Tuesday, February 20, 2001

A decade ago, the international community trained its eyes on Vytautas Landsbergis when he stood up to Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet tanks. Today, the former Lithuanian president warns of a different kind of threat. If NATO excludes the Baltic states from the next round of NATO enlargement, argues Mr. Landsbergis, Moscow may interpret the decision as a sign from the West that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia still belong to the Russian sphere of influence.

The Baltic states were occupied and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union in June, 1940. The Russians continue to claim, on the contrary, that the Baltic states were always a legitimate and legal part of Soviet territory and thus should be strictly off limits to inclusion in the U.S.-led military alliance.

Mr. Landsbergis’ story, now told in “Lithuania: Independent Again,” is an extraordinary one. He was a quiet, mild-mannered music professor, who became president of the three million-strong republic at a time when Lithuania was squaring-off with the Soviet Union over independence. And he seemed singularly ill-suited for the task at hand. The man with no experience, no currency, precious little international support or national army faced a master politician in Mikhail Gorbachev. With four million men under arms, Mr. Gorbachev also enjoyed considerable sympathy from the West for his campaign to liberalize the Soviet Union. Would this small breakaway republic jeopardize all the progress Mr. Gorbachev was making?

Poor Mr. Landsbergis. He was “not handsome,” he was “not smooth,” he was not even “especially articulate,” one of his close colleagues told the New York Times.

He had only courage, defiance and principle on his side. It didn’t look like much. In April, 1990, the Soviets closed down the supply of natural gas and oil to Lithuania. On Jan. 13, 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius, seizing the city’s television station and surrounding the parliament building. Unarmed civilians were unable to stave-off the assault. Fourteen Lithuanians were killed as they tried to resist. Mr. Landsbergis sharply rebuked U.S. President George Bush, when Mr. Bush offered only measured criticism of Mr. Gorbachev following the deaths of the Lithuanians who tried to defend the television tower.

Mr. Landsbergis confounded the Soviet leader in negotiations. In personal contacts with Mr. Gorbachev, the Lithuanian president addressed him as Mikhail Sergeyevich, adopting the conversational style used by a respectful friend. “I wanted to demonstrate that our relationship was normal,” writes Mr. Landsbergis, “that I had no intention of building psychological barriers.” Otherwise, Mr. Landsbergis selectively used the expression “Your Excellency,” instead of the usual expression “Comrade,” a gesture that undoubtedly irritated the Soviet ruler.

On substance and detail, Mr. Landsbergis was relentless. He made it clear that he was representing the Republic of Lithuania, not the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Everything was negotiable. But he would not climb down on the question of national independence.

Mr. Landsbergis’ autobiography offers useful insight into the history of anti-Sovietism, Lithuanian nationalism and the tiny republic’s path to independence. The writer recalls from his youth his first encounters with Soviet indoctrination and intolerance. When a Lithuanian composer drafted politically unacceptable lyrics, censors promptly returned the text for revision. Mention of God was to be deleted. The reply to this overbearing insistence on conformity was an outpouring of anti-Soviet poems and literature that was stuffed into briefcases and backpacks and read by Mr. Landsbergis and his friends with great relish.

Mr. Landsbergis recounts many details of Soviet oppression including the sad story of Pavlik Morozov, who turned his father over to the secret police. The elder Morozov, a peasant farmer who had hidden grain from Soviet authorities so his family might eat, was arrested and executed. To avenge the act, the grandfather killed the boy who becomes, in Soviet mythology, a revolutionary hero and martyr. “All this,” writes Mr. Landsbergis, “for betraying his family!”

The role of Mr. Landsbergis in Lithuanian politics has dwindled. He was ousted as president in 1993 when his economic policies backfired. He later isolated himself from members of his own party when, as president of the parliament, he sought to expand his own powers, ostensibly to fight communists. Last year, he even apologized for serious mistakes made by his party over the years and his own heavy-handed approach to political opponents and the media.

Mr. Landsbergis’ style in the campaign for independence no longer seemed to fit with the post-communist landscape that emerged in Lithuania. Which kind of leadership will be most suitable for this small nation, then, as Lithuania prepares its European Union and NATO credentials and Moscow works, shrewdly and patiently, to keep the door to full Western membership closed?

Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

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