Illustration Ragni Svensson

Essays France and the baltic states during the presidency of françois mitterrand

On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence. The Soviet Union reacted by threatening economic sanctions. Lithuania needed support. Its hopes were directed at the West, and particularly at France. How did France react? What was its foreign policy regarding the “Baltic question”, that is, the demands of the Baltic States for the restoration of their sovereignty, which they had lost in their forced annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940?

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 8-14, 2 2011 and Special issue, The Ninth Baltic Conference June 2011
Published on on August 1, 2011

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On March 11, 1990, Lithuania, until then a part of the Soviet Union, declared its independence.2 The Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, saw this as an illegal act and reacted by threatening economic sanctions. Would Lithuania have to retract its proclamation of sovereignty — and thus, in practical terms, retract its departure from the political regime of the Soviet Union — as Gorbachev was demanding? Lithuania needed support. Its hopes were directed at the West, and particularly at France. How did France react? What was its foreign policy regarding the “Baltic question”,3 that is, the demands of the Baltic States for the restoration of their sovereignty, which they had lost in their forced annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940?

François Mitterrand, who as the president of France determined its foreign policy, answered this question during a press conference on April 26, 1990. He was asked about Lithuania, but his response applied equally to the other two Baltic States. He was asked how he would respond to those who “fear that the current position of the West on the situation in Lithuania might lead to another spirit of Munich”. Mitterrand replied:

From the French side we have already taken steps […] along two axes. The first concerns Lithuanian sovereignty. France is one of the few countries that have never recognized the loss of Lithuanian independence in 1939. […] Therefore, the intention [of France’s foreign policy] is absolutely clear and straightforward. Second point: for several centuries, during the time of the Russian Empire as well as during the time of the Soviet Empire, Lithuania has been annexed by its powerful neighbor. Today Mr. Gorbachev is the heir to these two historical traditions. He is faced with a problem: not only Lithuania, but also how to deal with the problem of nationalities. […] The Soviet Union has to make an extraordinarily difficult adjustment to the new conditions it now faces. And nobody, particularly not the Lithuanians, wants to see the current developments falter, and a return to a climate of tension that could bring who knows what. This is why we are encouraging dialog.

“Nous avons déjà fait du côté français des démarches … orientées autour de deux axes. Le premier concerne la souveraineté lituanienne. La France est un des rares pays qui n’a jamais reconnu la disparition de l’indépendance lituanienne en 1939 … Donc l’intention [de la politique étrangère de la France] est tout à fait simple et claire. Deuxième point. Depuis plusieurs siècles, la Lituanie, au temps de l’empire russe comme au temps de l’empire soviétique, a été absorbé par son puissant voisin. Aujourd’hui M. GORBATCHEV est l’héritier de ces deux traditions historiques. Il se pose à lui un problème qui n’est pas seulement celui de la Lituanie, mais celui de la manière de traiter le problème des nationalités. … Il y a simplement une extraordinaire difficile adaptation de l’Union Soviétique aux conditions nouvelles qu’elle connaît. Et nul n’a intérêt, en particulier pas les Lituaniens, à ce que ce qui est en train de se dessiner se brise pour retrouver un climat de tension dont on ne sait exactement ce qu’il donnerait. Voilà pourquoi nous encourageons le dialogue.”4

Accordingly, France’s foreign policy regarding the Baltic question took two principles into consideration:
(1) France has never recognized the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the Soviet Union, and it would not do so in the future. “The legal entity of the affected states has survived annexation, even if these states are not in fact able to exercise their
sovereignty.”5 François Mitterrand repeatedly held fast to this position.6 (2) France was, however, at the same time conscious of the reality that the Baltic States belonged to the political federation of the Soviet Union. A decision about these two opposing claims — the claim of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to independence, and that of the Soviet leadership to the retention of the Baltic States in the Soviet Union — could be made only by means of dialog between the two parties.7


On the issue of their independence, then, France under Mitterrand’s leadership was on the side of the Baltic States8 — but not in all circumstances, and not without conditions. As long as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still part of the Soviet Union, they could only break away from it by negotiating with it. They had sovereignty in the sphere of law, but not — or not yet — in reality. And so, in his typical dual attitude as a rebellious spirit on the one hand and an admonitory realist on the other, Mitterrand sympathized with the Baltic people and at the same time argued that one should understand Gorbachev’s difficulty in simply setting them free, and act in accordance with this reality. Mitterrand based French policy on the Baltic question on this orientation. While difficult for outside observers to interpret, it was logical to Mitterrand. It was the same position he took on German reunification, and was misunderstood then too.9 The conflict would have to be solved, certainly, but everything should be done to prevent the use of force — civil war, or military occupation. “We believe that these crises should not lead to the use of force.”10


Rather, according to Mitterrand, political means should be used to achieve these objectives: 1. stabilizing the area, that is, the Baltic region; 2. solving the conflicts in the region, without the use of force; 3. supporting Gorbachev in his effort to continue his policy of perestroika and to maintain his position at the head of the Soviet Union; 4. successfully assisting efforts of the Baltic States to achieve general recognition of their sovereignty; 5. introducing the Baltic States, after their achievement of independence, to institutions of European and international politics (CSCE, UNO, EU).


France followed the developments in the Baltic region by means of three “observation posts”. These were the French embassy in Moscow, the USSR section in the European department of the French foreign ministry, and a team of Mitterrand’s advisors in the Elysée Palace.11 The initial papers on the virulence of Baltic unrest were written in the foreign ministry, one in November 1988 with the heading “Wave of protest in the Baltic States against the new project of a reform of the Soviet constitution”12 and a second, six pages long, in September 1989 on the situation in the Baltic States.13 In the first paper, it was reported under the item “A Challenge to Central Soviet Power” that the Estonian Supreme Soviet had decided on November 4, 1988, to call an extraordinary session of the Estonian parliament. The Estonians were “in an uproar”, because, contrary to the resolutions that had been made at the congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the end of June 1988, the reform project for the Soviet constitution published on October 22 made no mention of greater sovereignty for the Soviet republics. On November 16, the paper went on to report, the Estonian parliament declared a right of veto over all Soviet laws, and announced the sovereignty of the Estonian Republic.

