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By Burton Frierson
With additional reporting by Jonathan Leff in Vilnius

Dateline: VILNIUS, March 10 (Reuters)

Lithuania on Saturday celebrates 10 years since it declared independence from Moscow, a move that shocked Kremlin leaders and heralded the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.

On March 11, 1990, Lithuania's Supreme Council voted to restore the independence the Baltic state lost in 1940 under a secret Nazi-Soviet pact to carve up Eastern Europe.

Annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, Lithuania spent 50 years under communist rule and saw thousands deported to harsh Siberian labor camps or killed in Moscow-backed repressions.

Nazi Germany also occupied the country for a time during World War Two until the return of the Soviets, who rarely relaxed their grip until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

"We proposed to Mr. Gorbachev to immediately normalize relations between our states and to cleanse himself and his country of the crimes of Stalin and Hitler," independence hero and current Parliament head Vytautas Landsbergis told Reuters.

Gorbachev hoped to harness the enthusiasm of citizens under his Glasnost reforms to support his restructuring of the crumbling Soviet economy.


The plan backfired as independence movements in the Soviet republics began to test the limits of the new freedoms. The Baltics led the way, with cautious first steps but then bravely passing declarations of sovereignty in 1988 and 1989. Then Lithuania's pro-independence deputies, elected in unprecedented free elections, took the unthinkable step. Eager to make good on election promises to restore statehood, and fearing they might lose momentum and squander their only chance if Gorbachev or hardline Soviet forces attempted a crackdown, they declared full independence.

"Speaking honestly, it was the first opportunity and we used it," said Algimantas Cekuolis, a founding member of the Sajudis independence movement that Landsbergis led, and now a columnist and TV journalist. "The Communist Party of Lithuania had recently separated from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and got away with that encouraged us to do the same," Cekuolis said.

There were also worries that Moscow was preparing to pre-empt independence initiatives with new curbs on secession. "We were trying to run very fast because of news about what could happen in Moscow, where it was clear they would try to make a special decision in the Supreme Soviet to create some new obstacles," said Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who in 1990 was Sajudis's general secretary.

The declaration set in motion a chain of events that brought about the end of Soviet rule, and was met with celebrations by the Lithuanian community around the world.

"That evening we had a concert scheduled with the (American) Lithuanian community," said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, a former U.S. citizen who was then in Chicago. "Finally we got the text and I went before the crowd of 800 jubilant, screaming, crying people who were singing the national anthem," he said.

Moscow responded with an oil embargo the following month. Tears of jubilation then turned to tears of mourning when a bloody crackdown against Lithuania and the Baltics by Soviet troops in January 1991 killed 14 people in Vilnius. But the Balts held their ground, peacefully defying Red army tanks.

Finally hardliners, fed up with Gorbachev's inability to control the revolution he helped start, launched the August 1991 coup that ended in Soviet recognition of independence for the Baltics, setting them on the path toward rejoining western Europe and marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.


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