LITHUANIA’S QUICK TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY
How was Lithuania able to consolidate Democracy so quickly after becoming an independent country? When it comes to the intertwined pasts of Lithuania and the Soviet Union we are able to see many similarities in their respective histories. In 1944 the Soviet Union took control of Lithuania. At the time Lithuania gained its independence from the USSR, we saw the country consolidate democracy among many other changes. One major difference between the two countries is that Lithuania has competitive elections while the USSR and present-day Russia does not. On March 11th, 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. Lithuania was able to put in place its first free and fair elections the year after they became independent. This was a quick transition to Democracy from Communism. It is very unusual for a country to make a 180-degree change like this in such a short amount of time.
Russia and Lithuania are very comparable countries for many reasons. For one, the Soviet Union (Russia is the outcome of the Soviet Union) occupied Lithuania from 1944 until the country’s first independent election in 1992. Joseph Stalin assumed control of Lithuania and from that point forward the lives of Lithuanians changed right before their eyes. Along with a focus on collectivization of agriculture and civilian social life disappearing, USSR ideals and values were instilled into Lithuanian culture. For example, Mikhail S. Gorbachev introduced his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) creating a new political atmosphere in Lithuania.
Originally, it seemed like the economic structure and more specifically each countries GDP may be a factor that played a roll in Lithuania consolidating Democracy. The fact is, Lithuania depended on Russia to support their economy even after they declared their independence and, “the LDLP did not seek to reverse policies,” (Britannica.com). Lithuania actually fell into a recession after separating from the Soviet Union so it is clear that consolidating Democracy was more of a cultural transition from Communism than an economic one.
The Lithuanian Communist Party was in power and had a disproportionate amount of immigrant officials making it up. Clearly, this changed the political lives of everyone in Lithuania but eventually the government was able to nativize itself. It is very intriguing and interesting to see a country like Lithuania make such a quick transition to democracy after being so heavily influenced and controlled by the Soviet Republic. Under Joseph Stalin’s power, cultural life was nonexistent which would make it very difficult for Lithuanians to avoid the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterized the USSR as a country. During this time period the USSR took away many basic freedoms, had one main goal of collectivizing agriculture, and it became evident that the Lithuanian people’s best interest was not in mind when the Soviet Republic would make decisions. Lithuanians did not agree with the Communist regime when the ideological reaction, “during the 1970s and early ’80s failed to stem the development of national consciousness,” (Britannica.com). Lithuania’s citizens responded to their suppressed government through many publications speaking out against USSR power. It is interesting to see Lithuania, who was controlled by the Soviet Union for 48 years, get their independence and then instantly implement a Democratic government. Russia and Lithuania are very similar in many ways barring population yet the outcomes of their situations are very different. While Russia remained corrupt and not representative of the people, Lithuania became the exact opposite and implemented a Democratic regime. So, the question is, what factors led to the quick transition from Communism to Democracy and more specifically how were free and fair elections held in Lithuania so soon after the transition, when there are not competitive elections in Russia.
The key to understanding why and how Lithuania switched from a Communist government to a Democratic government is in getting to know the country that had control over them. According to Freedom House, Russia is not a free country in any sense. Their electoral system is extremely flawed and corrupt, there is not freedom to speak out against the government and many people do not show up to vote on election day. Freedom House even gave Russia a rating of -1/12 for their electoral process, this is 13 points worse than Lithuania’s 12/12. In present-day Russia competitive elections are nonexistent. In this past election Putin, “won an official 63.6 percent of the vote against a field of weak, hand-chosen opponents,” (Freedom House). This is also his 3rd term as President and he will be eligible to run for another term in 2018. Lithuania’s outcome was much different. One of the main factors that led to the quick transition to democracy was a dissident movement that developed during the 1970s. This movement was highlighted by Lithuania having the most underground publications in any Soviet Republic. In fact, one of these publications that began in 1972, The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, outlasted Soviet power. The fact that there was such a strong opposition to the government through underground publications proves that Lithuanians value free speech.
According to Freedom House’s scale, Lithuania has a rating of 1/7 in both Political Rights and Civil Liberties. On the other side of things, Russia has a rating of 7/7 and 6/7 in the same categories (1= Most Free, 7= Least Free). It is undeniable that Lithuania and Russia (the outcome of the Soviet Union) are polar opposites when it comes to political freedoms, but they are very similar in history due to the fact that the Soviet Union controlled Lithuania. During the late 80’s another reform movement was manifested, an additional representation of how Lithuanian culture values democratic ideas, in this case the right to assemble and freedom of speech. Lithuanians are historically very religious Christians who value free and independent media as well as other forms of cultural expression like, freedom of religion, academic freedom, and open and free private discussion. According to Freedom House’s Country Report Lithuania scored a 16/16 in these categories– very free. Freedom House also points out that, “residents of Lithuania enjoy a high level of economic freedom.” On top of all of this information, when Lithuania gained its independence from the USSR the newly initiated government, “liberalized the economy, joined the Council of Europe, became an associate member of the Western European Union, and pursued membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” (Britannica.com) Instantly, Lithuania proved they were committed to consolidating Democracy in their country. By attempting to become a part of all of these groups Lithuanians were able to convey their true colors. In the early 90’s, “Lithuania remained ethnically largely homogeneous, with Lithuanians making up about 80 percent of the population…” (Britannica.com). So, when they finally gained their independence, it was the country’s ideals and values that ultimately influenced a change for the better. It is safe to say that Lithuania proved that as a country they value Democratic ideas.
Many factors played into Lithuania’s ability to consolidate Democracy so quickly after declaring independence from the Soviet Union. While it could have been their hatred or tiredness of Communism or the economy, it was most likely the shared ideals and values of the Lithuanian people. They have held true to their opposition of Communism and in 2006, “Russia ceased supplying Lithuania’s main petroleum refinery and further refused to honor Lithuania’s request for reparations for the Soviet Union’s 50-year occupation of Lithuania. In 2008 Lithuania’s parliament banned any public display of Soviet or Nazi symbols,” (Britannica.com). The Lithuanian people have proven time and time again that their culture is committed to having a Democratic government system. They were able to consolidate Democracy so quickly because the majority of native Lithuanians share support for political rights and civil liberties, two of the main ideas of Democratic theory.