In the second paper, written barely a year later, it was stated that the situation in the three Baltic republics had developed dramatically. Strong Baltic nationalist movements had sprung up and established many contacts with the outside world, particularly the Scandinavian countries, and their presence had given rise to a political-social dynamic that brought with it a strong desire to break free from the political structures of the Soviet Union. “The demand for autonomy is transforming into a demand for independence.”14 And Moscow reacted harshly.


What did Mitterrand and his government do to translate the information they were receiving about the developments in the Baltic region into political action? How did they attempt to attain the goals that they had set themselves for coming to grips with those developments? First of all, they thought of the people who were or could be the leaders in the process of these developments. What counted most for them in the pursuance of policy was the personal element.15 Furthermore, they were active in that sphere of politics that is configured purely personally, and that is formed by those involved in international politics for the purpose of information, exchange, and decision making; I have called this the “workshop of world politics”.16 Let us draw from this case the first example of what concentrating on the personal element would amount to. “Because of our close agreement on the Lithuanian question”, German Chancellor Kohl wrote a letter to President Mitterrand on May 15, 1990, to inform him of “the discussion I had with the Lithuanian prime minister, Mrs. Prunskiene, on May 11”.17 In this letter Helmut Kohl first compared the prime minister with the parliamentary president of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis: “I had the impression that the Lithuanian prime minister is showing political level-headedness and that [she] is in principle open to dialog and to compromise, an attitude that to a certain extent contrasts with that of the president of the parliament, Mr. Landsbergis. This is why I suggested to her that she should personally carry out the upcoming negotiations with Moscow.”18 The second example shows even more how Mitterrand thought about the people he was dealing with, and shared those thoughts, sometimes even solicitously, with others (for the important thing is to come to grips with current developments and not let them get derailed); this from a conversation between Mitterrand and the Romanian prime minister, Petre Roman: “The problem is that the Balts are not wise. We do not recognize the annexation and we kept the Baltic gold safe.19 Every time I am called upon to write to Landsbergis, to Latvia, to Estonia, I have to recommend that they be patient. Otherwise the Soviets will attack them, to make an example of them.”20

As the two quotations show, Mitterrand and his government were not acting alone in Baltic matters — on the contrary. They dovetailed their policy with that of other governments, by means of the discussions (with the exchange of ideas, information, and reflections), agreements, initiatives, and decision making of which the work in the workshop of world politics consists. One example of this sort of dovetailing, Helmut Kohl’s letter of May 15 to François Mitterrand, has already been mentioned. Let me add another. It shows Mitterrand, his American counterpart, President George Bush, the French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, and his counterpart, the American Secretary of State, Jim Baker, at work in the workshop at a moment when their work was focused on, among other problems, the problem of Lithuania in particular. The place was Key Largo. The date was April 19, 1990. Bush and Mitterrand had already had discussions in the morning, as had Baker and Dumas, separately. The four came together for lunch, so now there was a four-way conversation. Dumas began, saying “We talked about Lithuania”, “We talked about Lithuania, too”, Bush reported. And he added, “I have learned a lot from François about the history [of the Baltic world]”.21 (Mitterrand, it must be noted here, frequently took on the role of history teacher in the workshop, especially in relation to President Bush, because of his excellent education in history.) But Lithuania did not immediately become the topic of conversation; it was only later that
Mitterrand brought the subject up again, but then significant things were said, particularly by Mitterrand:

FM [Mitterrand]: On the subject of Lithuania: let’s not demand from Gorbachev what we will not demand from the dictator who will succeed him. 

(Sur la Lithuanie: n`exigeons pas de Gorbatchev ce que nous n`exigerons pas du dictateur qui lui succèdera.)

Bush: We demand of Gorbachev that he not betray moral principles. 

(Nous demandons à Gorbatchev de ne pas trahir – selling off – les principes moraux)

FM: I’d like to remind you that France has never recognized Soviet sovereignty in Lithuania.  

(Je rappelle que la France n`a jamais reconnu la souveraineté soviétique en Lithuanie)

What sanctions can we impose? (Quelles sont les sanctions que nous pouvons prendre?)

Baker: The Lithuanians could accept going to Moscow, but not as part of the Soviet of Nationalities. (Les Lithuaniens pourraient accepter d`aller à Moscou, mais en dehors du Soviet des nationalités).

FM: The events have moved too fast for Gorbachev. In Kiev22, as I recall, Gorbachev was thinking of a federative system, even of independence. Lithuania may perhaps have shown ill-considered haste. 

(Les événements sont allés trop vite pour Gorbatchev. A Kiev, j`avais retenu que Gorbatchev était en train de penser à un système fédératif et même d`indépendance. La Lithuanie a mis peut être un empressement maladroit.)

Dumas: They have no more room to maneuver. (Ils n`ont plus de marge de manoeuvre.)

