Mart Tarmak, Counsellor on Economic and Cultural Affairs, of the Estonian Embassy in Lithuania, last week remembered the events of January 1991, when he was entrusted an extraordinary task, Laima Lavaste wrote in lrytas.lt.
65-year-old Mr. Tarmak can see the Seimas building across the River Neris in Vilnius through his office window, which he visited 30 years ago.
The events of the 13th of January 1991 have become an inseparable part of his biography and connection with Lithuania. On that night, the Estonian diplomat managed to leave Vilnius with the powers for establishment of Lithuanian Government in emigration.
In May 1990, The Estonian Embassy was founded in Lithuania. The first Ambassador in Lithuania, who then was called the permanent representative of Estonia in Lithuania, was Mr. Tarmak.
‘I still have two certificates. One reads ‘Permanent representative of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Republic of Lithuania’, as Lithuania was declared an independent republic before Estonia. And approximately a week later, I was issued a new certificate – ‘Representative of the Republic of Estonia’.
The same photograph, the same number.
– Why at that time were you chosen for this position? – I asked the diplomat.
– The fact that I could speak Lithuanian must have played an important role. I took active participation in the Estonian political life, I was a member of the Baltic Council of National Fronts and Sąjūdis and responsible for the foreign relations of the of the National Front of Estonia, I was in contact with the founders of the Reform Movement of Lithuania, visited Lithuania frequently, participated in the meetings. Lithuania had and still has a very special place in my heart.
The then Chair of the Estonian Council of Ministers Edgar Savisaar and the future President Lennart Meri, then Minister of Foreign Affairs invited me and offered work in Lithuania. I accepted it with joy.
The Estonian Diplomatic Representation was given a small house in Turniškės (district in Vilnius), but in January 1991, my work was mainly based at the then Supreme Council.
I came to the Supreme Council carrying a briefcase only on January 11, where I stayed until the 13th of January.
I will probably remember the specific smell of battle front surrounding the Supreme Council – bonfire, tobacco, smoke, food – for the rest of my life.
Of course, I could go back to Turniškės, but I did not want to. Young men were building barricades in the corridors – they were determined to die but not to leave. We all took naps only on the chairs. I was continuously in touch with Tallinn reporting on the situation.
A feeling of war could be felt in the Supreme Council. Late evening of the 12th of January, tanks, armoured vehicles, KGB Alfa Group started moving from Šiaurės miestelis (North town, a district in Vilnius, where the Soviet army was based).
After the midnight, at around 2 a.m., shots were heard near the Television Tower, the Radio and television committee building was surrounded. The last words said by news announcer Eglė Bučelytė before the TV screens were turned off imprinted in my memory for life.
Hot debates were going on in the Supreme Council. I had the honour to take part in them too. Nobody knew what to expect.
A day before, Minister of Foreign Affairs Algirdas Saudargas left for Poland and was ready to form Lithuanian Government in emigration, if needed.
Maybe because of a rush, or not expecting the events to develop that fast, the powers of the Republic of Lithuania were not handed over to him. Government formed without them would be questionable.
Following the discussions, at around 5 o’clock in the morning the decision was made to take the powers to Warsaw urgently. But who would do that? I proposed myself.
– Why? Did you think that travelling for an Estonian abroad from Lithuanian would be safer?
– Yes, I had such thought. Vytautas Landsbergis agreed, signed the text of the empowerment created on the spot.
But how to get to Warsaw? I offered to go by my Zhiguli car which had Estonian registration number. However, it was decided that I will be accompanied by two Lithuanian security officers up to Hrodna, from where I will continue my journey by train.
I put the empowerment into a half-empty briefcase. I was also given microfilms, which I put into my trousers pocket. Mr. Landsbergis asked me to hand them over to Mr. Saudargas.
I still do not know what was in those microfilms. So, I left the Supreme Council without even a toothbrush.
I had no time to pick anything from Turniškės. I fled like a war zone without even knowing if I will come back.
