INTRODUCTION OF LITHUANIA
Lithuania (Lietuva in Lithuanian), country in northeastern Europe. Along with Latvia and Estonia, two countries to the north, Lithuania is one of the Baltic states, and the largest of the three. Vilnius, the capital and largest city of Lithuania, is located in the southeastern portion of the country near the border with Belarus.
Lithuania sits on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, across from Sweden. On its northern border is Latvia. To the east and south of the country is Belarus, while to the southwest lie Poland and Kaliningrad Oblast, an exclave (part of a country not connected to the main territory) of Russia.
The country is filled with forests, rivers, and lakes. The people are mostly ethnic Lithuanians and members of the Roman Catholic Church. They are proud of their independence, their language, and their distinct cultural traditions. Once a mostly rural populace reliant on agriculture, today Lithuania has a modern European economy.
Lithuania was once a much larger country—it also included the area that is now Belarus and much of Ukraine. It became an independent republic in 1918 but in 1940 was taken over and annexed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II ended in 1945, Lithuania remained part of the Soviet Union and was controlled by the Lithuanian Communist Party politically and economically for more than four decades. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Lithuania regained its independence. The following year the country adopted a new constitution and held its first post-Soviet democratic elections.
After independence Lithuania worked to convert its economy from a centrally controlled socialist model to a free-market system. Economic recession, inflation, and unemployment were serious problems as inefficient state-owned enterprises shut down. But the situation has steadily improved. In the early years of the 21st century Lithuania emerged as a forward-looking country, joining both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF LITHUANIA
Lithuania is a land of fertile, low-lying plains in the western and central regions and rolling hills in the eastern portion of the country. A flat coastal plain lies along the Baltic Sea. Nearly all of Lithuania’s land is less than 200 m (less than 660 ft) in elevation. About one-quarter is forested, and there are thousands of lakes in the countryside.
Lithuania is the largest of the Baltic states, with an area of about 65,300 sq km (about 25,200 sq mi), or slightly larger than West Virginia. Lithuania’s Baltic coast extends 90 km (56 mi). The southern half of the coastline is buttressed by the Curonian Spit, a long, narrow sandbar that forms an offshore lagoon.
Climate in Lithuania
The country’s climate is dominated by marine influences, but conditions are more variable in the eastern portion of the republic. In the western region the summers are cooler and the winters are milder. Average annual precipitation ranges from less than 600 mm (less than 24 in) in the center of the country to more than 850 mm (33 in) in the west. Three-fourths of the precipitation consists of rain. Fog is common. In winter, freezing rain or snowstorms can occur.
Rivers and Lakes in Lithuania
Lithuania has about 3,000 small lakes and many rivers. The country’s longest and largest river is the Nemunas (Neman), which flows north from Belarus to the center of Lithuania, and then west until it reaches the Baltic. Marshes and swamps are prevalent in Lithuania, especially in the north and west, although much of the original wetlands have been drained for agricultural purposes.
Plants and Animals in Lithuania
Lithuania’s forests are most dense in the southeast. Pine trees are found in the coastal region and the south, while oak trees predominate in the central portion of the country. Spruce, birch, black alder, and aspen are less commonly found.
Lithuania’s nature reserves support a variety of wildlife. Large mammals include moose (called elk in Europe), red and roe deer, and wild boar. Wolves, foxes, raccoons, and other mammals live in the country’s forests. Lithuania’s many birds include white storks, herons, geese, ducks, and hawks.
Natural Resources of Lithuania
Lithuania has limited natural resources. Peat (compacted, partially decayed vegetable matter) is used for fuel and mulch. Minerals include iron ore, granite, sulfates, limestone, chalk, sand, and gravel. Western Lithuania and the coastal shelf of the Baltic Sea are promising areas for the extraction of petroleum and natural gas. Amber, a fossil tree resin, is found along the Baltic shore.
Environmental Issues in Lithuania
Like many former republics of the USSR, Lithuania has a significant pollution problem. Pollutants were uncontrolled while Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, and after independence a lack of technology, equipment, and funds hampered efforts to reduce industrial emissions and to replace older, polluting equipment. Automobiles and trains, industry, and power plants release pollutants into the air. Air pollution is worst in the industrial centers of Vilnius and Kaunas. Air pollution has resulted in acid rain, which further degrades water and soil quality.
