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A Tale of Two Marches 11 March 2012

March 11 is Lithuania's Declaration of Independence Day. While February 16 is better known as Lithuanian Independence Day - when Lithuania again became a nation after more than a century of Russian Tsarist rule - the March 11 date remembers the end of Soviet annexation following World War II.

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Over the last few years the holiday has become embroiled in controversy as a right-wing parade down the main street of Vilnius has become the unwanted focus of what is a day long celebration of independence.

Despite goverment, church and public attempts to create more appropriate memorials, the headlines have inevitably centred around the march, which in 2008 drew world-wide condemnation when participants were openly brandishing swastikas and chanting anti-semetic as well as nationalistic slogans.

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This year the march attracted around 1000 who gathered behind the Cathedral and then made their way down Gedimino Prospektas to Vasario 16-osios Street where there were speeches by organisers, politicians and signatories of Lithuania's 1990 Declaration of Independence.

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Flanked by some 200 police, the authorities kept a close eye on marchers, and the only incident was when an onlooker was restrained.

In contrast, another action was organised from 4pm, when Lithuanians were encouraged to assemble simply to celebrate Lithuania's freedom and tolerance.

marchers
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One group gathered at Kudirko Square where they were entertained by musicians, and then moved down Gedimino Prospektas to the Music Academy. The route was punctuated by street performances of drummers, singers, samba, break dancing and street theatre.

Another group gathered at Seimas and similarly headed to the Music Academy. Politicians, artists and public carried a Lithuanian flag made by disabled children which was draped over the balcony of the Music Academy.

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Algirdas Kaušpėdas, a musician and Sąjūdis leader addressed the crowd, and opera singer Vytautas Juozapaitis sang the Lithuanian national anthem before a dj played for the assembled crowd.

This time the police happily stayed in the background of what was a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere content to wait until the crowd slowly dispersed.

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In truth both marches were orderly though contrasting examples of ways to exercise your democratic rights.

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