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Ex-MP's sadness for Lithuania 30 years on from Soviet independence

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Lithuania marks 30 years since its independence from the Soviet Union.
Lithuania marks 30 years since its independence from the Soviet Union.   -   Copyright  AFP
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Lithuania is still short of being "a European state", according to a former MP who helped seal its freedom from the Societ Union.

Rimvydas Valatka was speaking to Euronews to mark 30 years since putting pen to paper on Lithuania's independence act.

Valatka put his signature to the legislation on 11 March 1990 but says the Baltic state is still not wholly European.

“We’ve nearly become a European state!” he said.

“Yet it makes me sad that we can still bump into droves of anti-Semites, homophobes, various plot creators and fanatics here, as well as those who still grumble that the life under the Soviets was better than now.”

What are your most vivid recollections about March 11, 1990?

"The brightest one is this: on my way to the nearest trolleybus stop at our Parliament I felt very elevated emotionally, so I was thinking: 'Hey, Rimvydas, you have to celebrate it at home in some way, sip a glass of champagne at least.'

"But the next thought that came was this: 'Hey, but your fridge is eerily empty – forget your champagne.'

"It was pretty late, the stores were closed and if I had found one still open, I would have walked out the way I walked in – without any groceries or beverages. The Soviets’ economic embargo was in full swing – there were no goods on the shelves, but the insane striving for independence seemed more important."

How did a young journalist like you become a politician and a signatory?

"To tell the truth, by chance. Yet it was a logical, consistent aftermath on the other hand. A month and a half before the historic parliamentary election earlier in the year, I did not cherish any thoughts of becoming a member of the reconstituted Seimas (Lithuania's parliament). I was a deputy editor of the Gimtasis kraštas newspaper that was riding the high tide of popularity due to the profuse publication of articles revealing the gaping wounds of Lithuanian Communist history.

"One day, representatives of Sąjūdis — the epochal nationalist movement born with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnostj — came to see me in the editorial office and proposed to become the Sąjūdis’ candidate in the Palanga electoral district.

"My first thought was 'no'. But I swiftly changed my mind due to my disagreements with Algimantas Čekuolis, the-then chief editor of the newspaper, who would spend most of his time in Moscow. He was there as a member of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, the highest body of state authority of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991.

"I also agreed to run for a seat in the reconstituted Seimas out of huge respect for my grandfather, a big patriot of inter-war free Lithuania."

Did the January 13, 1990 massacre at the Vilnius TV Tower deter Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, from cracking down on the independence movement in March 1990?

"There was not only the massacre, but also severe economic sanctions against rebellious Lithuania, and there was the other massacre – at the Medininkai border post, where six border troopers were murdered, the seventh died of his wounds in hospital and just one of them, Tomas Šernas, miraculously survived.

"Cracking down on the Seimas, full of liberty-hungry MPs, would have turned it and the vicinities into a blood-house of unimaginable proportions. Those murdered at the TV Towers and in Medininkai are the real heroes of our independence, not the deputies, including myself, who realised the Lithuanian people’s dream to be free."

In what proportions were the following important in proclaiming independence: the Lithuanian nation’s determination to be free, the political leadership of Sąjūdis and the favourable juxtaposition of exterior forces?

"Everything that you mentioned mattered, as well as the fall of oil prices down to $8 per barrel, to some extent, and not just figuratively, US President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme also mattered, the putrefaction of the Kremlin and perhaps some other factors.

"But it was we who had to fight for independence, putting at risk our own individual freedom, livelihoods and et cetera.

What would have happened to Lithuania, if the 1991 putsch in Moscow, when Gorbachev was temporarily removed from power by the hardliners, had succeeded?

"Then, our independence would have drowned in tonnes of blood. There was no other way – either we gained independence, or were subjected to the Stalin-era slavery and atrocities. An interview definitely could not have been possible in the latter scenario.

From today’s perspective, how do you see the secession of the Lithuanian Communist Party from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1990? Was it a barely sly stride, prompted by fear to hold grips on power? Or was it a consciously perceived necessity, a prerequisite for an independent Lithuania?

"History cannot be viewed primitively, only through white and black-shade glasses. To some, it perhaps was a smart political move in order to stay in power, whereas it was a necessity for some others."

When signing the Independence Act, did you have any visions what Lithuania would look like as a free state?

"Frankly, we could not imagine what we would be doing the next day after the signing. The danger of a crackdown by the Soviets was looming over all of the signatories. To tell the truth, the majority of them were Sąjūdis people and had never been in politics before. When today somebody gruntles, saying that they have not fought for the Lithuania we see now, I feel like laughing uncontrollably – we could just indistinctly dream of a Lithuania with democracy, free speech and a new economic system enmeshed with capitalism.

"Sure, for us there was the example of neighbouring Poland. The bravest visionaries saw Lithuania becoming like Finland – a capitalist state, yet, like Poland, dependent on Russia. That we would someday be driving brand new western cars and flying from Vilnius to dozens of destinations no one could have dreamed of even in their wildest dreams.

"The Icelanders were the first to recognise Lithuania as an independent state. Indeed, there was a lot of waiting – other countries did not hurry at all to recognise it. Iceland did in nearly a year, on February 11, 1991, sending a strong message to all."

How do you explain the paradox that a considerable proportion of older people have warm feelings for the Soviet past?

"In the broad picture, senility is the worst period of life, regardless of how you look at it. Naturally, people of a venerable age reminisce about their youth spent in the Soviet system positively as the period coincided with the peak years of their virility, exuberance and activeness.

"Secondly, far from all of them were for independence. In fact, there were many naysayers, who wished only bad for the striving [for independence]. Let’s admit, there were quite a lot of people, especially in the Soviet kolkhozes (collective farms), who were sitting on the fence, awaiting what would happen next. Many poorer and less educated people in rural areas could achieve a relatively decent standard of living during the Soviet years, so the leadership of Vytautas Landsbergis, a musician by profession who had spoken bad about the kolkhozes, did irk many villagers – let’s admit it.

"To remind everyone, the birth of Sąjūdis was spearheaded by intellectuals, urbanites, so, naturally, part of the countryside people took a jaundiced view of them and the movement on the whole, as they perceived them, and the movement, as a certain threat to their livelihoods.

What horrible world event has to happen to make us lose our independence?

"There are many possible doomsday scenarios. Look, the coronavirus can wreak big-time havoc in the world, dragging down the economies, and ours as well. A cataclysmic eruption of a volcano can trigger massive ecological problems, global power outages. And can we be sure that with Putin’s powers crumbling he could resort to some horrible things to reinstate them? There are a lot of things that can harm the world, the region and us, too. However, we have the ball rolling on our side of the court and we’re keeping it firmly, so it is very much up to us whether we will be dribbling and passing the ball masterfully in the years to come."

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