Kęstutis Girnius. Is there a pursuit of antagonising Lithuania’s Russians?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

Lithuania is emptying, but becoming increasingly Lithuanian. In 1989, Lithuanians made up 79.58% of residents, Russians – 9.37%, Poles – 7.02%. At the start of this year, Lithuanians made up 86.8% of the population, Russians – only 4.5% and Poles – 5.6%.

While there is much written about Lithuanian emigration, after regaining independence, the percentage of ethnic Lithuanians is decreasing the slowest, while that of Russians – the most rapidly.

The percentage of Russians has declined by half and the decline will continue because a disproportionate number of Russians are over 50 years old. Two of the largest minorities make up barely a tenth of the Lithuanian population. In Estonia, Russians make up a fifth of the population of Estonia, in Latvia – 37%.

Ethnic relations in Lithuania are not perfect, but neither are they bad. A comparably low percentage of ethnic minorities feel unsafe or discriminated, depending on the survey, from 15 to 25%, the European Union average is double.

Such data should be evaluated carefully because it is strongly affected by changing moods. In 2009, only 9% of Lithuanians said that they would not want their neighbour to be Polish. In 2012, half of Lithuanians did not want to live next to a Pole. The rising tensions between Lithuania and Poland, between Poles and Lithuanians no doubt influenced the survey takers stances.

You would tink that we should celebrate the current situation, strive to improve ethnic relations, take further steps to integrate minorities.

This should be important to those, who are convinced that Russia is leading an information war against Lithuania and is seeking to cause ethnic unrest and destabilise Lithuania.

Unfortunately, these “defenders” of Lithuania are taking steps, which could cause an opposite response, push the well-intentioned minority representatives to the ranks of opponents.

It has long been observed that Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries’ views on ethnic minorities are significantly different to that of Western European states. The CEE still hopes that ethnic minorities will vanish, will not pose greater demands, will not be politically active.

In the West there is more trust in ethnic minorities, they are not viewed as a potential risk, prepared to cooperate with foreign enemies. In the CEE, including Lithuania, such concerns remain.

Such securitisation of ethnic relations fuels distrust in the CEE, makes efforts to improve ethnic relations and increase ethnic minorities’ patriotism more difficult.

While some ethnic minority representatives such as V. Tomaševski and V. Titov are no friends of Lithuania, no less harm is done by self-ascribed patriots, who openly express distrust in ethnic minorities, seek to discipline them.

V. Titov’s statements about partisan leader Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas hurt many, but there was no basis to impeach him. The freedom of speech is a core Western Democratic value and political expression must be defended the most.

Titov, as a member of the municipality, had the right to disagree with the construction of a monument to Ramanauskas and should have, likely must have had to specify why. He did so, accusing Ramanauskas and other partisans of killing civilians.

This opinion does not match reality and is appalling to many, but in a democracy, politicians have the freedom to express their views, even if they are mistaken or even intentionally provocative. They do not have to adhere to Bolshevik-like discipline, they can oppose the majority.

As I have already written, the excessive reaction to Titov’s remarks is an excellent gift to Kremlin propagandists, who will be able to present Lithuanians as hard-line fascists, who are unable to openly look at the past, breach the freedom of speech, stubbornly seek to silence people, who speak and write differently. In Lithuania, the freedom of speech supposedly only applies to thoughts approved by the government.

Titov’s provocation is a minor detail compared to the Seimas’ aim to establish fines for the usage of the black and orange striped St. George ribbons reaching between 150 and 300 euro. This symbol supposedly fosters hatred and antagonism, thus is is proposed to limit its usage, akin to other Nazi and communist symbols.

The Seimas intends to make the final ruling on this during the autumn session. I cannot imagine a more foolish proposal, thus I am completely in agreement with A. Sysas’ comment that “perhaps it would be better to simply ban Russia and put a full stop at that.”

The situation is ironic. Those, who are proposing to ban the ribbon of St. George, often see the hidden hand of Moscow, which aims to harm Lithuania. But in this case they fail to understand that it is them that are serving Kremlin propagandists and are lining up among the useful Kremlin idiots.

If the Seimas approves the fine, Russians will likely organise civic disobedience protests, wearing the ribbons and waiting to be arrested. It is not difficult to imagine how this would be viewed in the West if senior citizens would receive major monetary fines for wearing a ribbon.

Even more important, this would anger their relatives, who have integrated into Lithuanian society, part of whom would follow their elders’ example out of solidarity. The supporters of the ban explain that the ribbon of St. George fosters hatred and antagonism, but these are just empty words, which do not specify any concrete cases.

I believe that by autumn, these apostles of “state discipline” will come to their senses.

Not only politicians, but also analysts yield to the passions of disciplining, become absorbed in the role of teachers. Recently, Marius Laurinavičius wrote, “we should continue to organise a Russia day, but its agenda and narratives should be organised by ourselves.”

Supposedly the Russians are unable to make arrangements themselves, thus “we ourselves” will do it even though it is unclear, what that “we” is exactly, who gave them the right and authority to set the agenda for Russia day. Why should the Russians agree with such arrogant paternalism?

And if they do not agree, should we prohibit those days and under what legal basis? We can ask, who in such a case is it that is fostering ethnic unrest.

Concerns over Russian and Polish unpatriotic moods are nothing new, they were especially strengthened following the Crimean annexation. If back then it was still possible to excuse those fears, with four and a half years passing, the time is ripe to think whether they have a basis.

It is fairly clear they do not. Russia continues to broadcast its propaganda, but sociological research shows that propaganda is not overly effective, that evaluations of the Soviet era (whether life was better then or now) is more related to receptivity of Kremlin propaganda than consumption of Russian news media.

With ethnic minorities contracting and their integration increasing, even if by modest paces, trust in them should rise. But the opposite is going on – distrust and suspicion is on the rise.

This comes as no big surprise. After all, Stalin explained that with the enemies of the Soviet government weakening, they resist with ever more determination, thus repression must be ever more ruthless.

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