Lithuania is struggling to upgrade its sewage treatment plants, because much of the country’s surface water is contaminated with bacteria. Agricultural runoff from fertilizers and pesticides also contributes to the pollution of the country’s groundwater and many of its rivers. Contamination of rivers, in turn, pollutes the coastal areas into which the rivers empty. See also Water Pollution.
During the Soviet era, Lithuania depended almost entirely on nuclear energy for its electricity. The Ignalina nuclear plant, in the eastern part of the country, was constructed in the 1980s; its reactors are of the same design as those at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power plant, where the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred in 1986. Under pressure from the EU, Lithuanian officials agreed in 2002 to shut down the plant by the end of the decade. The EU was providing funds for the cleanup of the site.
Environmental regulations adopted in the early 1990s called for reducing pollution and monitoring it more effectively. These regulations also sought to end the government secrecy about environmental issues that characterized the Soviet era. Lithuania has ratified international agreements protecting biodiversity, the ozone layer, and wetlands. It is also party to international treaties concerning climate change and ship pollution.
PEOPLE OF LITHUANIA
According to the 2001 Lithuanian census, ethnic Lithuanians constituted about 83 percent of the country’s population. The proportion of Lithuanians increased slightly in the first years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union—many Lithuanians returned to their homeland from that country and abroad while some Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians left the country. Russians and Poles constitute the country’s largest minority groups, each accounting for roughly 7 percent of the population. Jews were the largest minority group in Lithuania before World War II (1939-1945), during which an estimated 165,000 were killed in the Holocaust.
In 1989 Lithuania passed laws allowing all people who live within its borders to apply for citizenship, regardless of ethnic origin. Most residents among the minority populations have since become citizens.
The population of Lithuania (2009 estimate) is 3,555,179, giving it a population density of 55 persons per sq km (141 persons per sq mi). Lithuania is highly urbanized, with 67 percent of the population living in urban areas. Unlike most other republics of the former USSR, the country is not dominated by a single urban center. Vilnius, the capital, is the largest city, followed by Kaunas, an industrial and commercial center, and Klaipėda, an important seaport.
Language and Religion in Lithuania
The country’s official language since 1988 has been Lithuanian, a language of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Lithuanian language is closely related to Latvian. Other languages spoken in the country include Russian and Polish.
During most of the Soviet period, religious practice and instruction were greatly limited in Lithuania and the rest of the Soviet bloc. The lifting of these restrictions in the late 1980s and the restoration of independence in 1991 stimulated a revival of religious practice. The largest denomination in the country is the Roman Catholic Church. It is followed by the Orthodox Church and various Protestant denominations.
Education in Lithuania
Lithuania has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100 percent, reflecting the high value the country places on universal education. State-run educational institutions provide free education at all levels. A number of private schools were established after the end of the Soviet era. Vilnius University (founded in 1579), located in Vilnius, is the most prestigious institution of higher learning. The Vytautas Magnus University (1922) is located in Kaunas. Klaipėda University was established in Klaipėda, along the Baltic coast, in 1991.
Arts and Culture of Lithuania
Lithuanian culture is noted for its vibrant oral tradition, consisting of folktales, legends, proverbs, and dainos (ancient songs). The country’s national literature began with the long poem Metai (“The Seasons”), by Lutheran pastor Kristijonas Donelaitis, written in the 18th century and published posthumously in 1818. Another early literary landmark is the poem Anykščiu šilelis (The Anykščiai Pine Forest), written in 1858 and 1859 by Antanas Baranauskas. For the last four decades of the 19th century the Russian tsar, concerned with nationalist uprisings, banned printing in the Lithuanian language.
