True Lithuania

Ethnic relations in modern Lithuania (1990-)

As Lithuania became independent in 1990, Lithuanian culture flourished once again, while ethnic minorities were allowed full democratic participation. However, past discrimination suffered by Lithuanians made Lithuanians wary of these perils returning. On the other hand, some people from ethnicities that enjoyed a privileged past wished to see it returning, and such tensions, while low-scale, were used by foreign powers (especially Russia) to gain supporters among Lithuania's minorities. The need to "safeguard Lithuania from another Russian invasion" was among the reasons for swift integration into Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. However, the EU integration also caused an unprecedented foreign influence over Lithuania (excluding the times of occupations) and massive levels of migration

Lithuanian-Polish relations (post-1990). As Poles make a majority in some Lithuanian municipalities they were able to establish a successful political party and demanded more rights to their language (such as using Polish placenames in minority-majority areas or writing their names in Polish letters). Lithuanians largely refused, seeing this as "dangerous" (the collective memory of Polonization still lingered). The tension created by these issues remained on the political level. On some questions, the common Polish views go in-line with those of patriotic/conservative Lithuanians (e.g. the importance of Catholic faith), while on others they are the exact opposite (e.g. language policy). The fact that Poland is now an ally of Lithuania (within NATO since 2004) generally helped to achieve a moderate reconciliation on historical issues.

Plaque with a Lithuanian street name and its Polish translation in ~92% Polish Medininkai village (Vilnius district municipality). These plaques, installed by the Polish-majority municipalities, are part of a long legal struggle that typically finds them illegal and contravening the official language laws. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (post-1990). After some initial tension ~1990 (when many Russians still sought to restore the Soviet Union) Lithuanians and local Russians found a peaceful modus vivendi by the late 1990s as Lithuanians increasingly stopped fearing a Russian invasion. Some third of Lithuania's Russians emigrated in the early 1990s (including most responsible for the Soviet Genocide). Still, some of those who remained also had anti-Lithuanian opinions and often chose not to learn the Lithuanian language. However, their children would usually speak Lithuanian and become more integrated. By the 2000s, anybody who would see the local Russian minority as dangerous would have been considered an alarmist. After the resurgence of Russian Imperialism under Putin and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, however, the Lithuanian-Russian relations soured yet again. Increasingly many Russians shown outward pro-Imperialist signs (e.g. the George Strips), while a wary Lithuanian government banned some Russian TV stations for broadcasting anti-Lithuanian propaganda.

Grafitti on the barricades that were used to fend off the invading Soviet-Russian troops in 1991 January depicts Russia as a monster devouring the smaller nations. Such an image of Russian goals would sometimes take a backseat and sometimes resurge, but never fully dissipate. The events of 1991 January themselves cause a great rift between Lithuanians and Russians, as they are still recent enough for most Lithuanians to remember them well, while Russian media has created and disseminated conspiracy theories claiming that these events were a Lithuanian 'inside job'. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Polish-Russian relations (post-1990). After 1990 independence the Polish and Russian causes divulged as the communities were very different: Russians were mostly urban and less religious while Poles were mostly rural and very religious. In the 2010s, however, the expanding Polish party has been increasingly successful to also attract the Russian electorate. The gap between communities may have dwindled as more Russians became religious and more Poles adopted an urban lifestyle. Furthermore, local Poles still regard the Soviet Union somewhat less negatively than Lithuanians, making them seem to be natural allies for Russians in an era when fear of a new Russian occupation made Lithuanians distrust Russians once again.

Valdemar Tomaševski, the leader of the Polish minority rights party, is wearing a St. George's strip during the times of Ukraine war. This symbols came to symbolize Russian imperialism and such Tomaševski's actions were denounced by Poland's politicians who also widely support Ukraine against Russia. However, in Lithuania, local Russians and Poles seem to have more common ground than Poles of Poland have with the Russians from Russia. Image ©V. Balkūnas, source 'Lietuvos Rytas'.

Russian-Russophone** relations (post-1990). Even after independence the Russification of non-Russian Soviet minorities (Belarusians, Ukrainians) continued. Russian-Belarusian and Russian-Ukrainian marriages are extremely common, and the offspring usually considers himself/herself Russian and has Russian as the native language. However, as the Lithuanian economic situation improved, more people of ex-Soviet nationalities immigrated and these new migrants often shared more patriotic and even anti-Russian views (especially after Russia's 2000s-2010s invasions into Georgia and Ukraine).

