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Lithuania Modern History

The political repression during the Soviet era (1944–1990) created a strong national resistance in Lithuania. In the late 1980s, the Lithuanian Communist leaders broke with the mother party in Moscow. Lithuania became the first of the Soviet sub-republics in 1990 to declare independence from the Soviet Union. In 1991, the new state was recognized by the outside world. The country has subsequently struggled through difficult economic times. Right and left have switched to power, but political agreement prevailed over Lithuania's entry into the EU and NATO in 2004.

In 1944, Soviet troops entered and occupied Lithuania occupied by Nazi Germany. The area again became a Soviet republic, where the Communist Party had all power and the opposition was stifled. From 1949 to 1952, a forced collectivization of agriculture was carried out through terror, executions and deportations. A total of over 130,000 people are estimated to have been deported from Lithuania to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union during the years 1940–1953 (see also Older History). At the same time, partisans, the so-called forest brothers, made armed resistance to the Soviet power in a guerrilla war that claimed over 20,000 Lithuanians' lives.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Lithuania. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The severe repression was ruled from Moscow with the help of Antanas Sniečkus, who led the Lithuanian Communist Party until 1974. After the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953, politics was to some extent nationalized. During Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's experiment with autonomous economic regions in the early 1960s, Lithuania's road network and service sector were expanded. An industrial plan for the region was also drawn up. The electronic and mechanical manufacturing industry was advanced by Soviet dimensions.

Contemporary History of LithuaniaHowever, Lithuania was still part of the centrally planned Soviet economy, and agriculture focused on meat and dairy production for Russian cities. From the 1960s the standard of living in Lithuania was significantly above the Soviet average, but the forced isolation from the outside world left deep marks on society, both culturally and politically and economically.

The Popular Front Sąjūdis is formed

In the 1960s and 1970s, a dissident movement emerged that published underground writings. The most important writing was the chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, whose publication began in 1972. That same year, the young student Romas Kalanta burned to death in Kaunas in a political protest, followed by the first major public demonstration against the Soviet regime. The protest was turned down by the security police.

Following the arrival of Soviet leader Michail Gorbachev in 1985, a social transformation towards greater political openness and economic liberalization began in the Soviet Union. In 1987, dissident groups were allowed to demonstrate in the Baltic capitals. One year later, the Lithuanian people's front was formed Sąjūdis (Movement), which organized mass meetings. Music professor Vytautas Landsbergis became its chairman. Sajūdis gathered a number of different political groups - including members of the Communist Party - in cooperation for Lithuanian independence.

In March 1989, Sąjūdi won 36 of Lithuania's 42 seats in the election to the Soviet People's Congress. On the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbon Troop Pact (see Older History), on August 23, 1989, over one million inhabitants of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia formed a human chain from Vilnius via Riga to Tallinn with demands for freedom and independence. Sąjūdis succeeded in convincing the Lithuanian Communist Party to support the independence movement. The party's new secretary general, Algirdas Brazauskas, broke through with the Soviet parent party in December 1989. Gorbachev visited Vilnius in January 1990 but failed to get the Lithuanians to rethink.

In the election of Lithuania's highest Soviet (parliament) in the spring of 1990 - the first multi-party in the Soviet Union - supporters of Sąjūdis won. One of the founders of the national front, Kazimira Prunskienė, was appointed head of government. On March 11, 1990, Parliament adopted a Declaration of Independence, and President Landsbergis became Acting Head of State. The outside world did not recognize independence, and Lithuania was subject to an economic blockade from the Soviet Union.

Independence is recognized by the outside world

In January 1991, the TV tower in Vilnius was stormed by Soviet special forces. Of the thousands of unarmed people who guarded the building, 13 were killed and hundreds injured. The storm was a coup attempt to prevent Lithuania's exit from the Soviet Union, but it was interrupted after protests from the western world and from Russian Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin. In a referendum a month later, a large majority of Lithuanians said yes to full independence. Following a failed coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991, Lithuania's independence was recognized by the outside world, including the Soviet Union, and Lithuania joined the UN.

The Soviet Union disbanded at the end of 1991, and the centralized economy collapsed. This led to a production breed in Lithuania. Unemployment and inflation rose rapidly with popular dissatisfaction as a result. In the 1992 parliamentary elections, Sąjūdis lost, while the reformed Communists, the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP), gained a majority of the vote and were able to form government. Sąjūdis collapsed in a number of right and center parties, of which the Conservative Confederation, with Landsbergis as its leader, became most outspoken.

In the 1993 presidential election, former communist Algirdas Brazauskas clearly won. A period of improved relations with Russia followed. The LDDP government was initially able to turn the economy around, but the situation deteriorated again with the banking crisis, bankruptcies, growing budget deficits and delayed payments of pensions and public wages as a result.

