During its 25th Congress, the 86-year-old Communist Party of Latvia split in two.footnote A third of the Congress delegates walked out, and several days later, on 14 April, the founding congress of the new Independent Communist Party of Latvia was held. A small group of people, headed by the Party’s former first secretary, Jan Vagris, tried to avert the split, but in vain. Neither the majority nor the minority at the congress left any room for conciliation, and both sides appeared satisfied with the outcome.

I was in Riga during the few days between the first congress and the second. I read the local newspapers, listened to the radio and talked with various people, including the leaders of both parties. I heard as though in a dream various rumours about the division of property, newspapers, journals and party subscriptions, and about the setting up of new organizational structures. Yet I heard almost nothing about the things which were crying out to be discussed. Such as that the Communist Party of Latvia—the party of the majority—contains virtually no Latvians. ‘A Latvian Communist Party with no Latvians in it is nonsense’, rightly observed For The Motherland, the newspaper of the Baltic Military District. With no peasants or members of the cultural intelligentsia either, one might add, and with almost no support from industrial workers or scientists. Suffice it to say that the new first secretary of the Central Committee of the cpl, Alfred Rubiks, who for many years had headed the executive committee of the Riga soviet, lost this post in the spring elections. Yet it is here in Riga, where Russian speakers made up two-thirds of the population, that the Communist Party of Latvia draws its main support.

In the new Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Republic, the cpl does not command even a third of the votes needed to veto any change to the Constitution. The party of the minority, however, although it carried great weight with the native Latvian population when it was part of the united cpl, cannot now count on any serious influence. A Communist Party founded on an ethnic base (not according to its programme, but in fact) is also nonsense. It will be influential in isolated rural districts, but will have almost no influence in the major towns, or in the countryside either. A party, moreover, which still has no slogans or strategies to attract the republic’s Russian-speaking citizens, who make up 48 per cent of the population. In short, as a result of the split, Latvia’s Communists, who have ruled the republic for half a century, have now become the political opposition.

The majority in the Latvian Supreme Soviet consists of a collection of movements and parties which are all now demanding independence from the ussr. The minority Independent Communist Party of Latvia joined this alliance, but not as its leading force. The icpl’s presence there is subordinated to the far more powerful Latvian Popular Front, which although not formally a party, is increasingly seen as such. Various well-known figures in the republic who set up the Front have one by one left the leadership to behold their creation with amazement. When the Front was formed in 1988, most of its members categorically, and I am sure sincerely, rejected the notion of independence from the ussr. Independence suddenly began to be widely discussed in the spring of 1989, and the idea is by now already widely accepted, with only tactical questions remaining to be debated.

If it is genuinely better for the people of Latvia to turn their backs on two centuries in Russia and half a century in the Soviet Union, then so be it. Imperialist greed is an unreliable and impractical basis for politics in our century. But I am convinced that the Latvians have not yet had the chance calmly to consider their own best interests or the kind of future they want. It is as though people are in a trance. All the arguments I have heard for leaving the Soviet Union are based on the events of the past. We cannot change the past, only the future. Yet the factors which will define this future are never discussed.

Latvian people are deeply shocked by the recently emerging facts of their own history. They have been swindled, they are far worse off than the small independent countries bordering on the ussr. Fifty years ago, unenthusiastic but unresisting, they became part of the ussr as their best defence against the Hitlerite dictatorship—a very real danger, which had by then engulfed almost the whole of Europe excluding Great Britain and the ussr. But it did not defend them, and Latvia had to endure all the horrors of Nazi occupation. It then endured the horrors of the Stalinist dictatorship, followed by a decade of stagnation, which, according to a number of objective indicators, reduced a country that had formerly held its own with the economically developed countries of Europe to the ranks of the most backward of them.

History has now presented the Latvians with yet another paradox: many of those who cursed Stalin’s Soviet Union now want to break loose from the Soviet Union of Gorbachev too. Yet if this is the same ‘empire’, the same ‘regime of occupation’ (how easily these phrases spring to people’s lips nowadays!), how is it that we can freely discuss secession, prepare for secession, and elect to the Latvian Supreme Soviet a majority in favour of secession? And if things have changed, why is it necessary to be in such a rush, rather than to discuss everything rationally?