Vilnius                 -         Thirty years ago the Baltic republic of Lithuania declared independence, marking the start of the break-up of the 15-member Soviet Union, which imploded in December 1991.

Here is a snapshot of how Lithuania’s move led to the former Cold War superpower unravelling.

 Human chain

On August 23, 1989, two million people linked hands across the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a peaceful call for independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The enormous human chain connecting the capitals Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius marked the anniversary of the secret 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact that had brought them under Moscow’s occupation since World War II.

Three months earlier, in Poland, the first democratic elections in Eastern Europe’s Soviet-allied communist bloc had swept Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc independent trade union to power, riding the perestroika (reform) policy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1989 socialist regimes in the six Eastern bloc countries broke away from Moscow one after the other. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9.

Lithuania leads the way

On March 11, 1990, Lithuania became the first republic of the Soviet Union to secede.

Estonia and Latvia followed Lithuania’s lead in the following weeks, while adopting a more gradual approach to avoid irking Moscow.

Determined to keep the 15-country Soviet Union united, Soviet leader Gorbachev quickly acted to counter Lithuania’s independence.

He imposed an embargo on oil and natural gas deliveries to the republic.

And at dawn on January 13, 1991 Soviet tanks attacked thousands of independence supporters gathered around the television and radio tower in Vilnius, killing 14 people and injuring 700.

The next day the three Baltic republics nonetheless received the backing of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Domino effect

In the course of 1990, 11 of the 12 other Soviet republics also declared sovereignty, including giant Russia on June 12, 1990, driven by democracy hero Yeltsin.

Ukraine, one of the biggest and economically promising republics which was traditionally shy of nationalist movements, did so in July.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan declared their sovereignty as well. In the remaining republic, Georgia, the pro-independence movement won its first free elections and it declared independence the next year.

 Soviet end

Yeltsin played a key role in foiling an August 19 coup by hardline communists who sought to oust Gorbachev and prevent a break-up of the USSR.

On August 24, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president and dissolved the Communist Party’s central committee. Ukraine declared independence that same day, one of nine Soviet republics to do so in August and September.

Moscow officially recognised the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on September 6.

They gained membership of the United Nations 10 days later.

On December 8, 1991 the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, agreed the Soviet Union “no longer exists”, formalising the creation of 15 separate countries.

In 2004, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO