VILNIUS - Jan. 13, 1991 is a date that Lithuanians will never forget. On that historic night, thousands of unarmed people gathered hand-in-hand to defend Vilnius' TV tower from Soviet tanks and soldiers. In the end, 13 people died and hundreds were injured. "One of the most important battles in Europe's modern history was fought and won in Vilnius 16 years ago," Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt said at a special parliamentary session commemorating the events of Jan. 13.
"If Soviet forces had triumphed during those hours in Vilnius, they would have won in Riga and Tallinn too, and that would have meant changes in Moscow. Then we would have had a completely different history."
His comments were echoed by Polish President Lech Kaczynski, whose letter to Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus was read before Parliament.
"During the days of January 1991, Lithuania proved its love of freedom and independence," Kaczynski's letter said. "The Soviet Union broke up and the whole system collapsed less than a year after the massacre in Vilnius."
Shortly before the events of Jan. 13, Lithuania had rejected an ultimatum by the Soviet Union's then-president Mikhail Gorba-chev to restore the Soviet constitution and recall the March 11 Act of Lithuania's independence.
The Baltic state's peaceful protest against Moscow attracted international recognition and widespread support for its plight. Footage of Lithuanians being run over by Soviet tanks in front of the Vilnius TV tower on Jan. 13, broadcast a day later from Latvia and then Finland, distracted the world's eyes from the war in Iraq (see Q&A Page 14) and to the Baltics' struggle for freedom. By February, several countries had officially recognized the de facto independence of Lithuania, followed by Latvia and Estonia.
It is also generally believed that the events of Jan. 13 contributed to the overwhelming vote for independence in a referendum on Feb. 9, 1991, when 90.47 percent of voters (out of an 84.73 percent turnout) voted in favor of full independence for Lithuania.
During last week's commemoration of Freedom Defenders' Day, the official title given to Jan. 13, politicians decided to raise a pertinent yet controversial subject 's Russia's compensation for the victims of that tragic night.
The idea was first put forward by the opposition Conservative party, which forwarded a draft resolution to Parliament urging the government to start negotiations with Russia over compensation for the victims of Jan. 13.
The document was originally scheduled for debate on Jan. 12, but was rejected by a majority vote. The idea, however, isn't completely dead, as a number of supporters remain.
President Valdas Adamkus, for one, said that he supports the proposal.
"Compensation is the moral duty of the state, which kept us subjugated for 50 years," Adamkus told journalists.
Yet Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas sounded a more cautious note.
"This issue may be discussed using other policies. First we should have a dialogue, but we do not have it at the moment," Kirkilas said.
In June 2000, Parliament adopted a law obliging government to start negotiations with Russia on compensation for a half-century long Soviet occupation. The damage caused to Lithuania was estimated at $20 billion by a special government commission.
Russia refused to acknowledge the demand for compensation.