Outstanding figures of the modern period of Lithuanian literature include the poet and dramatist Jonas Mačiulis, usually known by his pen name, Maironis; and Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, whose three-volume novel Altorišešely (In the Shadows of Altars, 1933) is a highly personal study of the life of a young priest that can also be read as an allegory of early 20th-century Lithuanian society. One of the principal post-World War II writers is the poet and playwright Justinas Marcinkevičius, who used a dramatic trilogy, Mindaugas, Mažvydas, and Katedra, to present an original interpretation of the interaction between the individual and society in Lithuanian history.
Later 20th-century Lithuanian writers include the playwright Kazys Saja and the poets Tomas Venclova and Judita Vaičiūnaitė. When the Soviet regime forced Venclova to emigrate in the 1970s, he moved to the United States and taught at Yale University. See Lithuanian Literature.
Lithuania holds many folk festivals each year, characterized by folk music and colorful traditional costumes. Other cultural events include ballet, theater, and opera performances. The Lithuania Chamber Orchestra, the Lithuanian National Philharmonic, and the Lithuanian State Symphony are headquartered in Vilnius. A major jazz festival is held annually in the capital. The Kaunas Chamber Orchestra and the Kaunas State Choir perform in Kaunas. Lithuania has several major museums, including the National Museum of Lithuania (founded in 1855) and the Lithuanian Art Museum (1940), both in Vilnius.
Sports are very popular in Lithuania, especially basketball. Lithuanians were often top players on Soviet national teams. Some prominent Lithuanian players have played in the National Basketball Association (NBA), including Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis. Lithuania won three straight Olympic bronze medals in basketball from 1992 to 2000. Other popular sports include soccer, cycling, tennis, and skiing.
ECONOMY OF LITHUANIA
Lithuania had a primarily agricultural economy before the USSR annexed the country in 1940. In the next 50 years the Lithuanian economy was fully integrated into the Soviet system. The Soviets abolished private ownership in agriculture, replacing it with collective or state farms. The Soviets also forced rapid urbanization by relocating workers from other parts of the USSR to Lithuania, where they staffed massive factories to produce industrial goods for the entire Soviet bloc.
The switch to a market economy in the early 1990s was abrupt and difficult. The rapid reestablishment of trade relationships following independence sent the Lithuanian economy into a recession. The gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the value of all goods and services, decreased sharply every year until 1994. Agricultural production dropped, while price deregulation and higher costs for imported energy produced massive inflation. Yet by the mid-1990s, Lithuania’s economy ranked among the better performing of those economies transitioning from the Soviet centrally planned system to a free-market system. However, economic recovery did not begin until the early 2000s. The country’s entry into the European Union (EU) in 2004 spurred economic growth.
Lithuania’s GDP in 2007 was $38.3 billion, the largest of the Baltic states. Industry, which began expanding after the initial contraction following independence, contributed 33 percent of GDP. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing together produced 5 percent. The broad services sector, which includes trade and financial activities, produced 62 percent.
A country without abundant natural resources, Lithuania possesses a highly skilled workforce and a developed infrastructure. Its strategic location is a principal economic asset, with an ice-free port on the Baltic Sea and a rail and highway system connecting it with Russia, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Lithuania
After Lithuania regained independence, the government began to return large state farms and collectives to private ownership. Lithuania has a large rural population and the agricultural sector continues to employ a large number of workers, although agriculture supplies only a small percentage of the country’s GDP. That percentage dropped steadily after independence, but EU membership was expected to give a boost to agriculture and food exports. Livestock breeding and dairy farming are the dominant agricultural activities in Lithuania. The principal crops are potatoes, grains such as barley and wheat, and sugar beets. The cutting and processing of timber plays an important role in the economy. The Lithuanian commercial fishing fleet catches mackerel, sardines, and herring.
Manufacturing and Mining in Lithuania
Manufacturing increased in economic importance after Lithuania regained independence, and the proportion it contributed to the country’s GDP rose. Many of the manufactured goods are produced for export. The most important products manufactured in Lithuania are processed foods, petroleum products, textiles and clothing, and forest products, especially wood, paper, and furniture.
Lithuania has large reserves of peat, which, after extraction, is sold for fuel and exported as a mulching product. The country also has significant supplies of materials used in construction, including limestone, gravel, and clay. Lithuania has small oil reserves. More important to its economy are pipelines that carry crude oil from Russia to Butinge, a port on the Baltic Sea, for export to Europe. A large petroleum refinery located near Butinge, at Mazeikiai, also contributes significantly to Lithuania’s economy.
