Opinion: Lithuania’s Russian-speakers – what they’re for and what they’re against

DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Other than Russians themselves, Russian-speakers is a term used to describe people who speak Russian and not Lithuanian in their daily life. The absolute majority of these people are, like the Russians, Slavs – Poles, Ukrainians and Belarusians. In fact, the Poles can be called Russian-speaking if only because of inertia and conditioning.

Russian-speakers, even if they are Slavs, are not all necessarily brothers. This is the result of the aggressive and undeclared war waged by the Kremlin – a radical change in Russian and Ukrainian relations confirming the old truth that it’s a but a step from love to hatred. Having taken that step, the Ukrainians are trying to free themselves from a deadly, brotherly embrace and disassociate themselves from the idea of the Russian world.

Alliances are about interests, not sentiments

Does that mean that the concept “Russian-speakers” is void and completely out of touch with reality? That would not be entirely correct. Two opposing trends are at work here. First, it’s not only the Ukrainians but also the Belarusians who are increasingly adamant about defining their historical roots and identity. Not to mention the Poles who are more than secure with their ethnic origins and national identity.

The aforementioned trend rubbishes myths about a so-called monolithic Lithuanian Russian-speaking alliance. On the other hand, Russian-speakers can make demands that manifestly conflict with ethnic Lithuanian goals of establishing a viable nation state. When a conflict of this nature arises, even the amorphous Russian alliance can rally and make demands on the Lithuanian government.

One articulate example is the demand to legalise the use of national minority languages in public life. Very active here are the dominant ethnic minorities, the Poles and Russians. This demand unites and musters those who belong at least to the kindred Slavic peoples. They do however not nurture feelings of special tenderness for each other.

And there’s more. In the past Poland has experienced more disproportionate historical hardship due to Russia than Ukraine has. Today’s Poland along with the Baltic states resolutely and unswervingly condemns Russia’s aggressive policies. Nonetheless, it was ethnic Russians and not ethnic Poles who voted for the LLRA (Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania party) candidate Valdemar Tomaševski in the presidential elections.

In this case, seeking common interest, the amorphous Russian-speaking alliance rallied and its candidate’s success in the elections exceeded all expectations. This success was in part reinforced by the fact that Mr. Tomaševski played a tricky Jesuit game simply to make the Poles and Russians happy. And that he did in one skillful way – by repeating the usual mantra of alleged violations of the rights of ethnic minorities.

The pragmatic over the spiritual

Ukraine’s extreme change of attitude to the elder brother was buttressed by extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, life, according to the good soldier Švejk, doesn’t go on without anything happening. For example, not so long ago, we were sure – based on assumption – that the absolute majority of ethnic Russians are loyal to Lithuania, are well-integrated citizens and that the younger generation speaks perfect Lithuanian.

It would be a great crime to state outright that this idyllic image will one fine day come crashing down, burying under ruins our rosy illusions. On the other hand, it would be frivolous to ignore the huge wave of chauvinism that swept up to Lithuania after the occupation of the Crimea. The Russians were euphoric, though not all actually.

Still, the flurry of plagues which peaked on 9 May this year is indeed articulate. It triggered the question as to whether or not there are suggestions of a fifth Putin column forming in Lithuania. It cannot be ruled out that narrow-minded people can react with empty and loud allegations thereby escalating with issues of this kind national discord in Lithuania.

However, impartial and factual analysis in essence can’t be interpreted as incitement to discord of this kind. For the sake of objectivity, let me note that according to various polls, one in five Lithuanians long for the Soviet times, that being life under the Russians. It would be naïve and more dangerous to the point of idiocy to state that a smaller proportion of ethnic Russians share the sentiment.

And now, as the euphoria subsides, Russia’s people are beset by a painful, economic hangover, the price paid for the annexation of the Crimea and Putin’s aggressive policy in eastern Ukraine. Are the average Russians really so spiritual to the extent that they couldn’t give a damn about economic hardships and rally around Tsar Putin in the name of a mystical Russian world while ignoring elementary pragmatism?

Yes, they are spiritual but solely in the sense of that “spirituality” being a mass psychosis and resolve to cause hardship for the sake of alleged messianic and indeed national chauvinist ideas. Let’s not forget the enthusiasm with which the Russians at one time blew up churches, desecrated altars and images of the saints, yet wasted no time in turning those desecrated images into portraits of political gangsters and an embalmed Antichrist!

History undergoes change. National character that determines historical changes remains. The mentality of Lithuania’s Russians has seemingly been “blemished”, and isn’t so much “spiritual” as it is one of apparent pragmatism. Nonetheless, there are those amongst them, the giant spiritual guardians of the rights of Russian-speakers who with the eyes of others see the speck of sawdust but don’t see the dirty and bloody log with their own. These giants are potential inciters and provocateurs of disquiet.

What are the priorities of Lithuania’s Poles? 

Each nation gets the leaders it deserves. Does each ethnic minority choose leaders worthy of them? And do those anointed and chosen ones craft and express precisely and tangibly the interests of the national minority? Do they consistently and resolutely without compromise defend these interests? To these questions a straightforward ‘yes’ is suggested.

This is sadly not the answer when it comes to the current leader of Lithuania’s Poles. On the contrary, he incites other current and biting issues. Why is it that Mr. Tomaševski still remains afloat despite the fact that he justified the occupation of the Crimea and Mr. Putin’s aggressive and hypocritical policies that threaten the Baltic states and Poland?

Could it be that Lithuania’s Poles don’t know where they’ve inherited a suicidal gene from? Maybe they’re ignoring Poland’s tough position? But then it’s not their foot that’s hurting. Politicians usually don’t scorn political players of other countries who are loyal to their own countries just because they are immoral subjects. The men of the Polish state are no exception. They are guided by a pragmatic principle, it’s not important that the player is a villain, what’s important is that he’s their villain.

Who can deny that Mr. Tomaševski defends the interests of the Poles? He does and will as long as we, with foolish arrogance and crass stubbornness, continue to ignore basic Polish demand to enjoy the same rights which Poland’s Lithuanians enjoy. And that’s as long as we continue to block any initiatives for the bilingual naming of historical sites and writing Polish surnames in documents with Polish letters.

This regrettably is what the current political solitaire is: ultranationalists win, common sense loses. Does that mean that speculating Mr. Tomaševski with his anti-Lithuanian rhetoric is destined to win? Does that mean that Lithuanian-Polish relations will wallow in eternal cretinism? I don’t think so. Pragmatic people with common sense don’t say goodbye forever, just temporarily. It’s just a pity that this transcience seems like an eternity.

Dr. Karolis Jovaišas is a lawyer.

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