Staunton, April 19 — On April 18, 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev imposed an economic blockade on Lithuania, an action that harmed the USSR as much as it hurt Lithuania but that did nothing to dissuade Lithuanians from seeking the recovery of their independence – a reminder of the limits of economic actions when a people is committed to political goals.
Following the victory of the Sajudis movement in the elections for the Supreme Council of Lithuania at the end of February 1990, the Lithuanian parliament declared the restoration of the independence on March 11, pointing out that the Soviet constitutions allowed union republics to leave the USSR if they chose to do so.
Four days later, Moscow’s answer arrived: The Soviet government said that such an exit could be possible only after a new Soviet law governing such a step was adopted. Gorbachev for his part publicly called for talks, even as he was conducting secret negotiations with Lithuanian Communist Party head Algirdas Brazauskas concerning independence.
The Lithuanians refused to back down and so Moscow issued an ultimatum on April 13: drop all talk about independence or face economic sanctions in the form of a blockade. Again, Vilnius did not retreat, and the Soviet government introduced sanctions against Lithuania as of April 18.
The Soviet blockade of a republic Moscow viewed as being part of the USSR began with restrictions on the supply of oil and gas to Lithuania, then other products and raw materials were added. Not surprisingly, prices for these goods shot up and forced the Lithuanian Supreme Council to introduce rationing. Gorbachev then introduced a naval blockade there.
But the Soviet blockade quickly backfired on Moscow, not only because it limited the Soviet government’s ability to supply the non-contiguous Kaliningrad Region but also because Lithuania stopped providing electricity to Soviet army units on its territory and sending goods to the USSR.
Nonetheless, the Soviet sanctions bit and bit hard, and on May 23, the Lithuanian Supreme Council appealed to the international community to consider what Moscow as doing as “economic aggression” and thus a measure that was equivalent to “any other form of aggression” against a foreign state.
Failing to get the support it hoped for, the Lithuanian Supreme Council five weeks later, on June 29, declared a 100-day moratorium on its March 11 declaration and called for negotiations with Moscow. These talks led to nothing, and on December 28, the Council reinstated the March 11 declaration on the restoration of independence.
That action led Gorbachev to send additional Soviet troops to Lithuania — there were already 100,000 there –to enforce the Soviet draft. But in fact, it was an act of intimidation. Two weeks later, on January 13, 1991, those troops fired on peaceful demonstrators at the Vilnius TV tower, killing 13 and ending any chance that Lithuania would remain within the USSR.
This history deserves to be remembered for its own sake, but it also should be recalled for what it says about politics and economics. When a nation has decided on a political choice, it may be quite prepared to suffer even the most severe economic losses in order to achieve what it seeks.
That is something all who believe that sanctions alone are sufficient to achieve their political ends need to recognize. They may be useful, but they are seldom as decisive in such circumstances as their authors imagine.