

On August 23, 1989, marking the date of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, two million people formed a human chain of more than 250 miles from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. Freedom was on the march. The Baltics demanded that Gorbachev make public the Secret Additional Protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They believed it included an agreement that the northern boundary of Lithuania should represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the Soviet Union. The Baltics shrewdly underlined that by demanding a release of the Secret Additional Protocol, they were only supporting the ideas of Glasnost that Gorbachev himself had preached.

Gorbachev knew that releasing the Secret Additional Protocol would reveal that the Soviet Union had based its legitimacy on fear, secrecy, and lies. However, Gorbachev had to follow his own policies and, in the summer of 1989, the Supreme Soviet in Moscow admitted the existence of the Secret Additional Protocol. The proclamation encouraged the Baltics to step up their resistance against what was indeed Soviet occupation.

Then came January 1991. The Soviet Union responded to the quest for independence with an oil embargo and troop actions in Latvia and Lithuania. Civilians were killed and we know now that the United States, who seemed preoccupied with the Gulf War, actually discussed at the highest level if time had come to oppose the Soviet troops in the Baltic countries.

I believe that the free world is sustained by the presence of American power and America’s willingness to use that power against those who threaten us. Even though the Baltics did obtain their freedom, it is adequate to question whether it was the right decision to leave the Baltics on their own during these critical days in January 1991. The Baltics stood up bravely, much to the surprise of the Soviet leaders who had completely underestimated popular resistance. Nevertheless, Gorbachev could easily have ordered a bloody end to the independence movements in the Baltics.

Gorbachev’s failure to push the attack to a conclusion obviously resulted in resentment among the hardliners in Moscow. On August 18, 1991, a group of senior officials eventually detained Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea. In three days, luckily, the August Coup was defeated. It was poorly organized; junior military leaders and presidents of the republics, most notably Boris Yeltsin, led a successful popular resistance to the attempted coup.

By then, the Soviet Union did not have any military, political, economic, or ideological power left. If a state cannot uphold these heavy demands, it seldom survives in the international system and it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union would collapse after the August Coup.

On August 24, we received news of President Yeltsin’s acclamation of the independence of the three countries. Denmark immediately appointed an ambassador to leave for Riga in order to maintain independence in the three countries. Later that evening, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania arrived in Copenhagen and an agreement on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations was signed. After fifty-one years, the diplomatic relations between our countries had been re-established. Freedom had prevailed.

The three Baltic countries had some experience with democracy, which helped them restore it when others failed. All three nations gained independence in the aftermath of World War I and only a few years later they had established democracy and the rule of law.

The independence period was also one of great cultural advancement and—despite the Soviet totalitarian regime leveling suppression of historical traditions and cultural individuality—national languages, artistic life of all kinds, and the dream of resuming independence survived throughout the occupation. Cultural activists even managed to sustain the Baltic song celebration phenomenon. Although the song celebrations were forced to adapt to the Soviet regime, the celebrations retained their major objective of preserving and promoting cultural identity and national unity and marked the beginning of the “Singing Revolution.” Thus, the strong national consciousness helped the Baltics fulfill their ambition of a common future in freedom, peace, and prosperity with its European neighbors.

However, the lengthy negotiations with the EU and NATO did little to reassure the Baltic countries that their independence was in safe hands. Likewise, the statement by Russia’s foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev on April 18, 1995, that “there may be cases when the use of direct military force will be needed to defend our compatriots abroad,” sounded a little too familiar. Things could have gone terribly wrong had President Yeltsin not been as dedicated to freedom, democracy, and to strengthening relations with the outside world as he turned out to be.

At the same time, though, hesitation in many Western countries to “rock the boat” vis-à-vis Russia remained throughout the 1990s, which led to some detours. Several organizations and networking fora were set up in order to create strong partnerships, improve trade relations, and tie the Baltic Sea business community closely together. The idea of “economic integration” as a guarantee to peace and prosperity had been the basis for all decisions within the EU since 1951. It also seemed to work in the Baltic Sea region.

An impressive amount of political capital was invested in the reform process in the Baltic countries. The transition from highly integrated Soviet economies to open European markets was both painful and difficult for the societies. What they achieved in those years is quite astounding. The reform process and a new generation of skilful leaders helped create in the countries strong management methods and modern manufacturing. The availability of scientists and the access to research institutions and venture capital also became relatively high with less costly production sites than most other European countries.

