Nation reflects on painful 1991 events

  • 2006-01-11
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - As Lithuania commemorates the 15th anniversary of the tragic clash between unarmed civilians and the Soviet army, which saw 14 people killed on Jan. 13, 1991, the military coup's leader, Mykolas Burokevicius, will complete his jail sentence.
Burokevicius, 78, once headed the Lithuanian Communist Party that remained loyal to Moscow. The political leader was sentenced to 12 years in prison for plotting the tragic events of January 1991 in Vilnius.

The Communist Party has since been banned in Lithuania; nevertheless Burokevicius continued calling himself the Lithuanian communists' leader even after the sentence was pronounced.

He also renounced his Lithuanian citizenship and currently regards himself as a Russian citizen.

Burokevicius' 12-year imprisonment ends on Jan.15, while Lithuania commemorates the historical tragedy he once initiated.

Burokevicius awaits his freedom in a hospital bed, under treatment for serious health problems. The former leader has been sick for several years, and underwent coronary bypass surgery at the Vilnius Santariskes University Hospital in November.

This week the nation will remember the events of January 1991, when the Soviet army turned its weapons on a peaceful crowd of people.

Images of those civilians, gathered around buildings of strategic importance with the intention of protecting them, being shot down and run over by Soviet tanks, are for many impossible to forget.

The crowd numbered tens of thousands, and although 14 died, the effort prevented the Soviet army from storming Lithuania's Parliament and other strategic objects.

The putsch reached its climax on Jan. 13, when elite Soviet paratroopers brought in from Russia and army tanks stormed the Vilnius television tower and headquarters, killing 14 and injuring more than 700 civilians.

Alfa, the most secret brigade in the Soviet army, was brought in to take part in the massacre. Alfa had gained a name for itself in the 1970s, after the storming of the president's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, which marked the beginning of Soviet aggression in the region.

The event received minimal coverage in the international media, which at the time was transfixed by Operation Desert Storm to free Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion.

In 1996, the Vilnius regional court sentenced six defendants for their participation in the attempted coup d'etat of 1991. Thousands of victims appeared as witnesses. The reading of the verdict took three days.

Burokevicius' subordinate, Juozas Jermalavicius, a so-called ideologist of the party, received eight years for treasonous offenses, including setting up anti-state organizations and inciting the overthrow of the republic by force of arms. Four other defendants received sentences that ranged from three to six years in length.

Burokevicius and Jermalavicius were detained in Minsk in 1994.

Only six of the 51 indicted actually stood trial, as the rest were beyond the reach of Lithuanian law enforcement agencies. Most currently reside in Russia. Some are well-known figures, including the former chief of the KGB.

Jermalavicius completed his jail term in January 2002 and left for Russia shortly after his release.

In Lithuania, Jan. 13 marks the Day of Freedom Defenders 's the 15th anniversary of those tragic days 's and is celebrated with special events in Vilnius.

Bonfires will be lit outside the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament) to recreate the atmosphere of that fateful evening, when ordinary people gathered to protect Parliament from a siege by Soviet authorities. Parliament will host a round-table to discuss January 1991 events, the Cold War and the Potsdam agreements.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Union (Conservatives) and the Liberal Centrists have registered a draft resolution to be sent to Russia's Parliament, with a request to spur the government to cooperate in the so-called Jan. 13 case.

The case is still unclosed due to Russia's refusal to hand over suspects now hiding in the country.

The authors of the resolution emphasized that such crimes do not fall under the legal limits, and the case remains unclosed.