Mr. Tarmak: ‘Lithuania had 30 years ago and still has a very special place in my heart’.
– Was your journey dangerous? You left for uncertainty.
– Yes, we did not even know if we will manage to break through from Vilnius that morning. We were driving without knowing what was going on.
Images from the Supreme Council – men ready to die – were stuck in my mind. I believe that the attack of this building was stopped by the head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. He realised that there would be a lot of casualties, and they were already near the Television tower.
Journey to Hrodna was quiet. We crossed the Lithuanian – Belarus border without any problem, Soviet border guards were not there. Well, Lithuania was still a part of the USSR for them.
Of course, there were lots of worries – I realised the importance of the documents I was carrying.
I took off the train in Hrodna, while the Lithuanian security officers accompanying me drove the car back to Vilnius and left it near my friend’s home in Naujininkai (district in Vilnius).
We hoped that nobody will find it there and we will put on the wrong track if someone would try to search for me.
Probably the most dangerous stage of my journey was the train stop at the Soviet-Polish border. A man without any belongings, only with a briefcase, is travelling abroad – for what purpose and what is in that briefcase?
It can be said that the powers to form the Lithuanian Government in emigration carried by me were saved by my Soviet diplomatic passport. The customs officers entered the compartment in which I was alone, looked through my passport, but did not check inside the briefcase.
I knew from my experience that the first customs officers are followed by the second group of border guards. I can still remember those minutes of waiting. I cannot say that I was fearless…
The images of the brutal occupation of the television by the Soviet Alfa group were still vivid in my mind. I was out of touch; I did not know what happened during that half day in Lithuania.
The compartment door opened, the officers walked in and greeted me … in Polish. I wanted to hug them! I was safe already, on the Polish side.
– What awaited you in Warsaw? You handed over the powers to Mr. Saudargas, but there was no need to form the Government in emigration, as the events in Lithuania took a different direction.
– Poland supported the struggle for liberation of Lithuania. The officers met me at the station and took me to Zajazd Napolenski Hotel.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Algirdas Saudargas was staying there. Lithuanian empowerment gave him more powers on his visits to foreign countries.
Finally, after three sleepless nights, I got a room, where I could have a nap and take a shower. My face was unshaved, I was increased suit.
The Poles took me to a shop to buy clothes and would not let me pay. An information centre was set in the hotel, we had a connection with Lithuania and other countries.
The Poles showed us a car through the window, which was always there: ‘It is Russian KGB. But the situation is under our control.’
I continued my work, reporting the Estonian Government about the situation.
Mart Tarmak, Counsellor on Economic and Cultural Affairs, of the Estonian Embassy in Lithuania, this week remembered the events of January 1991, when he was entrusted an extraordinary task.
– Did you inform your insiders about the mission you were travelling from Vilnius to Warsaw? Being an Estonian diplomat, you probably had to obtain consent of your government?
– Yes, before leaving I managed to make a call. It goes without saying that my mission was approved. A few weeks later, I was back to Vilnius by train, where I continued my work.
– Estonia at that time avoided bloodshed and casualties. You think, why?
– We, Estonians, have a saying: even without a drop of blood from the nose.
I cannot explain why the Interfront (movement which supported the Kremlin) members tried to make their way into the Supreme Council building but left without any violence.
Maybe the arrival of Boris Yeltsin to Estonia at that time had some influence.
– You were awarded for the completed mission 17 years later – with the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas by President Valdas Adamkus on 16 February 2008.
– Yes, but I no longer have it. After some time, all my awards were stolen from my home in Tallinn. The thief tried to sell them, but the buyer detained him, took some of the medals.
However, the thief managed to run away with the Finnish and Lithuanian medals.
– How did your professional life develop after leaving Lithuania in summer 1991?
– I work for the Estonian diplomatic service, I still have the ambassador’s rank. I was Estonian ambassador in Portugal, Morocco, Finland, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Columbia.
In February 2020, 30 years later I returned to Lithuania. My term of office will end in 2023. Lithuania has always had a special place in my heart.
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