FM: If they are fanatic, it will end in a bloodbath. And we won’t send our army. (S´ils sont fanatiques cela finira dans le sang. Et nous n`enverrons pas notre armée.) 23


After Lithuania’s declaration of independence, France’s priority was to calm everyone down, in both Vilnius and Moscow. “We don’t want to do anything that will add fuel to the fire”, explained Bernard
Kessedjian, cabinet chief of Foreign Minister Dumas, to O. Krivonogov, the Soviet ambassador in Paris.24 He had called the ambassador to the foreign ministry for a confidential briefing and asked him to pass on the information to Dumas’s counterpart in Moscow, the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. France, Krivonogov (and with him, the Soviet leadership) was informed, was very concerned about the situation that had arisen. It would welcome any efforts that would lead to a solution of the “problem”, that is, the conflict between Vilnius and Moscow, by negotiation. This delineation of France’s position (which referred to the conversation between Kessedjian and Krivonogov) was repeated by Jean-Louis Bianco, Secretary General of the Elysée, in a handwritten submission to President Mitterrand on March 24 on the subject of Lithuania.25 In this document, he described the situation in Lithuania for the president in these short phrases: (a) an increase in intimidating gestures on Moscow’s part, (b) an undiminished determination in Vilnius to hold to its policy of independence, and (c) a refusal by Moscow to negotiate with Vilnius.

Immediately after March 11, in both the French foreign ministry and the Elysée Palace, information on the situation in Lithuania and its possible political, economic, and military consequences, as well as on the historical background, was assembled, and was analyzed and summarized in memoranda for the purpose of arriving at a course of action.26 As we can see from notes, sometimes handwritten, that were made on them, these memoranda were read by Jean-Louis Bianco and then by President Mitterrand. The decision-makers were informed, and particular roles were assigned. Moscow was addressed by Foreign Minister Dumas, Mitterrand acted by making public statements on March 20 and 25, April 26, and May 2527 — for example, on March 25 he explained in an interview with the television station TF1, “Our role consists in not adding fuel to the fire”28 — and in direct communication with the leading figures involved. On February 20, 1990, two representatives of Lithuania had come to him with a letter: Juozas Urbsys, who signed the letter as “the former Foreign Minister of independent Lithuania”, and Vytautas Landsbergis, who signed as “President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the movement for Lithuania’s Reforms”. In the letter, they explained: “We hope to successfully restore the independence of the Lithuanian state”, and, reminding Mitterrand of the special relationship between France and Lithuania, they asked him for his “moral support for the Lithuanian cause”.29 The letter was, however, not given to the president until March 16. Mitterrand answered it on April 19. The “right of Lithuania to its independence”, he said, was “not in question”, but “fifty years of history” had “woven complex relationships between Vilnius and Moscow”, and only a “process of negotiation” was appropriate “for peacefully solving the various problems that [had] arisen”.30 France and the other member nations of the European Community would recommend this path of dialog. That was the “message” that the French foreign minister had sent to the Soviet leadership on his behalf.31 Mitterrand was here referring to the decision made by the foreign ministers of the European Community on March 24, 1990, in Lisbon: “The Twelve have heard with concern the reports from Lithuania. They appeal for maximum restraint on all sides. They hope for a respectful, open, and fair dialog between Moscow and Vilnius, avoiding the use of force or the threat of the use of force on the basis of the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.”32

And yet the situation in Lithuania was coming to a head. Two days before Mitterrand met with President Bush on April 19, on Key Largo, he received from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a four-page letter, in which she summarized for him the contents of the discussion she had had with George Bush in Bermuda. The first half page right at the beginning of the letter talks about Lithuania, for it “naturally was at the center of our concern”, said Thatcher, because of Gorbachev’s threat to resort to economic sanctions against the state, particularly in the area of gas deliveries to Lithuania. Margaret Thatcher wrote that she hoped that they would have close consultations about further action. George Bush and she had agreed that the progress achieved in the previous few years in East-West relations must not be put at risk by the Lithuanian crisis, and that they “must do their utmost to encourage the two sides to find a solution by means of dialog and discussion”.33


However, on April 18, 1990, the chances for such a policy were gone, for the time being. On that date, the Soviet Union cut off gas supplies from three of the four pipelines carrying its gas to Lithuania. The state received only barely a fifth of the quantity of gas
previously delivered. “Moscow has made the blockade really painful”, wrote Mitterrand’s advisor Anne Lauvergeon as the first sentence of her memorandum of April 20, in which she briefed the president about Moscow’s action and suggested practical ways to help to Lithuania out of this difficult situation.34 The French government took political action on the morning of April 21, when the official representative of Lithuania, Stasys Antanas Backis, met with Foreign Minister Dumas, as requested, to receive from him a message to the Lithuanian leaders. In it, they, particularly Mr. Landsbergis, were encouraged to “put in parentheses”, that is, to temporarily suspend, the decisions that had followed from their declaration of independence. Moscow would be expecting this “gesture” before negotiations between Vilnius and Moscow could begin. Dumas had first informed his Soviet counterpart Shevardnadze of this step, which was taken in the name of the United States as well, as American Secretary of State Jim Baker wished.35 On the afternoon of the very same day, at 3 o’clock, Stasys Backis came back into the French foreign ministry to give Landbergis’s answer. Dumas wrote to Mitterrand immediately that Landsbergis was “prepared to freeze all laws, without exception, that had been enacted since March 12. […] A public announcement would be made […] as far as the opening of negotiations was concerned, this announcement would not be tied to any conditions”.36 Dumas also let Mitterrand know that he would inform Baker and Shevardnadze of this result of the French action.

A further political initiative was taken, this time a joint German and French one. During a conversation between Mitterrand and Kohl on April 25, the German Chancellor suggested sending a letter to the Lithuanian leadership: it should be made clear that the same mistake must not be made in Lithuania as in the Prague Spring; “they went too fast there”.37 As early as April 26, Mitterrand and Kohl sent the following document to Vytautas Landsbergis. It rephrased Mitterrand’s letter of April 19 in even more urgent terms:

Dear Mr. President,

We both have the same concerns regarding the development of the situation in Lithuania. We would like to inform you of our views. The Lithuanian people have made it clear that they intend to practice their right to sovereignty. They cannot be blamed for this. But history has created a complex situation consisting of numerous elements of a political, legal, and economic nature. The solution demands time and patience, and necessitates following the classical path of dialog. Therefore, we want discussions between you and the Soviet leaders to begin as soon as possible, so that the current crisis ends in a solution that is acceptable to all sides.

