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LITHUANIA
History

Cities in LITHUANIA

Vilnius

History

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Together with Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania belongs to the Baltic States. The common ancestors migrated from the Volga region in central Russia to the Baltic region around 3000 BC. During the time of the Romans, there was a lively trade in amber with Rome.

Around 900-1100 the people split into several peoples with their own language, among others Lithuanians, Prussians, Latvians and Zemgallen. The Prussians were conquered by the "Teutonic Order" who, ironically, took over their name. Other peoples also disappeared or were absorbed into new alliances. Only the Lithuanians and the Latvians survived this ethnic tombola. A kind of Lithuanian state dates back to the early Middle Ages, but it was not until 1230 that a real Lithuanian nation emerged under Count Mindaugas. He united the various Lithuanian tribes to defend himself against the Teutonic Order. In 1251, Mindaugas converted to Christianity and in 1253 he appointed himself king of Lithuania. The nobility, however, did not agree with his policy of coexistence with the Teutonic Order and his desire to ally himself with Western European nations. Mindaugas was killed, the kingship was abolished and they fell back into paganism.

His successors focused on Slavic Eastern Europe. At this time, the seeds of the perennial geopolitical dilemma of whether to focus on Western or Eastern Europe were already present. Grand Duke Jogaila also faced this choice at the end of the 14th century. His empire stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Under pressure from the Teutonic Order, Lithuania, then a kingdom of Lithuanians and Slavs, pagans and Orthodox Christians, could no longer afford to go it alone. Jogaila chose Western Europe and to resist the Teutonic Order, which insisted, however, that it was not their intention to conquer Lithuania, but only to convert it to Christianity. Therefore, Jogaila was offered the crown of Poland, which he accepted in 1386. In exchange for the crown, he promised to convert Lithuania. Jogaila and his cousin Vyautas started this in 1387 and Lithuania was to be the last European country to renounce paganism.

In 1410, the two cousins defeated the knights of the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Tannenberg and thus halted the expansionism of the Germans. Vyautas tried to separate Lithuania from Poland again, but failed due to the resistance of the strong Polish nobility.

Polish-Lithuanian Empire and Russian domination

The bond became even stronger when in 1569 Poland and Lithuania formed a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, with Polish Kraków as its capital. This empire would last for 226 years. However, the Lithuanian political elite was dominated by the Polish nobility and the Polish church, which eventually resulted in the creation of Polish social and political institutions on Lithuanian territory. The Lithuanian language also came under pressure. In 1795, a Russian-Prussian-Austrian alliance ended Polish-Lithuanian independence and Lithuania became a Russian province. Two Polish uprisings in 1831 and 1863 to liberate Lithuania failed. The Russians eliminated any Polish influence in Lithuania and introduced various Russian social and political institutions. For example, under the tsars, Lithuanian schools were banned, Lithuanian publications in Latin script were banned, and the Roman Catholic Church was heavily suppressed. Simonas Daukantas tried to encourage the use of the Lithuanian language as much as possible.

In the end, of course, the Russians did not succeed in completely restricting the Lithuanian language and culture. In the 1880s nationalistic feelings surfaced again, especially among the intelligentsia. They initially demanded more self-government and in 1905 even complete autonomy. In 1905, there was much unrest among the population (strikes and demonstrations) throughout Russia, which also affected the Lithuanian population. After the troubles in 1905, the tsar restored the regime in Lithuania. But the call for self-government had not gone away, of course.

World War I and independence

The First World War led to the collapse of the Russian and German empires, which was, of course, very positive for Lithuania's quest for independence. The Germans still tried to have Lithuania become a German protectorate, but they were unsuccessful. On 16 February 1918 Lithuania declared itself independent and that is still the date of Independence Day. During the years 1918-1920, Lithuania successfully fought a war with Poland. However, by the end of 1920, the city and region of Vilnius was occupied by Poland and remained so until the Second World War. Lithuania then stopped all diplomatic relations with Poland until 1938. In November 1918, the Russians invaded Lithuania, but the attack was eventually repelled by the Lithuanian army. On 9 July 1920, Russian leader Lenin signed a peace agreement with Lithuania. This stated that the Russians recognised Lithuania as an independent state and would 'never' lay claim to Lithuanian territory again.

In the early 1920s, Lithuania had a border dispute with Germany. The city and region of Klaipeda (German: Memel) had been ruled by the Germans for 700 years. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the area was separated from Germany and placed under the control of France. In 1923, the Lithuanians organised a revolt and declared the region to be Lithuanian territory. These actions were not much appreciated internationally, but they did, of course, nurture Lithuanian self-respect and cultural self-esteem. The United States was the last state to recognise Lithuania as an independent state in 1922. In 1926, the socialist-populist government was deposed by the military. The new president, Antanas Smetona, turned democratic Lithuania into an authoritarian led republic. Political parties were outlawed and the press was censored.

