We have just recently commemorated the anniversary of the State of Lithuania established on 16 February 1918. Today, we celebrate when Lithuania embarked on its modern path after restoring its Independence on 11 March 1990, March 11 is the date of birth of a modern Independent Lithuania
Until this day, the period from then may be called a success story because Lithuania’s Independence has been restored without war in a peaceful, parliamentary way. The two main leading forces in the elections to the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic on 24 February 1990 were the Lithuanian reform movement Sąjūdis and the independent Lithuanian Communist Party (LCP), which had broken away from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in December 1989. Both forces were in favour of Independence, but they had different perceptions of how to achieve it.
Future of Lithuania in the electoral platforms of the Sąjūdis and the LCP in early 1990
The Sąjūdis launched its electoral campaign under the slogan ‘With Sąjūdis for Lithuania!’ predominantly promoting the idea of immediate restoration of Independence. The LCP wanted to pursue the same objectives step by step in gradual stages. As later appeared, this tactic was opted for by the neighbouring Estonia and Latvia in 1990.
The Sąjūdis platform, approved three weeks before the elections, included a pledge to restore the State of Lithuania. Regarding foreign policy, the priority was given to inter-state negotiations with Moscow on the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Lithuania; and a preference was voiced for neutrality and resumption of international diplomatic relations with the Western world. In internal policy, the platform pledged to ensure the integrity and indivisibility of the state borders and to mobilise the Lithuanian residents of all nationalities to strengthen the independent state.
Bearing in mind the presence of the Soviet army, consideration was given to the difficult task of building the national defence system; the firm establishment of the multi-party system was seen as a guarantee for democracy. The priorities of economic policy were the development of a market economy and the legalisation of private property. Among the guidelines of cultural policy, the emphasis was placed on developing and preserving the uniqueness of Lithuania’s national culture, consolidation of Lithuanian as a state language in institutions and public life, and cultural autonomy for ethnic communities.
The Sąjūdis‘ tactic, in principle, was to terminate the annexation by parliamentary means and publicly declare Lithuania as an independent state. The tasks began to fall in the following framework gradually. ‘Independence for the revived Lithuania, democracy for Independent Lithuania, and dignified life for democratic Lithuania! Democracy, Independence and prosperity are inseparable!’ the sixth edition of the Sąjūdis’ official periodical Atgimimas (Revival) announced that year.
The LCP had a different vision of its future action. The LCP began to prepare for elections only after the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, held at the end of December 1989, when the LCP withdrew from the CPSS and dissociated itself from the reactionary pro-Soviet members of the party.
The LCP election platform advocated for a free, democratic, humanist socialist state based on the rule of law and national values. The restoration of Independence, however, was seen as a process made up of gradual stages. Priority was given to sovereignty and working towards solutions for the future of Lithuania based on negotiations and agreements with Moscow.
The LCP promoted the right of self-determination of the Lithuanian nation and the importance of democracy, a multi-party system, and law enforcement’s depoliticisation. In economics, support was expressed for a market economy, partial denationalisation, and private initiative promotion.
The first democratic elections in Lithuania started on 24 February 1990. On that day, over 70 % of the people who came to vote elected 90 deputies, 72 of whom were supported by the Sąjūdis. The run-off elections continued in March and April because candidates fell short of a majority vote in some constituencies. The elections took place without major incidents or legal violations.
By 11 March 1990, 133 out of 141 parliamentary seats were filled. It was these 133 deputies who had the right to vote on the restoration of the independent State of Lithuania. Two-thirds of them became members of the Sąjūdis Club of Deputies after the elections. However, the majority were previously non-affiliated members or members of the independent LCP and other emerging political parties. These elections showed that a multi-party system began to take shape in Lithuania. After the elections, it turned out that the Parliament had a diverse ideological composition, and so did the Lithuanian society.
Parliament’s start: when to declare the restoration of Independence?
The deputies of the elected Parliament met for their first sitting on 10 March 1990. At that time, the big question was whether to hurry up or delay the declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, in the late evening on the same day, the final decision was made to declare Independence immediately.
Before promulgating the Act on the Re-establishment of Lithuania’s State on 11 March 1990, the Parliament renamed itself the Supreme Council of Lithuania. The word combination ‘the Lithuanian SSR’ ceased to exist. Soon Lithuania became a republic with Vytis as its coat of arms. The acts of covering the coat of arms of Soviet Lithuania with the Lithuanian tricolour in the parliamentary chamber and removing Soviet symbols from the exterior of the Supreme Council buildings were very symbolic and emotional moments.
Late in the evening of 11 March, an absolute majority of deputies voted for the Act on the Re-establishment of the State of Lithuania. This Act provided that the Act of Independence of 16 February 1918 and the Constituent Assembly decree of 15 May 1920 on the re-established democratic State of Lithuania comprised the State of Lithuania’s constitutional foundation and emphasised its legal continuity. This symbolically interconnected the most critical dates related to the statehood of Lithuania in the 20th century.
Various circumstances prompted the decision to urgently proclaim the restoration of Independence of the State of Lithuania on 11 March. One of them was a call from the Lithuanian diplomatic corps in the US for seizing the opportunity. Just as importantly, the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR was to begin on 12 March in Moscow. It was known that, during the Congress, Mikhail Gorbachev would be elected President of the Soviet Union and given broad powers, including the right to introduce direct rule in the Soviet republics. Lithuania was also aware of the urgent drafting of amendments to the USSR’s Constitution in Moscow to prevent the withdrawal of the Soviet republics from the USSR.
The decision to announce a restored independent State to Lithuania and the world on the evening of 11 March was a momentous breakthrough. The eyes of the world’s democratic society turned to Lithuania. Perhaps, the tactics resting on progress in stages and negotiations with Moscow would have been a more pragmatic way of declaring Independence from an economic point of view. However, proclaiming Independence on 11 March 1990 turned into a positively explosive decision giving a robust emotional impulse for other independence-aspiring nations.
On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became ‘free in letter and spirit of the law’. It achieved change through parliamentary means and embarked on the path towards real Independence.
Artūras Svarauskas, Adviser, Office of the Visitor Centre, Information and Communication Department