Lithuania marks 30 years since split that doomed Soviet empire

Vilnius (AFP) –


Lithuania on Wednesday celebrated the 30th anniversary of its secession from the Soviet Union, a move that heralded the beginning of the end of the sprawling Eurasian empire.

The Lithuanian parliament voted on March 11, 1990, to restore the independent Baltic state that had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 under a secret deal with Nazi Germany.

That move, the first of its kind among the Soviet republics, launched a wave of breakaways that eventually saw the Soviet Union collapse a year later.

"Unity was the force that broke the empire," President Gitanas Nauseda told a crowd outside the parliament.

"We did not yet have passports of the Republic of Lithuania. We had just restored the name of our state and its coat of arms. But in our hearts, we already lived in a sovereign Lithuania."

The independence declaration was followed by an economic blockade and a bloody military crackdown, but Moscow finally recognised independent Lithuania in August 1991.

The Soviet Union itself was formally dissolved four months later. Lithuania firmly anchored itself in the West by joining the EU and NATO in 2004.

"Lithuania's successful defiance demonstrated to other republics that they need not bow to Moscow's pressure and bullying," Vilnius University philosopher Kestutis Girnius told AFP.

- 'Joy, love, life' -

Lithuania cancelled the traditional solemn event at the parliament's historic hall -- where the independence declaration was announced -- because of the coronavirus outbreak, but thousands of people joined outdoor events across the country.

"March 11 means everything for me: freedom, joy, love, life. Everything changed," 48-year-old Rimantas Grasys told AFP in the central city of Kaunas, as an army band played nearby.

"We won the freedom to say and do what we want. It is complicated to explain that to our kids," his wife Jolanta Grasiene, 46, said as the pair joined crowds in carrying a huge tricolour national flag -- the size of three basketball courts.

Independence hero Vytautas Landsbergis, 87, who was post-communist Lithuania's first president, did not attend after his wife died on Tuesday.

Like neighbouring Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviets during World War II and scarred by the deportation of hundreds of thousands of its people to Siberia and Central Asia in the 1940s and 1950s.

The trio remained solidly under Moscow's thumb until Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. He introduced economic and political reforms that later spiralled out of his control.

An opinion poll released on Monday by the BNS news agency showed 58 percent of Lithuanians are satisfied with the way things have gone over the last 30 years while 28 percent said they are dissatisfied.