Thirty years ago today, on 27 August 1991, the United Kingdom gave formal de jure recognition to the Republic of Lithuania, with diplomatic relations being formally re-established on 4 September the same year. The restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain presented fewer logistical difficulties than with most other nations: Lithuania already had an ambassador-in-waiting in London, Vincas Balickas, who had been there since 1938 and even enjoyed some limited diplomatic recognition during the years of Lithuania’s occupation as a ‘diplomat in Britain welcomed by Her Majesty’s Government’. But politically speaking, the recognition of Lithuania in 1991 was a more complex matter. Lithuania had unilaterally declared independence from the USSR on 11 March 1990, but this act went unrecognised by the USSR, which attempted to re-establish control of Lithuania by force on the night of 13 January 1991. The attempt failed, and independent Lithuania endured, but the renascent state had few military resources to protect itself.
Soviet atrocities like the Medininkai massacre on 31 July 1991 (the killing of 7 Lithuanian border guards by Soviet security forces) may have been designed to underline Lithuania’s inability to establish a stable and well-protected border, and therefore undermine Lithuania’s credibility as a nation state worthy of recognition by the member states of the European Economic Community. There was also a specific issue of contention in Lithuanian-UK relations: the fact that the Lithuanian state had deposited gold for safekeeping in the Bank of England before the Second World War, which the restored state sought to reclaim. The Chairman of the Supreme Council, Vytautas Landsbergis, visited London in November 1990 in order to meet with Mrs Thatcher about the Lithuanian gold issue. Lithuania finally reclaimed its gold from the Bank of England on 31 March 1992.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the USSR was on the brink of collapse in the summer of 1991; but at the time, the fragility of the Soviet state was still not fully understood in the West. Many thought the USSR would persevere without the Baltic states, or manage to reincorporate them; it was feared that a coup would overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev (which did in fact happen) and install Communist Party hardliners or a Red Army junta. The collapse of the nuclear-armed USSR was feared – understandably – by many in the West, as unimaginable chaos might have ensued. The Baltic states’ unilateral declarations of independence were therefore viewed with a degree of alarm by Western governments like Margaret Thatcher’s, even if those governments were sympathetic in principle to the Baltic struggle for freedom. The UK government seems to have been anxious not to further destabilise the Soviet Union, preferring to sit by and see events take their course.
Accordingly, when Lithuania voted overwhelmingly to confirm its choice of independence in a referendum on 9 February 1991, the UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hogg declined to recognise Lithuania’s independence on that basis alone. Lithuania, Hogg maintained, did not yet meet the criteria for diplomatic recognition: it did not yet have a clearly defined territory, a government able to exercise control of that territory (perhaps a reference to the USSR’s border violations), or independence in its external relations (perhaps a reference to the USSR’s continuing claim over Lithuania). In a speech in the House of Lords, the Lithuanian-British peer Lord Kagan seemed to suggest that it would be preferable if Lithuania remained somehow part of the Soviet Union, as a semi-autonomous bridge between the USSR and the West, and deplored the confrontation between Lithuania and the Soviet Union. Clearly, this was a view out of touch with the reality in both Vilnius and Moscow, but it reflected a widely held belief that if Gorbachev could remain in power and take Glasnost even further, the USSR might evolve into something more like the EEC.
The failed August Coup against Gorbachev on the night of 18–19 August resulted in Estonia and Latvia declaring independence on 20 and 21 August respectively. Lithuania was no longer alone, and the response of the EEC was immediate. With the collapse of the Communist Party of the USSR, any hope of Moscow re-establishing control of the Baltic republics was gone, and on 27 August the foreign ministers of all member states of the EEC, including the United Kingdom, recognised the re-established republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.