Page last updated at 22:19 GMT, Saturday, 26 June 2010 23:19 UK

Obituary: Algirdas Brazauskas

Algirdas Brazauskas
A cautious reformer who understood the demands for independence

Algirdas Brazauskas became a key figure in the events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

As General Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party he broke with Moscow, a move that led to the Baltic state achieving independence for the first time in 50 years.

Algirdas Brazauskas was born on 22 September 1932 in the north eastern Lithuanian city of Rokiskis.

He graduated with a degree in civil engineering and, in the mid 1960s, became a minister in the Lithuanian government with responsibility for the construction industry.

In 1977 he became chairman of the central committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party and, in 1988, was appointed general secretary.

He had already publicly shown his sympathies for a loosening of ties with Moscow when he appeared at a rally in mid 1988 organised by Sajudis, the fledgling Lithuanian independence movement.

In his move towards increasing the liberalisation of the USSR, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had failed to take into account the aspirations for a complete split with the Soviet Union within Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia.

While Lithuanians supported Gorbachev's reforms they also wanted a return to the independence the country had enjoyed before the Soviet invasion of 1940.

Independence rally
Pro-independence rallies took place across Lithuania

Anti-Soviet demonstrations became common, with thousands of people gathering to sing Lithuanian songs in what became known as the Singing Revolution.

Brazauskas was quick to appreciate the desire for Lithuanian autonomy and to realise that there was no future for the Soviet brand of communism.

In December 1989, he announced that the Lithuanian Communist Party would split from Moscow declaring ''Either the party has to radically change itself to get closer to the people, or it must liquidate itself"

He set about purging many of the hard liners in the party and allowed the establishment of rival political groups and the opening up of economic markets.

He faced fierce opposition from many Lithuanian Communists. Thousands walked away from the party while others set up a rival group that remained loyal to Moscow.

Brazauskas campaigned fiercely in the elections of Feb 1990 but had already conceded that the Communists would lose power to the emerging independence grouping.

''I think there will be fewer Communists in the new parliament," he told one interviewer. ''But they will be better Communists.''

In the event the opposition gained 101 of the 141 seats and, a month later, Lithuania declared itself independent from the Soviet Union.

Despite the Soviet Union exerting economic pressure, and the killing of 14 non-violent protestors in Vilnius by Soviet troops in Jan 1991 a rapidly weakening regime in Moscow was unable to overturn Lithuanian independence.

Russians in Vilinius
Demonstrators confront Soviet tanks in Vilnius in 1991

In February 1992 the reformed Communist party, now renamed the Democratic Labour Party, won the parliamentary elections and Brazauskas was installed as Speaker.

He was elected as President of Lithuania in February 1993, the year that also saw the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from his country.

In 1998 Brazauskas announced he would not be seeking re-election and retired from active politics.

However, he was back in 2001 when he was elected as Prime Minister, a position he held until he stood down in 2006.

He continued to lead the Democratic Labour Party for a further 12 months and remained an influential figure until his death.

Algirdas Brazauskas was, by nature, a cautious reformer, someone who believed that the old USSR might be reconstituted as a looser federation of independent communist states.

But he was quick to realise that the tide of Lithuanian nationalism was unstoppable and, in throwing the weight of the old ruling party behind reform, successfully oversaw the transition to democracy.

Correction 1 July 2010: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to anti-Soviet demonstrations as "anti-Russian". We have also removed a reference to "nationalistic" songs.

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