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Saturday, 11 March, 2000, 12:13 GMT
Lithuania marks independent decade
Russian tank in Vilnius
Less than a year after Lithuania's declaration, Russian tanks moved in
By James Rodgers in Vilnius

The people of Lithuania have been celebrating the 10th anniversary of their declaration of independence from the Soviet Union - which began the process which led to the collapse of the USSR.

The ceremonies included a special session of the Lithuanian Parliament, and a colourful yet solemn flag-raising ceremony on Independence Square.

Hundreds of people crowded in behind rows of troops as the national anthem was played.


In our mentality we were never part of the Soviet Union

Petras Zapolskas, Lithuanian diplomat in Moscow
President Valdas Adamkus addressed the assembly, expressing his thanks to the signatories of the original declaration.

Their act had made the hope of a free homeland, cherished for 50 years, become a reality, he said.

The speaker and figurehead of the independence movement, Vytautas Landsbergis, recalled the hard road to freedom and, in a reference to Russia, said that good relations should never be determined by the bigger and more powerful partner.

David v Goliath

In March 1990, Lithuania's challenge to the might of Soviet power seemed unthinkably bold.

Pro-indpendence demonstration
Public support for independence was massive
The announcement caused great concern in the corridors of the Kremlin, as Moscow's leaders realised that their empire might be about to unravel.

They responded with an economic blockade in an attempt to choke the spirit of rebellion.

Less than a year later, in January 1991, Soviet troops were on the streets of the capital, Vilnius.

Fourteen people were killed and hundreds injured as special forces fought independence demonstrators.

But the desire to break free from Moscow's rule was unstoppable.

And Lithuania was the loose thread which eventually caused the entire tapestry of the USSR to unravel.

Turbulent and triumphant

Those who lived through the turbulent, but ultimately triumphant, period in their country's history have been recalling the spirit of the times.


Vilnius petrol station
Moscow imposed an economic blockade, cutting off fuel supplies
Petras Zapolskas was a history student at Vilnius University in March 1990. Now he is a diplomat at the Lithuanian embassy in Moscow.

"I remember that most of the active part of our society was ready to fight for independence," he says.

"In our mentality, we were never part of the Soviet Union."

From the Russian side too, there was a recognition that things would never be the same, as Nikolai Lashkevich, who was a correspondent for the Soviet daily, Izvestiya, recalls.

"I personally realised that Lithuania would leave the Soviet Union back in 1988 - in summer," he says.

"At that time, there were huge demonstrations, and I understood at that period that the historical process would take Lithuania onto the path of independence."

Struggle

The intervening years have not been easy.

Like most former Soviet states, Lithuania has struggled to build democracy and a free market from the ruins of totalitarian economic management.

But definite progress has been made. And Lithuania now presents full membership of the European Union and Nato as its main foreign policy goals.

Elections later this year will help to determine the direction Lithuania takes as it continues to go forward as an independent country.

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