New Insight on the Restoration of Independence: Interview with Una Bergmane

May 9, 2022

The AABS 2022 Conference will look toward the future to explore how the Baltic States will move forward into the next century, as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Nordic and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the field of Baltic Studies is at a crossroads between new and old diaspora communities negotiating the implications of what it means to advance the study and research of the Baltic States into the next century. The conference will promote intersections of academic disciplines, scholarship, and community by focusing on the implications for the Baltic States in the future at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, religions, and historical perspectives. Please find more information here.

On Saturday, May 28, a roundtable will discuss the forthcoming book Politics of Uncertainty: the US, the Baltic Question and the Collapse of the USSR (Oxford University Press, 2022) by Una Bergmane (University of Helsinki). Join us from 10:45am to 12:15pm in Denny Hall 212. Dr. Bergmane writes of her book:

This book aims to tackle the interplay between international and domestic dynamics in the Soviet disintegration process. Based on extensive archival research, this book investigates the triangular relations between the US government, Baltic independence movements and Moscow during the perestroika years. The study demonstrates how in the space of three years Washington and its European allies moved from extreme prudence regarding the Baltic states’ claims to fully embracing their independence and weakening the USSR. It argues that this change was driven much more by uncertainty, domestic pressures and last-minute decisions than by Realpolitik calculations and long-term strategy.

AABS met with Dr. Bergmane to discuss the book, the panel, and what she’s looking forward to at the conference. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

©Una Bergmane

Una Bergmane (PhD, Sciences Po) is a postdoctoral researcher at Helsinki University
and a Baltic Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. In the past, she was a Fox International Fellow at Yale University, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, and a teaching fellow at the London School of Economics. Una has published several articles and book chapters in English and French analyzing Baltic drive for independence from an international and transnational perspective. She received an AABS Emerging Scholars Grant in 2018 to travel to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library for archival research for “Politics of Uncertainty,” and Oxford University Press received an AABS Book Publication Subvention in 2020 for publishing the book.

AABS: To start, can you give us a brief overview of how you came to this subject, and to this book in particular?

UB: The book emerged from my PhD dissertation, which I did in France at Sciences Po. The difference between the book and the dissertation is that because I did the dissertation in France, there was an important French component. The book is more focused on the triangle of relations between the U.S., the Baltic countries, and Moscow, and the question of Baltic independence.

The whole idea to study the late 80s and early 90s, and this question of re-establishing Baltic independence, I came to it basically by accident. I had wanted to study the interwar period and relations at that time, including Baltic foreign policy, but I realized quite a lot of things have been written about this period.

If I think about this in general, this interest in international history, and the question of recognition, started very early for me. I was a young child in 1991, and I remember sitting in my kitchen and listening on the radio to people reading the list of countries that had recognized the independence of Latvia, where I’m from. I didn’t really understand what was happening, and I asked my mother to explain it to me. I found it fascinating and extremely interesting back then, so maybe something of this early interest then played a role when I had to make a decision about the topic of my dissertation.

AABS: What new evidence does this research bring to light about this period?

UB: The title is telling in this regard: The Politics of Uncertainty. It shows to what extent American foreign policy makers were struggling to define a coherent policy regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic countries. In historiography we have these debates about whether the United States supported the collapse of the Soviet Union, or whether they were fully behind the idea that the Soviet Union should be preserved at all costs. In this book, we see that the Baltic question illustrates this position of uncertainty and the complicated task of processing these events that were developing very quickly in the Soviet Union and the Baltic countries.

Now if we think about the Soviet Union and about Mikhail Gorbachev, then I think my book really shows to what extent he was unprepared to deal with this question. Not just the Baltic independence question, but also center-periphery relations in general. He had a vision of some sort of a reformed Soviet Union, but he didn’t have a plan with regards to this question of relations between the center and the republics. There is an argument in historiography that he was willing to give too much to the republics, and so he weakened the center. But if we look into it, then we see more of the same as in the American case: the uncertainty, the improvisation, and last minute decisions.

Then when it comes to the Baltic countries, my book shows the international dynamics surrounding the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence struggle. These stories have often been written as purely national ones focusing mainly of domestic politics in each of these states. My book gives a larger perspective not only by tracing the decisions that were made in Moscow and Washington regarding the Baltic question, but also by highlighting Baltic attempts to gain visibility on the international scene.

AABS: You’re inserting this important book into an active debate, as you say. Could you talk a little bit about how scholarship on the period developed in the 30 years since these events, and where would you like it to go with the addition of your book to the discourse? How do you want to frame things for future scholarship?

UB: My book is in between different scholarships: the ‘end of the Cold War’ scholarship and the ‘collapse of the Soviet Union’ scholarship. They are interconnected but still two different fields. Both have the same problem: both have been focused for a very long time on what’s happening in Washington and what’s happening in Moscow. Within the ‘end of the Cold War’ scholarship, there has been more attention paid over the last decade to the big European powers, to Germany and France and a bit to Britain. An argument exists that the negotiations on German reunification determined the post-Cold War order in Europe. But as you can see in my book that obviously was not the case: German reunification did in no way provide an answer to the questions related to the future of such European countries as Baltic states or Ukraine or even Russian Federation and its relations to Europe. I’m interested in questioning hierarchies of importance that existed at the time, and that were often reproduced in scholarship, and to look at the agency of actors who were and are perceived as marginal. 