It would no doubt be appropriate to suspend for a certain time the consequences of the decisions your parliament has made, so as to make these discussions easier; they will lose none of their significance, since, after all, they are based on a universally accepted principle, that of self-determination for all nations.38

A copy of the letter went to the Soviet leaders; its contents were not made public in Paris and Bonn until after Gorbachev had been informed about it.39 On April 30, the deputy prime minister of Lithuania, Romualdas Ozalas, let it be known during an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende that Lithuania (as France had previously suggested) would “temporarily suspend” its declaration of independence of March 11 and ask Moscow to negotiate.40 The conditions seemed to be favorable: Gorbachev had responded positively to the idea of a moratorium, which Mitterrand and Kohl had put forward on April 28. Berlingske Tidende further reported that Landsbergis was thinking of a moratorium of two years but had also pointed out, in an interview with an American television station on April 29, that there was as yet no sign of any moderation in the blockade by the Soviet Union.41

At the beginning of May, however, the situation was still unclear. On May 2, President Landsbergis sent a letter to President Mitterrand, in response to the one from Mitterrand and Kohl, in which he stated Lithuania’s intention to negotiate with Moscow on everything except the state’s independence. And he asked Mitterrand and Kohl to inform the Soviet leaders that Lithuania was ready to “consider” a temporary suspension of the recent decisions of the “sovereign” parliament of Lithuania.42 So Vilnius and Moscow were still not talking to each other at all, which was also clear from a report of May 3 from the French ambassador in Moscow, Jean-Marie Mérillon, about a conversation with the Lithuanian representative there, Egidijus Bickauskas: the problem for the Lithuanians was contact with Moscow. “We want to negotiate. We say that every day. Moscow refuses. […] I [Bickauskas] cannot even reach anyone [in the Soviet government].”43

The other Balts wanted to free themselves from Moscow, too. On May 7, Anatolijs Gorbunovs, president of the Supreme Soviet of Latvia, and Imants Daudiss, secretary of the Supreme Soviet, sent a letter to Mitterrand — which Mitterrand received on May 14 — in which they informed him that the Supreme Soviet of Latvia had passed a declaration in favor of the restoration of Latvia’s independence.44 They asked the French president for his support for Latvia’s efforts to regain its full independence. “The Baltic issue”, they said, “is an international issue.” It must “be solved, if Europe is to be united”.45 Mitterrand answered the letter on May 23; his reply was much the same as his answer of April 19, already mentioned above, to Vytautas Landsbergis.

Mitterrand remained a significant player in the conflict between the Baltic States — particularly Lithuania — and the Soviet leadership. On May 10, he received Prime Minister Prunskiene of Lithuania in the Elysée Palace for a discussion. On May 25, he met Gorbachev in Moscow. Negotiations between Vilnius and Moscow still had not taken place. According to Mitterrand’s diplomatic advisor Caroline de Margerie in a memorandum to him of May 10, both the Lithuanian and Soviet sides declared themselves “ready for dialog” but were setting “antithetical conditions” for beginning. Her memorandum stated that Mr. Landsbergis accepted the principle of a suspension of certain laws that were passed after their declaration of independence, but he would not withdraw the declaration itself. Moscow, on the other hand, took the position that the mere fact that it was negotiating with Lithuania gave it special status. Everything was proceeding as if the endpoint of the negotiations — independence — was unavoidable, but the starting point had not been found.46

In his conversation with Prime Minister Prunskiene, Mitterrand stressed immediately that Lithuania was very important for France and that the Lithuanian nation clearly had a right to its sovereignty. But — the “but” came from Mitterrand the realist, who, seeing the problems ahead, spoke as the admonisher — the reality was that Lithuania had been absorbed into the USSR. And the USSR, despite its other difficulties, had military forces at its disposal. Lithuania, on the other hand, did not. And he did not want a trial of strength, which could only harm the Lithuanian people, the weaker side, as it would harm the relationship between the USSR and Europe. But he told the Lithuanian prime minister, to her face, “You reacted badly to the German-French letter.” He saw no other way, he continued, than that of dialog. “Gorbachev was steamrolled by your populist demands.” And he did not intend to be a mediator. “I am not working on anyone’s behalf, but if I can help, I will do so.”47

That was his intention. At the end of his conversation with Mrs. Prunskiene he said to her: “Our German-French initiative can have one of two effects: make dialog easier, or irritate the Soviets, for when a head of state and a head of government consult the president of Lithuania, which according to the strict interpretation of the law is part of the USSR, this confirms Lithuania’s existence. Did this letter anger Gorbachev? I don’t know. The Soviet emissaries have been really friendly since then. I plan to visit [Gorbachev] on May 25. It seems likely that the possibility [of negotiation] exists.”48

In Moscow Mitterrand did not achieve a breakthrough in this matter. Nonetheless, he was able to
tell President Bush in a letter of May 28: “Gorbachev is open to dialog, but he is not ready to yield on the basics. He does not exclude the possibility of negotiation, it seems to me, but [will be open to it] only after a certain period of time has passed.”49 This “certain period of time” lasted a month. On June 29, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet declared a moratorium on Lithuania’s declaration of independence of March 11. And on July 2, the Soviet government lifted the economic sanctions against Lithuania. In a conversation with François Mitterrand on October 11, 1990, in the Elysée Palace, Vytautas Landsbergis told him, “We have made very significant progress since April — as a result of your help.”50


Yet on the night of April 12 and the early hours of the 13th, and in the days that followed, there was a regression to the earlier situation — with violence, in Vilnius, as well as in Riga and Tallinn. In a series of telegrams from Moscow, Ambassador Mérillon described in detail what was happening. The following excerpts will give an idea of the situation:

January 12: January 12 was a night of confusion and uproar in Vilnius. […] Defenders of independence set up guards around government buildings, the parliament, radio and television buildings, telephone offices. […] The Soviet army surrounded buildings of the Lithuanian police. […] The leaders of the Communist Party that remained faithful to Moscow demanded that a state of emergency be declared.51

January 13: The coup d’état is evident. The Soviet army is in the process of removing the government of Mr. Landsbergis from office and forcing on Vilnius a power — “the Committee of National Salvation” — that answers to Moscow. […] There is one unknown: Gorbachev. Despite the dramatic nature of all these events, the Soviet president, strangely, has remained silent for exactly 24 hours.52

January 13: The first deputy foreign minister [of the government of the Soviet Union] summoned, in addition to me, the ambassadors of the United States, Germany, Finland, Great Britain, and Italy. He wanted to give us a “message” from Mr. Gorbachev. […] This message is: “The situation in Lithuania is being made very clear in the dissatisfaction of the masses. […] President Gorbachev wants to deal with the situation by exclusively political means. […] But the events on the spot are developing their own dynamic. […] A Committee of National Salvation has been formed, with which the delegation sent from Moscow has made contact. This committee, not the Soviet military, enforced the curfew.”53

January 14: The situation in Vilnius is like that of an incomplete coup d’état. The Soviet army resorted to violence in the night of Friday and early Saturday with dire consequences (at least 10 dead and 130 injured). It has installed a puppet regime, the Committee of National Salvation. […] The legitimate government organs, President Landsbergis,
the government, the Supreme Soviet, continue to sit daily in the parliament. […] Time seems to playing into Mr. Landsbergis’s hands. He has survived three days of the storm. In Vilnius, people now believe victory will be theirs. The crisis is dragging on. […] Tallinn and Riga are taking measures to secure their safety. Finally, and notably: Mr. Yeltsin is finding an opportunity to play to the gallery.54

January 14: The coup d’état in Lithuania seems to be failing. […] After 48 hours of absence, the Soviet president [Gorbachev] has reappeared in public. . . . His first reaction was to disclaim any responsibility […] and to blame those on the spot in charge of the military. Mr. Yeltsin has announced the results of his trip to Estonia. He met the three Baltic presidents and signed a declaration with them that condemns the acts of violence and confirms the “sovereignty” of the four
signing republics [the three Baltic States and the Russian state].55

January 14: The credibility of Mr. Gorbachev […] is compromised. The Balts will not forgive him. […] The Lithuanian drama is speeding up the formation, now in progress, of a coalition of republics, united around
Mr. Yeltsin, against the [Soviet] Union.56

According to the observations of Jean-Marie Mérillon, it became apparent after this that, as far as the development of the Soviet Union was concerned, a winner and a loser emerged from the “Lithuanian drama”: the winner was Boris Yeltsin, who positioned himself and Russia against Gorbachev and the Soviet Union; the loser was Mikhail Gorbachev, who attempted to hold the Soviet Union together.

As shown by notes that Mitterrand made on Mérillon’s telegrams, he — not only his staff — followed the events in Vilnius on January 12 and 13, and what was generated by them, in great detail, from report to report, day after day. The American president had immediately reacted strongly, on the afternoon of January 13, at a press conference called for that purpose.57 The foreign ministers of Germany and France, in a joint statement on the same day, also condemned the actions of the Soviet Army in Lithuania and called upon Gorbachev to stop the use of force, in accordance with his own statement of the previous day. Mitterrand took up his pen and wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, which he sent to him on January 17. Mitterrand expressed the belief that Lithuania, like the other two Baltic republics, would regain its sovereignty in the course of the “democratization of their country and of the new organization of Europe”. But at the same time, he said that this development could only take place by means of dialog. He wrote that he was aware of Gorbachev’s determination to create in his country a “democratic state under the rule of law”, and so he was appealing to him with the aim that in the Baltic States “the normal conditions of democratic life be restored and that a constructive dialog with the freely elected representatives of the Baltic peoples be resumed”.58

At the end of January the Baltic crisis moved to Riga. On the evening of January 21, there was shooting in the city, which left five dead and ten wounded.59 The French foreign ministry reacted immediately with these words: “France condemns the use of force in the Baltic republics. After Lithuania, now Latvia is the scene of oppression against a renascent democracy. France confirms once again that police and military violence cannot be an answer to the legitimate desire of the Baltic people to regain their sovereignty, and renews its calls for dialog.”60

The Soviet leadership under Gorbachev had to look for a way out. First, on January 22, Gorbachev called a press conference, in which he planned to absolve himself of all guilt for the events in Vilnius and Riga. These were, he explained, in no way an expression of the policy of the government he led.61 And second, a plebiscite on the question of independence was
organized in each of the Baltic States. In the referendum in Lithuania on February 9, 90.47 percent of
qualified voters voted for independence, and in the referendums held in Latvia and Estonia on March 3, 73 percent and 78 percent respectively voted for independence.62

In the next few months Paris remained vigilant and committed in regard to the Baltic question, as is documented in Mitterrand’s written and personal consultation with Margaret Thatcher and George Bush, as well as the visits the French president received from the presidents of Latvia and Lithuania (on May 16 and June 20, respectively), and his written communication with leading Baltic politicians.63 And they were watching Gorbachev. “We’re handling Gorbachev well. Still, I do wish that he would free the Baltic States!” said Bush to Mitterrand on July 14.64 But the initiative for further developments now came from other players. On July 29, Russia, led by President Boris Yeltsin, recognized Lithuania’s independence.65 And on August 19, there was a putsch against Gorbachev, which, as it turned out on August 21, was unsuccessful. Gorbachev’s position was now even weaker than before.66 On August 20, Estonia declared its independence, and the next day Latvia followed with the declaration that its independence, which it had proclaimed previously, was now in full effect.