Lithuanian-Russophone** relations (post-1990). After achieving their independence, Lithuanians tended to extend compassion and support to those ex-Soviet nations who also sought similar freedom, peace, and democracy, especially Chechens in the 1990s, Georgians ~2008, Ukrainians ~2014, and Belarusians. Such support would come from both the people and the state, often angering Russia. It included charity, memorials, official celebrations of these minorities' national days, accepting migrants and more. On the other hand, the more Russified / pro-Russian people of these ex-Soviet minorities are generally seen the same way as Russians are.

A monument for the president of de facto independent Chechnya Dzhokhar Dudayev in Vilnius. The freedom struggle he led against Russia inspired many Lithuanians, who could relate to the Chechens. The memorial is adorned by a poem of a famous Lithuanian poet Sigitas Geda: 'My son! If you will survive until the next century / And you'll once stop to look around from the heights of Caucasus / Remember that there too were men who had risen a nation / And went on to defend the sacred ideals of Freedom.' Parts of the poem invisible after the memorial was vandalized, likely by the local Russians. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (post-1990). To most local Jews the most important change independence of Lithuania brought was the possibility to leave the economically ravaged Lithuania without having to face Soviet bureaucracy. 75% of Lithuania's remaining Jewry did so between 1989 and 2011, making the relative decline nearly similar to that of the 1923-1959 period (which included the Holocaust) and leaving just 3000 Jews in Lithuania. As such, the Lithuanian-Jewish relations increasingly became those between the now-free Lithuanians and diaspora Jews. The opening of borders allowed the free exchange of opinions for the first time since 1940, and the rift seemed big. Diaspora Jews understood and cared little about what Lithuanians have suffered during the Soviet occupation; they, however, cared much about Holocaust victims and knew that some perpetrators were still hiding in Lithuania. Lithuanians, on the other hand, knew surprisingly little about the Holocaust (as their forefathers have not suffered it while the Soviet view did not accentuate Jews as the key victims). On the other hand, Lithuanians suffered a lot under Soviet Genocide when victims would often be killed after false allegations. As such, Lithuania of the early 1990s attempted to rehabilitate all the victims of the Soviet regime, which would have also included the small percentage that was tried for real war crimes. After Jewish protests, such attempts were quashed. Lithuania then initiated court cases against WW2-era collaborators with the Nazi German occupational regime and, feeling a further pressure of diaspora Jews (mostly via the US and Israeli governments), paid over 100 million Litas to largely diaspora-ruled Jewish organizations in compensation for Soviet-nationalized Jewish properties (a remedy not available to any other ethnic community, even though all communities faced the Soviet nationalization and property destruction). While learning about the Jewish heritage of Lithuania became popular and many memorials were built for the Jewish tragedy, many Lithuanians also feel that this "coming to terms with history" is extremely one-sided: Israel has refused to either try or extradite Jews who participated in the Soviet Genocide of Lithuanians, while some diaspora Jews became instrumental in the Soviet Genocide denial. Seemingly few diaspora Jews try to understand Lithuanians in the same way as Lithuanians now try to understand Jews. This is likely because Western-based Jews often consider the situation in WW2 era Eastern Europe through the lens of the WW2-era Western Europe. The fact is, that throughout the Cold War (1940-1990) the World War 2 *in Western Europe* was well researched, and the situation there had been a relatively simple two-sided war between the genocidal totalitarian Nazi Germany and independent Western European countries (France, UK, the Netherlands, Belgium). World War 2 in Eastern Europe, including Lithuania, was a much more complex affair, however, with two genocidal totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) overrunning free countries; moreover, throughout the Cold War, there was no independent research into these areas, with many facts, numbers established arbitrarily by the Soviet propaganda. In the 1990s, the first post-WW2 local independent research discovered what the Soviets had manipulated and attempted to hide, and sought to share their knowledge with the West. For example, the Soviet murders that dwarfed the Holocaust in numbers (that had previously been known only from the personal accounts of the few survivors who fled to the West) became well-researched and much-talked-about among the Eastern European historians after 1990. To some Jews of the free Western World, however, such newly-available research was difficult to come in terms with, as in the Western European WW2 history it was any "new research" that typically came from biased sources, rather than vice-versa. Since the 2000s, wishing to keep a good relationship with Jews, Lithuanians are often directing their research away from potentially controversial issues, leaving the Holocaust underresearched (the "holes" in research are often replaced by empathic media-style declarations that are sometimes based on the old Soviet-era biased research or on guesses).

