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Interviews : Vytautas Landsbergis

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Vytautas Landsbergis was born in Lithuania in 1932 to a family of noted intellectuals. During the Second World War, Lithuania was occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Nazi Germany, and once again by the USSR, which abolished Lithuania’s independence and forcibly annexed it. Landsbergis studied music and pursued a career as an educator, eventually becoming a professor of music history at the Lithuanian Academy of Music. He has written ten books on music and art history, five political books, and a book of poetry.

In 1988, Landsbergis joined other artists and intellectuals in forming the Sajudis movement, which developed to support the restoration of Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union. He was elected as chairman of the movement. Under his leadership, Sajudis quickly won broad popular support from the Lithuanian population.

In February 1989, Sajudis declared the Soviet occupation illegal and formally proclaimed its goal of restoring independence. Landsbergis was elected as a deputy to the new USSR Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1989. Sajudis won 36 of the 42 seats at stake and used their mandates to lobby for Lithuanian independence.

On August 23, 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet treaty that led to the abolition of the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their forcible incorporation into the USSR, Landbergis and the leaders of Sajudis joined with their counterpart organizations, the Rahvarinne Popular Front of Estonia and the Popular Front of Latvia, in organizing the Baltic Way demonstration. Over one million people joined hands to form a 600 kilometer long human chain across the three countries. The nonviolent protest drew worldwide attention to the Baltic nations’ quest for freedom and independence.

In the first free Lithuanian elections held in February 1990, Landsbergis was elected to the legislature. When the new legislature convened in March, Landsbergis was elected chairman (speaker) and proclaimed the reestablishment of independence. In 1990 and 1991, he served as chairman of the commission that drafted the new Lithuanian constitution. He also chaired the Lithuanian delegation for negotiations with the USSR, achieving a withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Lithuania and securing widespread international recognition of the restored Lithuanian republic. In 1993, he cofounded the Lithuanian Conservative Party – Homeland Union and was elected party chairman.

From 1992 to 1996, he served as the leader of the opposition in the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament. After his party won the 1996 elections, he served again as Chairman of the Seimas until 2000. He was an unsuccessful candidate for President in the 1997 elections.

In 2004, he was elected to the European Parliament as Lithuania joined the European Union. He was reelected in 2009.

Landsbergis has received numerous international honors for his artistic and political activities. In 2013, he received the Democracy Service Award from the National Endowment for Democracy’s for his efforts to build a stable democracy in Lithuania and to assist democratic development abroad.

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The first movement of newly established or elected leadership of Sajudis [Sajudis, meaning “movement” in Lithuanian, was a civil society organization formed in 1988 to advocate the restoration of the country’s independence from the USSR.] with Communist-- local Communist party leadership in Vilnius [the capital of Lithuania], they [the Communists] went with a proposal that we should not try to establish the mass movement of Lithuania. But we are good guys with good ideas serving the same goal as perestroika. [Perestroika, a Russian word meaning “restructuring” refers to the efforts by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the USSR’s political and economic systems.] And there are forces inside of the [Lithuanian] Communist Party wishing the same. We could be good advisors and assistants to them to do it commonly.

We-- well practically, it was me who refused such an approach, saying that, "You are not the Soviet Communist Party. You are of different links. They are hopeless retrograde Communists and influential among you. And they [the Lithuanian Communists] are more progressive. We may work with those progressive communists but fight those retrogrades; it is your choice now to choose a path. Will you go with the people?" As we like to say that we do represent people. The masses are supporting us. And our course to establish mass movement with sections, with branches covering all Lithuania was going on. There was a lot of cautiousness.

There was opposition from local Communists and so on, provocations and so on that it was not going to be stopped. So we could speak being convinced that they are with us. And then after the elections event to this People's Deputy Congress in Moscow, it was evident. 36 to 6. [Sajudis won 36 seats of Lithuania’s 42 seats in the 1989 elections to the newly established Congress of People’s Deputies.] What you can say about people's will? We are elected and given a mandate to speak on behalf of our electorate, which is a national electorate. So the communist party went to be split. And maybe they were people of realist thinking.

Very probably, they got permission from Moscow, from Gorbachev, to proclaim [a] separation from Soviet Communist Party, to save the face in people's eyes, that they are also for independence. And then when we approached already to the general elections of our new parliament-- differentiation was in wording-- was rather subtle but sufficiently clear, especially when people remembered how their behavior was a year ago, half a year ago. And if they are now claiming that they are for independence, -- what independence and when? Sajudis’ [position] was independence now. They were for independence somewhere and in good opportunities. And so the people voted for Sajudis. We had an overwhelming victory to our national parliament.

