Prunskiene, Kazimiera (1943—)

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Prunskiene, Kazimiera (1943—)

Lithuanian political leader who served as the first prime minister of the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Lithuania (March 1990–January 1991). Name variations: Kazimiera Danutë Prunskienë. Born Kazimiera Danute Stankeviciute in Vasiuliskiai, Lithuania, on February 26, 1943; daughter of Pranas Stankevicius; recieved a degree in economics, University of Vilnius, 1965; married second husband Algimantis Tarvidas; children: daughters, Dayvita and Raisa; son, Vaidotos.

Kazimiera Prunskiene's life in many ways has reflected the turbulent history of her small Baltic nation. Born during World War II in 1943 in German-occupied Lithuania, she lost her father at the age of two when he was killed in a gunfight with Soviet security forces in the Labanor Forest. After receiving a degree in economics from the University of Vilnius in 1965, she began a career in that institution's industrial economics department. Prunskiene was able to successfully juggle the roles of wife, mother and academician, giving birth to three children between 1963 and 1971.

In 1980, Prunskiene joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, with the onset of perestroika (restructuring) advocated by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Prunskiene set her sights on a career in politics. In 1988, she became one of the founding members of Sajudis, the grass-roots Lithuanian movement that hoped to turn Gorbachev's ideas into reality within the republic. Intelligent, persuasive, and ambitious, by 1989 Prunskiene had become the deputy chair for economic affairs in the Council of Ministers of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as being elected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In 1989, Europe's year of revolutions, the pro-independence Lithuanian Communist Party split from its Soviet "big brother" organization. An alarmed Gorbachev declared these actions to be illegitimate.

In the February 1990 elections for the Lithuanian Supreme Council (Parliament), Sajudis-backed candidates were elected in 72 out of 90 districts, but Prunskiene did not win one of the 141 seats until some time later, when a second round of voting took place. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Council voted 124 to 0, with only six abstentions, in favor of Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union. Although its hastily adopted constitution followed the Soviet model, significantly it dropped the names Soviet and Socialist, calling the new, self-proclaimed sovereign state the Republic of Lithuania. In the delicate world climate of 1990, the United States declined to recognize the nascent nation, and Gorbachev once more repeated his warnings about the invalid and illegitimate nature of these acts.

On March 17, 1990, the Supreme Council of Lithuania appointed Prunskiene prime minister of the newborn republic. She immediately resigned her membership in the Communist Party and began her tenure in office under very tense circumstances. Gorbachev ordered Soviet armed forces to start a series of maneuvers on Lithuanian soil. On March 23, a convoy of Soviet troops entered the capital city of Vilnius, soon seizing the headquarters and other property of the proindependence Lithuanian Communist Party. The greatest challenge Prunskiene and her government faced was the economic embargo put in place by Moscow starting on April 18, which not only halted shipments of oil and natural gas but also barred the delivery by rail of many other essential goods.

In early May, Prunskiene flew to Washington, her trip paid for by Lithuanians in the United States. After a day spent meeting with various members of the U.S. Congress, she headed for the White House. Although she realized that the situation demanded that she be received only as a private citizen, Prunskiene was nevertheless taken aback when her Lincoln sedan was stopped outside the White House gates, and she was thus obliged to walk on foot to her appointment with President George Bush. Her brother Rimantas, who had hoped to sit in on the meeting, was denied access to the grounds and sat on a bench in Lafayette Square. This was later explained by a protocol official as having been the result of a malfunction of the White House gate mechanism. Although little of a concrete nature came from this trip, Washington officials were impressed by Prunskiene's diplomatic skills and determination, and she went on additional trips later the same month to meet with high officials in Bonn, London, and Paris.

Gorbachev rescinded the energy embargo after 74 days. Despite this, Lithuania's economic problems remained massive. Politically, too, the situation was far from ideal, with Prunskiene frequently disagreeing with Vytautis Landsbergis, the powerful Supreme Council chair. One point of contention between the two leaders was Prunskiene's advocacy of taking bolder steps to introduce a market economy into Lithuania. They also debated over the pace toward independence, with Landsbergis being more militant in this regard, and Prunskiene pleading for compromise and reconciliation with the Gorbachev government. The political tensions remained high throughout 1990, but in December of that year Prunskiene was able to enjoy what turned out to be her last popular achievement in office: she attended the historic joint session of the three Baltic parliaments when these national representatives met in Vilnius to dramatize their drive for independence from Soviet rule.

On January 7, 1991, the Soviet commander for the Baltic military district informed the Lithuanian government that its laws absolving military-age males of service in the Soviet armed forces were invalid, and that paratroopers would enforce the draft and round up conscientious objectors. Added to this crisis was one of equal intensity brought on when Prunskiene announced sweeping price hikes for products purchased from other republics. Intended as a major step toward economic reform, these measures infuriated factory workers, who received no pay increases (pensioners and some low-income workers did). Anger and resentment were directed at Prunskiene, who became linked with the dispersal of anti-government demonstrators by fire hoses. The political firestorm put immense pressure on Prunskiene, who now lost much of her parliamentary support. She resigned, being succeeded by Gediminas Vagnorius as prime minister. Prunskiene remained a member of the Supreme Council, but the once-popular leader now had to endure much criticism, including accusations of having abandoned her high office during a grave national crisis. This argument was strengthened by the fact that only a day after her resignation, Soviet soldiers had attacked the Vilnius broadcasting center, an action that resulted in the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians.

Nine months after Prunskiene's resignation, Boris Yeltsin's faction gained the upper hand in Moscow. Bowing to the inevitable, they recognized the independence of Lithuania and the other Baltic republics. Soon after, the Soviet Union was dissolved. In the autumn of 1992, Prunskiene decided not to run for reelection to the Supreme Council. She now stood under a cloud of suspicion after a parliamentary commission leveled charges against her of having collaborated with the Soviet KGB in the early 1980s. She vehemently denied these charges. Whatever verdict history will finally make of her political achievements, Prunskiene went on to found the Lithuanian-European Institute, and in 1995 was elected leader of the Lithuanian Women's Party. She has published 15 books.

sources:

Liswood, Laura A. Women World Leaders: Fifteen Great Politicians Tell Their Stories. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996.

Opfell, Olga S. Women Prime Ministers and Presidents. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Prunskiene, Kazimiera. "Is There a Place for a Woman in Politics?," in New Times International. No. 37. September 1993, pp. 21–23.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Prunskiene, Kazimiera (1943—)

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