Throughout 1990, the American press was divided on whether the country should champion Lithuanian independence or stay silent and thus presumably help Gorbachev protect his position against Soviet hardliners. However, the Baltic diasporas pushed the Bush administration to support Lithuanian independence.
On 10 January 1991, Gorbachev addressed the Supreme Council, demanding a restoration of the constitution of the USSR in Lithuania and the revocation of all anti-constitutional laws. He mentioned that military intervention could be possible within days. Then Lithuanian officials asked for Moscow’s guarantee not to send armed troops but Gorbachev did not reply.
It was January 1991, between 11 and 14, the Soviet troops killed 14 protesters outside of the Vilnius TV tower and the Radio and Television Committee in Lithuania. Over 100 others were injured those days as well in the neighbouring Latvian capital of Riga as well.
For Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, events throughout 1991 were playing out on a level completely different than they were for Gorbachev and Bush. In the Baltics, the two superpowers believed they were looking at something small.
Gorbachev, perhaps now nervous before the Americans over the deaths in the Baltic, is desperate to prevent more bloodshed, as he tells Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister, in a late night phone call on February 23, 1991.
For the people in their Baltic homelands, without tanks or jets, but having their own sense of who they were and who they wanted to be. They were ready to sacrifice in order to redeem the independence taken from them so many years before. Even under attack on the night of January 13, Lithuanians were committed to a non-violent independence together with Latvians and Estonians, singing «The Power of Song«:
Dear son, the Fatherland calls you,
Lithuania will be free again.
But if some day I must depart
From this dear country that I love,
Girl, don’t you mourn for me, because
I will return to you again.
In his study The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution, folklorist Guntis Šmidchens recounts the events of that night: “The pavement shuddered under a roar of engines and tank treads. Gunshots and screams filled the dark. The song morphed into a rhythmic chant, ‘Lie-tu-va! Lie-tu-va! Lie-tu-va!’”
Later that day, Supreme Council Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis spoke to the people gathered around,, encouraging Lithuanians to hold back their anger, to not strike back: “The Song of Power has helped us, it has helped us for hundreds of years,” he said. “Let’s sing now, let’s sing sacred hymns, only let’s not call each other names, let’s not curse and let’s not get into fights. Let’s be what we ought to be, and our Lithuania will be bright and happy! Let’s ignore the shooting, let’s sing!”
Immediately after the attacks, the Supreme Council issued a letter to the people of the Soviet Union and to the rest of the world denouncing the attacks and calling for foreign governments to recognise that the Soviet Union had committed an act of aggression against a sovereign nation. Following the first news reports from Lithuania, the government of Norway appealed to the United Nations. The government of Poland expressed their solidarity with the people of Lithuania and denounced the actions of the Soviet army.
The reaction from the United States government was somewhat muted as the U.S. itself was heavily preoccupied with the imminent onset of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq and worried about possible wider consequences if they were to offend the Soviets at that critical juncture. President George H.W. Bush denounced the incident, but was notably careful not to criticize Gorbachev directly, instead directing his remarks at «Soviet leaders.»
After the events, President Gorbachev said Lithuanian «workers and intellectuals» complaining of anti-Soviet broadcasts had tried to talk to the republic’s parliament, but were refused and beaten. Then, he said, they asked the military commander in Vilnius to provide protection. Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Gorbachev all asserted that no one in Moscow gave orders to use force in Vilnius. Yazov said that nationalists were trying to form what he called a bourgeois dictatorship.
These events are considered some of the main factors that led to the overwhelming victory of independence supporters in a referendum on February 9, 1991. Turnout was 84.73% of registered voters; 90.47% of them voted in favour of the full and total independence of Lithuania. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania’s legislative Supreme Council voted in favor of declaring independence. The Soviet Union, under President Mikhail Gorbachev, used economic and political pressure to try to thwart the bid to end nearly a half-century of rule from Moscow, which had annexed the Baltic states in 1940.
Streets in the neighbourhood of the Vilnius TV tower were later renamed after the victims of the attack. The Russian Federation still claims that the Soviet troops did not use their weapons at all. From the interview of Mikhail Golovatov, ex-commander of «Alpha-group»: «The weapons and ammunition that were given to us, were handed over at the end of the operation, so it can be established that not a single shot was fired from our side. But at the time of the assault, our young officer Victor Shatskikh was mortally wounded in the back.»
ORIGEN AUTORAL: Bradley Woodworth y Matthew Schmidt