Thirty years ago, it was said that “everything will change” in Lithuania when a new generation emerges, uninfluenced by the Soviets. The public had to mature and become more aware.
What does the fallen trust in traditional parties and growing popularity of non-partisan political entities and protest votes show? LŽ discussed what these trends promise us and when we will finally mature for real democracy with Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science political scientists Algimantas Jankauskas and Vytis Jurkonis.
A. Jankauskas remarks that at the dawn of independence 30 years ago, the move towards democracy was perceived in an overly simplified way. “Today we must conclude that the post-communist sphere experienced not a transitory period, but formed in its own way. Thus, we have a post-communist state of being, which is hybrid in its nature – in it you have some parts brought over from the soviet era and some parts taken from the West. This hybrid has entrenched itself, has a basis for existence and will not vanish all of a sudden,” he points out.
In regard to the maturation of the public, A. Jankauskas notes that democracy itself is undergoing major changes, having begun changing and reached its limits following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The political scientist emphasises that at this point, no one can tell in what direction the world will go.
He explains that the post-Soviet countries thus face a dual challenge – having not yet been able to resolve old problems stemming from soviet times, they also face the Western world order undergoing a tumultuous time period.
Meanwhile, V. Jurkonis highlights that East and Central Europe actively mimicked Western institutions, however there was little understanding that not everything could be transferred immediately. With deeply entrenched corruption remaining and subverting the, as the political scientist puts it, façade of democratic statehood, elections, political processes, news media and all else are harmed. He points to how at a certain time, Freedom House rated the Baltic States, to local outrage, as transitory period states, similarly to countries in Central Asia.
At the same time, he notes that the West is not immune to straying from democracy. “The trend of distancing from freedom and democratic standards is also seen in the USA. A part of people view democracy as a given and see no reason to defend it. Furthermore, in terms of democracy in the USA, I have noticed that the Americans are more inclined to emphasise liberal democracy. In our region, this turns into a question: is there room for social democrats, Christian democrats or conservatives in liberal democracy? We have to discuss and prove that in democracy, there is room for representatives on various points of the political spectrum and it is not worth emphasising the “liberal” part of the term,” V. Jurkonis said, also pointing out how both in the Baltic region and in the West, there is a tendency to seek to avoid conflict rather than resolve it, leaving space for powers aiming to escalate problems and seek scapegoats.
While he points out such issues, the political scientist also believes that concerns of the fall of Western democracy may be rushed. He points out how it has almost been a century since nationalism was declared dead, but it remains potent to this day. Hence, equally democracy can surmount existing challenges and endure.
V. Jurkonis proposes to put emphasis on politicians’ responsibility and the existence of stratification and the need to take responsibility ourselves: “We must speak about not only politicians’, but our own responsibility. Perhaps we may live in Vilnius or other major city, but our parents and grandparents live in the regions. How do we interact with them? Do we feel their disappointment, even if it is sometimes baseless? The disappointment that led to mass migration from Lithuania.
Then Vladimir Putin laughs how there’s only one and a half million people left in Lithuania and just look how our politicians scream about the “Kremlin narrative” and instead of resolving everything, simply divide everything into black and white. When we focus on “global Lithuania”, we must talk about not only those studying in Cambridge and Harvard, but also those, who are picking strawberries in farms or work on construction sites. Politicians and experts lightly dismiss certain problems via external threats, take the Kremlin for example, but they should take responsibility. I have told fans of “global Lithuania” a number of times that the Lithuanian success story is easy to tell in London and New York, but just try going to Šalčininkai and tell it there.
We all wish to be in our comfort zone, interact with those thinking alike and avoid conflict rather than resolve problems. It is easier to live this way. It is a stone into not specific politicians’, but all of our garden.”
A. Jankauskas emphasises how a major issue with contemporary Lithuania is the failure of nurturing a middle class, which, as he puts it, has been the driving force behind democracy since Antiquity. He points out how waves of privatisation in the post-communist era did not create this pillar, which hampers democratic development.
At the same time, V. Jurkonis responds that if one looks at the regional context, the country’s development could have been much more successful, however if looking at failed cases such as Russia or ones where privatisation did not even happen such as Belarus, where the countries became hostage to single individuals dependent on the Kremlin, Lithuania’s case is a sort of glass half empty or half full result.
