True Lithuania

Restored Independent Lithuania (1990 And Beyond)

In 1990 Sąjūdis won the first free elections in Lithuania and the independence was restored on March 11th, 1990. The Soviets subsequently attempted to reimpose their control by force and the attack of January 13th, 1991 led to the deaths of 14 unarmed civilians (together with tens of thousands of others, they protected key buildings such as the Vilnius TV tower and the Supreme Council from the Russians). On July 31 of 1991, seven customs officers were killed by Russian forces on the newly established Lithuanian-Belarusian border. These attempts consolidated the Western support for the Lithuanian independence and de jure recognitions started to pour in by early 1991 (many countries, like the USA, never recognized the occupation of Lithuania and thus did not have to recognize independence). By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union completely collapsed and turned into 15 independent countries. Russians withdrew their final soldiers from Lithuania by 1993 (the first completed withdrawal in entire Eastern Europe).

Pope John Paul II in the Hill of Crosses during his 1993 visit of Lithuania. Unimaginable under the Soviet anti-religious regime merely 5 years ago this event boosted Lithuanian morale and signified regained freedom. John Paul II and the Vatican were always sympathetic to Lithuania.

Long-awaited independence brought many personal freedoms which the people had eagerly sought. This was an era of massive new churches, telenovelas and anime on prime-time TV, hip-hop, mass import of used non-Soviet cars, and the first travels to the West. Criminal news (hidden from the public in the Soviet Union) were now the first pages of a newspaper a regular reader would skim. It was easier for new ideas to gain acceptance than ever before or since.

Private property was again the norm and nationalized land was returned to former (pre-1940) owners where possible. Everybody who lived in Lithuania by the time it restored independence (1990) was allowed to get the Lithuanian citizenship (regardless of his/her ethnicity or language skills), therefore Lithuania avoided the problem of stateless people that plagued Latvia and Estonia.

Freedom euphoria was, however, joined by a hardship of economic transition. Factories that had been built for the Soviets were horribly outdated and unable to compete in the free market both due to low technology and their management not understanding things such as marketing. The inefficient system of collective agriculture has been swiftly disbanded. Only a small part of these Soviet-established businesses survived.

In the meantime, Lithuanians started new businesses in places like Gariūnai marketplace with some of these early traders now being millionaires or billionaires, like Nerijus Numavičius of VP Grupė whose Maxima supermarket chain later catapulted him into the Forbes billionaire list.

'Metal garage districts' were one of the 1990s peculiarities. Car ownership rates soared but few would drive every day or keep cars near home, having opted for such far-away garages instead. This Bing Bird's eye image taken in 2009 shows a largely abandoned 'garage city' in Vilnius which has subsequently been cleared for IKEA mall.

The early years of Lithuanian economy (1990 – 1995) had a frontier feeling with organized crime (especially extortion) burgeoning. Some people that stood in the "mafia's" way (businessmen, a journalist, prosecutors) were murdered. Only by 1995, the police was strong enough to defeat the villains; the Vilnius crime boss Boris Dekanidze was sentenced to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras served a term in prison.

By 1997 the lawless businesses gave way to modern developments, while certain key state institutions (telecommunications, passenger sea lines, oil refinement) were privatized by foreign consortiums. What started with the first skyscrapers of Vilnius in 2000 quickly expanded to other main cities. By the year 2003, Lithuania was effectively a modern society.

Outdated Šiaulių oda Soviet factory, once abandoned (left), has been transformed into modern shopping mall Bruklinas in 2007 (right). Lithuanian entrepreneurs pioneered massive shopping mall development in Eastern Europe in the 2000s. Right image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the year 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO, both memberships having been a major foreign policy goal since independence. European Union membership required an adaptation of Lithuanian laws, ushering the end of 1990-2004 libertarian Lithuania. Entrepreneurship decreased, bureaucracy replaced idealism while political correctness engulfed the freedom of speech.

Foreign policy goals in the East were less successful with Russia (also Israel and Belarus) refusing to try the Soviet war criminals now residing in these countries. After the rise of Vladimir Putin, Russia refused to recognize the Soviet occupation of Lithuania altogether claiming that the Soviet Union had “liberated Lithuania”.

The post-independence economic growth has been sweeping but the Soviet occupation left Lithuania decades behind the West (leading to lower salaries). Some Lithuanians refused to wait and opted to leave their homeland instead (primarily to the United Kingdom and Ireland). This emigration gained epic proportions after Lithuania’s admission into the European Union made it legal to settle anywhere in Western Europe. The population of Lithuania went down from 3,5 million to 3 million people in a decade between censae of years 2001 and 2011. Currently, the population of Lithuania is even smaller than that before the World War 2. Such emigration levels are unheard of anywhere outside of the countries struck by wars and disasters.

Comparison of economies (left) and populations (right) in Lithuania and Finland. Prior to 1940 Lithuania and Finland had similar histories and economies. After Soviet occupation however the Lithuanian GDP per capita amounted to merely 21% of the Finnish one but it has been steadily growing since (55% by 2013). However, the relative decline of Lithuanian population continues. Lithuanian population amounted to 83% of Finnish population in 1940, 74% in 1990 (300 000 Soviet settlers failed to compensate for the 1940-1953 genocides) and merely 57% today. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also: Top 10 post-independence sights in Lithuania

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