By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) – Widely praised in the West as a towering statesman who helped end the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev was remembered in the Baltic states on Wednesday as a repressive autocrat who unsuccessfully tried to stop them from breaking away from the Soviet Union.
The last Soviet leader, who died aged 91 on Tuesday, tried to prevent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from seceding after all three declared independence in 1990 after five decades under Moscow’s rule.
In January 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to stamp out the pro-independence movement.
Fourteen civilians died, some crushed under the vehicles’ tracks, and around 700 were injured, according to Lithuanian prosecutors who brought charges against Soviet officers and troops involved in the incursion.
“Lithuanians will not glorify Gorbachev,” the country’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, tweeted on Wednesday.
“We will never forget the simple fact that his army murdered civilians to prolong his regime’s occupation of our country. His soldiers fired on our unarmed protesters and crushed them under his tanks. That is how we will remember him.”
The repression was in vain. After a failed coup by Soviet military hardliners in August 1991 undercut Gorbachev’s authority, Moscow acknowledged the Baltics’ independence the following month, precipitating the end of the Soviet Union.
“The world remembers his good deeds, but no less important is that he contributed to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Robertas Povilaitis, whose father Apolinaras was killed by the Soviet army in Vilnius in January 1991.
“There is a dark side to the man whom the West values, respects and mourns,” he told Reuters.
At the time of Gorbachev’s death, a Vilnius court was awaiting his submission in a civil lawsuit filed by Povilaitis and other relatives of those killed in the crackdown.
A Lithuanian court has already found former Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov and 66 other former military officials guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their roles.
Gorbachev, whom prosecutors did not charge, declined to testify. The civil lawsuit claims Gorbachev, in control of the military, did nothing to prevent the bloodshed.
“WE EASTERNERS DON’T MATTER”
For many throughout the Baltics, the overwhelmingly positive tone of tributes from prominent figures elsewhere in the European Union to Gorbachev – awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, the year after the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall – is irksome.
“We Easterners don’t matter, our tragedies are irrelevant,” tweeted former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Six civilians including a schoolboy were killed by Soviet troops in Latvia in January 1991, all but one during an attempt to take over a building of the pro-independence government in Riga.
“Against Gorbachev’s will, Latvia, too, regained its independence,” Latvian President Egils Levits tweeted.
Civilians also died in other Soviet republics at protests while Gorbachev was in office, including in Georgia in 1989 and in Kazakhstan in 1986.
“The evaluation of Gorbachev depends on who does the evaluation,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Reuters in a statement.
“I think of him as a jail warden, who decided to ‘reform’ the jail by repainting its facade. Countries on the outside saw the changing facade of that prison, while we saw the jail from the inside.
“But the prisoners wanted freedom, and they broke out, and they did it against Gorbachev’s will.”
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by Gwladys Fouche and John Stonestreet)