COVER

A TASTE OF FREEDOM

LITHUANIANS GRAPPLE WITH INDEPENDENCE

MALCOLM GRAY September 16 1991
COVER

A TASTE OF FREEDOM

LITHUANIANS GRAPPLE WITH INDEPENDENCE

MALCOLM GRAY September 16 1991

A TASTE OF FREEDOM

COVER

LITHUANIANS GRAPPLE WITH INDEPENDENCE

Thousands of travellers encountered one unexpected result of Lithuania’s renewed independence last week: a massive tangle of red tape on the Baltic state’s western frontier. After the failed August coup, a weakened Kremlin gave Lithuania control of its single road crossing to Poland. Then, Lithuanian authorities quickly deployed inexperienced national guard members who searched all outgoing vehicles and issued visas to arriving non-Soviet citizens. But KGB border guards also continued to work, claiming that they had not received orders from Moscow to withdraw. That double layer of border bureaucracy soon produced an enormous lineup of cars, trucks and buses near the town of Lazdijai, 170 km southwest of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital—and a wait that normally takes about three hours stretched to four or even five days. Bored, frustrated and angered after trying for 2Vi days to enter Poland, Egon Rogovsky, a 24-year-old physical education student in the Latvian capital of Riga, still managed to see the bright side of what the coup leaders inadvertently accomplished. Said Rogovsky: “Those guys deserve monuments for speeding up Baltic independence.”

Even the most optimistic leader of the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—could not have foreseen the astonishing speed with which they would achieve their decades-old goal. They certainly did not anticipate it on Aug. 19, the first day of the coup, when elite paratroopers from bases in Russia swarmed into the Baltics. But the soldiers began withdrawing two days later as the hard-liners’ mutiny collapsed in the face of widespread popular resistance. And as the Communist system lay in ruins, Latvia and Estonia swiftly joined Lithuania in declaring full independence, throwing off the Kremlin control that the Red Army had exerted in 1940 after a secret Soviet pact with Nazi Germany. Last week, 51 years later, the Kremlin’s interim State Council, which includes President Mikhail Gorbachev and 10 republican leaders, voted to officially grant the Baltics their freedom.

Overwhelming: More than 50 countries, including Canada—whose international trade minister, Michael Wilson, visited the region last week—and the United States, have formally recognized Baltic independence. And the three states, with a combined population of just eight million, now face the almost overwhelming prospect of breaking away from the highly integrated Soviet economy and competing in world markets.

Lithuania actually made its blunt declaration

of independence on March 11, 1990, while Latvia and Estonia took a less confrontational approach, simply announcing their intention to leave. Moscow, in turn, paid special attention to the stubborn Lithuanians, answering their declaration with a three-month-long economic blockade that cut off supplies of fuel and raw materials to the republic’s 3.7 million people. But under the leadership of Vytautas Landsbergis, a prickly music professor who likes to play Beethoven excerpts on the grand piano in his presidential office, Lithuanians held fast.

In return for negotiations with the Kremlin on secession and an end to the blockade in July, 1990, they made only one grudging concession: a temporary suspension of their declaration. And a military crackdown in the

Baltics in January strengthened the resolve to break free—particularly after Soviet troops seized Vilnius’s main TV transmitter in a nighttime assault that left 14 people dead.

Now, Lithuania is savoring its first tastes of freedom. But apart from a small celebration in a Vilnius stadium last week, there were few signs of public rejoicing. Many Lithuanians relish telling outsiders that they have been independent for more than a year— the rest of the world is simply catching up with that fact.

Withdrawal: Still, Vilnius residents openly acknowledge their delight at the ignominious withdrawal last week of about 100 interior ministry troops known as the Black Berets—special units that Soviet authorities have used to impose control in the Baltics over the past year. Many of the Black Berets have been reassigned to Siberia. And although 90,000 regular army troops remain in Lithuania, in late August Soviet soldiers abandoned key installations that they had been holding since the January crackdown. As the last two truckloads of troops pulled away from the Vilnius television tower, a large crowd of onlookers signalled their disapproval of the eightmonth occupation—by turning their backs on the departing soldiers.

