THE WORLD FROM...Vilnius, Lithuania

Since independence, Lithuanians have turned their gaze westward, but cannot escape ties to Russia

FOR a long half-century Lithuania was a captive republic, its people exiled by the hundreds of thousands to Siberia by Stalin to crush the resistance to Soviet occupation.

"We have a lot of wounds," says Jonas Kubilius, a world-renowned mathematician who served until recently as the rector of Vilnius University. "It is impossible to find a family that wasn't affected by this regime." He counts a brother imprisoned for eight years and a mother and another brother deported to Siberia among his family's tribulations.

Blood was flowing right up to the last moments of Lithuania's struggle to break from the Soviet empire, when a Lithuanian militia guard was killed near the parliament by Soviet troops in the waning hours of the failed August putsch.

So it is understandable that with independence restored, the faces of Lithuanians are turned west, not east. The list of upcoming events in the news bulletin of the Lithuanian Seym (parliament) is exemplary - from the visits of European Community representatives and NATO officials to the eagerly anticipated state visit of His Majesty King Carl Gustaf XVI and Queen Silvia of Sweden. In the parliament's press office, a young official talks hopefully about Lithuania's joining the European Council after its Oct. 25 election.

On a daily basis, Lithuania's engagement with the rest of the world has undergone a dramatic change since even a year ago. Then it was remarkable that four flights a week linked it to the west, two to Poland and two to Germany. Now there are 32 flights, with the newly established Lithuanian Airlines proudly flying a Boeing jet to London, Frankfurt, and other points west.

But these welcome developments are accompanied by a sobering reality that economically, Lithuania is unable to escape from its massive neighbor to the east. Trade and investment links to the West are so far minimal, while dependency on former partners in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus remains undiminished.

The freezing offices of Lithuanian officials, the result of a three-month cutoff of Russian oil after a price dispute, made that painfully clear. Even if Lithuania wanted to import oil from elsewhere, it could not: It has no oil port facilities and the pipelines to its huge refinery all run from Russia. Deals are now being struck to pay world prices for oil and gas.

Lithuania's most natural route to the West runs through Poland, a country closely linked by history to Lithuania. But those ties are not all comfortable ones - the Lithuanian capital was once in Polish territory until the Soviet Army overtook it. Poles still make up about 8 percent of the population, and tensions over their treatment still trouble relations.

In September, determined Lithuanian leader Vytautas Landsbergis finally wrung a Russian commitment to withdraw hated Soviet Army units by next summer, although Russia suspended the pullout Oct. 20 because of a lack of housing for troops returning to Russia.

Lithuanians still worry about the restoration of the Russian empire with which Lithuania waged wars over the centuries, finally yielding to czarist rule in the 18th century. Professor Kubilius, who served in the Soviet parliament, says he is hopeful about the changes in Russia that brought Boris Yeltsin to power. But "Russia has no democratic tradition," he is quick to add.

Pressures are mounting on Yeltsin, Kubilius worries, including from a rising sense of Russian "messianism," the idea that Russians have a mission to "civilize" - Russify - their neighbors. "Those ideas are still alive," he says. "Many Russians are sorry they have no power any more."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.