Trade and Currency in Lithuania
The countries of the European Union (EU) became Lithuania’s main trading partners for both imports and exports after Lithuania joined the organization in 2004. Other important buyers of Lithuanian goods include Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Outside of the EU, Russia is the most important source of the county’s imports. Lithuania’s main exports are fuels and mineral products, electric and electronic equipment, machinery and mechanical equipment, vehicles and transportation equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs, and forest products. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia established a Baltic free trade area for agricultural goods in the late 1990s.
Lithuania is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In May 2004 the country officially joined the European Union, along with fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia.
Lithuania replaced the Russian ruble with its former national currency, the litas, in 1993. Originally fixed to the United States dollar, the litas rate was linked to the euro, the monetary unit of the European Union (EU), in 2002.
GOVERNMENT OF LITHUANIA
Lithuania is a democratic republic. According to its constitution, which was ratified in late 1992, the president is the head of state. The Lithuanian president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of five years and may serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. The president formally appoints a prime minister, the head of government, who must be approved by parliament. Members of the council of ministers are nominated by the prime minister. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into ten counties.
The highest legislative authority in Lithuania is the Seimas, or parliament, a single-chamber body whose members are elected to four-year terms. About half of the seats in the Seimas are determined by direct popular vote in single-member districts, while the remaining seats are allocated on a proportional basis to each party that receives at least 5 percent of the vote. All citizens age 18 and older may vote.
Lithuania’s judicial system, which is based on a civil law system, consists of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and district and local courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court. Its judges are appointed by the Seimas on the recommendation of the president. The Seimas also appoints the members of the Constitutional Court, which rules on the constitutionality of legislation. The president appoints all other judges, with appointments to the Court of Appeal subject to approval by the Seimas.
Lithuania is a member of the United Nations (UN) and the Council of Europe. The country became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004. Lithuania’s relations with its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, are loosely coordinated through the Baltic Assembly, a consultative intergovernmental body. Like the other Baltic states, Lithuania has declined membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of most of the former Soviet republics.
HISTORY OF LITHUANIA
The ancestors of Lithuanians came to the Baltic area most likely around 2500 BC. The first reference to them by name was in AD 1009 in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle. With the rise of the medieval lords in Germany and Russia, Lithuania was constantly subject to invasion and attempted conquest. In the 13th century, when the Teutonic Knights, a German militaristic religious order, were establishing their power, the Lithuanians resisted. The various Lithuanian tribes united to form a loose federation under pagan chieftain Mindaugas. Mindaugas was baptized as a Christian in 1251 and subsequently crowned king of Lithuania under the authority of Pope Innocent IV. In about 1260 the Lithuanians defeated the Knights’ attempt to capture Lithuanian territory. In 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated, probably by pagan Lithuanian princes, and Lithuania officially reverted to paganism.
In the 1300s Mindaugas’s successors began to expand their realm by incorporating, through conquest, Slavic lands to the east and south. Under Lithuanian ruler Gediminas, the empire was expanded in the south to include most of present-day Belarus, and Vilnius was established as the capital. Lithuanian grand duke Algirdas then expanded the Lithuanian realm east toward Moscow and south to the Black Sea. In 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila joined Lithuania in a dynastic union with Poland when he married Polish queen Jadwiga. Jogaila accepted Christianity, becoming a Roman Catholic, and was crowned Władysław II (Jagiełło), king of Poland.
Union with Poland in Lithuania
King Jagiełło and his cousin Vytautas, who became grand duke of Lithuania in 1392, led joint armed forces to decisively defeat the Teutonic Knights in 1410. Vytautas died without an heir in 1430. Beginning in 1447 the king of Poland also ruled Lithuania. In 1558 Russian tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) invaded the northern Baltic region, thereby instigating the Livonian War. With Russian expansionism posing an increasing threat, Lithuania sought stronger ties with Poland. In 1569, by the terms of the Union of Lublin, the two states formed a political union with a common legislature and a jointly elected sovereign.