The political scientist continues by stating that while, as A. Jankauskas pointed out, a million people may have departed the country, they are not lost and indeed are not infrequently more civic minded and patriotic than those remaining in Lithuania. V. Jurkonis believes that the issue is that we ourselves are splitting up and viewing those, who went abroad as “lost”. Thus, he emphasises that we need to focus on resolving issues rather than complaining in the trenches how everyone left and some betrayed Lithuania.
The academics disagree on the idea of “global Lithuania” and dual citizenship. A. Jankauskas remarks that such “globality” only legitimises the million, who emigrated, and encourages their dispersion, offering no solution to having them return. V. Jurkonis points out that he understands the concept as a decision of whether we wish to maintain a connection to Lithuanians abroad and whether we wish for them to feel like Lithuanians.
V. Jurkonis also points out how the protest vote has expanded and those voting for the “Farmers” or the electoral committees as a form of protest were far more numerous than when similar voters backed Arūnas Valinskas’ party.
“Those abroad are also a sort of protest electorate because only a small part of them make use of the right to vote.
On the other hand, the politicians themselves like to change teams so much that sometimes they experience the whole “rainbow” of the political spectrum,” he stated, adding that the political spectrum is seemingly non existent in Lithuania, with voters instead being influenced emotionally, not intellectually, which bodes poorly.
In this respect, A. Jankauskas says, “Thus, we must seek the words to adequately explain the real situation and not ideologize phenomena and try to explain what a paradise we have created. Specific numbers show that things are bad, there is poverty and Putin’s rhetoric has nothing to do with it.”
To this, V. Jurkonis adds that it is necessary to keep comparing ourselves to our neighbours in the region such as Estonia, the number of whom he finds to be lacking, because lacking external motivators such as NATO, EU or OECD accession, we cease making adequate progress and only focus on keeping up a facade.
“We started this discussion from civic maturity. What picture do we have today? A quarter of the people live in poverty. Can they really care about political matters? No, they care about making it through the day and feeding their children. Such a person perhaps only cares to sell their vote for 5 euro and make it through the day. A politician, who can offer this voter at least a few dozen more euro per month is already a step closer to victory.
We once again appear at the fact that there is a lack of democratic self-rule, just as we lack a middle class, which should be the basis of a society,” A. Jankauskas says.
Returning to electoral committees, he points out that they emerged in the niche left by the crisis of traditional parties and do not have to be any sort of evil unless they are family-clan formations. In the end, he states, it is up to politicians to ensure legislation for committee formation and activities which would prevent the emergence of clan structures.
V. Jurkonis adds to this that local “lordlings” such as Ričardas Malinauskas, Živilė Pinskuvienė, the situation in the Vilnius region are nothing new and it could be that the number of such cases will expand.
He finds that a significant portion of accountability in the party system is washed out by politicians migrating from one party to another, which allows some with even tainted reputations to enter power through electoral rolls. Nevertheless, he stresses that in the end, if we are to compare with some of our neighbours, we are able to cast our votes, express our opinions and demand accountability from our politicians.
“We must make use of them [our rights], demand our politicians’ accountability. We can sit there and cry or we can be active citizens not only during elections, but also in civic society. I see basis for optimism because when looking at the protests regarding teachers’ wages, Labour Code changes and similar matters, I see an ever-louder voice of the people.
It matters not, what views they represent. If the people believe that politicians do not represent them, they take direct action. Democracy is a system of checks and balances, which can also be influenced by civic organisations and a free press,” V. Jurkonis says.
In response, A. Jankauskas wonders how adequate Lithuania’s society and news media are regarding such matters, whether we really have a civic-minded society and free press. He finds this dubious.
“Not every voter is able to have authentic views. It depends on education and other matters. The views of many are formed by politicians and the news media. Nevertheless, people inherently feel what is right and what is wrong,” he states.
“If you really need a new vocabulary to define the current reality, then it is none other than the political sciences that must compile this vocabulary. Personally, I am unsure if we have to do it, we risk to lose our bearing. Some will push “liberal democracy”, others – “guided democracy” and we will finally be left with a cacophony, where we will be unable to understand what we are talking about.
We have a vocabulary – we talk about democracy, elections, courts, corruption and all the other elements. We have the basis and bearings, we simply need to take responsibility and act,” V. Jurkonis responded.
In conclusion, A. Jankauskas noted that, “We must delve into our condition and identify it. The East has not become the West. We must clearly grasp, what we have become. We imagine we are Westerners. Definitely not! We must define ourselves and unveil our hybrid nature to ourselves.”