The most powerful motivation for achieving change was of course the clear and credible prospect of joining the EU and NATO. And even though the enlargement at times was put at risk because of petty national interests from the old member countries, the Baltics never gave up. They continued to reform and restructure their economies and, eventually, it became clear for the rest of Europe that the enlargement was a simple confirmation of the basic raison d’étre of the EU.

Finally, in December 2002, the Danish EU presidency concluded negotiations with all ten candidate countries only a few months after the enlargement of NATO.

In February 2003, after the celebrations had ended, the “Vilnius-10” group, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, confirmed that the defense of transatlantic values (or one’s own responsibilities for that matter) does not stop at one’s own borders. For me, that marked the culmination of the Baltic struggle for independence. The Baltics were now willing to stand up for the values they had fought so hard to maintain and demanded European peace integration to be anchored, security-wise, in an alliance with the United States. This marked another significant moment in history.

It is safe to say that during the past fifteen years, we Europeans have been living in what Stefan Zweig once called “Sternstunden der Menschheit” (1927).

Zweig writes that from time to time destiny gives us the opportunity to seize the moment and change the course of history. He reminds us that the opportunity is only there for a short while. It will never return. The world-shaking events of 1989–91 shaped the Baltic Sea region we see today, but only because the small Baltic countries, their leaders, and their peoples seized the moment that occurred in the wake of the break-up of the bipolar world order.


Uffe Ellemann-Jensen (b. 1941) was minister for foreign affairs of Denmark from 1982 to 1993. He was president of the European Liberals (ELDR) 1995–2000 and co-founded the Council of the Baltic Sea States in 1992 with German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In 1998 he initiated an international networking organization, the Baltic Development Forum. He is the author of several best-selling books. His most recent book, Østen for Solen—Et helt Europe (East of the Sun—One Europe), was released in December 2002 and, before that, Fodfejl—Da Danmark svigtede under den kolde krig (Foot Faults—When Denmark Failed During the Cold War) in November 2004.


Mr. Ellemann-Jensen, first of all, thank you so much for contributing to our website with this great piece on the peaceful transition of the Baltic states. For obvious reasons, cases of successful conflict prevention rarely make it to the news, so we were particularly interested in getting your perspective on and learning more about your efforts in this region.

As the USSR collapsed, the Baltic people faced enormous challenges and uncertainties about the future. Considering the developments in other former Soviet satellites, one realizes how much could have gone wrong in the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Q: What kinds of preventive action would you say played the most important part in the peaceful transition of the Baltic nations?

Ellemann-Jensen: In the crucial days in August 1991, Boris Yeltsin made the difference. I believe history will reward him.

When you look at what happened after independence was restored, you might well talk about the importance of “soft power” – although I can’t stand the term – because I don’t think the transition would have happened so swiftly without the European Union’s [EU] decision to open up for enlargement by introducing the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ in 1993.

Because enlargement became a question of “when” and not “if,” the EU was able to provide strong incentives for the countries eligible for membership to adopt strong democratic institutions and market reforms. Meanwhile, the Central-East European countries themselves had a strong determination to transform their markets and institutions, knowing the importance of regional trade and economic cooperation for their economies. Their achievements have enabled them, in only 15 years, to compete with larger member states.

But then again… this is what we do best in Europe. Just look at how a disaster was turned into a great opportunity in Ukraine. Now Europe and the United States must answer the Ukrainians’ cry for freedom with a roaring “Welcome.” We must offer them membership of both NATO and the EU and show that we stand with oppressed people at any time and on every continent.

Q: What main beliefs and reasons did you have for leading the European recognition of the Baltic nations?

Ellemann-Jensen: First of all, I recognized the fact that – and this is something many Europeans sometimes forget – European integration started with a political goal: To safeguard and preserve freedom and peace in Europe. You can read that in the preamble of the old Treaty of Rome. Economic cooperation is described as a tool to reach the political goal. Therefore, it would have been contrary to the raison d’etre behind European unity had we not opened up for those European countries, who wished to become part of our Europe.

