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Lithuania's Former President Recalls Country's Fight To Secure Independence


Back to a conflict that was on our program more than 25 years ago. In 1990, the Republic of Lithuania, after half a century of rule by the Soviet Union, elected a government that declared the Baltic country's independence. By January 1991, the country was under pressure from Moscow and expecting a Soviet attack. The country's first post-independence president, Vytautas Landsbergis, was on this program often.

And on January 11, 1991, speaking through an interpreter, President Landsbergis described to me the scene in the capital, Vilnius, and the Lithuanian security forces who were prepared to defend their country's independent institutions.


VYTAUTAS LANDSBERGIS: (Through interpreter) They have very few weapons. Their defense and their defense of the Parliament will come from their hands and their chests and their hearts more than any physical weapon.

SIEGEL: The Lithuanians stood their ground. President Landsbergis saw the country through to secure independence. Lithuania today is a member of NATO. And as former president, he is visiting Washington this week. And he's dropped in to talk with us. Nice to see you.

LANDSBERGIS: Yes, thank you.

SIEGEL: In those days, you were on the front lines declaring independence from the Soviet Union. You faced a real threat from Moscow. Does Lithuania still face a similar threat from the post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin?

LANDSBERGIS: When you have opposing to you irresponsible power that's feeding off unlimited powers and unpunishable, you have to be careful. You have to be ready for everything.

SIEGEL: Is Lithuania ready for everything?


SIEGEL: What do you think Russia's aims are in countries neighboring it, like your own country?

LANDSBERGIS: Russia's aims are very old - to gather and own lands, territories. To get as many as possible for them always was a question of pride, of mighty. And of course it was not understanding of true human and democratic culture.

SIEGEL: You've spoken of those difficult times when Lithuania first restored its independence as also having been challenging times to create a future for the country. Do you think that in the early 1990s, when you were president of Lithuania, that you were shaping the country that exists today?

LANDSBERGIS: Oh, Russia was always accustomed to treat neighboring countries as subordinated, as obedient.

SIEGEL: Subordinate, yeah.

LANDSBERGIS: Yes. Russia has been a very special colonial empire. And that still is alive in many heads and brain of current Russian politicians.

SIEGEL: Back in the 1990s, I remember you once saying on this program that you hoped that in the future that Russia without its old colonial holdings would become a more modern country, and that would - it would embrace more modern politics. Are you disappointed in the way that Russia has evolved politically?

LANDSBERGIS: I'm disappointed in the time wasted.

SIEGEL: Wasted, yeah.

LANDSBERGIS: Because Russia could achieve much more. But a feeling of political revenge has turned Russia back. And now Russia is competing maybe with itself - what to be, how to be. To be again an empire is just impossible.

SIEGEL: When you say that people in Lithuania - and you yourself would say Russia has not given up its ideas of being an imperial power - specifically what actions of the Russians make you feel that way?

LANDSBERGIS: From the very beginning, when President Putin came into power, he announced it. I came for the restoration of Soviet Union. It became not realistic, of course, but what is in a mind so deeply, it stays.

SIEGEL: President Putin regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as having been a tragic moment in Russian history in that...

LANDSBERGIS: The collapse of a prison is a tragic moment for guards of prison, not for victims and prisoners.

SIEGEL: President Landsbergis, thank you very much for talking with us. Vytautas Landsbergis, former president of Lithuania who is visiting Washington this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.