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The Move Toward Independence, 1987-91

The situation did not change until Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Even then, Lithuania's communist party leadership hesitated to embrace Gorbachev's program of limited economic reforms under his policy of perestroika (see Glossary). The death of Petras Griskevicius, first secretary of the Communist Party of Lithuania, in 1987 did little to improve the atmosphere for reform. The new first secretary, Ringaudas Songaila, was a conservative functionary. But encouraged by new winds from Moscow, Baltic dissidents began in 1987 to hold public demonstrations in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius. In 1988, against the wishes of Songaila's regime, Lithuanian, engaged in widespread celebration of the February 16 Independence Day. Lithuanian intellectuals were pushed into taking more forceful action as well. Meeting at the Academy of Sciences on June 3, 1988, communist and noncommunist intellectuals formed "an initiative group" to organize a movement to support Gorbachev's program of glasnost (see Glossary), democratization, and perestroika . A council composed equally of communist party members and nonparty members was chosen to organize the Lithuanian Reconstruction Movement, which became known subsequently simply as Sajudis (Movement). The Communist Party of Lithuania leadership did not like this independent action but, knowing Gorbachev's limited acceptance of "informal" societies, did not interfere with the effort.

The movement supported Gorbachev's policies, but at the same time it promoted Lithuanian national issues such as restoration of the Lithuanian language as the "official" language. Its demands included revelations of the truth about the Stalinist years, protection of the environment, cessation of construction on a third nuclear reactor at the Ignalina nuclear power plant, and disclosure of secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Sajudis used mass meetings to advance its goals. At first, party leaders shunned these meetings, but by mid-1988 their participation became a political necessity. Thus, a Sajudis rally on June 24, 1988, was attended by Algirdas Brazauskas, then party secretary for industrial affairs.

In October 1988, Brazauskas was appointed first secretary of the party to replace Songaila, and Sajudis held its founding conference in Vilnius. It subsequently elected as its chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, a professor of musicology who was not a member of the communist party. In the elections to Moscow's newly authorized Congress of People's Deputies (see Glossary) in March-May 1989, Sajudis was victorious. From the communist party, the voters elected only Brazauskas and Vladimiras Beriozovas, his associate, whom Sajudis did not oppose. From that time, Brazauskas cooperated fully with Sajudis. Lithuanian sovereignty--as distinguished from Lithuanian independence, which had been declared on February 16, 1918--was proclaimed in May 1989, and Lithuania's incorporation into the Soviet Union was declared illegal. In August a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. In December Brazauskas forced the Communist Party of Lithuania to secede from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and to give up its monopoly on power.

But even the separation of the Communist Party of Lithuania from Moscow did not save it in the electoral contest for the Supreme Soviet of the republic in March 1990. In the election, the Communist Party of Lithuania won only twenty-three of the 141 seats. On March 11, the newly elected parliament voted unanimously for independence. Brazauskas lost the election for chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet to Landsbergis.

Moscow did not accept the legality of the independence vote, however; in April 1990, it imposed an economic blockade that lasted for three months, until the Lithuanian legislature, now known as the Supreme Council, agreed to a six-month moratorium on its independence declaration. Later, Moscow obstructed Lithuanian efforts to gain Western recognition, and on January 13, 1991, attempted to use force to remove the Lithuanian government in Vilnius and to reestablish Soviet rule. Although this attempted coup ended in a massacre of civilians--thirteen died, and hundreds were wounded--by the Soviet army, Lithuania's determination did not change. Finally, the failure of the August 1991 coup in Moscow permitted Lithuania to regain self-determination and prompted the international community to recognize it as an independent state. The United States extended recognition on September 2, and the Soviet Union did so on September 6. Lithuania was admitted to the United Nations on September 16, 1991.

Physical Environment

Lithuania is situated on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Lithuania's boundaries have changed several times since 1918, but they have been stable since 1945 (see fig. 2). Currently, Lithuania covers an area of about 65,200 square kilometers. About the size of West Virginia, it is larger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, or Switzerland.

Lithuania's northern neighbor is Latvia. The two countries share a border that extends 453 kilometers. Lithuania's eastern border with Belarus is longer, stretching 502 kilometers. The border with Poland on the south is relatively short, only ninety-one kilometers, but is very busy because of international traffic. Lithuania also has a 227-kilometer border with Russia. Russian territory adjacent to Lithuania is Kaliningrad Oblast, which is the northern part of the former German East Prussia, including the city of Kaliningrad. Finally, Lithuania has 108 kilometers of Baltic seashore with an ice-free harbor at Klaipeda. The Baltic coast offers sandy beaches and pine forests and attracts thousands of vacationers.

Data as of January 1995

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