Algirdas Rimanauskas, the chief engineer at the transmitting centre, was in that crowd. Last week, as the 52-year-old Rimanauskas gave a Maclean’s reporter a tour of the damaged structure, he recalled that he had been among the last group of civilians to leave the building after the January assault. Pointing to the woods beyond a perimeter of razor-wire coils left by the Soviet forces, Rimanauskas calmly added that he and a small group of Lithuanians had escaped from soldiers who had taken

them prisoner at gunpoint. “They marched us into the forest and might have shot us there,” Rimanauskas said. “But it was dark and we managed to run away.”

Although local cleanup crews have removed the debris that the occupying force left near the main entrance, the 790-foot tower still bears the scars of that midwinter attack and the occupation that followed. Office windows and doors on the ground floor remained boarded up, awaiting new panes of glass, and the building’s exterior walls displayed pockmarks from Soviet bullets. And as he walked through the now-stilled revolving restaurant on the tower’s 22nd level, Rimanauskas expressed disgust at the mess left behind in one of Vilnius’s most popular dining spots. “It seems the soldiers

celebrated their victory at the tower by drinking and then smashing the bottles,” he said.

Seven kilometres to the northeast, the cream-colored walls of the Lithuanian parliament shone in the sun. During the January crackdown, those buildings held another sign of Lithuanian defiance: shortly after Soviet soldiers seized the transmission tower and television studios, local technicians set up a broadcast centre within the barricaded parliament. Added Rimanauskas: “We had other temporary studios and transmitters across Lithuania—they never did succeed in keeping us off the air.”

Still, as Lithuanians adjusted to the withdrawal of Soviet troops, they also saw the first responses to their new status in the world order. On Sept. 2, a black Chaika limousine with two Maple Leaf pennants on the hood drew up outside the parliament. Emerging from a car that was on loan from the Lithuanian

government was Canada’s Wilson, on his first stop of a three-day tour of the Baltic capitals.

Visitor: Wilson was one of the many highlevel foreign delegates that Landsbergis received last week, and as his Canadian visitor arrived at his office, Landsbergis was heatedly telling Western correspondents that the U.S. government’s studied slowness in renewing relations with Lithuania had not irritated him. Guiding Wilson to a seat on a couch in his office, Landsbergis exclaimed: “Never mind, here is Canada, a country that is very important—and dear to us. Canada gave us support last January and February when we were under military attack, and it was the first country to take concrete action against that aggression by cutting off credits to the Soviets.”

Last Friday in Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall underlined that support by announcing the appointment of Canada’s first ambassadors to the Baltic states. Career civil servant Michael Phillips will serve as ambassador to Sweden and be accredited to Latvia and Lithuania. Mary Vandenhoff, the current ambassador to Finland, will also be responsible for Estonia. Earlier, in Vilnius, Wilson said that direct financial aid to the Baltic states was likely some time in the future. He added that, initially, Canada will help Lithuania develop an infrastructure that is capable of supporting business through the transfer of technical knowledge, particularly in the fields of banking and communications.

Although Lithuanian officials insist that they are ready for independence, the newly free country faces profound economic and political challenges. Among them is the potential for

friction between the Lithuanian majority and Russian and Polish minorities, who comprise nine and eight per cent of the population, respectively. But Aurimas Taurantas, the Lithuanian parliament’s speaker, said that the state had assured Russian President Boris Yeltsin that it will respect the rights of minorities. At the same time, Taurantas added, the government was ready to auction off industries, stores and farmland to private owners.

Still, Lithuania lags behind the other two Baltic states in economic development. It produces about seven per cent of the TV sets and refrigerators made in the Soviet Union each year, but those and other manufactured products are inferior to similar goods made abroad. And although Landsbergis has rejected formal

membership in any economic union formed from the ashes of the Soviet Union, he has also stressed the need to retain existing trade ties as his country enters the world market.

Some Lithuanians, stuck in the four-kilometre-long queue that stretched back from their western border last week, could even find black humor in their problems. Lionginas Andrikene, a 50-year-old mechanical engineer from Vilnius, explained that the new customs guards were confiscating vast amounts of contraband vodka that many travellers had attempted to smuggle into Poland, where it is five times more expensive. In fact, he added, enterprising Lithuanian authorities were now trucking the seized liquor to nearby Lazdijai, where state stores could resell the bottles—to travellers about to cross into Poland.

MALCOLM GRAY in Vilnius