Lithuania marks its night of triumph

  • 2001-01-18
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - In January 1991, the Soviet army turned their weapons on an unarmed, peaceful crowd of people who had gathered tightly around buildings of strategic importance with the intention of protecting them with their own lives. The 10th anniversary of those tragic days was commemorated on Jan 12 and 13 with speeches and concerts near the national TV and Radio Center and Parliament.

Both politicians and ordinary defenders of the Parliament, TV tower and less famous institutions spoke about their feelings. This is one of the few issues in Lithuania that doesn't give rise to a cacophony of clashing opinions and arguments.

The Lithuanian Parliament announced the re-establishment of the country's full independence on March 11, 1990. Estonia and Latvia chose a more careful path by proclaiming a transitional period toward independence.

Moscow refused to accept the outcome of the vote and attempted to overthrow Lithuania's government, which by that time controlled the state's political and economic affairs, apart from the Soviet military bases.

On Jan. 10, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued an ultimatum to Lithuania demanding that it adhere to the constitution of the Soviet Union. Lithuania refused.

On Jan. 13, 1991, Soviet tanks and elite Soviet paratroopers brought in from Pskov, Russia, occupied the TV and Radio Center and TV tower. In the turmoil, 14 people were killed, mostly young students, and more than 700 were injured. Many are still disabled.

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

It was a crowd of tens of thousands of people that prevented the Soviet army from storming the Lithuanian Parliament, said Petras Liubertas, who was vice minister of interior in January, 1991. He held in high esteem the actions of the Lithuanian police, who had stood hand in hand with other Lithuanians in that living wall of protection.

Audrius Butkevicius, general director of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in January 1991 and later defense minister, commented during the anniversary events that the Mahatma Gandhi-style non-violent defense by the Lithuanians had proved successful. Most Lithuanians agree that a partisan war would have started if the Soviets had succeeded in storming Parliament.

"The use of non-violence stopped the Soviet aggression and Lithuania managed to avoid a partisan war with potentially thousands of victims," said Butkevicius. He had ordered Lithuanian volunteer soldiers to start shooting only if the Soviet troops entered the Parliament building.

An attack on the Parliament would have caused thousands of deaths and it would have been the end of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's nice guy image. The West wouldn't have been able to pretend that nothing had happened.

"There was too much meat around Parliament," Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the Lithuanian independence movement in January 1991, quoted an unnamed Soviet officer as saying. The Lithuanian Security Service was monitoring the radio conversations of Soviet soldiers on Jan. 13, 1991.

Gorbachev's prestige suffered anyway. On Jan. 12, 2001, CNN reports from 10 years ago about the world's reaction to the massacre in Vilnius were shown on a huge screen near Parliament in Nepriklausomybes Square.

"Gorbachev is a very, very bad man," a Russian woman told a CNN reporter in broken English. A placard with the words "Gorbachev = Saddam" was carried by demonstrators near the Soviet Embassy in Warsaw. Demonstrators in Prague went a step further. They compared Gorbachev to Hitler.

"It's a war. A real war. The Soviet Union against Lithuania," Landsbergis had told CNN.

All these historical images were watched by a crowd of several thousand people who gathered around bonfires in the square as they had done 10 years before.

Norwegian journalist Hans Steinfeld was in Vilnius in early January 1991, when Soviet troops were taking one Vilnius building after other. He was also in Vilnius during the tragedy of Jan. 13.

"Two events blasted away the Warsaw Pact: the Vilnius events and the fall of the Berlin Wall," he told the magazine Antena. "Lithuania was the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union, not Latvia or Estonia."

Steinfeld's roots are in a Jewish traders' family in prewar Liepaja, in Latvia, but, he said, "Lithuania is my love."

Many journalists and politicians took the opportunity to analyze the events of Jan. 13, 1991. But it is often better to listen to the witnesses and active participants of those tumultuous days.

Bernadeta Lukoseviciute was a Lithuanian Radio journalist in January 1991. She still works there. "Jan. 13 is like roses of blood in the Vilnius snow, which is full of tank tracks," Lukoseviciute said.

Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas was the prosecutor general in January 1991. "Many believed that the Soviet tanks and paratroopers were just putting on moral pressure. But even when the Soviets started shooting and the windows of nearby houses shattered people were not afraid. Many prayed, but nobody left," Paulauskas said.

Nerijus Maliukevicius, the director of Lithuanian Radio back in January 1991, said, "Foreign journalists often ask me about Jan. 13. It's difficult to explain to them in words. Jan. 13 is in the heart."

Landsbergis, now a Conservative MP, was parliamentary chairman in January 1991. It was the highest post in the country at the time. He remembers that he asked the women to leave the Parliament. MPs and Lithuanian volunteer soldiers had already confessed their sins to a priest and were waiting for the Soviet storm.

"The women refused," Landsbergis said. The MPs urged the people gathered around the Parliament to leave on Jan. 13 because of the danger, but the crowd met this appeal by shouting "No!".

Landsbergis called for the extradition of the organizers of the Jan. 13 massacre. He said during the anniversary, "The Lithuanian-Russian treaty signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 states that Lithuania re-established its independence on March 11, 1990. The aggression of the Soviet Union against Lithuania took place a full 10 months later.

"War crimes were committed. Special off-center expanding bullets that rip a victim's body apart were used by the Soviets. These bullets are forbidden by international convention. This is material for the Hague tribunal.

"In 1992, Yeltsin told me, 'We'll extradite them all for you.' But Russia failed to do so." Landsbergis added that Soviet generals active in Vilnius in January 1991 are today Russian Duma MPs or occupy high posts in the Russian army. One is vice minister of defense in Belarus.

"When somebody asks me when they'll be extradited I answer, 'When Russia becomes a democratic state,'" Landsbergis said.

Vytenis Andriukaitis was an MP in January 1991. Now he is leader of the left-wing opposition in Parliament. "We established our state many centuries ago, but Jan. 13 is the crowning event in our desire for freedom.

"Our nation, almost four-million strong, was a single body despite any political differences. This is why the world supported us. As soon as Feb. 11, 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognize Lithuania's independence," Andriukaitis said.

Alicja Grzeskowiak was among a group of Polish senators who arrived in Vilnius several days after Jan. 13 when a second Soviet attack on the Parliament was still expected. Now she is chairperson of Poland's Senate.

In a speech at an anniversary meeting in the Lithuanian Parliament, Grzeskowiak described her feeling of solidarity at the time. "Poland was ready to give some land for a Lithuanian government in exile if an occupation of Lithuania went ahead."

In January 1991, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas was in Warsaw. He had a mandate from the Lithuanian Parliament to create a Cabinet in exile if the Soviets arrested or killed Lithuanian MPs and government members. Leon Bodd was head of Lithuania's Information Center in Oslo. He is now Lithuanian honorary consul general in Norway.

"This is a holy night," Bodd said of the anniversary. "We have to remember the people who sacrificed their lives. Lithuania was the first country to break off from the Soviet Union. Lithuania also brought freedom to other nations. It is a night of triumph."