The new confederated state was officially known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). Although Lithuanian autonomy was guaranteed within the union, Poland assumed a dominant role. The Lithuanian gentry adopted Polish customs and language, while the Lithuanian peasantry was forced into serfdom and converted to Christianity.
In the last years of the Livonian War, which ended with Russia’s defeat in 1583, the commonwealth gained Livonia and other territory. In 1629, however, the commonwealth was forced to cede most of Livonia to Sweden.
Russian Rule in Lithuania
Conflict with Russia resumed in the early 1600s, culminating in Russia’s devastating invasion of the commonwealth in 1654. The commonwealth began to deteriorate as a political power, and in the late 1700s the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian empires conspired to partition its territory. Poland was divided among the three empires. Lithuania was annexed by Russia, except for a small section in the southwest that was awarded to Prussia; that too went to Russia in 1815.
Under Russian rule, Lithuanians became a completely subject people. Lithuanians joined with Poles in large-scale rebellions against Russian rule in 1812, from 1830 to 1831, and in 1863, but all were harshly suppressed and resulted in increased repression of Lithuanian culture. After the 1831 revolt, the University of Vilnius was closed and the imperial government mandated that Russian be the only language taught in Lithuanian schools. From 1865 to 1904 Lithuanian could only legally be printed in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, although books printed in Latin-script Lithuanian were smuggled in from Germany.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905 (a widespread revolt for political reform), a congress of elected Lithuanian representatives demanded that the Russian government allow for Lithuanian self-government, but the demand was rejected. The revolution brought about some minor concessions, however, and restrictions on the Lithuanian language were lifted. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed and militant socialists called Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government.
Creation of Modern Lithuania in Lithuania
During World War I (1914-1918), the German army occupied Lithuania. In February 1918 Lithuanian nationalists declared Lithuania’s independence. When the war ended in November and German forces withdrew, the Lithuanian Taryba (Council) established a provisional government. The new government barely had a foothold, however, when Bolshevik forces invaded Vilnius and installed a pro-Bolshevik regime in the city. The provisional government fled to Kaunas and organized the Lithuanian National Army. The army eventually drove Bolshevik forces out of Lithuania, but in 1920 Polish forces occupied Vilnius and established a puppet government there. The Polish parliament subsequently annexed the Vilnius area.
In Kaunas, meanwhile, a Lithuanian constituent assembly was elected in April 1920, and in 1922 it approved a new constitution that officially established Lithuania as an independent republic. The new constitution, which replaced the temporary constitution of 1920, provided for a democratic system of government, including a president as head of state and a unicameral (single-chamber) parliament, or Seimas. Later in 1922, the Bolsheviks founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Two countries that today border Lithuania—Russia and Belarus (then known as Belorussia)—were among the USSR’s constituent republics.
In 1922 the Lithuanian Seimas implemented a program of land reform. Land from large estates was expropriated and redistributed among Lithuania’s peasantry. Although the land reform was initially successful, in the 1930s many peasants abandoned their farms to seek employment in the cities. In the Seimas, meanwhile, conservative and liberal factions could not reconcile their differences. On December 17, 1926, Lithuanian nationalists led by conservative statesman Antanas Smetona, working with the support of the Lithuanian army, engineered a coup d’état. All liberals and leftists were expelled from the Seimas, which then elected Smetona as president. In 1928 a new constitution was passed that formalized the new government structure in which Smetona ruled by decree.
After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Nazi Party propaganda agitated Germans to rise up against Lithuania over the territory of Memel (now Klaipėda), located on the Baltic coast. Largely Lithuanian-inhabited Memel was part of Germany before World War I, but the Allied Powers put it under Lithuanian administration after the war, and in 1923 Lithuania annexed it to gain a seaport. In March 1939 Hitler reannexed the territory to Germany.
