Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
As Lithuania is commemorating the solemn 25th anniversary of the massacre on January 13, 1991, when 14 innocent defenders of Vilnius Television Tower were crushed to death by the Soviet tanks, few have ever given a thought on how different the path of the fledgling state would have been if the Soviet troops had seize power in Vilnius that night.
Would it have marked a new indefinite period of occupation and repressions? How much longer and steeper would the path to freedom have been?
Emphasis of State Defence Plan on massive non-cooperation
Andrius Butkevičius, deputy of Lithuania’s Supreme Council-Restoration Seimas during 1990-1992, the first Defence Minister and a key figure in Lithuania’s Interim Defence Command in charge of organization of state defence in 1990-1991, told BNN that most mistakenly tend to relate the-then state’s defence with the Supreme Council’s defence when speaking of the tragic night.
«Certainly, the focus then was on some key objects, the building of Supreme Council including, but we had drawn up an extensive defence plan in case of the nation’s new annexation before January 13, 1991. Its emphasis was on engagement of as a large mass of people in resistance against the Soviets as possible. We called it a single massive non-cooperation action that had to be coordinated from a Lithuanian government in exile had the Soviets seized power in the country during the tumultuous times,» Butkevičius told.
A single Soviet tank or plenty of them in a square do not suffice to exercise authority on the population, he underlined.
«In order to impose rule on a state a whole lot more than military might needs to be employed. People must either fear or respect authority that governs them, assist and collaborate with it. The nation back in the 1990s was already flying high on the spirit of freedom. For any aggressor, it would have been extremely hard or impossible to quench and root it out from the peoples’ consciousness,» the first Defence minister of restored state now believes.
Even if the Supreme Council had been occupied and all the deputies and Government members had been driven out, it would have not meant an end to the state, Butkevičius insisted.
«Anticipating that all the events can take a very dangerous turn and facing possibly new occupation of the state, we had formed an interim government that was supposed to operate in exile. In case of a state emergency, Vytautas Landsbergis, the chairman of Supreme Council- Restoration Seimas, Danutė Prunskienė, the Prime Minister, and Algirdas Saudargas, the Foreign Affairs minister, had to be swiftly transported to Poland to operate from there. We had hammered out agreement on that with the-then Polish Government,» remembered Butkevičius, a defence expert now consulting Ukraine.
Western journalists were an enormous force
Being one of the spearheads of the defence plan and one of its chief executioners, Butkevičius had a special mission in the scheme: boost the nation’s morale through global media networks in the West. Government members in exile, societal leaders and political friends in the West had to psyche up Lithuanians through the means of communication for a full-scale all-involving resistance, a
«The plan envisioned that, in case of new annexation, we would exert all possible efforts in getting the Western media’s full attention. Therefore the Western journalists covering events in Lithuania were seen as nuggets in the plan. They were granted entry to Lithuania by the Soviet secret service, KGB, but it had no means to affect what the journalists were shown in Lithuania, or what they would air from here. Those continuous TV coverages, especially live broadcasts by the biggest Western television networks like CNN and BBC have proved to be an enormous force in sending out a very powerful message to the West and the societies,» Butkevičius emphasized.
He says the Soviets were very perplexed not being able to do anything about that.
«There was Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and they did not dare to go to extreme lengths in cordoning Lithuania off from foreign journalists. With the journalists blasting the Soviet system and heralding our striving of freedom, power was slipping off the KGB hands every day, every minute,» he noted. «Before the tragic night of January 13, the West had been rallying about Gorbachev, but after the night, there was quite a new situation: the West turned its back to him and fully embraced the Baltic nation and its quest for freedom. That was a defining moment.»
Tanks were a means of intimidation
Asked whether the Soviets would have run tanks against the peaceful demonstrators in the square at the Supreme Council, the defence analyst told that a «comprehensive package of military measures» would have likely been used if there had been a command to attack the Lithuanian Parliament.
«It is hard to tell how far aggressor would have gone. I reckon that the rattling tanks in proximity of the Parliament served as a means of intimidation first of all,» the analyst ponders today.