You see, Europe will never become a superpower in the traditional sense. The United States is the one superpower in the world and I believe that the free world is sustained by the presence of American power and her willingness to use that power. I can’t see that changing in my lifetime.

The combination of Europe’s soft power and the United States’ willingness to use its military power is really quite unique. That’s why we must remain united. Europe needs the United States to stabilize its neighborhood but we cannot leave everything up to the Americans. The EU must take the lead on problems closer to home – especially those that call for a more soft power approach. The Danish and Icelandic governments did exactly that back in 1991.

The events back then proved that small European nations could achieve considerable influence through alignment with the United States. Denmark is a small country and was lucky back in 1945. Had Montgomery’s troops not been as swift and fast as they were, Denmark could easily have suffered the same fate as our Baltic neighbors. In 1991, we had the chance to show that times had changed. The Danes were ready to stand up and defend what we believed in because we had the support of the United States to do it.

Paul Wolfowitz, who served as George H.W. Bush’s undersecretary of defense for policy, had told us early on that European security was indivisible. The United States was committed to supporting the independence and sovereignty of Central-East European countries. Not least Lithuania was considered of vital interest. That meant a lot, of course.

You should also remember that the situation was changing almost daily, even every hour at one point. There was no certainty that it would all end peacefully. Someone had to act swiftly while the window of opportunity was still open in those hectic days following the failed Putch in August 1991. Retrospectively, one could say it would have been more gracious to wait for a joint action together with other EU member states. But, in my view, there was no time to waste. And this is why Denmark – immediately after we received the news of president Yeltsin’s acclamation of the independence of the three Baltic countries – moved forward alone in resuming diplomatic relations and appointing an ambassador to leave for Riga.

That move made us the first country to reestablish diplomatic relations with Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. That’s the story. Denmark couldn’t recognize these countries because we had already done so in 1921 and had confirmed this recognition as late as February 1991, never accepting the Soviet occupation. Iceland was in a different situation. She was part of the Danish realm back in 1921 and had thus never recognized the three countries. This gave the Icelandic government a special opportunity, which it grasped.

Q: What led you to found institutions like the Council of the Baltic Sea States and the Baltic Development Forum? What do you expect to be the lasting importance and role of such initiatives?

Ellemann-Jensen: It’s difficult to say whether they will have a lasting importance – I would like to think so – but they will have to stand the test of time. I do believe, though, that they had some kind of influence on the development in the Baltic Sea region in a crucial time of great changes.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and I realized that we were faced with a moment of great opportunity. We arranged a meeting in Copenhagen between the new and old foreign ministers from all the Baltic Sea countries, thereby creating a new network of foreign ministers that – for the first time in 70 years, maybe ever – would sit around the same table on equal terms. The network led to the formation of a permanent council that later created institutions like the permanent secretariat in Stockholm, the Council of Baltic Sea States [CBSS].

The CBSS has since grown in importance and stature which was not universally expected in the beginning. I remember an article in The Economist, quoting an unnamed diplomat, calling CBSS “basically a nonsense organization.” Time proved him wrong: the CBSS has throughout the nineties been a useful council for all nations in the region.

After I left politics in 1998, I wanted to include the business community and the academic world as well in the efforts to open up the region, so we founded the networking organization, Baltic Development Forum [BDF]. The BDF promoted trade and investments between the Scandinavian and Baltic countries and Poland. This was important during the lengthy negotiations with the EU. At the same time, we also had to make sure that the Russian business community understood Russia’s significance in the Baltic Sea region and realized that the enlargement was an opportunity for them, not a threat.

BDF has proven to be a very useful platform to establish partnerships and set new action agendas for the region. I am especially proud of our annual assessment of the development in the region, The State of the Region Report. This report shows that the Baltic Sea area represents Europe’s most innovative growth region. It’s important that we maintain this position. Nevertheless, I would welcome other regions around the world to duplicate this forum.

Q: You seem to indicate that the EU and NATO failed during the 1990s, letting "petty national interests" stand in the way of enlargement. What was the problem?

Ellemann-Jensen: The problem was that it took too long and that this could have spoiled the whole process. Fortunately this didn’t happen, but I remember Toomas Ilves, then Estonian foreign minister, saying at the BDF Summit in 2000 that the enlargement process had become too big a headache for too many people. And he was absolutely right. Some governments did not seem to understand the importance of the EU in lifting poor and relatively isolated countries into the modern, affluent world.

