Lithuania's 'trial of the century' implicates Soviet leader Gorbachev | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.03.2019
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Lithuania's 'trial of the century' implicates Soviet leader Gorbachev

A Vilnius court is expected to sentence ex-Soviet officials for crimes against humanity. The case has rekindled debate about the final days of the USSR and renewed the ideological tug-of-war between Lithuania and Russia.

"I prayed: 'God, if I must die, please make it quick — just one bullet!'" Irinejus Sabutis, 79, remembers that night very clearly. He was near Vilnius's television tower on the evening of January 12, 1991, while his brother had gone to the Sejmas, Lithuania's parliament, in the city center.

Like thousands of other Lithuanians, the Sabutis family had come to defend their country from an assault by Soviet troops, the culmination of a standoff that had begun on March 11, 1990. On that day, Lithuania had been the first of 15 Soviet republics to proclaim the restoration of its independence, which had been crushed 50 years earlier when the USSR occupied the Baltics. The Soviet leadership under President Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted to pressure Lithuania into submission through various economic and political means. When that failed to quell the drive for independence, the soldiers left their barracks in the north of Vilnius and started occupying government buildings. When they tried to force their way into the capital's TV center, crowds blocked the way. The troops opened fire. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds injured.

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"There were much more, many wounded," recalls Irinejus Sabutis. "Plus, the troops used tear gas to disperse the crowd. We were choking on it. It is pure luck that their commanders did not order them to storm the Sejmas — there would have been a real bloodbath there."

Pro-democracy supporters carry a banner reading 'Red Army Go Home' in Vilnius, Lithuania, in March 1991

Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to rebel in 1990, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the USSR

Sabutis and others who were out on the streets of Vilnius 28 years ago are looking forward to Wednesday, when the Lithuanian capital's regional court will pronounce a verdict and sentences in what has been dubbed the "trial of the century" here. The court has been examining the events of January 13 since early 2016. The prosecution has charged 67 people with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Gorbachev responds

Most of the defendants have stood trial in absentia, including former Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov, who is 95 and lives in Moscow. The prosecutors called for him and several other army officers to be sentenced to life in prison. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was president of the USSR at the time of the killings, may well be named an accomplice too.

The prosecutors have sought to establish whether there were official orders to use armed force in Vilnius and, if so, who issued them. They argue that the Soviet president must have called for the clampdown in Vilnius.

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Mikhail Golovatov, who commanded the KGB security agency's special forces in 1991 and is being tried in absentia, stated in a written deposition delivered by his lawyer that Mikhail Gorbachev knew everything and endorsed the dispatch of special forces to Vilnius.

Gorbachev was called as a witness in the trial, but did not answer the summons. He told DW that he "never gave on order or sanctioned in any other way the use of army units in Vilnius."

"As president of the USSR, my only position was to use all political means to preserve the unity of the country," Gorbachev said in a written response to DW. "I stress — only political means. We were ready for talks. It would have been enough for the Lithuanian leadership to suspend its independence declaration. Compromise was possible, but it was rejected."

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990

Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union at the end of December 1991

Vytautas Landsbergis, who in 1991 was chairman of the Lithuanian parliament and de facto head of state, said that reneging on the independence declaration would have been tantamount to surrender.

"From our point of view, this was an attempted coup d'etat," he told DW. "There was even a puppet government in waiting, consisting of local Communists, hastily assembled by Moscow. There was no way back for us!" Landsbergis stressed that, as commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces, Gorbachev carried full responsibility for what his troops did, whether he gave the orders or not.

'Communism on trial'

The trial has become the focus of a renewed ideological tug-of-war between Russia and Lithuania. Last year Russian authorities even opened a criminal investigation against the Lithuanian prosecutors who were part of the trial.

Moscow, where the Soviet-era historical narrative has been revived under Vladimir Putin's regime, claims that in 1940 Lithuania joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, hence the Soviet government had every right to treat its declaration of independence in 1990 as an act of secession and to use armed force to quell the rebellion.

A monument to the victims of independence stands next to the parliament building in Vilnius

A monument to the victims of independence stands next to the parliament building in Vilnius

The Lithuanians, for whom January 13 has become a date of immense historical significance, counter that the Soviet army was an occupation force and had no right to kill peaceful citizens.

"This trial is highly symbolic, not only for Lithuania," said Vytautas Landsbergis. "This is one of the very few successful legal cases where communism itself, its ideology and practices, is on trial. In a certain sense this is maybe a future example for the Russians, too."

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Who exactly gave the order to fire on civilians may not be known until the Soviet archives are fully open — and even then there may be no traces left. This makes for a gloomy perspective for one of the few defendants to stand trial in person — retired Russian Colonel Yuri Mel, one of the officers who commanded troops deployed to the TV tower. Mel was arrested in 2014 while on a private trip to Lithuania. The prosecution has asked for him to be sentenced to 16 years for crimes against humanity.

Mel has admitted that he was at the TV tower on January 13, but claims he only fired three blank rounds from his tank gun. His lawyer, Galina Kardanovskaya, has called Mel "a hostage and a victim of the political authorities," ostensibly referring to the Soviet leadership, a controversial statement for many in Lithuania.

The trial may soon be over, but the old argument about what constitutes "criminal orders" and the military's responsibility for carrying them out is bound to continue.

Lithuania’s dark past

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