But the disintegration of the Soviet Union gave Lithuania the chance to break away from the control of Moscow. An nationalist opposition movement (Sąjūdis) emerged in the second half of the 1980s, allowed to do so by Gorbachev’s initiatives of Glasnost and Perestroika.
In elections held on 24 February 1990, the Communist Party was beaten into second place by the nationalists. With a clear mandate from its people to end Communist rule, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet Socialist Republics to declare its independence on 11 March 1990.
Gorbachev called the declaration “illegitimate and invalid” and on 25 March Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of the capital, Vilnius, repeatedly passing in front of the parliament building. But the tanks withdrew after a few hours.
On 18 April the Soviet Union cut off Lithuania’s oil supplies as part of an economic blockade, but the lack of an immediate military response from Moscow led to an acceleration of the Soviet disintegration. Latvia declared itself independent on 4 May followed by the third Baltic state, Estonia, on 8 May.
Soviet troops were still stationed in Lithuania and on 13 January 1991 they seized the radio and television stations in Vilnius. In the protests that followed thirteen civilians were killed. A referendum was held on 9 February and the results showed 90% of those who voted in favour of ratifying the previous year’s declaration of independence.
Iceland had become the first country to recognise Lithuanian independence on 4 February 1991, but calls were made for a wider recognition. This came on 17 September when Lithuania joined the United Nations. When the last Soviet troops left the country on 31 August 1993 the Soviet chapter in Lithuania’s history finally came to an end.