«Soviet generals assessing what was going on in Vilnius had to deal with a mind-blowing phenomenon: the people in the square were not frightened by the tanks. Aware and wary of a big toll of casualties had the tanks proceeded onto the square full of people, the planners must have considered a variety of softer measures first of all, the defence analyst believes.
“It could include immense psychological pressure, use of tear gas and et cetera. The tanks would have been employed too in making the way to the heavily-reinforced Parliament,» Butkevičius is convinced.
Using tanks, it was inevitable to avoid multiple casualties, which would have dealt the Soviets a devastating blow on the international arena.
«As far as I know, the Soviets’ plan to occupy the Parliament included meticulously calculated synchronic foray of paratroopers into the building through the underground communication network and the roof,» Butkevičius said.
Ukraine’s path to freedom is similar to Lithuania’s
Personally in charge of Supreme Council’s chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, Butkevičius reveals now he had laid out a special plan for his and Prime Minister Danutė Prunskienė’s retreat in case the Parliament is occupied.
«But both of them refused to follow it. It foresaw their transportation to Poland using Lithuanian aviation. I do not want to go into details now as far as what type of aviation transport had to be used for the purpose, but the plan was real and feasible,» Butkevičius asserted.
One of the fulcrums of the restored state’s defence now spends most of his time in Ukraine consulting the Government on defence issues.
«The situation we see in Ukraine is pretty much analogous to that we had in the early 1990s. Like us, Ukrainians used civil disobedience-based techniques in overthrowing the Viktor Yanukovych regime. Like us, they shed off their blood on the way to freedom, but, again a similarity, it has been gained with a loss of life that, under other circumstances, would have been much bigger,» former Defence minister believes.
Massive tear gas attack was most plausible
Darius Petrošius, a Lithuanian MP and chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Commission for Parliamentary Scrutiny of Operative Activities (CPSOA), believes that no repeated annexation of Lithuania would have quashed the spirit of freedom.
«Sąjūdis (Lithuania’s national movement for change in the late 1980s and early 1990s-L.J) was an extremely powerful force that even the ubiquitous special Soviet services could not reign in. It they had succeeded in seizing the Parliament that tragic night, I don’t think they would have retained power for long. The yearning for freedom and independence was too big to quell it,» Petrošius told BNN.
He says he finds it hard even today to accept the idea of Soviet tanks could have been sent to the Parliament square.
«It’s hard to speculate what the hostile forces had planned, but I reckon that a more plausible scenario of occupying the Parliament could have been this: special paratrooper units might have been ordered to enter the building with a simultaneous massive tear gas attack used to clear the square.
Perhaps some acoustic attacks could be used too to disperse the people, too. The tanks, of course, would have been employed too, but, again, I find it hard to believe they could roll onto the people. Remember, all the Western TV cameras were zeroing in on what was going in the square.»
And if the combat vehicles had proceeded onto the crowd, numbers of lost life could reach hundreds.
«I’d say that we would have not found out the real scope of casualties. It would not have reflected in any statistics then,» the parliamentarian is convinced.
Spirit of freedom was flying too high
Alvydas Ziabkus, journalist of daily «Lietuvos Rytas», also believes that, at the end of the day, Lithuania would have come out victorious against the crumbling Soviet Union.
«Freedom might have waited longer, but the quest for it could not be stifled. Especially after the August coup (In August 1991, Soviet hardliners futilely attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Communist Party, in a desperate attempt to save the collapsing Soviet Union-L.J),» Ziabkus told BNN.
Administratively, he says the Soviets have taken over key sites and symbols of power in Vilnius and Lithuania, but the spirit of freedom had encompassed too a big mass of people, so to get it out of the people’s minds and hearts was an impossible task.
«I believe the way how the hostile troops could be acting on the premises of the Lithuanian Parliament could be similar to the way the Soviet army acted at the Russian Parliament during coup against Gorbachev in August of 1991.
«There were shots, skirmishes and a few casualties there with the military’s indecisiveness lingering in the air. But Vilnius, I reckon, was at a bigger risk, because some of the generals, farther from Moscow, could act on their own then,» Ziabkus believes.