Photo: Alexander Stemp

Thirtieth anniversary of freedom for Lithuania

Deadly day of protest remembered

Although each January 13 is a day of celebration in Lithuania, it is also a day of sorrow and remembrance for those who fell on that date in 1991 while seeking independence for their country. Thirty years later in Budapest, Ambassador to Hungary Vytautas Pinkus and Minister Councillor/Deputy Head of Mission Viktoras Dagilis hosted a candlelit vigil at Heroes Square to honour those unarmed people caught up in conflict while opposing ongoing tyranny.

The event 30 years ago led not only to the eventual end of Soviet occupation of Lithuania and elsewhere but played its part in the collapse of the USSR itself, and thus Freedom Defenders Day is celebrated annually by Lithuanians and their supporters across the world.

In Budapest this respectful day of remembrance would usually have taken place at the embassy but the coronavirus pandemic forced a change of venue this year, and symbolic blue “Myosotis-Forget-Me-Not” flower badges accompanied the candles at Heroes Square on Wednesday evening.

Also remembered is the historic Baltic Way peaceful protest on August 23, 1989 when up to two million people joined hands in a 600-kilometre human chain across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The massive demonstration for freedom brought worldwide attention and much respect to the suppressed Baltic people. Four days earlier on August 19 there had been another non-violent protest called the Pan-European Picnic at the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron, which had similar statement value before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Despite the obvious risk, Lithuania voted for self-rule in elections in February 1990. On March 11 that year Lithuania’s Legislative Supreme Council voted in favour of final independence. At first the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev used economic and political pressure to undermine this bid to end a half century of Moscow rule, after the Baltic States were annexed in 1940.

Gorbachev’s strategy failed and regrettably resulted in violence. On January 13, 1991 Lithuanian protesters formed a human shield to protect the radio and television centre in the capital, Vilnius, from Soviet forces, and 14 Lithuanians lost their lives.

But the course of history was changed and on September 7, 1991 the newly appointed President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation acknowledged the independence of all three Baltic States. They were admitted to the United Nations that month. Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, along with Latvia and Estonia.

My first visit to Lithuania was in 1995 when the country was still going through dramatic changes. As much as I enjoyed my time in Vilnius it was still early days with developing stages. Tourist information was very minimal. Nowadays this city and all three Baltic states are flourishing, having become as good and comfortable as elsewhere within the Western sphere. I shall return.

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