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The January Events in Vilnius 25 years on

Witold Janczys / Markian Ostaptschuk / gro
January 13, 2016

On January 13, 1991, Lithuanian protesters formed a human shield to protect a radio and television center from Soviet forces in the capital Vilnius. What do Lithuanians today think of the bloodshed back then?

Television tower in Vilnius
Image: DW/W. Janczys

Lithuanians remember January 13, 1991, as the day on which more than a dozen people lost their lives for their country's independence. According to Lithuanian sources, some of the victims were crushed by Soviet tanks and others were shot to death. On that day, Lithuania abandoned the Soviet legacy and embarked on a path leading to democracy and membership in the EU and NATO.

In the course of the Soviet Union's collapse, Lithuania had re-established independence in 1990. At the beginning of 1991, Moscow demanded the restoration of the Soviet constitution and that Lithuania relinquish its independence. On January 13, 1991, pro-Kremlin forces, backed by the Soviet military, tried to take power in Lithuania, but failed. In response to the bloody events, a referendum was held in which the population confirmed its desire to split from the Soviet Union. Moscow declared the referendum null and void. But, after a failed coup attempt by communist hardliners in Moscow in August of 1991, Lithuania's independence was recognized worldwide.

Lithuania became an EU member in 2004
Lithuania became a European Union member in 2004Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

A victory for freedom

"January 13, 1991 is definitely a victorious day for Lithuania. Our country has been fortunate in the time that has passed since the events. The Republic of Lithuania has been established, we have become part of the West and that's what counts," said Rimvydas Valatka, editor-in-chief of the Lithuanian magazine "Veidas" in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

For Arvydas Anusauskas, a historian and member of the Committee on National Security and Defense in the Lithuanian parliament, January 13 is primarily a symbol of the struggle for independence. "The younger generations in Lithuania associate this day with struggle and heroism," he told DW.

Virginijus Savukynas, director of the Center for Public Policy Strategies, believes January 13 is a day of freedom but, at the same time, should also serve as a reminder that freedom must be fought for, noting that, "January 13 is also proof that freedom must be protected."

Gorbachev's role disputed

Arvydas Anusauskas is convinced that a great deal is owed to Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union at the time. According to the Lithuanian parliamentarian, he had stopped the bloodshed. "I think because of the international publicity, Gorbachev did not dare command the Soviet army to deploy a great number of troops and occupy the Lithuanian parliament. When he found out what actually happened in Vilnius, he put an end to it," said Anusauskas.

The Vilnius Memorial commemorates those killed on January 13 leading up to independence
The Vilnius Memorial commemorates those killed on January 13 leading up to independenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Unlike Anusauskas, Virginijus Savukynas is more critical of Gorbachev, saying, "It is hard to imagine that Gorbachev knew nothing about what was happening in Vilnius on the eve of January 13. His role in these events is contradictory. He did not succeed in maintaining a clean slate after what had happened," said Savukynas.

Ceslovas Laurinavicius from the Institute of Lithuanian History has yet another opinion. He thinks that there is no direct evidence that Gorbachev had ordered the storming of the television center. "The situation at that time was difficult and Gorbachev's power over the events is greatly exaggerated," said Laurinavicius.

Investigations still running

According to the Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office, a total of 14 people were killed in the tragic events involving the Soviet military's attempt to occupy the television center in the Lithuanian capital. Another 700 were badly injured, and 3,000 lightly injured. "Investigation findings have revealed that allegations can be made against 79 people, and that 66 citizens of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus have actually been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Their cases, along with the indictments, were handed over to judges. Around ten suspects are still under investigation. Three other suspects are now deceased," said Elena Martinonene, spokeswoman for the Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office.

She also stated that most of the accused reside outside Lithuania and that is why they have been put on an international wanted list. "Ukraine has been the most cooperative nation so far. Authorities in Russia and Belarus have ignored most of our requests," said Martinonene. She added that January 27 of this year has been set as the first trial date for the storming of the television center in Vilnius 25 years ago.

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