This day 25 years ago some brave men were standing in the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament). They were standing to announce the independence of Lithuania, for the second time.
It did not happen in a day, it did not happen in a year, it did not happen in the decade of glasnost/perestroika – rather it was a result of the long build up of national struggle. The national conscience that grew its relentless strength from blood, suffering and oppression, through the deportation to forced labour camps in Siberia and execution of nearly 300,000 people, through a nationalisation of our Fathers’ land, through long years of being stripped of our culture and our freedoms, through the resistance fight, started by the “Forest Brothers” – some 20,000 guerilla fighters who took to the woods to fight against the soviet occupation and knowingly signed the death sentence, continued by the “silent resistance” – the underground movements, secret press and the support of the Church, and culminating in the 600km long human chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius – The Baltic Way – united, forgiving and peacefully demanding their freedom.
It did not happen in a day, it did not happen in a year, it took another several years of Russian economic blockade and its tanks rolling down our streets, it took the lives of 14 unarmed peaceful people defending the TV/Radio stations and the National Parliament in January 1991 and seven unarmed guards of the national borders; it took us two years to have the first democratic elections in the newly independent state, but another 12 years to build up our democracy to the level where we would be allowed into the European Union; it has taken us 25 years so far to build our democratic Republic of Lithuania and it will be an ongoing process for years to come.
I am writing from the UK Parliament, the very heart of British democracy; democracy that this year celebrates its 800-year anniversary. It has taken them 800 years to build the democratic State that Britain is today and yet coming to work every day I witness them in constant struggle to improve their ways, to strive for a clearer separation of powers, more government accountability, greater gender equality, a fully functioning freedom of speech and the media, you name it.
It is widely claimed that the ten countries accepted to the EU in 2004 were not ready to join the club, judging by the EU democratic standards. Back home it does not take long to spot the shortcomings – we complain about our weak politicians, the lack of any clear vision in our political parties, lack of strong and independent media, a rather non-existent civil society, the list can go on; and a lot of this is true. Complaining and being unsatisfied with our lives is a national character trait – a lot of the time it drives us forward, enabling us to achieve great heights, but most often it blinds us from appreciating just how far we have gone in those bare 25 years of freedom. It is still a long learning curve for us, but today’s Lithuania is a stable and functioning democracy, where ambitious and determined people have the freedom of speech and the ability to pursue their goals and shape their country; it is a State that is well regarded in international forums, which has managed to pull its belt and achieve the stringent requirements for entering the eurozone in 2015, which has one of the best performing economies in Europe, one of the fastest internet in the world, a competitive technology sector, well educated and culturally aware society. I will leave it there, but you get the picture.
In 1950 Juozas Lukša, the leader of the Forest Brothers, came back to his native land from Europe, where he was trying to harness support for the resistance movement, only to announce the West would not come – they were alone in their unequal fight. Yet they did not give up, but continued their fight and, even while they did not achieve independence back then, their legacy was long lasting. Sadly, not much has changed and in the shifting geopolitical situation today we, Lithuanians, suddenly start to feel alone again. Yet our determination is far from faltering.
Today for me is not a celebration of the act of signing the second declaration of independence, much more than that today is a celebration of humanity – of the power of human beings to rise above themselves, to relinquish themselves in the fight for what they truly believe in and to sacrifice themselves for others.
Many times in life I found myself wondering what I would do in a situation where I had to put my life at stake for safeguarding my identity or lose myself for a grey non-existence. One can never predict one’s actions in such a situation. I can only hope that I would live up to the memory of those who opened up the door to freedom for our small nation and whose lives and legacy I am celebrating today.