France’s foreign minister, Dumas, thereupon demanded an extraordinary session of the foreign ministers of the twelve EC states. Its aim was to issue an official declaration by the EC in which (a) the restoration of the Baltic States’ sovereignty would be recognized and (b) it would be decided to resume diplomatic relations with them, and (c) the desire of the EC countries for the Baltic States to join the UN quickly would be expressed. The twelve foreign ministers passed this declaration on August 27 and announced it in a communiqué: “The European Community and its member states welcome most warmly the restoration of the Baltic States’ sovereignty and independence, which they lost in 1940. […] It is now time, after more than 50 years, for these states to take up once more their proper place in the community of European states.”67

President Mitterrand commented on the event in the Council of Ministers, in the session of August 28, 1991, recalling the letter that he, together with Chancellor Kohl, had sent to President Landsbergis on April 26: “The idea of this letter was the right to independence, yes, but [also] an appeal for patience, in order to prevent them from ‘massacring each other’. Until now, it was too dangerous for the Balts themselves to take this step. After the failure of the putsch this risk no longer exists.”68


For the next three years, during which François Mitterrand was still president of France, relations between France and the Baltic States followed the normal paths of international affairs. Mitterrand received the presidents of Lithuania and Latvia and the prime ministers of Estonia and Lithuania in Paris, and from May 13 to 15, 1992, he himself made a state visit — the first Western head of state to do so — to each of the three states, during which he met with all the leading politicians there for discussions. With Lithuania he signed a treaty of friendship, and with Estonia and Latvia he signed economic agreements. Loans in the amounts of 20 million francs and 10 million francs were made to Estonia and Lithuania respectively. According to the assessment of Foreign Minister Dumas, given in the Council of Ministers on May 20, 1992, Mitterrand’s speech before the Lithuanian parliament was the highlight of the trip. However, Dumas also reported that the predominant concern of the governments of all three states was the issue of the complete withdrawal of the Russian troops who were still stationed in each of their territories.69

France made this issue another particular concern of its foreign policy regarding the Baltic region and Russia during Mitterrand’s presidency. On the occasion of his state visits, the French president made France’s position clear, in public appearances in Vilnius as well as in Tallinn and Riga: the presence of Russian troops in the territories of the three Baltic States was “unusual and shocking”.70 In addition, he did not agree to the deal that Russia’s President Yeltsin tried to persuade him to accept. On November 7, 1992, Yeltsin wrote him a three-page letter on “the question of the withdrawal of the armed forces of the Russian Federation from the territory of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia”.71 Yeltsin emphasized that the Russian leadership had “the clear and plain intention” of “withdrawing the troops in as short a time as is reasonable from the territory of the Baltic States”. Yet then he linked this decision to two preconditions: financial and technical aid in accommodating the forces brought back to Russia from the Baltic States, and the creation of guarantees of the rights of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States. Concerning the first point, he asked the French president expressly for a contribution from France. He also wanted France’s support regarding Russia’s plans for representation in the CSCE and the UN.

Mitterrand answered the letter on December 10, with the clear intention of putting Russia on the spot. He was happy, he wrote, that Yeltsin had stated Russia’s intention “to withdraw these troops completely and in an orderly fashion within a short time”.72 This was, by the way, the aim that “we all” had agreed to at the CSCE conference in Helsinki in July 1992. Consequently, France welcomed the agreement that Russia had made with Lithuania on September 8, according to which the Russian troops would be withdrawn by August 31, 1993, and hoped that Russia would make similar agreements with Latvia and Estonia without delay. Regarding the accommodation of the forces withdrawn to Russia from the Baltic States, France and its partners in the European Community would work on a project to prepare 10,000 former officers for a return to civilian life. Any further help from the community could not be considered. Mitterrand said not a word to suggest that France would give the aid demanded by Yeltsin.

The complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic States dragged on until long after Mitterrand had left office, until the summer of 2004. In the case of Lithuania, though, it took place within Mitterrand’s period of office, at the end of August 1993. On this occasion, the president of Lithuania and the president of France exchanged letters. Algirdas Brazauskas wrote from Vilnius on September 3: “Excellency, I would like to share with you my joy and that of the whole of Lithuania: a few days ago the last troops of the Russian army left our country. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you wholeheartedly for your effective support in the fulfillment of the legitimate concerns of Lithuania.”73 Mitterrand replied from Paris on September 29: “France is happy about this withdrawal, which it has supported, and which can now contribute to a strengthening of security and peace in Europe. […] France hopes that the withdrawal of Russian troops will be carried out in Latvia and Estonia as well, so that the Baltic region may become a region of stability and prosperity. Two years after the restoration of its independence, a new era is now beginning for Lithuania.”74  ≈

Note: The quotations can be found in the French original at


The choice of the period considered here can be explained as follows. My focus is “the Baltic question” faced by the Mitterrand government. Although Mitterrand was elected in 1981, it wasn’t until 1988 that demands for independence, which at that time were becoming virulent in the Baltic republics in the Soviet Union, were beginning to cause a problem for French foreign policy. And, although not all foreign policy dilemmas were solved by 1995, that was the year Mitterrand left office.

The information presented here comes from sources to which the author had access in the archives of the French presidential office (Elysée Palace) before Mitterrand left the Elysée. The collection regarding Mitterrand’s presidency is now housed in the French National Archives. I would like to thank Françoise Carle for all her advice and help in relation to my studies of sources. The original German version of this article was published in N. Götz, J. Hecker—Stampehl & St. M. Schröder (eds.), Vom alten Norden zum neuen Europa: Politische Kultur im Ostseeraum; Festschrift für Bernd Henningsen, Berlin 2010, pp. 315—333.

From the Lithuanian point of view, this declaration was legitimated by the first (since 1940) free parliamentary elections since 1940, which had taken place on February 24.