A sculpture to a Jewish doctor Tsemakh Shabad in Vilnius is just one among several thousand statues, memorial plaques and other symbols dedicated to Jews erected in post-1990s Lithuania that has filled the 'void of knowledge' about Jewish life that existed in Soviet Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nongypsy-Gypsy relations (post-1990). As Lithuania became independent, the Gypsy district (Taboras) of Vilnius became a major drug sale point which has also contravened other laws, e.g. avoiding paying for electricity. Lithuanian government attempts to curtail this by establishing a heavy police presence or relocating the Gypsies altogether generally failed until the 2010s. While the Romani people were few in number and would not have garnered wider attention, bigger problems in the Southeast Europe where Gypsies are more numerous led to various international initiatives to improve the conditions for the community.

Children playing at the Čigonų (Gypsy) street in Taboras of Vilnius. With high birth rates, unofficial teenage marriages, illegal economy and schacks in place of homes this remains a favela-like world apart from the non-Gypsy world. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (post-1990). After the 1990 independence, Lithuanians began to eagerly explore the Western culture and sought to imitate the more effective and democratic economic and political systems. Helped by a few early Westerner immigrants, various Western traditions also came into Lithuania, usually resulting in a unique fusion. After Lithuania joined the EU, Western influence became more direct and not always welcome. Some Westerners (such as Western European officials) looked down upon Lithuania, explaining certain cultural differences to mean that Lithuanians are "backward" and that they will eventually "come up with the West". This made some Lithuanians (including those who signed the Declaration of Independence) question the Western influence, claiming that such viewpoints remind those of colonialist nations. However, the majority continued to follow the "Westerner steps", replacing more and more cultural traits with the "superior" Western ones.

During the 2000s, English language has largely displaced the Lithuanian language from trademarks (even Lithuanian-owned). Only 5 out of 29 visible here on Panorama mall are Lithuanian-language, all of them created at 1995 or earlier. European Union regulations largely render Lithuania powerless in promoting its language for local commerce. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-African/Asian/Latin relations (post-1990). After 1990 the first Asians (excluding Russophones**) and, to a lesser extent, Africans and Latin Americans came to live in Lithuania. Lithuania was poor, so nearly all of them were either cultural migrants (fond of Lithuanian culture) or people who knew well in advance what to do in Lithuania (e.g. establishing ethnic cuisine restaurants or playing basketball professionally). As such, the Lithuanian views towards these early migrants were positive; some of them became TV or musical celebrities precisely because of their "exotic looks". There was no "political correctness" in the Western sense (whereby one is expected not to notice racial differences); the differences were noticed but treated with respect by the majority. As time passed and Lithuania grew richer, however, it became a minor destination for economic migrants who had fewer possibilities to prosper. Additionally, the reputation of Africans/Asians/Latin Americans was somewhat tarnished by Lithuanian emigrants to the West, who would report to their relatives back in Lithuania about the problems Western countries had with their non-European-originated populations. In this way, negative opinions on some groups (especially the Muslims) were imported from the West. European Union decisions to "share" illegal migrants are also expected to import the Western problem of the ethnic-religious conflict itself, unheard of in Lithuania for decades. The idea of Western-style "political correctness" and self-censorship is also currently promoted by some, mostly as a supposed benefit for these new migrants.

One of the many small groups of immigrants that capitalized on their 'exotic looks' were the Native Americans from Bolivia. Typically they would dress in their ethnic costumes and sell records of Native American music in streets, sometimes playing their folk music instruments themselves. Currently, the people in the major cities are already too used to various races and ethnic traditions for such 'marketing' to work. However, the Native American music salesmen may still get attention in small towns, such as during the Zarasai town festival of 2015 in this image. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Westerners (as used in this article) are people of the Western world, except for Germans. The group includes British, French, Spanish, Italian, American, Scandinavian, Dutch, and other Western ethnicities.
**Russophones (as used in this article) are ethnicities of the former Soviet Union (mainly Soviet settlers and their children), excluding Russians. Many of them speak Russian natively, most others speak better Russian than Lithuanian (hence the term). The two largest Russophone ethnicities are Belarusians and Ukrainians, smaller groups include people from Caucasus, Central Asia, Volga region, and Moldova.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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