The Irish “No” to the Nice Treaty was of course most alarming. The Nice Treaty was important because it placed the EU in a position to welcome those new states ready for membership. The Irish No-campaign really was a bizarre Irish stew of pacifism, religion, socialism, and some eccentricities only to be found on that beautiful emerald-green island. Moreover, the low electoral turnout may have overshadowed the fact that a majority of voters probably would have voted “Yes” if their leaders had inspired them to go to the polls in the first place. Many people in Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia must have wondered just why Irish voters should want to deny them the same helping hand that transformed Ireland.

Luckily, in the end, Europe’s leaders didn’t fail their test of leadership and I think the Danish EU presidency and our prime minister, particularly, contributed a great deal to this triumphant last part of the process which led to the enlargement on May 1, 2004.

Q: Why was it so important for the Baltic states to obtain membership of the EU and NATO? Would it be fair to call regional cooperation, as in the EU, “preventive action”?

Ellemann-Jensen: Indeed. The idea of tying the European economies together so that they could never again go to war against each other was and still is the basic idea behind the EU. The idea is directly inspired by Winston Churchill’s speech in Zurich in 1946 in which he first called for “a kind of United States of Europe.” This crucial political idea is still the basis for all decisions within the EU and has been since the Coal and Steel Union was formed in 1951.

Take for example the decision to establish the European Economic and Monetary Union, which paved the way for the Euro. This move was based on political considerations: First of all, the realization that a much bigger and stronger Germany might disturb the balance of power within the Union. Visionary German politicians of the “Kohl-Genscher-generation” recognized that the German economy would dominate the European economies to an extent that other European countries would be left with little other choice than to follow the economic decisions made in Germany. Such a situation had the potential to divide the otherwise unified Europe – something that Chancellor Kohl and his liberal colleague Hans-Dietrich Genscher would not risk. Germany followed the line often spoken by Genscher, and borrowed from Thomas Mann, that if you want to avoid a German Europe, you should create a European Germany.

Horst Köhler, who is today the president of Germany, was deputy minister of finance in 1992 and led the negotiations on behalf of the German government on the European Economic and Monetary Union. He had a hard time during those crucial negotiations. Today, he seems to be the one German official that truly understands how vital this decision was for Germany and Europe.

To me, Germany is also a very important player in the Baltic Sea. Germany has time and time again engaged the Baltic countries to commit to a unified Europe with strong transatlantic commitment. I hope Germany continues along this path with determination and patience, as affirmed by President Köhler.

Q: In your article, you argue that the "Vilnius-10" group marked the culmination of the Baltic struggle for independence. Why do you think they demanded European integration to be secured in an alliance with the United States?

Ellemann-Jensen: They know who to thank for their regained freedom! However, I am not the right person to answer this question.

Vaclav Havel has said that the East could have given the West far more than it has. The East could have sent a message of warning to the West about the dangers of what the East has experienced. State terrorism is just as horrifying as any terrorist act. The Balts know that. The Poles know that. They found the strength to fight for freedom, democracy, and prosperity two decades ago. Today, in those countries that beat their authoritative regimes, you find compassion as well as determination to make those values universal because they know what it is like not to have them.

The U.S. national interest has for some years been defined by a desire to foster the spread of democracy, freedom, prosperity, and peace in general. This is of course inspiring for new democratic and freedom-loving nations such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

In my point of view, what we need to do now is to recreate a larger version of the Western alliance of the Cold War, including, of course, Muslim nations, in response to the threats we face today.

Q: Finally, Foreign Affairs recently published an article "Saving NATO from Europe" that characterizes Denmark, Poland, and the United Kingdom as Europe's weakest links in the NATO alliance and therefore the most important European countries for the United States today. You were twice the candidate for NATO secretary-general. Any comments on this assertion?

Ellemann-Jensen: Well, I certainly think those countries are some of the strongest links in the chain, today. And I would hope that the United States uses its influence and good friendship with those nations to encourage them to participate even more actively and with full influence inside the EU. That would be in the interest of us all.

Mr. Ellemann-Jensen, thank you very much!