VILNIUS, LITHUANIA - The three Baltic countries on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the 1989 “Baltic Way,” a historic anti-Soviet protest that involved nearly 2 million people forming a human chain more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) long.
On Aug. 23, 1989, as the Soviet Union was weakening, the gesture was a powerful expression on the part of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians that they were not giving up on their independence even after decades of Soviet occupation.
“People holding hands can be stronger than people holding guns,” said Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas in a tweet.
The celebrations come as the inhabitants of the three nations _ and many beyond _ worry about Russia's renewed ambitions to influence the region.
“We must remember the courage and dreams of the participants. But let it also be a reminder that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted,” Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in a statement.
The Baltic News Service recalled Friday that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said Moscow "started realizing very clearly that the three Baltic nations were moving toward political independence.''
The main commemorations are taking place in Vilnius, the capital of the southern-most Baltic country, and along the Lithuania-Latvia border, with a relay-race and an exhibition. In the evening, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda will host a concert in central Vilnius.
In the Latvian capital of Riga, the three Baltic prime ministers will lay wreaths at the foot of a freedom monument.
The chain has inspired others, including a 2008 human chain in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where a crowd of at least 100,000 people jammed Tbilisi's main avenue.
In Hong-Kong, protesters planned Friday to form a 40-kilometer (25-mile) human chain to demand more freedoms from China, saying it was inspired by the “Baltic Way.”
The Baltic countries declared their independence from Russia in 1918 but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940. Friday's events also marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a secret agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that led to the occupation of the Baltic states and Poland.
The Baltic nations remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991.