The parliament elected me to lead it. And we established our own government of-- but was established as a coalition including Communists as well, those progressive or pro-independence Communists, and of course balancing, because they were still influential. Especially some persons with the good charisma of behavior among the people, they were influential. And we wanted to get them together, to work together. 

Lithuania is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Latvia, Poland, and Russia. Approximately 83 percent of the population is ethnic Lithuanian; about 6 percent of the population is of Polish ancestry and 5 percent Russian. Nearly 80 percent are Roman Catholic.

The first Lithuanian state was established in the 13th century and by the end of the 14th century, Lithuania controlled much of Central Europe. Lithuania was joined with Poland for much of the 16th to 18th centuries, until the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Most of Lithuania became part of czarist Russia. In the 19th century, a movement to reassert national and cultural identity grew in influence.

Along with its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, modern Lithuania achieved independence after the collapse of imperial Russia in the First World War. From 1918 to 1940, Lithuania was an established and recognized state. This period of independence ended when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia fell victim to the designs of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin divided much of Central and Eastern Europe. Lithuania was occupied and annexed by the Soviets in 1940. During World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941 and killed most of the Jewish population. USSR reconquered Lithuania in 1944. In 1945, Lithuania was proclaimed the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, but many Western governments never recognized the Baltic States’ incorporation into the USSR.

Under Soviet rule, Lithuania was subject to mass deportations and efforts to stifle its culture and language. Armed resistance to the USSR was largely extinguished in the early 1950s. After Stalin’s death in 1953, some modest liberalization occurred.

Like the rest of the Soviet Union, conditions in Lithuania stagnated during the 1970s and 1980s. The elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev to General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 sparked new movements for reform. Gorbachev’s glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) policies were designed to revive the Communist system, but also unleashed efforts to bring down the Soviet Union. Much of Lithuania’s Communist Party resisted the sweeping changes being instituted by Gorbachev.

In 1988, anti-Soviet intellectual and cultural elites were joined by some pro-reform Communists in forming Sajudis (meaning “movement” in Lithuanian), in part to support Gorbachev’s efforts for reform, but also to restore Lithuanian independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, a professor of music, became chairman of Sajudis. It quickly became a mass movement, organizing a number of large demonstrations during 1988 and 1989. In February 1989, Sajudis declared the Soviet occupation illegal and formally proclaimed its goal of restoring independence. In August 1989, Lithuanian activists joined with their counterparts in Estonia and Latvia to form a human chain stretching across the three Baltic countries. An estimated 2 million people joined hands in this peaceful protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact that had consigned their countries to Soviet rule.

Candidates associated with Sajudis swept the February 1990 parliamentary elections, the first free elections held since the Soviet occupation began. On March 11, 1990, the new legislature elected Sajudis Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis as chairman of the parliament and proclaimed the reestablishment of independence. Gorbachev declared the declaration of independence illegal and began applying economic and military pressure against Lithuania. In September 1991, the Soviet Union formally recognized Lithuanian independence and the country joined the United Nations.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Lithuania underwent wrenching economic and social change, as the country privatized agriculture and industry and built a free market economy. It has held regular democratic elections since the restoration of independence, and parties have alternated in power. Lithuania, along with its Baltic neighbors, joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Lithuania earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1991) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. Since the restoration of its independence, Lithuania has become a leader in assisting democratic development in the countries of the former Soviet Union. 

More from Vytautas Landsbergis

Vytautas Landsbergis: Breaking with Moscow “Sajudis was for independence now. And so the people voted for Sajudis.” Vytautas Landsbergis: The Restoration of Lithuanian Independence “Until the Baltics are free, the Second World War is not finished.” Vytautas Landsbergis: The Struggle to Preserve Lithuania's Culture “Culture was a field of disobedience.” More + Vytautas Landsbergis: Promoting Democracy “It is a great challenge in the world today.” Vytautas Landsbergis: Reversing Hitler and Stalin's Deal How the Baltic States worked to restore their independence. Vytautas Landsbergis: The Goals of Sajudis “Let’s ask the people how they wish to live.” Vytautas Landsbergis: A Brief History Landsbergis describes his country’s history Vytautas Landsbergis: Lithuania Under Communism There were signs that changes will come and that ways may be found. Vytautas Landsbergis: John Paul II “He was indeed a great freedom fighter.” Vytautas Landsbergis: Why Intellectuals Mattered “Philosophers, writers, and musicians became the spiritual movers of those movements.” Vytautas Landsbergis: Gorbachev “Gorbachev failed.” Vytautas Landsbergis: The End of the Soviet Union “Lithuania was a freedom fighter.”