The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe decided to visit Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in mid-February 1991 and to meet with their freely elected leaders and government officials for one paramount purpose: in the context of a fact-finding mission, to express U.S. Congressional support for Baltic aspirations in the wake of the bloodshed in Lithuania and Latvia in January, when Soviet Internal Affairs Ministry troops killed 18 unarmed civilians.
The delegation was the first group of Members of the U.S. Congress to visit the Baltics since those events. The unusually large size of the delegation — it comprised 13 Members and was the largest Congressional delegation ever to visit the Baltic States in the fifty years since their forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union –and the broad geographic range of the Members’ home districts testified to widespread backing for the Baltic cause in the U.S. Congress and among the American people, despite preoccupation in the United States with the military campaign in the Persian Gulf.
The delegation’s other objective was to meet with Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the parliament of the Russian Federation, and was directly connected to the primary objective of voicing support for the Baltic cause. Yeltsin had publicly condemned the use of force in Lithuania and Latvia, even calling on Russian soldiers to disobey orders to fire on Lithuanians. Members wanted to hear his position on the situation in the Baltic States, the status of their negotiations with Russia, and prospects for democratization in the USSR.
The Members also hoped to arrange a meeting with Soviet President Gorbachev to convey the sense of concern in the U.S. Congress at the resort to violence in January and to express support for continued political and economic liberalization in the Soviet Union. Although President Gorbachev did not meet with the delegation, Soviet authorities did set up a formal meeting in Moscow with Rafik Nishanov, Chairman of the Council of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and his colleagues. The discussion allowed delegation members to familiarize themselves with the current official Soviet position on the Baltic States’ desire to regain their political independence.