January 13, 2017 / 1:12 PM / 6 months ago

Lithuania marks 1991 independence dead as fears rise about Russia, Trump

4 Min Read

FILE PHOTO: A Group of Lithuanians block a Russian tank outside of Press House in Vilnius two days prior to attack by Russian forces on the TV tower during which 14 people died, January 1991.Peter Andrews/File Photo

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuanians on Friday commemorated the night in 1991 when 13 compatriots were killed by Soviet forces in an ultimately futile bid to crush their nation's new independence but U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has filled many with new fear for the future.

Trump's praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and vows to improve relations with the Kremlin, his questioning of U.S. commitments to NATO allies and Russia's resurgent assertiveness have revived deep insecurities in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia more than two decades after their breakaway from Moscow's yoke.

Lithuania's annual commemoration to honour the 13 unarmed civilians who died to defend its recovery of independence has always been both poignant and celebratory. But now it comes with unease about whether Trump's America will keep protecting the fervently pro-Western region in Russia's neighbourhood.

On Friday's 26th anniversary, bonfires burned throughout the night, Lithuanians wore forget-me-not pins in their lapels, and many brought children to show where they stood their ground against Soviet troops on Jan. 13, 1991.

"January 13 was a big lesson to anyone who thinks that freedom is a given," Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters.

"I'm worried, although not yet scared, because I think foreign policy is not determined solely by a president," said Jonas Mikalauskas, 36, one of those who gathered on Friday at the memorial to those who resisted the Soviet crackdown.

Lithuania proclaimed independence in March 1990, becoming the first Soviet republic to do so, and Moscow tried to foil the secession with an economic blockade. When that proved ineffective, Soviet troops still garrisoned in the capital Vilnius attacked its TV broadcast tower and sole TV station, killing 13 civilians standing as human shields there.

Human Shield Around Parliament

On hearing the news later that night, thousands more flocked to parliament to ward off a feared Soviet attack. Moscow's forces returned to barracks and later withdrew from Lithuania after the entire Soviet Union broke up later in 1991.

"The people were everywhere, around the parliament building and inside the building, very enthusiastic. And they were ready to die for independence," Jonas Zukas, Lithuania's Chief of Defence who was part of the ragtag volunteer militia that stood guard inside parliament 26 years ago, told Reuters.

Last year, Lithuania started a trial over the 1991 deaths, charging in absentia dozens of former Soviet officials, including 92-year-old ex-defence minister Dmitry Yazov. Moscow refused to cooperate, calling the trial political..

In 2014, spooked by Putin's annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine, Lithuania reintroduced conscription and began expanding its military, aiming to boost defence spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2018.

The Baltic states' long-term security, however, is tied up with their membership of the European Union and NATO as well as the U.S. commitment to underwriting European security, something Trump questioned during his election campaign.

U.S. troops have been stationed in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since April 2014 to reassure them following Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Up to 1,000 German troops will be deployed in Lithuania from next month, and U.S. troops and armour arrived in Poland this week, as part of NATO-agreed measures to create a more credible deterrent to any Russian military moves against eastern Europe.

Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Mark Heinrich

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