Vilnius Diary

Sean Maguire

It is ironic that the Baltic Republics will regain their independence as a result of a last act of suppression on the part of the dying dinosaur which has controlled them for over fifty years. The collapse of the coup in Moscow allowed Latvia and Estonia to make the unilateral declaration of independence that Lithuania made in March 1990. The troops withdrew from the television tower in Vilnius and the hated Interior Ministry troops, the Black Berets, retreated to barracks, where they were disarmed and guarded by other Soviet forces. Suddenly the Republics could begin to act like nations: visitors arriving at Riga and Vilnius airports without Soviet visas were greeted by smiling ladies seated at trestle tables, happy to brandish a newly-cut stamp that permitted you to enter their country.

Unfortunately for the appetite of Western television audiences, the newly-arrived correspondents, the ink still drying on their Baltic visas, failed to discover people dancing in the streets. There were no mad hooplas of joy, no exultations over victory. The Baltic Republics understand – and fear – the irony in their success. The power of Moscow evaporated, and that enabled them to seize their prize. But the lack of even a symbolic showdown makes independence intangible. The Soviet Union accepts Baltic nationhood with a gesture of weary dismissiveness but the feeling here is that this represents a temporary submission. Any feelings of joy are swamped by apprehension of what will happen when the bear comes back from licking its wounds.

I was told that the Lithuanians are not given to uncontrolled exhibitions of emotion. Their national stereotype, it was said, is imperturbability. A freedom rally was held in Vilnius’s central park a fortnight after the Moscow coup. It was billed as a political event. I found beer tents and market stalls and the scaffolding, sound systems, bright lights and electrical paraphernalia of a Western rock concert. The artists may have worn national costume but the tempo was pure MTV. This was a populist display on the part of the state. President Landsbergis spoke and went early, leaving the music to the huge crowd which kept growing right up to the final firework display. Only during the national anthem did I get the feeling that there was some connection with recent events. It was sung solemnly and without a cheer at its end.

One of the American-educated Lithuanians who run their Parliament’s press office told me she saw no need to celebrate since her people were only regaining the independence they had temporarily lost. Her attitude to the Soviets was one of nonchalant defiance. For real emotion she told me to go out to Medininkai, the border post between Lithuania and Belorussia where seven Lithuanian border guards were murdered by unknown assailants to the intense embarrassment of Gorbachev.

I went there one month after the killings. The Lithuanians showed no reticence in their grief. Men and women cried together at the makeshift shrine behind the shabby border hut where the guards had been gunned down. They sang long slow hymns and folk songs and it was hard not to become part of the communal crying. Their grief seemed to be for more than seven border guards. The depth of emotion I had looked for in joy I found in sorrow. The mourners were calling on a collective memory of the occupation of the Baltics by the Germans in World War Two and the remoulding of the region by Stalin after the Soviet ‘liberation’.

The mourning at Medininkai was an indication that the Baltic Republics are founded on a series of backward glances. They have a vision of the past but not of the future. The defiance of Soviet rule begins with the awareness of a history of imperial glory and economic power. For Lithuania, memory goes back beyond the sufferings of the last fifty years and the twenty years of independence between the wars to the years of pride under princes like Gediminas and Olgerd when the tentacles of its empire reached the Black Sea.

The absorption in history is problematic. The three Republics have never known the democratic pluralism they pay lip-service to. They utter the mantras of freedom, but it’s freedom from overlordship not the freedom to vote. Even in their between-the-wars incarnation as states they were what one commentator called ‘semi-fascist, authoritarian and nationalist regimes’. It is remarkable how little discussion there is of the future political shape of these new countries. Some of the apprehension I sensed on my arrival is the apprehension of people who do not know what lies before them.

