issue 311 - April 1999
Of the three small Baltic states, Lithuania has had the hardest time in its post-Soviet independence. It began well enough. On a wave of people power the nation confronted the riot police and slipped its Soviet bonds in 1990-91, winning the hearts of television viewers around the world and hastening the demise of the USSR. Now, however, the heady enthusiasm of the early 1990s has faded and Lithuania faces more mundane troubles: the business of building democratic institutions and a functioning economic foundation.
The capital Vilnius, with its restored Old Town and cobblestone streets, is clearly enjoying its independence. But few of Lithuanias factory workers and farmers have reaped the rewards of freedom. Geography is in part to blame. Its neighbours to the north, Latvia and Estonia, benefit from Finnish tourists and a robust sea trade. But Lithuania, wedged between Belarus, Russia and Poland, remains vulnerable to cold blasts from the east.
Relations with Moscow, however, are good perhaps the best among the Baltic states. Lithuanias Russian-speaking minority is so small that it faces few of the troubles that plague Latvia and Estonia over their treatment of ethnic Russians. But Russias collapse has hit Lithuania hard: exporters have quickly had to reorient themselves to Western Europe though this, government officials insist, will help the economy in the long run.
Last year Valdas Adamkus, a 72-year-old former US government official, was elected President by a margin of less than half of one per cent. The post may be largely ceremonial, but Lithuanians hoped Adamkus would lead them to the promised land of NATO and the European Union (EU). After his first year, however, the gentleman President concedes that both clubs will take some time to break into. Joining the EU is the countrys first goal. NATO is the moral shield, he says. But the EU is something we will feel the next day.
In the meantime, Lithuanias past still haunts its first post-Soviet decade. All the former Soviet lands are polluted with the toxic detritus of the old regime. Lenin busts may be extinct in Vilnius they even scrapped Pushkin from Pushkin Park but the struggle with the past carries on.
World War Two presents particular problems for Lithuania, as it was invaded by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and then again by the Red Army. Lithuanian volunteers who fought alongside the Nazis have staged remembrance rallies in Vilnius, and many both at home and abroad accuse them of collaborating in the Holocaust. President Adamkus has set up an international commission of historians to study the period.
A recent law has banned former KGB officers from holding many state posts. The law bears the imprimatur of independence hero Vytautas Landsbergis, now speaker of the Seimas (parliament), who makes no secret of his distaste for all things Communist.
To Landsbergis and many Lithuanians, President Adamkus who himself fought the Soviets while in his teens is just the man to bury his homelands troubled past.
Adamkus, however, knows well what his new compatriots elected him to do: to move Lithuania forward and as far West as possible.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: President Valdas Adamkus.
ECONOMY: GNP per capita $2,280 (Poland $3,230, Germany $28,870).
PEOPLE: 3.7 million.
HEALTH: Infant mortality 13 per 1,000 live births (Britain 6 per 1,000).
CULTURE: Lithuanian 83%, Russian 8%, Polish 7%, Belarusian 2%, Ukrainian 1%; with Jewish, German, Latvian and Tatar minorities.
Sources: The World Guide 1999/2000, The State of the Worlds Children 1999; The Europe Review 1997.
Never previously profiled.
99%. One thing, perhaps, for which the Lithuanians can thank the Soviet Union.
Hard as it may try to escape, the tiny nation remains deep in Russias long shadow.
The roots of democratic reform have taken hold and individual rights are guaranteed.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Professionals and workers are nearly equal in gender terms.
70 years (Russia 65). Lithuania follows Soviet tradition by providing for the retired unlike Russia.
NI star rating