In October 1988, mass movements, called “popular fronts”, sprang up in the Baltic States; their objective was the autonomy of these states (which were still within the Soviet Union). On October 2, 1990, these popular fronts in all three states declared that after the successful resolution of the “deutsche Frage” another problem remained unsolved: the “baltische Frage”, that is, the issue of the Baltic States’ sovereignty.

Office of the President of the Republic (henceforth PdR), Press Service, Joint press conference of Mr. François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, and Mr. Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, at the end of the 55th French-German talks, Elysée Palace, 1990-04-26, p. 11 f.

Caroline de Margerie, Note to the President of the Republic: France and the Baltic States, 1990-03-23. Specifically, this memorandum states: “France has never recognized the validity of the annexation of the three Baltic States, which took place in August 1940. […] This position was reaffirmed by France and by the other Western powers at the time of the signing of the final agreement of the CSCE in Helsinki in August, 1975. […] In 1982 Mr. Cheysson, minister of Foreign Affairs, made it clear that France ‘had not given any sort of express or tacit recognition’ and that the government ‘had no intention of reconsidering this position’.”

See for example, PdR, Press Service, Interview of Mr. François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, by Mrs. Anne Sinclair, for the program “Sept sur Sept” on TF 1, 1990-03-25, p. 36 f: “France has always refused to recognize the annexation [of the three Baltic States]. […] The law of Lithuania cannot be contested. Its law is that of sovereignty”: PdR, Press Service, Joint press conference of Mr. François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, and Mr. Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, Elysée Palace, 1990-03-20, p. 3: “France has never recognized the annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union. And we have always felt that this country was in a position to justifiably reclaim its sovereignty”; record of the conversation between Mitterrand and Hermansson (prime minister of Iceland), 1990-08-22: “P.R. [Mitterrand]: ‘The annexation of the Baltic States has no legal basis.’”

Cf. Interview TF 1, 1990-03-15, p. 37: “But [the Baltic States] are a part of the Soviet Union. […] The only possible way is that of dialog.”

From the session of the French Council of Ministers on September 4, 1991, the following statement by President Mitterrand was recorded: “From the beginning, the president has encouraged the president of Lithuania to move forward, but with prudence, on the path of independence.” (Record of the session of the Council of Ministers on 1991-09-04).

See Tilo Schabert, Wie Weltgeschichte gemacht wird: Frankreich und die Deutsche Einheit, Stuttgart 2002, especially the section “Das Lied des Rebellen, der Refrain des Mahners”, p. 321 ff., and the revised and extended French version, Mitterrand et la réunification allemande: Une histoire secrète (1981—1995), Paris 2005. An abridged edition of the French version is available in English: How World Politics Is Made: France and the Reunification of Germany, Columbia, Mo. and London 2009.

This was Mitterrand’s statement at a press conference with Václav Havel in March 1990. See PdR, Press Service, Joint press conference of Mr. François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, and Mr. Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, Elysée Palace, 1990-03-20, p. 3.

Among Mitterrand’s advisors who worked on the Baltic question were Loïc Hennekine, Pierre Morel, Jean Vidal, and Caroline de Margerie for foreign policy, and Anne Lauvergeon, Serge Lafont, and Philippe Bastelica for economic policy.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wave of protest in the Baltic States against the new project of a reform of the Soviet constitution (November 1988).

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Branch, Deputy Director USSR, Note. A/s: Situation in the Baltic States, 1989-09-22.

Ibid., p. 3.

See Tilo Schabert, “Ein klassischer Fürst: François Mitterrand im Spiegel einer vergleichenden Regierungslehre”, in Brigitte Sauzay & Rudolf von Thadden (eds.), Mitterrand und die Deutschen, Göttingen 1998, pp. 78—106, especially the section “Primat der Personen”, p. 91 ff., and the revised English version, “A Classical Prince: The Style of Mitterrand”, in Charles R. Embry & Barry Cooper (eds.), Philosophy, Literature, and Politics: Essays Honoring Ellis Sandoz, Columbia, Mo. and London 2005, pp. 234—257; Karl-Heinz Nusser, Matthias Riedl & Theresia Ritter (eds.), Politikos: Vom Element des Persönlichen in der Politik, Berlin 2008.

See Wie Weltgeschichte gemacht wird: Frankreich und die Deutsche Einheit, pp. 63 ff.

Letter from Helmut Kohl to François Mitterrand of 1990-05-15 (quoted from the French translation received by Mitterrand).

18             Ibid.

In 1939, the central banks of the Baltic States had deposited 3,246 kg of gold in trust with the Bank of France. France withstood the later attempts (constantly renewed) of the Soviet Union to have this money handed over to it, unlike Great Britain, which sold the Baltic gold deposited there, and Sweden, which handed it over to the Soviet Union. At the end of August 1991, Lithuania, the first Baltic state to regain its independence, got back the gold it had stored in the Bank of France — 2,200 kg, with a value at that time of 150 million French francs.

Record of the conversation between Mitterrand and Roman on 1991-01-30.

Record of the conversation between Mitterrand, Bush, Dumas, and Baker on 1990-04-19.

Mitterrand is referring here to his meeting with Gorbachev on 1989-12-06 in Kiev. See Wie Weltgeschichte gemacht wird: Frankreich und die Deutsche Einheit, p. 433—435, or How World Politics Is Made: France and the Reunification of Germany, pp. 255—258.

Record of the discussion between Mitterrand, Bush, Dumas, and Baker on 1990-04-19.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Director of the cabinet of the Minister of State, Note for the Minister of State alone, 1990-03-24, p. 1.