At the moment there is more concern for establishing the symbols of nationhood. The Praesidium of the Lithuanian Parliament is discussing the design of the emblem of the knight that will appear on the national letterhead. Historically, the sword held overhead by the charging knight has been of differing lengths in different eras. The supporters of each era are still arguing with each other. Lithuania has had its own postal stamps since last year. They were printed in the West and confiscated by Soviet border guards on entering the country. It took lengthy appeals to Moscow for them to be released. The prototypes for new passports and new currencies are under discussion. The identity of nations is being constructed in acts of symbolic self-affirmation which are also gestures of puzzled self-discovery.

The future shape of political structures in the Baltics is coloured by the ease with which independence was won. In Lithuania independence has proved the votaries of all-out resistance to the Soviets right and left proponents of gradualism without anything much to say. It is hard to argue with success and President Landsbergis is the hero of the hour. It is only half-jokingly mooted that he will replace the deposed statue of Lenin on the plinth in Vilnius’s central square. Whether he will want to stand facing the now abandoned KGB building, as Lenin did, is not known.

All three Republics are beginning to discuss implementing new constitutions. At present they are operating under the terms of the constitutions of the between-the-wars states. New elections to the countries’ parliaments are proposed, but it is hard to see what political groupings would contest them. In Lithuania the nationalist movement as led by Landsbergis is outflanked to the right by a newer and younger Sajudis movement, formerly Landsbergis’s power base, preaching Ultramontane nationalism. They in turn are outflanked by the Freedom League, which is violently anti-Communist and seeks to purge all state structures of ties to the past. The victims, if such they may be called, of the political inheritance of independence are the followers of Algirdas Brazauskas. The former head of the Vilnius Communist Party, he was one of the first to break with Moscow. He created the Independent Lithuanian Communist Party and, later, the Democratic Labour Party in an attempt to show himself free of central control and then of the last taints of Communism. The ultra-nationalists use his former links with Moscow to discredit him and all believers in moderate reform. It is hard to see what options are open to the voter other than to confirm Landsbergis’s popularity in the short term.

Landsbergis’s security men model themselves on the American secret service. They wear ill-cut suits and reflector sunglasses and listen to crackly walky-talkies through tiny earpieces. They affect a panther-like alertness and carry around PVC hold-alls that probably do not contain their lunch boxes. It is particularly annoying that their way of dealing with the press is to stand in front of us with their arms stretched out across every camera lens.

The only time I bested them was at the unspontaneous Freedom rally. We had just received news that Gorbachev had said in a television interview that he would agree to the independence of the Baltic states. When I announced this, via our interpreter, to the chief of security, whose breath stank unprofessionally of vodka, he was so surprised his arm dropped and we advanced on the podgy little President whom the camera crews affectionately call ‘the Rat’. Landsbergis came down the steps from the stage with his arms full of the gladioli he had just received and his mouth full of a piece of presentation cake. I told him the glad tidings and, spraying me with crumbs, he permitted himself a little smile, but he had hardly swallowed before he leavened his words with caution. The next step, he said, is the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The catch in Baltic independence is their continued military and economic domination by their giant neighbour. No wonder the people of Riga feel a little nervous when the Soviet Army can still joyride through their streets. The capital of Latvia is the headquarters of the Soviet Army’s Baltic district and there are thousands of idle troops there who fear their prospects are as poor as those of their disenchanted brethren who were forced to leave Eastern Europe for lives of homelessness and unemployment. Thirty-four per cent of Latvia’s population is Russian, much of it consisting of the families of members of the Soviet Army past and present. They are in little hurry to leave and it is a moot point where their allegiances lie.

The destabilising effect of what Landsbergis calls the ‘alien forces’ on Baltic soil is obvious. The barricades around the Lithuanian Parliament still show no sign of coming down. The secondary effects of this insecurity are perhaps more damaging for the future. The Republics know they are negotiating the withdrawal from a position of weakness. Politically, they are in limbo. It would take more principle than most politicians are capable of not to capitalise on the current siege mentality.

