Lithuania is a Baltic country, lying between Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east, and Poland to the south. In the 14th century it was one of the largest countries in Europe, a grand duchy stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, almost to Moscow in fact. In 1569 Lithuania had merged with Poland, but by 1795 it was itself absorbed into Russia, in the so-called ‘Third Partition’.
After a revolt in 1863 the Lithuanian language was banned, but strong national movements emerged from the 1880s. The country was occupied by German troops between 1915 and 1918. In this last year a German king was ‘elected’ and deposed (in November). A republic was then declared by the Lithuanians.
This was anathema to the Bolsheviks who invaded the country in force, and the short but brutal Russo-Lithuanian War ended in 1920 with the Treaty of Moscow. In this farcical agreement Lithuiania gained the German town of Memel, but lost her capital, Vilnius, which went to Poland. Thus decapitated, the country underwent a brief period of semi-democracy until a new-Fascist dictatorship was established under Smetona in 1926.
In October 1939 a Soviet-Lithuanian Pact enabled Vilnius to be returned as capital city. In 1940 however, the Assembly ‘voted for incorporation’ into the Soviet Union, but the country was actually occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1944. During this bloody period the Jewish population was almost exterminated. Then the Red Army occupied the country again, and Lithuania was declared a Soviet Socialist Republic.
In 1956 serious rioting took place in the capital and provinces. These were suppressed with the usual brutality. The people had to wait (mostly in the traditional ankle-cracking Soviet queue) until 1990 when a unilateral declaration of independence was declared. The Soviet Union responded with an economic blockade, cutting off oil and gas supplies, but in May the Russians agreed to negotiate and Liuthuania’s independence was recognised in September 1991.
In December of that year laws were passed providing citizenship only to those who had been resident for more than ten years. They also had to have knowledge of Lithuanian and local history, and a proven source of income. During 1992 a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ was signed with Poland. In the same year membership of the International Monetary Fund was approved.
A new Constitution gave extensive executive powers to the elected President. The former communist party re-named the ‘Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party’ won elections in 1992 and the former communist leader Algirdas Brazaukas became President the following year.
In 1996 the PM, Adolfus Slevevicius was forced out for taking part in a financial scandal. The susbequent elections resulted in the formation of a centre-right government under G. Vagnorius. In June 1996 the Lithuanian Parliament ratified a ‘treaty of association’ with the European Union. Valdas Adamkus was elected president in 1997. With the other Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania is a member of the Baltic Council.
Now: Lithuania has been a member of NATO since 2004; her currency is the lita; the President is Dalia Grybauskaité, and the Prime Minister is Andrius Kubilius. The population in 2010 was 84% Lithuanian. The country is prosperous.
Latvia (also known as Letonia)
The Republic of Latvia is a sovereign member of the European Union. The capital is Riga, and the population is a little more than two million. It is a Baltic country with Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east and Bielorusia to the west. Geographically, Latvia is mostly plains, with thick forests.
Latvia was originally populated by fierce Baltic tribes, eventually dominated by the Teutons.The country was known in the Middle Ages as ‘Livonia’, and was militarily governed by ‘Fratres militiae Christi’ or ‘armed Christian gentlemen’. In the 16th century however, despite hard resistence, ‘Livonia’ was occupied by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629) the capital Riga was taken and occupied by Sweden (in 1621). It was thanks to Sweden that the city was much developed and improved. The rest of Latvia remained Polish until the Second Partition of Poland in 1793. But the 18th and 19th centuries saw the country occupied by Russia. When the Bolsheviks ruined Russia, assisted by the First World War, Latvia declared her independence in 1918.
Freedom lasted until 17th June 1940, when the secret (Ribbentrop/Molotov) non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia led to (first) a German military invasion (1941) followed by the Soviets in 1944. Thousands of Latvians were deported to ‘labour camps’.
Latvia remained under the Soviet yoke until the first stirrings of glasnost, during which the people began movements towards independence. This was achieved on 21 August, 1991, after the so-called ‘Singing Revolution’. At this time, any Latvians who remained communist by creed or party membership had their nationality denied. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Latvia has strengthened her relations with the West, becoming a member of NATO and the EU in 2004 (May). In 2008 unemployment rose to 18%, but is now beginning to recover.
The currency is the lat; the President is Valdis Satlers, and the PM Valdís Dombrovskis. The favourite sport is ice hockey. The country’s prosperity is slowly recuperating, though the average annual income rate per head is still lower than most other countries within the EU.