We have the same problem in Soviet history. Soviet history has very often been written as a history of Russia, as a history of decisions made in the center. If we look at the history of the Soviet Union, then we have these two extremes: either this hyper-focus on Moscow, or an exclusive focus on one of the republics. Either the imperial perspective or the purely national perspective that does not take into account dynamics taking place outside the national frame.

What I tried to do is to write a book about interconnections: between the three Baltic countries, between them and Moscow, between them and international community, and between Moscow and the outside world. We have a lot of debate about this now, especially given the war in Ukraine, about how the focus on Soviet history should be enlarged. The same goes for the history of Soviet collapse: it did not happen in Moscow only, nor did it happen in one specific or even three specific republics. So internationalization, transnationalization, and regionalization of both Soviet history and Baltic history, is what I would like to see more.

AABS: Now that we’re in a different historical moment, what would you say that your book, and more broadly the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, can teach us about the triangular relationships today?

UB: If we think about the current situation of the Baltic countries, they have become members of NATO and the European Union. This has been impossible for other countries who were part of the USSR before 1991.

The question is: Why was this possible for the Baltic states and not for the others? I think one of the answers lies in the time period I wrote about. This is when the idea that the Baltic states are different starts to influence politics. These perceptions existed even before. The Baltic countries were occupied and then illegally annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and thus, in Western eyes, they were not legally part of the Soviet Union. And even the Soviets saw Baltic countries as the odd ones out. Not really Soviet like the others. More Western, richer, and culturally different. However, all of these perceptions didn’t really have consequences for the people on the ground.

Then, when we look at the 80s, these perceptions start to play a role in politics. People around Gorbachev (but not Gorbachev himself) and in the circles of Boris Yeltsin gradually start to embrace the idea that the Baltic countries could probably become independent while the rest of the Soviet Union could stay together in some form. And the same happens in the West: there was a very clear American foreign policy trend rooted in the idea that the Baltic states in principle should be independent, but the rest of the Soviet Union should find some arrangement to maintain ties between the other countries. That had a long term impact on what was possible and what was not possible for the Baltic countries; NATO membership, EU membership, all of that was possible on one hand because of the reforms that were made, but also because this perception that the Baltic countries are not truly part of the Soviet/Russian world started to be embedded in peoples’ minds in the late 80s.

AABS: You did significant archival research for this book. What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

UB: I think that the most surprising, probably, was when I went to the George H.W. Bush library in Texas to look at the archives of the administration. I realized how much time was spent not just internally analyzing the Baltic question, but also how much time was spent discussing the Baltic question with the Soviets—much more than I would have expected, especially after Lithuania proclaimed independence in spring 1990. So you would have Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister, talking for hours about Baltic issues.

The document that gave me the “Oh wow!” feeling had to do with this summit in Washington between Gorbachev and Bush in late May and early June 1990. A bit of context, and I start my book with this, is that a Soviet-American trade treaty was supposed to be signed during this summit. Bush said very clearly to Gorbachev that he would not be able to sign the treaty unless there was some sort of normalization in Moscow’s relationships with the Baltic countries. Not necessarily independence, but at least some negotiations with Lithuanians about their independence, and also with Estonians and Latvians about their transitions to independence. Gorbachev still came to Washington, convinced that he would sign the trade treaty, and at some point he realized that it was probably not going to happen. There’s this part of their meeting in which Gorbachev is extremely upset, and he says, and I start my book with these words, “You have chosen the Baltic countries over me.”

AABS: I can imagine stumbling upon that in the archives. You look at that and you might think, well this could be the beginning of the book, as soon as you find a great quote like that.

UB: Yes, exactly. Also, I was taken by the extent to which there was support for Baltic independence at the personal level, in all kinds of places. In the Estonian archives, I found a note sent, in a personal capacity, from a French diplomat to the Estonian foreign minister, which was to congratulate for the re-establishment of independence. The note was very emotional, very personal, and the person writing the note ended with, “I’m praying for your country.” In the French context, they don’t really have historical ties with the Baltic countries. So that there was this interest in the Baltic countries, purely personal, that didn’t really reflect Mitterrand’s policy, that was also something I found surprising.

AABS: What might you say is a main takeaway attendees could get from attending the panel at the conference?

UB: It’s an opportunity to think about the Baltic independence struggle from an international perspective. And also to think about the reasons why the history of the Baltic countries was so different after 1991, different from say, Ukraine.

AABS: Absolutely. At this moment, that’s very relevant for attendees.

UB: It’s also an opportunity to look at the origins of the Baltic states’ successful turn toward the West, and to look at the Baltic states’ successful exit from the Russian zone of influence.

AABS: To cap off our conversation, what are you excited for at the conference?

UB: I’m just very excited because this is my first Baltic studies conference since before the pandemic. I’m excited to be back and meet colleagues who I haven’t seen for two or three years; I’m very happy about that. I’m also excited to learn what the new scholarship is from over the last two years, when we didn’t really have an opportunity to share our research. Also, to get feedback on my work.

And also, then, to talk about Ukraine, because I know it’s on everybody’s minds. I’ve had the opportunity to talk about this regularly with other people from other parts of the world, but there’s always some sort of an understanding between people who study the Baltic region and Baltic geopolitics. I’m curious to talk with them more.