On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland (an act that marked the outbreak of World War II) after signing a nonaggression pact with the USSR. The pact contained a secret protocol that assigned Lithuania to the German sphere of influence; however, later that month the pact was amended to add most of Lithuania to the territories assigned to the USSR. This in effect authorized the USSR to annex Lithuania. In October the Soviet government forced Lithuania to agree to a mutual-assistance treaty by which Lithuania was compelled to admit 20,000 Soviet troops into its territory. The USSR in turn granted Lithuania its historic capital of Vilnius, which Soviet troops had released from Polish occupation.
World War II Occupation in Lithuania
In June 1940 the Soviet Red Army invaded Lithuania. Smetona fled the country, and a new pro-Soviet government was installed. Only the Communist Working People’s Bloc, a party organized and led by Soviet communists, was allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections held in July. The following month Lithuania formally became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), a constituent republic of the USSR. However, the United States and other democratic powers refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation.
Despite the earlier nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941. Large-scale anti-Soviet uprisings then took place in Lithuania. Unable to contend with both the revolt and the German onslaught, Soviet forces withdrew from Lithuania. During the German occupation, Lithuanian resources were systematically pillaged and more than 200,000 Lithuanians, including an estimated 165,000 Jews, were killed. The Nazis exterminated about 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population, which had constituted the country’s largest minority group before the war (see Holocaust).
In the summer of 1944 the Soviets reoccupied most of Lithuania and reestablished it as a Soviet republic; however, the Germans held out in western Lithuania until early 1945. Under the Soviets, all noncommunist social and political organizations were prohibited. Only the Communist Party of Lithuania (CPL), a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the party that replaced the Communist Working People’s Bloc after Lithuania’s 1940 elections, was allowed to function.
Communist Control in Lithuania
In the late 1940s the Soviet regime abolished private ownership of land, and all of Lithuania’s farmland was incorporated into large state-controlled farms. The regime also closed most of Lithuania’s churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people who were openly religious. Strong resistance against the Soviet occupation lasted until 1952 and involved more than 100,000 people. Soviet officials sent as many as 350,000 Lithuanians to labor camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anticommunist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. Lithuania settled into relative calm in the mid-1950s, and most nations tacitly accepted its status as a Soviet republic.
Rapid industrialization, a high priority of Soviet economic policy, began in Lithuania in the late 1950s. The influx of workers into Lithuania’s cities transformed the traditionally agrarian society into a predominantly urbanized one. New industrial workers also included Russians and other Soviet immigrants, although Lithuania was less affected by immigration than its Baltic neighbors. Russian immigrants were at first disproportionately represented in the CPL, but in the 1950s and 1960s more Lithuanians joined the ranks of the Lithuanian party apparatus. Antanas Sniečkus, a native-born Lithuanian, continuously held the highest post of CPL first secretary from the 1940s until 1974.
In the 1960s and 1970s an extensive movement developed in Lithuania in opposition to Soviet rule. In May 1972 many Lithuanian students and workers held demonstrations in Kaunas calling for religious and political freedom. The opposition movement also began producing a number of underground anticommunist publications, including a prominent publication called The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.
In the mid- and late 1980s rapid political changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR created a new political climate that strengthened Lithuanian nationalism. In the USSR these changes resulted from the political and economic reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s calls for glasnost (Russian for “openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) led to the formation of thousands of nationalist groups throughout the USSR.
In Lithuania, a special commission was formed in 1988 to propose amendments to the republic’s constitution in order to accommodate Gorbachev’s reforms; members of the commission founded the coalition Sjūdis (the Lithuanian Movement for Reconstruction). The CPL lost its monopoly on power in 1989, as other political parties were allowed to function, and in February 1990 candidates aligned with Sjūdis won an overall majority in Lithuania’s first open parliamentary elections. The new governing coalition led the struggle for Lithuanian independence. During this period, the CPL broke with the CPSU, a move that aided the CPL’s later resurgence.
In March 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare the restoration of its independence. A public referendum overwhelmingly approved the move a year later. However, the USSR used economic, political, and military pressure to keep Lithuania within the union. Then in August 1991 the CPSU lost all credibility after a failed coup attempt by communist hard-liners in Moscow, and in September the Soviet government conceded the independence of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. All three Baltic republics were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. The USSR officially ceased to exist in December 1991.
