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Lithuanian History

Present-day Lithuanians, along with Latvians and ancient Prussians, are descendants of the Balts, an Indo-European ethnic group that settled on the Baltic coast 4000 years ago. The name of Lithuania was first mentioned in the Quedlinburg Annals in 1009. Under Grand Duke Mindaugas, who is recognized as the founder of Lithuania, and under the rule of Grand Duke Gediminas, the territory was extended during the 14th century southwards to take in Minsk and later as far as the Black Sea. This power enabled Lithuania to withstand the advance of the Teutonic Knights and to reach, together with Poland, the decisive victory at the Zalgiris (Tannenberg) battle in 1410.

At the Union of Lublin in 1569, a full-scale merger between Lithuania and Poland took place, creating ‘The Joint Republic of the Polish Kingdom and Lithuanian Grand Duchy’. However, the ensuing centuries showed that this was insufficient to protect Lithuania from the territorial ambitions of other regional powers. Russia took possession of part of Lithuania in 1795 (the western region was claimed by Prussia) and held on to it until the early 20th century. The Russians were driven out by the German army during World War I and, after the Bolshevik revolution brought an end to Russian involvement in World War I, the Lithuanian Council declared independence in February 1918. In 1921, Lithuania joined the League of Nations.

The status of Lithuania was again altered following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, whose secret protocols allowed for a Soviet takeover of all three Baltic Republics. Lithuania was occupied by the German Army in 1941 until its re-annexation by the Soviets three years later. The republic underwent some industrialization and the immigration of ethnic Russians between the 1950s and the mid-1980s, though not on the scale experienced by Estonia or Latvia.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Russia in 1985, the population still comprised 80-90 per cent ethnic Lithuanians. Taking advantage of the less repressive political climate, pressure for political and economic reform in Lithuania grew. When the Berlin Wall, and the fall of Communism saw a country wanting to assert its independence once again. Lithuania was able to deal fairly quickly with several outstanding issues concerning its larger neighbors: the long-running border dispute with Poland was settled with the signing of a friendship and co-operation treaty in January 1992, and negotiations with Russia led to the withdrawal of the remaining Russian troops in Lithuania in August 1993. Lithuania’s main priorities abroad were to secure membership of the European Union and of NATO. The country has fulfilled the entrance criteria for accession to the EU. Following a referendum in May 2003, at which over 90% of voters endorsed EU membership, and in May 2004 the country joined the EU with other Eastern Bloc countries.

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