Church bells tolled across Lithuania on Friday to mark 100 years of independence regained after World War I by the Baltic nation, which is now firmly anchored in the West but experiencing tension with powerful neighbour Russia.
“At the start of the last century, we looked forward with great hope to any sign of support,” President Dalia Grybauskaite said at a ceremony in the snowy capital Vilnius.
“Today we know that we have true friends and allies, and their strong supportive shoulder,” she added, speaking alongside top EU officials, presidents and royalty.
Like fellow NATO and eurozone Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania increased defence spending and welcomed troops from allies after Moscow’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.
Vilnius earlier this month accused Moscow of deploying nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic.
To demonstrate collective defence commitments, US and Danish fighter jets deployed in Lithuania roared across the capital’s cloudy skies on Friday.
“Independent Lithuania’s major achievement has been the creation of a genuinely stable democracy,” said Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius.
“Although changes in government have been frequent, and populist parties come and go, election results have never been challenged,” he told AFP.
Lithuania can also boast solid economic growth of 3.9 percent last year, though it is beset by daily concerns over rising prices, social inequality and emigration to the richer west.
– Medieval power –
EU officials and the presidents of Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine as well as Swedish Crown Princess Victoria attended the ceremony in central Vilnius.
Hours earlier, schoolchildren marched across downtown to honour the 20 Lithuanian men who signed the declaration of independence.
A hundred bonfires will be lit along the central pedestrian avenue later in the day, followed by concerts and fireworks in most cities and towns.
Lithuania’s statehood stretches back to the 13th century when its first king, Mindaugas, was crowned in 1253.
Later, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a major European powerhouse until the federation was wiped off the map in 1795 by imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Until World War I, Lithuania was a province of the Russian empire, which sought to crush nationalism and even banned the Lithuanian alphabet.
The Lithuanian council declared independence on February 16, 1918, when the country was still under German occupation. Brief wars with Bolsheviks and Poles followed before Lithuania won international recognition in the following years.
Just in time for the centenary and to the country’s delight, a Lithuanian professor unearthed the 1918 declaration of independence in Berlin archives last year. Last month, it was brought to Vilnius under a five-year loan deal with Germany.
– ‘Active and constructive’ –
Modern Lithuania was an independent nation between the two World Wars. Then the Soviet Union invaded in 1940, Nazi Germany invaded in 1941, and the Soviets returned in 1944.
Democracy campaigners launched an independence drive in the 1980s that eventually made it the first Soviet republic to declare independence in March 1990.
Lithuania finally won recognition from Moscow after the failed coup by hardliners in the Soviet capital in August 1991.
In 2004, Vilnius’s pro-Western drive culminated with EU and NATO membership. In 2015, Lithuania adopted the euro.
Unlike certain other ex-communist countries, Lithuania has sought to avoid major confrontations with the EU.
“Only by being united can European nations be sovereign and free of dependency on the great superpowers,” European Council chief Donald Tusk told reporters on Thursday.
“Lithuania understands this all too well, and that is why it has always played an active, and constructive, role.”