On 11 March, Lithuania formally declared independence from the Soviet Union. Vytautas Landsbergis (above), a musicologist, was elected President. Gorbachev attacked the action as “illegitimate and invalid”, but was reluctant to use force to reverse it. At Malta he had agreed with Bush not to do so; Bush in return had promised to try not to make Gorbachev’s task more difficult. The president kept his public remarks on the situation low-key. The United States wanted to see the Baltic Republics gain their freedom, but relied at this point for world stability on a lasting relationship with a strong Soviet Union. It did not welcome chaos.
Many of the national movements were disturbingly extreme. Even those which were not, like the Lithuanian independence movement, displayed a lack of statesmanship and moderation in their dealings with Moscow. Lithuania’s new president was weak and inexperienced in his handling of the national demand for independence in March and April 1990. A wiser government would not have planned to station customs officials on the Soviet-Lithuanian border, where they achieved nothing sensible but constituted a serious insult to Moscow. Nor would it have allowed soldiers to desert the Soviet Army and declare their intention to join a Lithuanian one.
After fifty years of often brutal servitude, Lithuanians resented the slightest delay in obtaining their freedom; but their government failed to channel the urgency of their desires in directions which would benefit Lithuania while at the same time making it easier for other nations to move smoothly to their rightful independence. Landsbergis openly called for break-up of the Soviet Union; as a result Gorbachev was obliged to demonstrate to the Soviet military that no such thing would happen. Reality was often a stranger in the Lithuanian Parliament. ‘This is a rich country’, one member said, ‘in five years we will be a rich as Finland’. It was not Lithuania’s fault that half a century of centralised planning had made such optimism abroad.
‘Gorbachev = Stalin’ said some of the placards in Vilnius, with an equal lack of common sense. Soviet Army commanders had been ordering their men to drive provocatively through the streets of the city, and to take over public buildings with a considerable degree of brutality. It was at least a possibility that the Army was deliberately trying to increase the tension in order to weaken Gorbachev’s position. But such subtleties passed the Lithuanians and their government by. For them there was only one enemy: the Soviet Union as a whole.
It was nevertheless curious to find Western countries sympathising more with Gorbachev than with the national demands of the small Baltic states which had been illegally and unjustifiably absorbed by Stalin fifty years earlier. The West had benefited greatly from the Gorbachev effect and was anxious that he might be replaced if he appeared now to be weak. It was harder for the Lithuanians to understand this response. They had watched the West’s delight as nation after nation in the old Soviet bloc declared its independence. Now that Lithuania was doing what Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania had done the West counselled caution or watched largely in silence. There was no upsurge of international outrage when the Soviet Union placed an economic stranglehold on Lithuania. The view was that Lithuania had tried too fast for something that would come anyway if its people were patient.
In Moscow, Kremlin officials saw Lithuania as the place where they had to make a stand if they were not to lose the Ukraine as well. That would be an economic and political catastrophe from which Gorbachev would never recover. Of Landbergis, the BBC journalist, John Simpson wrote:
A charming, unworldly figure, Landsbergis is a straightforward enemy of the Soviet state as constituted since the forcible inclusion of the Baltic countries at the start of the Second World War. His political skills are negligible; he has little conception of the need to assuage the dignity and self-esteem of a great country facing humiliation. Most Western governments believe that Lithuania could singlehandedly destroy Gorbachev and perestroika unless it develops a clearer sense of the possible. Landsbergis shows no sign of doing so.