The period 1920-1940 was characterised by rapid construction and prosperous development of the country. Land reform projects were set up and a strong currency and a sound financial policy ensured economic growth. Education also flourished, schools and universities were founded and illiteracy was thoroughly tackled. Artists and writers ensured a cultural golden age.

Second World War

On 23 August 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact. This agreement contained a secret passage in which Poland and the Baltic States were already divided between Russia and Germany. Lithuania, initially allocated to Germany, was nevertheless allocated to Russia in September 1939, still in secret. In October, the Soviet Union imposed a non-aggression pact on Lithuania and also agreed that the Soviets could station 20,000 soldiers in Lithuania. As a reward, Vilnius was added back to Lithuania.

All this was just a precursor of what was to come. On 15 June 1940, Lithuania was overrun by the Red Army. The Soviets immediately installed a pro-communist government and new elections were organised. However, these were of little significance; people could only vote for a list of candidates approved by the Soviets. On 21 July 1940, Lithuania joined the Soviet Union as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. Many countries, including the United States, strongly disapproved of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Radical political and economic changes soon followed under Soviet rule, and Stalinist terror also erupted. This terror led to the deportation of more than 30,000 Lithuanians to Siberia on 13/14 June 1941. This terror only stopped when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The next day, the Lithuanian Activist Front immediately took action and organised a revolt against the Soviets. Vilnius and Kaunas were taken and Lithuania was declared independent again

This provisional government was soon replaced by the Germans with a Lithuanian 'Vertrauensrat' led by the Lithuanian general Petras Kubiliunas. At that point, the real leaders of Lithuania went underground and an anti-Nazi movement emerged, publishing illegal newspapers, collecting weapons and organising economic boycotts. A Soviet-organised resistance group resisted more violently by, among other things, raiding German transports. In 1943, the Germans tried to set up an SS unit. Thanks to the resistance, this failed. During the German occupation, tens of thousands of Lithuanians were put to work in Germany or served in the German army. Many also died in Nazi prisons and concentration camps.

In the summer of 1944, the Soviets recaptured Lithuania; the port city of Klaipeda was not liberated until January 1945. The fugitive Antanas Smieckus, the leader of the Communist Party, returned from Moscow. However, it was not until 1952 that all of Lithuania was under Soviet control again. Armed partisans held out for a long time but eventually had to capitulate and had to mourn 20,000 to 30,000 dead. The Lithuanian economy was once again organised in the well-known Soviet centralist manner. Between 1947 and 1951, agriculture was completely collectivised. The secret service also made its presence felt again and terrorised the population. Furthermore, religion was banned (one third of the priests were deported) and deportations to Siberia were resumed.

Perestroika and independence again

In 1972, a young student, Romas Kalanta, set himself on fire. The army then had to intervene to quell an impending uprising. During the Brezhnev period (1964-1982), the Russification of Lithuania only intensified.

This changed only when Mikhael Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The process of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) in Lithuania was initially difficult due to the very conservative leaders in power at the time. But, encouraged by the events in Moscow, Baltic dissidents began to hold public demonstrations in 1987 in the capital cities of Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. In 1988, a group of communist and non-communist intellectuals formed the Sajudis movement. This movement supported Gorbachev's initiatives, but also spoke a lot about typically Lithuanian issues. They organised mass meetings in order to gain greater support among the Lithuanian population. They also wanted Lithuanian back as an official language, to hear the truth about the Stalinist period, to protect the environment and to see the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

In mid-1988, leaders of political parties also increasingly took part in the mass meetings. On 24 June 1988, Brazauskas, the party secretary for industry, attended such a meeting. In October 1988, Brazauskas became the first secretary of the party and the Sajudis movement held its official founding meeting in Vilnius. The musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis, who was not a member of the Communist Party, was elected chairman. In March-May 1989 Sagudis was very successful in the elections for the new Congress of Deputies of the Soviet Union. Of the Communists, only Brazauskas and Beriozovas were elected. From then on Brazauskas and the Sajudis movement worked together in an exemplary way. Lithuania's sovereignty was declared in May 1989 and the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union was declared illegal. In August, a human chain was formed from Tallinn to Vilnius in protest at the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty. In December Brazauskas forced the Communist Party of Lithuania to secede from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After this, the Lithuanian Communist Party rapidly took some far-reaching measures: in December 1989, the monopoly of the Communist Party of Lithuania was ended and the multi-party system was introduced.

The central government in Moscow continued to criticise the call for independence, but in January 1990 it granted financial and economic self-government to Lithuania, giving them control of their own industries, land, banks and natural resources, with the exception of oil and natural gas. After free elections were held in February 1990 and the Popular Front won a large two-thirds majority in the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, an official declaration of independence followed on 11 March 1990; President became Vytautas Landsbergis and Kaziemiera Prunskiene became Prime Minister.