Independence of Lithuania
The newly independent Lithuania faced many political and economic challenges. In the turbulent period following the granting of independence, the Sjūdis coalition could not maintain its political leadership. Its popularity dropped as a result of political infighting, a severe economic crisis caused by the disruption of trade ties with the former Soviet republics, and a worsening of international relations with neighboring countries, including a dispute with Latvia over sea borders.
Meanwhile, former Communist officials began to stage a political comeback in Lithuania. In early 1992 the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP), which had replaced the CLP, won a majority of seats in the Seimas. Later that year LDLP leader Algirdas Brazauskas was elected president with 60 percent of the vote. Popular support for the new LDLP government soon dipped, however, in part because the country’s transition to a market economy initially led to a decline in the standard of living.
In 1993 Lithuania became the first of the Baltic states to be free of a Russian military presence. In 1994 the country joined the Partnership for Peace program, set up by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to allow for limited military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO countries.
In late 1995 Lithuania was rocked by a major banking scandal when two of its largest commercial banks, Innovation Bank and Litimpeks Bank, were shut down by the government after the discovery of widespread embezzlement. The parliament ousted the prime minister, Adolfas Slezevičius, in early 1996 when it was revealed that he had withdrawn his personal savings from Innovation Bank two days before it closed.
President Brazauskas decided not to seek reelection in 1998. Valdas Adamkus, an ecologist who returned to the country after 50 years of living in exile in the United States, won the presidency by a narrow margin. Although nominally affiliated with the Lithuanian Center Union Party, Adamkus campaigned as an independent intent on leading Lithuania to economic success along Western lines. The government focused its efforts on economic reform and expansion, but a financial crisis in Russia in 1998 led to economic recession in Lithuania.
In 1999 President Adamkus publicly criticized the government for failing to eradicate corruption in the public sector and demanded the resignation of the prime minister. In May Rolandas Paksas, the mayor of Vilnius, was appointed as the new prime minister, but he resigned in October in protest of the privatization and sale of a Lithuanian petroleum refinery to a United States company. His successor, Andrius Kubilius, succeeded in reducing the budgetary deficit, and the Lithuanian economy began to make a modest recovery in 2000. Paskas returned as prime minister after the 2000 elections, but his coalition government fell apart a year later. He was replaced as prime minister by former president Brazauskas.
Recent Events in Lithuania
In November 2002 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invited Lithuania to become a full member, along with the other Baltic States and four other nations. The three Baltic states were the first former Soviet republics to be invited to join NATO, which was originally formed to protect Western Europe from the USSR. In December 2002 Lithuania was one of ten countries formally invited to join the European Union (EU) as part of a long-planned expansion of that organization. Lithuania entered NATO in April 2004, and it was admitted as a full member of the EU one month later.
President Adamkus was widely credited with guiding Lithuania to full membership in the EU and NATO. He was also a proponent of economic policies that brought Lithuania economic growth accompanied by low unemployment. Scoring high public approval ratings, Adamkus was widely expected to win a second term in the presidential elections, and he received a clear lead in the first round of voting in December 2002. In the runoff election in January 2003, however, former prime minister Paksas won an upset victory after waging an aggressive populist campaign.
Paksas held office for slightly more than a year. In April 2004 he was impeached and dismissed from office by Lithuania’s parliament. The charges against Paksas centered on his relationship with Yuri Borisov, a millionaire Russian businessman allegedly linked to organized crime, who helped finance Paksas’s election campaign. Under Lithuania’s constitution, Paksas was succeeded by the parliamentary speaker, Arturas Paulauskas. In the ensuing 2004 election, from which Paksas was banned, Adamkus was reelected as president. He led the country through a period of economic growth.
In the 2009 presidential elections Dalia Grybauskaite was elected in an overwhelming landslide, taking about 68 percent of the vote. She became Lithuania’s first female president. The budget commissioner of the European Union (EU), Grybauskaite ran as an independent and spent much of her campaign criticizing economic policies, although as president her only powers lie in foreign policy. Despite years of economic growth, Lithuania was caught up in the global financial crisis and was experiencing high unemployment and contraction in growth during the campaign.