Race marks 20 years since two million joined anti-Soviet human chain

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania launched a 24-hour, 600-kilometre relay race on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way human chain, formed in 1989 by two million people joining hands to protest Soviet rule.


AFP - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania launched a 24-hour, 600-kilometre (375-miles) relay race on Saturday, 20 years after two million people joined hands against Soviet rule in the Baltic Way human chain.

Runners from the Estonian capital Tallinn headed south to the Latvian capital Riga were the first off the mark Saturday.

A second leg was to begin in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius later Saturday with runners aiming north to Riga to meet with their Latvian and Estonian [counterparts] for the Sunday finish of the Heartbeats for the Baltics relay.

"I'll be running around three kilometres before dawn Sunday morning near Latvian-Estonian border," Sixten Sild, 45, chairman of the Estonian Orienteering Association Board, the main Estonian organiser of the event, told AFP at the Tallinn launch.

"I want to run there because 20 years ago on August 23, 1989 that was where I stood in the Baltic chain with my parents," says Sild, now a father of two sons -- Timo, 21, and Lauri, 19 -- who are also in the run.

Latvia's President Valdis Zatlers, 54, will also be among the thousands of runners participating in the event.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement honouring the Baltic Chain 20th anniversary, the Baltic News Service reported Saturday.

The landmark Baltic human chain linking then Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was organised on August 23, 1989 amid a drive to restore independence from Moscow.

It saw two million people from a total population of seven million in the three states hold hands in an unparalleled act of solidarity and defiance.

Footage of the human chain was this year inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register, a list of 193 archives of global significance.

August 23, 1989 was deeply symbolic for yet another reason. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression deal the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed days ahead of Berlin and Moscow's attack on Poland that began World War II.

The pact included secret protocols carving up Poland and allotting the Baltic states to the Soviets.

In 1940 the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states. Independence came in  1991 as the communist bloc collapsed.

The trio joined NATO and the European Union in 2004 enjoying robust economic growth but the world economic crisis has hit their economies hard, with all three expected to see annual growth contract by up to 19 percent this year.

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