JLB [Jean-Louis Bianco], Topic: Lithuania, handwritten note, addressed: “for the President”, 1990-03-24.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Branch, Deputy Director, USSR, ed. O. Adim, Note, A/S: Lithuania, 1990-03-14; Anne Lauvergeon, Note for the President. Topic: Independence of Lithuania, 1990-03-12; Anne Lauvergeon, Note for the President, 1990-03-15; Caroline de Margerie, Note for the President of the Republic, Topic: History of the Baltic States, 1990-03-23; Caroline de Margerie, The Baltic States, [1990-03-23]; Caroline de Margerie, France and the Baltic States, [1990-03-23].

See Joint press conference, Mitterrand and Havel, 1990-03-20; Interview “Sept sur Sept” (TF1), 1990-03-25; Joint press conference, Mitterrand and Kohl, 1990-04-26; PdR, Press Service, Joint press conference of Mr. François Mitterrand, President de la Republic, and Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Moscow, 1990-05-25.

28           Interview, “Sept sur Sept” (TF1), 1990-03-25, p. 37.

Letter of 1990-02-20 from the Lietuvos Persitvarkymo Sajudis, signed by Juozas Urbsys and Vytautas Landsbergis, to François Mitterrand.

In the course of the German reunification, Mitterrand similarly reiterated that this must take place “peacefully” — and also “democratically”. See Wie Weltgeschichte gemacht wird: Frankreich und die Deutsche Einheit, p. 158 f., p. 377 f., or How World Politics is Made: France and the Reunification of Germany, p 208f.

Letter of 1990-04-19 from François Mitterrand to Vytautas Landsbergis.

Quoted from the French diplomatic telegram TA Coreu Dublin, 1990-03-24, 18:59, entry no. 22819.

Letter (in the official French translation) of 1990-04-17 from Margaret Thatcher to François Mitterrand.

Anne Lauvergeon, Note for the President, Topic: Economic blockade in Lithuania, [1990-04-20].

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister of State, Note for the President of the Republic, 1990-04-21.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister of State, Note for the President of the Republic, 1990-04-21.

Record of conversation between Mitterrand and Kohl on 1990-04-25.

Letter of 1990-04-26 from President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl to President Landsbergis.

Cf. Loïc Hennekine, Note for the President of the Republic, Topic: Lithuania, 1990-04-26.

40           Cf. Reuters report from Copenhagen on 1990-04-30.

41           Ibid.

Letter of 1990-05-02 from Vytautas Landsbergis to François Mitterrand.

43           Diplomatic telegram, TD Moscow 3522, 1990-05-03.

With this declaration a “transition phase” was established, in which independence would not yet be in full effect. This did not happen in Lithuania.

Letter of 1990-05-07 from Anatolijs Gorbunovs and Imants Daudiss to François Mitterrand.

Caroline de Margerie, Note for the President of the Republic, 1990-05-10.

Record of conversation between Mitterrand and Prunskiene, 1990-05-10.

48           Ibid.

Letter of 1990-05-28 from François Mitterrand to George Bush.

Record of conversation of 1990-10-11 between Mitterrand and Landsbergis.

TD Moscow 164, 1991-01-12.

52           TD Moscow 177, 1991-01-13.

53           TD Moscow 181, 1991-01-13.

54           TD Moscow 183, 1991-01-14.

55           TD Moscow 212, 1991-01-14.

56           TD Moscow 213, 1991-01-14.

As reported by the French ambassador in Washington on January 13 (TD Washington 85).

Letter of 1991-01-17 from François Mitterrand to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev answered Mitterrand in a letter of 1991-02-05. In five pages the Soviet president complained mostly about the perception and media reports of his position and policy regarding the “events in the Baltic region”, which he saw as completely distorted. “Gorbachev was not aiming to be a dictator” who wanted to give up “perestroika and glasnost”. He recognized Mitterrand’s genuine interest in the reform process in the USSR, and he was counting on his “authority and influence” in international politics. For the “Baltic events” were “a hard nut to crack.” (Letter of 1991-02-05 from Mikhail Gorbachev to François Mitterrand; quoted from the unofficial French translation).

This, according to the report to Paris by the French ambassador in Moscow (TD Moscow 335, 1991-01-22).

Communiqué from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1991-01-21.

61           TD Moscow 355, 1991-01-23.

TD Moscow 717, 14 February 1991; TD Moscow 1030, 5 March 1991.

Letter from Margaret Thatcher to François Mitterrand, undated [March 1991]; letter of 1991-05-03 from George Bush to François Mitterrand; conversation between Mitterrand and Bush in Rambouillet on 1991-07-14; letter of 1991-06-03 from Arnold Rüütel, president of the Supreme Council of Estonia, and Lennart Meri, foreign minister of Estonia, to François Mitterrand; letter of 1991-07-12 from Meri to Mitterrand; letter of 1991-07-15 from Gediminas Vagnorius, prime minister of Lithuania, to Mitterrand.

Record of conversation between Mitterrand and Bush on 1991-07-14.

For details, cf. “La Russie reconnait l’indépendance de la Lituanie”, in Le Monde, 1991-07-31.

On 1993-06-15, Mitterrand said in a conversation with the Lithuanian president, Algirdas Brazauskas: “Gorbachev doesn’t much like talking about the Baltic issue, because that’s where his downfall began.” (Record of conversation between Mitterrand and Brazauskas on 1993-06-15.)

For the full text of the communiqué, see Le Monde, 1991-08-29.

Record of the session of the Council of Ministers on 1991-08-28.

Record of the session of the Council of Ministers on 1992-05-20.

Cf. Reuters report (Marie-Bénédicte Allaire) from Riga, 1992-05-15.

71           Letter of 1992-11-07 from Boris Yeltsin to François Mitterrand.

72           Letter of 1992-12-10 from François Mitterrand to Boris Yeltsin.

Letter of 1993-09-03 from Algirdas Brazauskas to François Mitterrand.

Letter of 1993-09-29 from François Mitterrand to Algirdas Brazauskas.

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