Lithuania celebrates 20th anniversary of March 11

  • 2010-03-17
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

LET’S CELEBRATE: Military parade in Vilnius on March 11 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

VILNIUS - On March 11, Lithuania celebrated its 20-year old brave action of restoration of independence which was announced by the national movement Sajudis-dominated Lithuanian parliament, elected in a free election back in 1990. Vilnius central streets and squares were filled with thousands of celebrating people. The 20th anniversary’s commemoration started with the morning sitting in the parliament and finished with a rock, pop and folk concert on the Cathedral Square, which entertained some 10,000 mostly young people till midnight.

The parliament sitting started with a speech by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. “Let us remember the immense joy and hope that the Act of March 11 brought us. How happy, united and fearless we were! How strongly we wished to be free. Despite our differences, we moved forward guided by the Sajudis and the call of freedom. We witnessed the beauty and dignity of men and women who pursue their dream. How strong and how together the nation is when it stands in confidence and self-respect,” Grybauskaite said, reminding about the economic blockade imposed by the USSR after March 11, 1990, and Soviet tank attacks in January 1991.

Vytautas Landsbergis, president of the Lithuanian parliament back in 1990 and current Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, recalled the historical context of the event of 1990. “The continuing slavery would mean agony to the nation. Our brotherly Latvian nation then was already going to be forced to exist as a minority in its country,” Landsbergis said reminding of the famous statement of one of the Soviet dignitaries made at the end of WWII: “Lithuania will remain, but it will be without Lithuanians.” Landsbergis praised diplomatic signals from Washington and Paris, which were made immediately after March 11, 1990, urging Moscow not to use violence against Lithuania.

Arnold Ruutel, chairman of the Estonian parliament in 1990-1992 and Estonian president in 2001-2006, spoke about Baltic co-operation 20 years ago. He reminded that Estonia and Latvia did not follow exactly the steps of Lithuania – both Lithuania’s northern neighbors in May, 1990, proclaimed a transitional period towards independence instead of full independence. “Estonia chose the transitional period. Despite the fact that our choices were different, we had the same goals and we were firm allies. We restored the co-operation agreement of 1934 between Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia which illegally was annulled after the occupation by the USSR in 1940,” Ruutel said.

Pamela Quanrud, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. secretary of state, read a letter by U.S. President Barack Obama during a sitting in the Lithuanian parliament. Obama stated that the events of March 11 were pivotal in the return to democratic values in Central and Eastern Europe, “At the time, these brave citizens could not foresee the impact of their actions, but they never lost their resolve. They became a beacon of hope to those throughout the world seeking freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights.”

Polish, Slovenian and Finnish presidents as well as the chairman of the Icelandic parliament spoke during the sitting in the Lithuanian parliament. The most emotional speech was made by Sergei Kovalev, a human rights activist from Russia.
In 1974-1975, Kovalev was jailed in the Vilnius KGB prison, which is now the Museum of Genocide Victims. Kovalev was probably the only Russian who, speaking in the Lithuanian parliament, asked for forgiveness for the Soviet terror. From 1993-2003, he was an MP in Russia - then it was possible for a democrat to be an MP in Russia.

He asked Lithuania to forgive the Russians. “I’m ashamed that Russia is avoiding the word occupation. I must ask you for forgiveness again because our president does not hurry to ask for it. The only justification for Russia could be the fact that, on Jan. 14, 1991, more than 100,000 people, some say even some 500,000 people, went to the streets of Moscow demanding to stop the violence against Lithuania. This helped to stop the continuation of violence against Vilnius as well as against Riga and Tallinn. Forgive us that now we tolerate our illegitimate government and existence of political prisoners in Russia,” Kovalev said.

Later, the celebration moved outside the parliament to the nearby Independence Square, where the flags of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were raised, one by one, while their anthems were played by the military orchestras of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Presidents of all three Baltic countries addressed the crowds there. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, speaking in English, said that Lithuania’s membership in the European Union and NATO is not an achievement of Lithuania, but rather recognition by the EU and NATO of achievements of Lithuania.

“If you feel low and down, come to Latvia and you will find out how wonderful Lithuania is and how well Lithuania is doing,” Latvian President Valdis Zatlers said, making the crowds laugh and applaud. Zatlers read his text in Lithuanian.
French pilots, stationed in the base near the northern Lithuanian town of Siauliai, congratulated the 20th anniversary of restoration of Lithuania’s independence flying their fighter jets over Independence Square. A military parade along Gedimino Avenue followed the celebrations in Independence Square. There was a column of Lithuanian soldiers carrying all the flags of NATO member countries in the military parade. The parade was followed by a cheerful demonstration of several thousand mostly young people.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian TV stations broadcast a pre-recorded televised address by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “On March 11, 1990, brave Lithuanian patriots voted for independence although the Soviet Army still occupied your country. Thousands of ordinary citizens surrounded the Seimas building for days and weeks on end to protect those inside, as the nation worked to secure its freedom. These brave citizens did not know what future lay ahead. Indeed, it took more than a year and the tragic deaths of nonviolent protestors before the authorities in Moscow finally recognized your independence. But despite that uncertain year, filled with violence and the pains of change, the people of Lithuania never lost their resolve to uphold that independence and regain their freedom. And in so doing, you have become a beacon of hope to those seeking freedom all over the world. Today, we look back on this event as a watershed moment in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a landmark along the path to bringing freedom and democracy to the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe. And while we celebrate this two decades old rebirth, we must look to the future with the same strength and unity. These are trying times, with an uncertain future, but the United States remains your steadfast partner and your loyal friend, and we will face the challenges of the 21st century together,” Clinton said.

On March 11, some 1,000 people, organized by the United Democratic Movement of former Conservative MP Kestutis Cilinskas celebrated March 11 on the Tauras Hill in Vilnius with folk songs and speeches condemning the power of oligarchs on Lithuanian politics. “The spirit of March 11 is contradictory to the rule of oligarchs,” Cilinskas said.
On March 11, several hundred radical nationalist youngsters shouted “Lithuania to Lithuanians!” and marched in the streets of the Vilnius Old Town. The march was supported by Kazimieras Uoka, MP of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats who’s position inside his party is rather weak: he and a couple of his fellow MPs are nicknamed Taliban by his party colleagues. The majority of readers’ comments on internet site about this demonstration were negative.