On March 11, Canadian-Lithuanians in Edmonton commemorated the Republic of Lithuania’s restoration of its independence in 1990. Lithuanians were the first in the USSR to vote for freedom after over four decades of Soviet occupation.
As Russia wages war on a sovereign and democratic Ukraine, there is a pernicious narrative, retailed by both the left and right, that this invasion is somehow the fault of the US pushing NATO into states that were former Soviet vassals. It is said that the US reneged on an agreement with Moscow to allow Russia a buffer between itself and the West. Such a view is a palace fantasy; it ignores the reality that the states in question are sovereign.
They are populated by peoples who value their hard-won freedom. The US never forced NATO onto Lithuania or others. Rather Lithuanian leaders and diplomats lobbied NATO for membership. Their citizens made risky and costly transformations of their governments, economies and societies. It is worthwhile to recall the story of Lithuania’s restoration of independence because it is a story of a country’s right to choose its political path.
When the Lithuanian parliament voted overwhelmingly to restore the nation’s independence in 1990, Cold War democracies such as the US and Canada were slow to support this move that challenged the hegemony of the USSR and the world order of the day. Lithuanians and the Baltic republics were cautioned not to rock the boat — but their people had their oars in the water and they were pulling hard.
Led by a member of the arts community, not a comedian, but a professor of music and a pianist — Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuanians did not sway under Soviet pressure. Within a month of the declaration of independence, the USSR cut off oil and gas. Lithuanians did not buckle under this assault on their economy. The USSR then resorted to brute force.
Again, Lithuanians stood fast, determined to be masters of their own future. When the Soviet military attacked communication infrastructure, unarmed Lithuanian civilians gathered to defend their capital’s television tower. Soviet soldiers fired into the crowds, tanks crushed civilians, but Lithuanians stood their ground.
Only after this military violence did Western democracies begin to recognize Lithuanian sovereignty: Iceland established diplomatic relations in February 1991. Canada and the US waited until August, when Soviet hardliners staged a failed coup in an attempt to reassert control of the disintegrating empire. Only with this clear sign of the demise of the USSR did Canada and the US recognize the Lithuanian republic.
The moment they were able to, Lithuanians chose democracy — they were not deterred by oil and gas blockades or tanks. It was Lithuanians who actively pursued NATO membership, joining the alliance in 1994. A decade later, showing similar resolve, Lithuania entered the European Union.
Over the last three decades, Lithuania, alongside its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Estonia, has transformed itself into strong democracy with a vibrant and innovative economy. Lithuania pulls its weight in NATO, contributing 1.7 per cent of its GDP, even besting Canada. The US and Canada, though timid in their initial support of Baltic sovereignty, now stand behind their allies. Canadian troops are stationed in Latvia, while other NATO allies bolster Lithuanian defences.
Today, the authoritarian Russian government wants to force states on its borders to yield to its own repressive political regime. Lithuania has shown consistently that it chooses democracy, alliance with NATO, and integration with Europe. Neither Lithuania, nor its Baltic neighbours, nor Ukraine can be relegated to being pawns for larger states.
They have the right to choose their own political path. Lithuania’s story, however, should not be reduced simply to a rebuke of Russian imperialism. Lithuania’s ability to choose its political and economic path in the last 30 years is also a story of hope for the Russian people, because Lithuania’s story is one of a people that succeeded in freeing themselves from four decades of occupation by a totalitarian regime and transforming itself into a liberal democracy.
Indre Cuplinskas is the president of the Canadian Lithuanian Society of Edmonton. On March 11, 1990, she was in Lithuania and witnessed its restoration of independence.