True Lithuania

Lithuania at the forefront of anti-Lukashenko activities

2020 08 16 Lithuania became the first country to officially claim it does not recognize the current regime of Belarus, led by Alexander Lukashenko.

According to the official results, the elections were won by long-time president Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994. He received 80,1% percent of the vote with his largest opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya received 10,12% of the vote. She had become the key opposition candidate after the more famous candidates, including her husband, were disqualified from the elections.

After her defeat, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya took refuge in Lithuania, which now put its official support behind the Belarusian opposition. Meanwhile, protests and strikes have been continuing in Belarus since before the election, in protest against Lukashenko. Protests also took place in Vilnius, where many Belarusian opposition figures have traditionally taken refuge and a mostly pro-opposition Belarusian university freely operates.

A protest in front of the Belarusian embassy in Vilnius. Protesters use the old white-red-white Belarusian flag that was official in 1991-1995 before president Lukashenko consolidated his power

A protest in front of the Belarusian embassy in Vilnius. Protesters use the old white-red-white Belarusian flag that was official in 1991-1995 before president Lukashenko consolidated his power. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Since 1994, Belarus is sometimes called "Europe's last dictatorship" in the West, and what happens there resonates in Vilnius more than in any other capital of Europe given that Vilnius is merely 30 km from the Belarusian border.

That said, Lithuanian positions vis-a-vis Belarus had often been less clear than vis-a-vis other ex-Soviet states that have been recently undergoing "democratization" movements.

That is because in these other countries (especially Georgia and Ukraine), there was clear competition between the opposing values: pro-Eastern (pro-Russian) group on the one side, and pro-Local / pro-Western group on the other side, with democratization promoted by the latter. In wars such as that of Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2015 Russia would support the mostly outnumbered pro-Eastern / pro-Russian value groups through military force, and it was only such force that allowed such groups to maintain power and influence disproportional to their numbers.

As Lithuania lived through a similar period of Russian intervention in 1991, Lithuanians are typically very sympathetic to nations in a similar situation. Furthermore, many Lithuanians believe that allowing Russia and its influence to advance further westwards would eventually put Lithuania in danger as well, as it would be the next one in line.

A Georgian postcard of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war times depicts the common feeling among the pro-Local and pro-Western Central/Eastern Europeans of Russia as a bully who or serial criminal who regularly picks her victims from the regional countries

This Georgian postcard of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war times depicts the common feeling among the pro-Local and pro-Western Central/Eastern Europeans. Russia is seen as a bully or a serial criminal who regularly picks her victims from the regional countries and must be stopped

Belarusian situation, however, is very different from those of Georgia and Ukraine. In Georgia, for example, most people (87%) speak Georgian natively and in Ukraine, a weaker majority (68%) speak Ukrainian. In Belarus, however, the Russian language has mostly displaced Belarusian in a similar fashion as English did displace Irish Gaelic in Ireland (24% of Belarus's population speak Belarusian at home and 70% speak Russian). This is just an example of a larger trend, whereas Russian culture is far more internalized in Belarus than in all the other nations of the former Soviet Union (except for Russia itself). To many Belarusians, even those without Russian origins, the Russian culture does not seem to be as foreign / non-local, as it does to western Ukrainians, Georgians, or Lithuanians.

Because of this, the Belarusian opposition is also not rallying around a typical pro-Western stance that characterized the post-Soviet democratic political discourse in much of Eastern Europe. Thus any support for Belarusian opposition in Lithuania often used to be met with skepticism, with claims such as:

*The status-quo in Belarus is not bad for Lithuania. While Lukashenko sometimes speaks in favor of Russia and even sought to create a Russian-Belarusian confederacy in the 1990s, he has actually sternly maintained the independence of Belarus since. He did not support the Russian invasions of its neighboring countries and did not recognize the Russian-established statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unlike some other Russian allies such as Venezuela or Syria.
*The conduct of the opposition is not anyhow different vis-a-vis Russia than that of the Lukashenko's regime. In fact, some key opposition leaders are arguably even more pro-Russian than Lukashenko himself. This raises the worry that a regime change in Belarus may actually mean increased Russian influence there or that the shelved idea of "Russian-Belarusian state" would be brought into political realm once again.
*The group of Belarusian opposition that is definitely not pro-Russian is the pro-Local group (often called "Belarusian nationalists") but that one is problematic to Lithuania as well due to its belief that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a Belarusian state and Vilnius a Belarusian city. Lithuanian coat of arms is widely used by the Belarusian pro-local opposition as a Belarusian symbol. While claims such as "Belarus should be renamed Lithuania, and Lithuania should be renamed Samogitia" or "Vilnius should return to Belarus" are now limited to fringe internet forums in part due to curbs on this type of "Belarusian nationalism" by Lukashenko's regime, it is possible they could get wider attention should the Belarusian regime change (Lithuanian coat of arms was, in a slightly different design, also briefly made the official Belarusian coat of arms before Lukashenko came to power, and would likely be restored again). Thus, the increase of the influence of this camp could potentially lead to Lithuanian-Belarusian diplomatic disputes similar to the ones between Greece and (North) Macedonia.

Belarusian coat of arms official in 1991-1995 (left) and Lithuanian coat of arms (right), both are differently modernized versions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania coat of arms

Belarusian coat of arms official in 1991-1995 (left) and Lithuanian coat of arms (right), both are differently modernized versions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania coat of arms

After the crackdown on the post-election protests in Belarus, however, it seems Lithuanians are increasingly moving towards the pro-Belarusian-opposition camp or at least believing that a regime change could not be for worse. After all, the tacit support of status quo in Belarus among some of Lithuania's population was largely based on the idea that even though Lukashenko monopolized the political sphere, the general life in Belarus remained quite safe and free (compared to that of the 1980s Soviet Union or Putin's Russia, for example).

This notion was seriously challenged as the arrests and stories of protesters being beaten up mounted.

Yet few in Lithuania could predict what exactly could a new regime in Belarus bring: unlike in the Ukraine or Georgia, there are arguably no important Belarusian political figures whose views resonate closely to those of Lithuania. And, unlike Ukraine whose recent history may be described as a tug of war between clearly defined pro-Eastern, pro-Western, and pro-Local groupings, the Belarusian political life was in single hands for too long to understand well what is beyond that.

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