This and a series of corruption scandals within the LDDP crushed the party in the 1996 parliamentary elections, which became a revenge for Landsbergis and the Confederation of Finland. The party formed a bourgeois government coalition led by Gediminas Vagnorius with Landsbergis as the Speaker of Parliament.

Unstable governments

The 1997 presidential election was won by environmental expert Valdas Adamkus, who became a symbol of Lithuania's quest for membership in the EU and the NATO defense alliance. Adamkus had moved from Lithuania in 1944 and lived in the United States until 1996. He lacked experience of Lithuanian politics but was spotless by the political struggles that many Lithuanians were tired of. However, Adamkus soon got into power struggle with Prime Minister Vagnorius, who resigned in 1999 and was succeeded by Vilnius Mayor Rolandas Paksas.

Paksas left his post after only a few months, protesting that the state-run oil company Mažeikių Nafta was being offered to a US company without open bidding. The deal turned bad for Lithuania but was supported by President Adamkus, who wanted to keep Russian interests out of privatization (see Natural Resources and Energy).

In the wake of the Russian financial crisis (see Economic overview), the new Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius was forced into unpopular budget cuts, and his party of the Confederation of Finland voted in protest in the 2000 election. Paksas as prime minister.

In the midst of negotiations for EU membership, the government cracked down in 2001 due to disagreements over, among other things, privatizations. Paksas resigned for the second time, and President Adamkus was forced to nominate his rival Brazauskas as government leader. With his Social Democrats and Social Liberals, Brazauskas formed a coalition that proved to be unusually stable and could benefit from an upturn in the economy (see Economic overview).

Membership in the EU and NATO

Following a populist campaign, in January 2003, Paksas defeated the incumbent Head of State Adamkus. Paksas won votes in the poor countryside, where he exploited the discontent with economic injustice and with the political elite in Vilnius. He accused Adamkus of poor conditions for Lithuania in the negotiations with the EU on Lithuanian membership, but in a referendum in May 2003, 91 percent of voters said yes to EU membership.

Paksas became controversial as president. In the fall of 2003, the security service accused his employees of links to the Russian mafia. Paksas himself would have promised benefits to a disputed Russian-Lithuanian businessman in exchange for funding his presidential campaign. An infected debate followed, in which Paksas was asked to resign but refused all charges. In April 2004, the President was brought before the national court and dismissed by Parliament for violations of the Constitution and office. Parliament passed a law prohibiting Paksas from running in a new presidential election.

In the midst of the turmoil around Paksas, Lithuania joined NATO in March 2004, and in May it joined the EU. At the same time, a parliamentary report showed that the US company Williams was allowed to buy into Mažeikių Nafta oil refinery without any actual payment. The United States had exerted pressure on then-President Adamkus and warned of "strategic consequences" if Williams did not receive an agreement. Despite the report, Adamkus won the new presidential election held in June 2004.

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in the autumn of that year, the Russian-born businessman Viktor Uspaskitj, leader of the newly formed Labor Party, ran a successful campaign against corruption and with promises of increased pensions and lower heating costs for the poorest. The Labor Party won the election, followed by the Confederation of Fosterers, which made a strong comeback. Brazauska's ruling Social Democrats got their electoral support more than halved. Despite this, the experienced Brazauskas remained as head of government for a coalition with social democrats, the Labor Party, social liberals and a rural alliance.

Economic crisis and rattles

The Labor Party was forced to leave the government in 2006 following several corruption scandals. Brazauskas, who was also accused of corruption, then resigned with the rest of the government. The new prime minister, Social Democrat Gediminas Kirkilas, led a weak minority coalition, which was also blamed for corruption. The government failed to prepare for the transition to new energy sources in connection with the closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in 2009 (see Natural Resources and Energy).

The October 2008 parliamentary elections ended seven years of Social Democratic rule. The charges of corruption contributed to the fall of the government and gave success to populists. But the election was won by the Confederation of Finland, led by Andrius Kubilius, who got close to 20 percent of the vote. The newly formed populist Party for National Resurrection took 15 percent, followed by Paksa's populist Party Order and Justice. The Social Democrats came in fourth place with just over a tenth of the vote, but the electoral system with one-man constituencies (see Political system) meant that the party nevertheless became the second largest in parliament.

Kubilius formed a majority coalition with his own party, the National Resurrection Party and two small liberal parties. It became a fragile government, which included among other TV celebrities and inexperienced populists as well as rival politicians in the small parties.

In 2008, the overheated and record-expanding Baltic economies had gone into recession (see Economic overview) with falling gross domestic products (GDP). Kubilius had to take over an economy in deep crisis and was forced from the start to present an unpopular savings package. The criticism was fierce, and a protest demonstration in Vilnius in January 2009 degenerated into crows (see Calendar).

