By Liudas Dapkus

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) – When Mykolas Burokevicius steps through the gates of Lukiskes Prison as a free man on Friday, the 78-year-old former Communist Party leader will find a very different country from the one he once helped rule.
His release after serving 12 years for murder and other crimes falls on the solemn anniversary of a bloody 1991 Soviet crackdown on independence-seekers that he helped to orchestrate.

“This is a coincidence that leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” said 53-year-old engineer Antanas Sakalauskas.

Sakalauskas still walks with a limp, favoring the leg that was pinned under a tank 15 years ago when Soviet special forces lay siege to the Vilnius TV tower. Fourteen people died in that siege and hundreds were wounded.

“It’s not good that he’ll be freed on such a day, but in this case, everything is legal. If we want to be a democratic country, we must respect the law,” Sakalauskas said.

The attack, and another in neighboring Latvia a week later that left five dead, was a last show of force in the Baltics for the crumbling Soviet empire. The attacks, far from quashing hopes of independence, only emboldened hundreds of thousands in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to demand freedom, which they gained later that year.

The three Baltic countries were independent nations until World War II, when they were occupied in turn by the Soviet Red Army, Nazi Germany and in 1944 again by the Soviet Union.

Lithuanians will gather at the parliament building on Friday to light symbolic bonfires and remember those killed and maimed while demonstrating for independence 15 years ago. They will also visit the TV tower to lay flowers and light candles for the victims.

Burokevicius, who took his orders from Moscow and led a group intent on preventing Lithuania from regaining independence, may opt to leave for Russia, where six colleagues who stood trial with him went after being released from prison.

If he stays, he will find a country that has shed its Soviet past and been transformed by independence and market reform into one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.

Should Burokevicius pass by Parliament, where thousands gathered in the siege’s aftermath in 1991 to protect it from takeover, he may see people laying flowers near a section of barricade left standing as a reminder of lives lost.

Some think Burokevicius’ release sullies those memories.

“This is a disgrace to the memory of those people who died for the freedom of this country,” said Stase Asanaviciene, whose 23-year-old daughter, Loreta, was killed in the siege when she was run down by a tank.

Others, though, say Burokevicius has paid his debt.

“He is an old, ailing man, let him go. I know, our past is important, but the future worries me much more,” said student Justinas Acas, 20, who learned about the Soviet crackdown from his history books.

Acas said he is worried that so many of his countrymen, including his father and brother, are using their hard-won freedom to move abroad.

Today, the Baltic countries are firmly in the mold of Western democracies as members of the European Union and NATO. They are still poor, by comparison, but growing faster than Western neighbors.

With a free press, free market and open borders, they are the envy of many other former Soviet republics that have plunged into poverty and instability.

Still, many Lithuanians worry about growing emigration leading to a declining labor force, and about corruption and drugs.

“Those are very serious challenges, but I think Lithuania will be able to cope with all of that,” said Romas Sakadolskis, an American-Lithuanian, who worked at Voice of America for 32 years but returned to Lithuania after independence.

Sakadolskis believes the experiences of Central and Eastern European countries that broke free from communism “can strengthen the intellectual foundations of the EU with new political and social ideas, enrich it with a different cultural spirit.

“I believe Lithuania has much to tell the rest of the world,” he said.

Fifteen years of economic and political progress have not been enough to improve Baltic relations with Russia, which still maintains the three countries joined the Soviet Union willingly.

Moscow continues to ignore Lithuanian demands to hand over paratroopers who took part in the siege for prosecution. It also refuses to discuss compensation for damages incurred during five decades of Soviet rule.

Russia has its own complaints. It routinely accuses Latvia and Estonia of discriminating against the hundreds of thousands of native Russian-speakers who lived in the two countries during Soviet times. Partly as a result, neither country has been able to complete a border treaty with Russia.

Sakalauskas, who spent months in hospitals as doctors pieced together the crushed bones in his leg, said he never lost hope for Lithuania’s future, even through the darkest times of his life.

“In January 1991, we lost the battle,” he said, “but we won the war.”