2021.12.04 12:00

‘Try telling a thug he’s a thug.’ How Lithuania negotiated key recognition from Russia in 1991

LRT TV2021.12.04 12:00

On March 11, 1990, a new chapter began in Lithuania's history. In August that year, before receiving recognition of sovereignty from a single country, a group of Lithuanian politicians began negotiations with Moscow.

“De facto you exist, you are like a newborn baby, but nobody gives you papers. You don’t exist in the world. Gorbachev did not recognise that we were born and wanted to negotiate whether the negotiations will take place,” Vladimiras Jarmolenka, signatory of the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania in 1990, described the situation in 1990.

Read more: ‘We will love them very much.’ How Lithuania tried to have good relations with Russia

According to another signatory Česlovas Vytautas Stankevičius, who headed the delegation, there was no precedent for successful negotiations with Moscow.

Soon after Lithuania declared independence, the Soviet Union imposed an economic blockade on the Baltic country, while various Soviet power structures continuously provoked incidents.

In Russia, there were also signs of unrest as the country was being roused by opposition forces led by Boris Yeltsin. Against such a tense political backdrop, negotiations between Lithuania and Russia lasted almost a year.

According to law professor Vytautas Sinkevičius, who was in the Lithuanian delegation that travelled to Moscow for negotiations, the Lithuanian-Russian treaty was made possible by the courage and confidence of Lithuanian politicians, as well as favourable circumstances.

“That there would be such a treaty was agreed in May 1990, when Vytautas Landsbergis made his first official visit as head of state to the Czech Republic,” Sinkevičius said.

“He stopped in Moscow and met with Boris Yeltsin almost conspiratorially. They had a very long face-to-face conversation and agreed that there would be a treaty," he added.

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In Moscow, there was a fierce power struggle at the time.

“Yeltsin needed allies. He saw Vytautas Landsbergis as a personality, a figure, a politician of international stature. The personal relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and Boris Yeltsin was extremely important,” Sinkevičius said.

“On matters of principle on which the delegations could not agree, Yeltsin and Landsbergis managed to reach an agreement at the last moment in a face-to-face conversation,” he added.

According to Sinkevičius, Yeltsin and Landsbergis trusted each other and had a strong “mutual chemistry”.

In the words of the first Lithuanian head of state, Landsbergis, he was “lucky enough to find the key” that helped him talk to Yeltsin.

“I came to [Yeltsin] as to an ordinary person. And we talked like people, we agreed,” Landsbergis said.

But there were also difficult questions that had to be discussed. One of them was a request to treat Soviet citizens as foreigners in Lithuania. Some finer points about Lithuania’s 1941 occupation also had to be agreed on.

“They did not agree to the word ‘occupation’ because they said that a treaty containing this term would not be ratified in the Russian parliament,” Sinkevičius said.

According to the professor, the alternative was to use the word ‘annexation’ which meant “that there was aggression against the independent state of Lithuania, followed by occupation and forcible annexation”.

“Try to tell a thug that he’s a thug. He will never sign under this word,” Jarmolenka, a member of the negotiating delegation, said. “There were three options for what to write in the preamble. The first was to write ‘occupation’, the second was to write ‘annexation’ and the third was to write neither.”

Landsbergis managed to secure the second option.

“It was not a concession but an understanding of reality – there was nothing else that could be achieved at the time,” Jarmolenka said.

On July 29, 1991, discussions came to an end. The protocol of the negotiations was printed on paper with watermarks representing the Pillars of Gediminas, the historical coat of arms of Lithuania.

It was an authentic paper from the office of the interwar president of Lithuania. A member of the delegation, Sinkevičius, accidentally found ten sheets in the archives of the Legal Department of the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet.

On this paper, Landsbergis and Yeltsin put the historic signatures that marked a new stage in Lithuanian-Russian relations. Neither Latvia nor Estonia was able to secure such an agreement with Russia.

The piece is based on the LRT TV programme Stories of Things (Daiktų istorijos)

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