The 31st of August marks Freedom Day. On this day 26 years ago, the occupation army was officially withdrawn from Lithuania, vacating nearly 500 military facilities and 65,433 hectares of Lithuanian land, Member of the Parliament Arvydas Anušauskas writes.
As early as in 1989, the Lithuanian Freedom League launched the initiative to collect signatures petitioning for the withdrawal of the occupation army, and as many as 1.65 million signatures were gathered with the assistance of the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sąjūdis.
In April 1991, the petition made the Soviet Admiral Vitalii Ivanov resort to the following threats: ‘When the territory of “independence” is gradually restricted to the territory of a “government bunker”, despite being called the Supreme Council’, ‘when a paralysis of government is approaching’, ‘similar falsifications […] have nothing to do with the aspiration for true autonomy by the hard-working Lithuanian people’. However, the failed putsch in Moscow made it quickly forget the flimflams of Soviet admirals and generals, opening up new opportunities that were seized in no time.
On 27 August 1991, the Supreme Council of Lithuania passed a Resolution on the Total Withdrawal of the USSR Armed Forces from the Republic of Lithuania. On 10 September 1991, the governmental representatives of the Baltic States and Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, USSR Minister of Defence, met in Moscow to discuss the terms and conditions for the withdrawal of the army.
The Russian side set a new condition, namely, that the withdrawal of the army from the Baltic States could be expected to start only after its withdrawal from other East European states, i.e. not earlier than in 1994. On 30 September 1991, officers of military units deployed in the so called Northern Town, (Šiaurės miestelis, a district of Vilnius) currently a vibrant urban district of Vilnius, sent an ultimatum-like statement to Vytautas Landsbergis and the USSR Minister of Defence demanding to transfer, free of charge, residential apartments to private ownership of officers and to refrain from redeploying or disbanding the military units stationed in Lithuania until 1994.
At the meeting of the Baltic Council on 5 October 1991, the Lithuanian delegation, headed by Vytautas Landsbergis, argued that the situation of the Soviet army in the Baltic States could not be the subject of negotiations because its deployment was illegal and the negotiations would only legalise its presence.
The Baltic States agreed to adhere to the uniform principles, namely, prevent from supplementing military units with conscripts, demand the removal of troops from the national capitals (until 1 December 1991), and block the disbanding of military units on the ground. These measures had a significant impact on the composition and capabilities of the occupation army and rendered military units incapable of action.
The matter of Lithuanian citizens serving in the Soviet army had been solved even before the abovementioned events. In 1991, the Soviet army still retained 16,000 of Lithuanian citizens but they were demobilised within two weeks after the brave steps taken by Vytautas Landsbergis and his appeal to Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, Minister of Defence of the USSR. It was no secret at the time that over 1,500 Lithuanians died or were killed in the Soviet army after World War II.
Today, Lithuania still has nearly 2,000 people who have been recognised unfit for work due to the harm inflicted on them during their service in the Soviet army. Almost 1,000 widows and parents continue to receive small compensations for lost sons or husbands. Despite this, there are people who still suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome and recall the times of humiliation with open nostalgia. However, let us be under no illusion that the Stockholm Syndrome may be specific only to those who have spent a small part of their life in the Soviet army.
On 28 November 1991, Lithuania issued a law establishing that buildings and structures used by the USSR military became the property of the Republic of Lithuania. Thus, the presence of the Soviet army in Lithuania was legitimate only following the laws of the Soviet Union.
International law did not provide for any positive prescription in respect of this type of ownership, and the international law violation (occupation of Lithuania) could not have given rise to any rights for the Soviet Union. On 27 April 1992, the Supreme Council adopted a Resolution on the Announcement of the Referendum to Express the Will of Citizens on the Unconditional and Immediate Withdrawal of the Army of the Former USSR from the Territory of the Republic of Lithuania in 1992 and on the Compensation for the Damage Inflicted on Lithuania”.
Over two-thirds of eligible voters, making up 90.67 % of the turnout, cast their support votes for the withdrawal of the USSR troops from the territory of the Republic of Lithuania. Citizens who went to the polls at that time were intuitively aware that they would never receive full compensation for the damage.
The voters also included hundreds of thousands of former exiles, political prisoners and their close ones who still had deeply hidden traumatic experiences. They had been marginalised for half a century as third-class people and suffered under the burden of their painful memories, depressions and physical disorders… However, they were immune to the Stockholm Syndrome, in contrast to the children and grandchildren of the communist nomenclature that lost its autocracy.
Finally, the day came when Lithuania got rid of the occupation army! On 31 August 1993, the former occupation army, which had turned into the Russian army illegally present in Lithuania by that time, left the country.
The estimate was that the USSR military left the acquired unlawfully property worth USD 716 million, whereas the environmental damage to the former military areas amounted to as much as USD 1.78 billion. Anyway, Lithuania became the first East European state that had freed itself from the occupation army. Through their efforts resting on international law, Lithuanian citizens removed one of the main pillars of the occupation and annexation. Congratulations on the historical Freedom Day!
Arvydas Anušauskas, Member of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat Political Group of the Seimas, Member of the Seimas Commission for the Cause of Freedom and the National Historical Memory.