Financial Crisis

In the midst of the crisis that prevailed, this spring's presidential election gave some hope. The popular former finance minister and EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė won by more than two-thirds of the votes. When Grybauskaitė succeeded 82-year-old Adamkus, many hoped that she would be able to give the country an energy injection, which would help reverse the economic and political crisis throughout the Baltic States.

But the problems arose. The National Resurrection Party split, which weakened the government, and the party leader was dismissed by Parliament as President after accusations of mafia circuits. The budget deficit increased rapidly in 2009, a year when GDP fell by 15 percent. During fragile protests, the fragile government decided on cuts in government employees' salaries, pensions, social support and unemployment benefits. Through the savings, the government avoided being forced to make a currency devaluation and take loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There was also a problem in foreign policy. Foreign Minister Vygaudas Ušackas wanted to downplay the revelations that the US intelligence service CIA had held two secret prisons in Lithuania for interrogation of suspected international terrorists. Ušackas then ended up in conflict with President Grybauskaitė, and he also wanted to push a harder line than her against neighboring Belarus. In early 2010, the Foreign Minister was forced to resign.

The government's financial tightening has slowly pushed down the budget deficit. The target was that it would be no more than 3 percent of GDP - one of the EU's requirements for Lithuania to be included in the euro zone. But in 2010, some MPs from the government parties revolted and stopped raising the retirement age. Kubilius again came up with a new proposal adopted by Parliament the following year. This meant that the retirement age was gradually increased from 62.5 years for men and 60 years for women to 65 years for all in 2026. Despite the conflicts in the government and the protests in society, Kubilius managed to keep the coalition in power throughout the term of office, and it implemented some energy, education and anti-corruption reforms.

The Social Democrats gain government power

However, the austerity policy resulted in a loss for the government in the parliamentary elections in October 2012. The Social Democratic LSDP became the largest party and together with the Labor Party and Order and Justice received 78 of the 141 seats. Social Democrat leader Algirdas Butkevičius formed a majority government with the Social Democrats, the Labor Party, Order and Justice as well as the Election Campaign for Poles in Lithuania, which was given responsibility for the important Ministry of Energy.

However, the new government could only be formed after Parliament had asserted the criminal immunity of Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich and two of his party comrades accused of financial crime. It was President Grybauskaitė who called for action against the Labor Party to give the go-ahead to government formation.

Parallel to the election, a referendum was held on a new nuclear reactor. The vote was forced by the opposition in protest of the then bourgeois government's plans for a new reactor in Visaginas, where the large Soviet-built nuclear power plant Ignalina was previously closed (see Natural Resources and Energy). Nearly two-thirds of voters said no, despite the government's argument that the country must make itself independent of Russian energy.

However, the referendum was only advisory, and the new Prime Minister Butkevičius declared that his government would not make any hasty decisions on a new reactor. The project is still in a design stage together with a Japanese consortium.

A number of challenges

Butkevičius's government suffered from several internal weaknesses. The charge against the Labor Party was a problem for the Prime Minister, and the populist Order and Justice was an incalculable coalition partner with former President Rolandas Paksas in the leadership. In addition, the Election Campaign for Poles in Lithuania made tough demands to remain in the government. The government set up a working group with the task of reviewing the Polish minority's demands for better conditions for the minority language schools, for the right to Polish spelling of Polish names and for bilingual street signs. But the Election Campaign for Poles in Lithuania considered that the work of the group went too slowly, and the party eventually left the government in 2014.

In July 2013, former Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskitj was sentenced to four years in prison for accounting and tax offenses committed within the party. Parliamentary Vitalija Vonžutaitė from the Labor Party was sentenced to three years in prison, the party's former accountant for one year and the current party leader and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Vytautas Gapšys were fined. The Labor Party remained in government despite the judgments, but Gapšys resigned as Vice President in October 2013.

The Social Democratic Government's efforts to improve the complicated relations with Russia (see Foreign Policy and Defense) were soon shamed. The term of office was soon characterized by increased tensions with Russia, with repeated accusations of Russian attempts to influence Lithuanian public opinion through propaganda. Like its neighbors, Lithuania reacted angrily to a decision by the Russian Prosecutor's Office to investigate whether the independence of the three Baltic States in 1991 was legally valid. The government agreed that NATO station about 1,000 soldiers permanently in Lithuania to ward off what is perceived as a Russian threat.

But the government's biggest challenge was to try to curb emigration, especially from the countryside. Social and economic crisis threatened when young, well-educated people left the country and the proportion of pensioners rapidly increased.

In May 2014, Dalia Grybauskaitė was re-elected as President for a second term. In the new year 2015, Lithuania joined the euro zone and abolished its own currency. But the problems of economic inequality and unemployment persisted and led to yet another change of government after the autumn 2016 parliamentary elections.

 
 

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