True Lithuania

Lithuanians worried about the Ukraine events

2014 03 20. All the major Lithuanian media outlets have been recently dominated by the stories on the Ukrainian events, where Russia invaded and annexed Crimean peninsula. Even the upcoming elections have been set aside.

Having spent 170 out of the previous 225 years under two different Russian occupations (Imperial and Soviet), both of which involved persecutions, discrimination, and/or genocide, the events in Crimea ring a much closer bell to Lithuania than they do to the West.

Soviet past makes Lithuanians see the Russian media reports differently

Unlike the Westerners Lithuanians still remember what it means to live under a non-democratic regime, when the votes are all rigged and the media controlled by the government. Therefore while a few Western journalists prefer to see the players of "European power game" (Russia and USA) as "similar", few Lithuanians would dare to do that. Even fewer would believe that Crimean referendum has not been rigged or that Russian media stories about Ukraine have any credibility. Sacking of Russia's media leaders who are not pro-Kremlin, 97%+ high-turnout referendum votes, unanimous decisions in the Russian parliament and other events have reminded of the Soviet Union too much, while the crackdown on blogs is regarded here as a 21st-century continuation of Soviet policies.

Democratic and non-democratic societies are fundamentally different: while in a democratic society many government wrongdoings eventually come into the light (through media or whistleblowers like Wikileaks or Snowden), in an undemocratic society extremely few do, therefore it is impossible to morally compare US actions to Russia's actions based on what is publically known.

Furthermore, in an undemocratic society media could not be trusted as a source at all. As recently resigned Russian journalists put it, Russian media is inventing news from scratch rather than "saying something but not saying something else" as happens in the democratic societies. Lithuanians, like other neighboring nations, have been targets of what became known there as the "Russia's informational war" themselves too many times to believe in similar-styled attacks on others.

"Russia's informational war" is mostly aimed at the opinions of people outside of the events it portrays - Russians (to rally them for a cause) and Westerners (to smear the Russia's opponents and decrease the foreign support they enjoy). Many Lithuanians, however, have relatives, friends and acquaintances in both Russia and Ukraine, some visit these countries regularly, so they better know the real situation there and the true local opinions.

However much a Westerner would be critical of media, he/she accepts as an axiom that every news report is at least half-true. This is well-used by Russian media as it means that completely invented stories are at least half-believed by many Westerners. This wouldn't work among Lithuanians who know what is a non-democratic media (having lived under Soviet occupation until 1990) and have seen evidence with their own eyes that modern Russian media is no different.

January 1991 Russian invasion of Vilnius that left 14 Lithuanian civilians dead and 702 injured is a vivid memory to most Lithuanians (who were either there themselves or have friends who were). Recently Russian media has claimed that Lithuanians themselves, rather than the Russian army (as contemporary images, e.g. the left one, show) did this rampage. Such accusations seem eerily similar to the accusations on Ukrainian 'Euromaidan' activists, leading most Lithuanians to ridicule the latter.

Reactions of Lithuanians to the Ukraine events

Lithuanians have shown their solidarity with Ukraine in many ways. Many Lithuanians changed their facebook profile images to a Ukrainian flag. Even in the March 11th independence day celebrations Ukrainian anthem was played in addition to Lithuanian and slogans were chanted in the Ukrainian language. However, politicians were more wary of showing active support this time than during the Ukraine's Orange Revolution (2004) or the Russian invasion of Georgia (2008), when Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus was the first foreign head of state to visit Tbilisi while the war was still raging.

Lithuanian political scientists noted a rather lackluster Western support for Ukraine in what was the first time in Europe after World War 2 when one country annexed a part of another. This has raised fear of another East-West division where Lithuania would be ceded to Russia, as was done in World War 2 conferences (which allowed the Soviets to continue their genocide). The Crimea situation has been compared to largely unopposed invasions of Sudetenland by Hitler's Germany. Sudetenland also was a German-majority area outside of Germany, just as Crimea is a Russian-majority area outside Russia.

What is perhaps even more worrisome to Lithuanians is that people all over Russia reacted to Crimean annexation with great joy. In the West, even wars that don't involve annexations now raise a considerable opposition, while an attempt to invade and annex a part of a neighboring nation justifying on "ethnic similarity" would be a political suicide. In Russia, however, such rhetoric (reminiscent of the ~1900 colonial "scramble of the world") still stirs pride among the vast majority and this is precisely why many Lithuanians see a danger in Russia, but not in Germany or Poland. Furthermore, the unresponded Russian military actions against newly-independent states gets increasingly serious: Transnistria, carved out of Moldova in 1992, has not been de jure recognized even by Russia itself; in 2008 after the invasion of Georgia Russians recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, but not formally annexed them; in 2014 Crimea was swiftly annexed by Russia. "Could an attack on the NATO-member Baltic States be the next Russia's action to test the (lack of) Western response?" question lingers in media and Vilnius cafes alike.

This quote said by George W. Bush in 2002 still proudly hangs on the Vilnius City Hall (bottom right of the image). Would it hold strong today? US vicepresident Biden on his 2014 March visit to Lithuania claimed it would. But just as every unresponded Russian aggression erodes the trust Lithuanians have in Russia, it also somewhat erodes the trust Lithuanians have in the West. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While all the major and most minor Lithuanian political parties stand firm in their support of Ukraine and criticising Russia's new policies, the Lithuanian election, and referendum dates are getting closer, leading to using the Ukraine events for local political gains. Nearly every political party has been recently accused by its opponents of being pro-Russian. And after a long period in 2000s when being "Pro-Russian" had been a somewhat fashionable "pragmatic policy" (which, it was hoped, would bring business opportunities) after the Russians invaded Crimea being pro-Russian suddenly became politically incorrect. After some 10 years, the Russia's threat is once again widely regarded as grave across the political spectrum rather than just a few leaders denounced as "stuck-in-the-past" by peers.

Pro-Russian sentiment is still more common among Lithuania's Russian and Russophone minorities, totalling ~8% of population. Most of these people are Soviet settlers or their descendants; they and their Russian language and culture enjoyed a privileged status over Lithuanian during the Soviet era. Given the Russia's play of "ethnic card" in the annexation of Crimea (where the existence of Russian community is also a consequence of Russian Imperial and Soviet policies) the Lithuanians feel extremely worried after Russia recently increased its criticism for Estonia on its language policies. Increased Russian media attacks have been a prerequisite in previous invasions (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014). While Estonia's (and Lithuania's) older Russians and Russophones speak only Russian, the young generation is somewhat assimilated, speaks the local language and English in addition to native Russian, and largely sees a future in the Baltic States or even further West - a process that may decrease Russia's influence over the time if it is not reversed.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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