There is even more potential for mischief in the question of the entitlement to vote. How do you define national citizenship in countries where minorities number millions? The problem is most delicate in Latvia and Estonia. It is said that in Estonia only those who have been on the waiting-list for a flat, and hence resident, for 16 years will be allowed to participate in the state’s privatisation of the housing stock. It is at first sight an anti-Russian move, since many immigrants from the east have arrived since the cut-off point. However the actual waiting period is over twenty years, making such a policy less discriminatory than it seems. In Latvia the Parliamentary discussion of citizenship wavers between two extremes of predictable political colouring. On the right are those who demand Kuwaiti-style purity, with nationality granted only to those who were resident in Latvia prior to 1940 and their descendants. On the left are the believers in a new national identity who wish to give shiny new passports to everyone who asks.

The leaders of the Baltic states are understandably suspicious of the commitment of some of their minorities to the new nations in which they find themselves living. The Lithuanian Government has just suspended the local governments in Polish enclaves outside Vilnius, on the grounds that some of the Polish community leaders had supported the Communist clampdown in January. There is considerable worry about what the supporters of the old Soviet system will do, deprived of the Communist Party. The Lithuanian newspapers published a government plea asking employees to work normally, implying that they feared wild-cat disruptions of industrial production and individual acts of sabotage from disenchanted Russians. More worrying are the reports from Ignalina atomic power plant about a hundred kilometres to the north-east of Vilnius. The plant’s director was sacked for his association with the Communists. The technicians are not Lithuanian and have apparently become so discouraged as no longer to care about safety at an old reactor the Lithuanians cannot afford to shut down.

Our translator was a local English teacher whose name – Ziggy – conjured up a hippy image out of keeping with his bearded professorial respectability. I asked Ziggy where his government should begin in the de-Sovietisation of his country. His eyes rolled beseechingly and his well-mannered command of language dried up. He reminded me that children in Lithuania often speak a kind of argot, dropping Lithuanian words into Russian sentence structures, linguistic confusion mirroring its political counterpart. I asked when he thought independence would make him rich. He had already showed me the silver rings he had bought in a wear-your-wealth policy that seemed his only way of building up his savings. His answer was ‘When I buy my flat.’

It was ironic to find the ghost of Mrs Thatcher stalking the Baltics in the form of plans for a property-owning democracy. The Lithuanians are promised a radical state housing sell-off that will instantly seal their allegiance to the new nation and its government and make them all trainee capitalists. It’s an ingenious way of creating wealth. The average couple will have to find 2000 roubles to make their average-sized flat their own. At current exchange rates that is about 75 US dollars. If they are lucky enough to be living in a flat in Vilnius’s beautiful old town, with its high ceilings, cornices, and a window overlooking a quiet cobbled street, they can sell to the first accommodation-hungry diplomat who arrives in town with a pocket full of Euro-currency. The lucky couple can then retire to the Lithuanian equivalent of Brighton, buying a sea-front home from a former gatekeeper at the local Communist Party headquarters who will leave for Vilnius in search of work. It’s not explained how this will combat the acute housing shortage, but then I have never been good with Lithuanian small print.

However much the Lithuanians see themselves as part of Europe and seek associate membership of the EC and trade agreements with former satellite countries in Eastern Europe, and however much Latvia and Estonia renew their historical links with the Scandinavian countries, they are all still inextricably caught up in the malaise of the Soviet Union. Raw materials come from the East and finished products go back there. The Republics do not have anything the West desperately wants and cannot therefore afford to turn their backs on the Soviet Union. It may be the source of their problems, but it could also be the solution to them.

In the short term the most promising relationship the Baltic Republics will have with the West is as a cheap tourist destination. The countryside is beautiful, the three capital cities are a bit tatty but not ruined, and all reek of the picturesque. Some things will have to change. At present it is easier to communicate with the outside world by telepathy than by telephone. Somebody other than Aeroflot will have to volunteer to fly here. Canny restaurateurs will have to be found to supplement the one decent dining place in each capital. It is not a future I am wishing on the Baltics. However they are already dealing with strange invasions from the West. It is becoming fashionable here to own a satellite dish and to sit down in the evenings to watch the world as broadcast by Sky News.