On 11 January 1991, sections of the Soviet army stormed the radio and television building in Vilnius and briefly occupied it. A few days later, the central government in Moscow denied any involvement in the army's actions, which left people dead and wounded. After the failed coup in Moscow at the end of August 1991, the Soviet Parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, recognised the independence of Lithuania and the other two Baltic states on 6 September, followed within a month by recognition by the United Nations.

The new state, dependent on Russian natural gas and oil, had to face higher energy prices, causing a major economic downturn. The Sajudis party lost much of its influence as a result. In October 1992, the Democratic Labour Party became the absolute winner in parliamentary elections. Vytautas Landsbergis resigned as head of state and was replaced by Algirdas Brazauskas of the Democratic Labour Party. In May 1993 Landsbergis founded a new conservative political party to succeed the defeated Sajudis. In August 1993 the last Russian troops were withdrawn from Lithuania.

In January 1994 Lithuania became the first of the former Soviet republics to join NATO's Partnership for Peace agreement. In June 1995, an Association Agreement between Lithuania and the EU came into force and, some time later, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania abolished visa requirements for nationals of the Baltic States. Economic reforms have not yet yielded significant results and the average standard of living continued to fall as a result of reform policies. Unemployment remained high, especially in rural areas. A further major problem was dependence on Russian energy supplies, which accounted for almost 30% of total Lithuanian imports. Russian price increases fuelled inflation and threatened economic growth. The failure of the Innovation Bank in December 1995 plunged the country into a political crisis when it emerged that senior government officials, including Prime Minister Slezevicius and Interior Minister Vaitiekunas, had been informed in advance and had withdrawn their bank balances in time. This banking crisis became fatal for the Lithuanian Labour Democratic Party. They lost over 60 seats and returned to parliament with 12. The big winner was the right-wing Fatherland Union of former President Landsbergis, which concluded a coalition agreement with the Christian Democrats in November 1996.

21th century

In June 2001, Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas resigned after six ministers had already resigned from his cabinet. The two-party minority government had long had serious differences of opinion on a number of socio-economic issues.

At the beginning of January 2003, ex-Prime Minister Paksas surprisingly won the presidential elections over the supposed winner, incumbent President Valdas Adamkus. The 46-year-old Paksas of the right-wing Liberal Democrats received about 55% of the votes and 76-year-old Adamkus about 44% in the second round of the election. In the first round on 22 December 2002, Adamkus received 35.1% of the vote and Paksas only 19.4%.

At the end of 2003, a parliamentary investigation was launched into the links of President Paksas and his advisers with the Russian mafia. The investigation concluded that Paksas posed a threat to national security and accused him of leaking confidential information.

The parliament was to decide on a removal procedure on 2 December, but Prime Minister Brazauskas already believed that Paksas should resign.

On 1 May 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union.

The parliamentary elections of October 2004 resulted in a victory for the Labour Party, founded only in 2003 and led by Uspaskich. The incumbent coalition of social democrats and liberals was swept away. The Labour Party received 28.6% of the votes, compared to 20% for the government coalition that still received more than half of the votes in 2000.

After the fall of the Brazauskas government in June 2006, Prime Minister Kirkilas currently governs with a coalition of four parties: the Social Democrats, the Peasant Party, the centre-left Liberal and Center Union and the Civil Democracy. As these parties together hold only 53 seats in the Seimas, it is a minority government, tolerated by the conservative opposition.

The conservative Home Union won the elections in Lithuania in October 2008. The party, which received just under 15 per cent of the vote in the previous election, rose to 18.5 per cent.

The National Resurrection Party came second with 15 per cent. The populist Law and Order Party of former President Rolandas Paksas received 13% of the vote. The big loser was the ruling Social Democrats. They remained at 12% and are now the fourth largest party in parliament. In November 2008, Andrius Kubilius, the leader of the Home Union, became prime minister of a centre-right cabinet. In May 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite won the presidential election with a 68% majority.

In October 2012, the Social Democrats won the elections and in December Algirdas Butkevicius took office as prime minister. In July 2013, Lithuania became the first Baltic state to hold EU presidency. In May 2014, Dalia Grybauskaite won the presidential election for the second time, the first time a president has been re-elected. In January 2015 Lithuania joins the Eurozone. In 2015 and 2016 NATO holds exercises in the Baltic States. In November 2016, Saulius Skvernelis becomes the new prime minister, surprisingly winning over the social democrat Butkevicius.

In June 2019, Gitanas Nauseda wins the presidential election with 66.5% of the votes, defeating the initial front-runner, the conservative former finance minister Ingrida Simonyte. In November 2020, Simonyte becomes prime minister at the head of a coalition between the conservative Homeland Union, the Lithuanian Christian Democrats and two centrist groups, the Freedom Party and the Liberal Movement.

In 2022, Lithuania will face tensions at the border due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Sources

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania : country studies
Federal Research Division, Library of Congress

McLachlan, G. / Lithuania
Bradt Publications

Williams, N. / Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
Lonely Planet,

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated March 2024
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