It is much easier to deny the past than to rectify it, wrote Titus Livius. The past can also be concealed or falsified. However, this is not the right way to “be open” as suggested by President Vladimir Putin, wrote the President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda in a commentary to the German daily Die Zeit.
For Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Poland, World War II started not 80 years ago, but almost 82 years ago – on August 23, 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression was signed in the Kremlin along with the secret protocols on dividing Europe. And at the time, the USSR was an aggressor, not a victim.
It is a past that we will never allow to forget.
For Lithuania and other Baltic States, the Second World War did not end in 1945. Armed anti-Soviet resistance continued for another ten years, during which Lithuania lost more than 20,000 of its bravest sons and daughters. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia, and many of them returned to their homeland in coffins or remained for eternal rest in the vast Arctic.
This struggle, which is very little is known in Western societies, laid the foundations for civil resistance, with Helsinki groups emerging in the 1970s to inform the West about human rights violations in the USSR and with priests and nuns publishing for 17 years in the underground The Chronicle of the Catholic Church that reported about the persecution of believers and dissidents. This struggle led Lithuania to the national revival movement Sąjūdis and to Independence.
It is a past that we will never forget.
Today we see aggressive attempts to restore the USSR. To restore the past with the same ideology of the last century: the division of Europe into spheres of influence, disrespect for the sovereignty of nations and their territorial integrity, strict нет (“no”) to human rights, freedom of expression, independent media. And that is certainly not the way to “be open”.
Just like it is not the proper way to call for “openness” using the rhetoric of the ruler of a fortified fortress, from which as far as the eye can see there are only enemies – even though created in imagination.
In the last three months, I visited Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, where people have decided to build their future on democracy rather than the USSR reincarnated. I spoke with wounded soldiers at a hospital in Kiev. In Georgia, I visited refugees from South Ossetia. One of them said that he had been dreaming for thirteen years about coming home to his orchard.
Are these the people who have been forced to turn away from Russia and towards the European Union and NATO? No, these are people who have been forced to leave their homes. Forced by the Russian military.
So let us be frank – there is no “despite the past”. That “past” is still here – in Crimea, Donbass, South Ossetia, Transnistria. That “past” is emitting the vapor of Novichok in Salisbury or polonium in London. That “past” echoes with explosions in the Czech Republic.
Today, the “past” has become more sophisticated, armed with new technologies, testing new ways of ideological and information warfare. Attempting to influence election results and launching cyberattacks. But it is still the past – aggressive, cynical and hypocritical. Aiming to divide and rule.
And this is not a problem for any one country or region. It is not just Ukraine or Georgia that are threatened. Not only the Baltic countries. Not only those who were in the grip of the Soviet empire and therefore now, as some think, should forever belong to the Kremlin rulers.
Threats are made against the entire Western system, the architecture of democracy, and values.
Is the West capable of resisting? Yes. We therefore need to strengthen Western defense structures, first and foremost NATO. We need to maintain a strong transatlantic link. The U.S. is our like-minded partner and ally, not a competitor for Europe.
We need to allocate more resources for defense. Russia’s military spending exceeds 50 billion euros. Russia is rapidly modernizing the military industry. NATO countries have been committed to increasing their defense spending to 2% GDP since only 2014. It is not much, and it is a matter of honor for all of us to respect this agreement.
However, it is not military power that is decisive. The most important question is whether we will remain united and what we will choose when offered a deal. And, definitely, the deal will be offered. Offers are already made between the lines: let’s build a new relationship between the West and Russia, no matter what.
So, what do we choose? Gas or a nation’s right to free choice? Oil or the freedom of speech? A market “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” or a garden that a refugee of thirteen years is still dreaming about?
For my country, as for many other European countries that have not forgotten the past and witness attempts to restore it, the choice is evident. Will it be as evident for everyone? I believe so because the European Union is built on democratic values.
Russia respects only strong partners. If the European Union wants to cooperate at any cost, without preconditions, the conditions will be dictated by Russia. Last week’s meeting of EU leaders demonstrated that today Europe is united in sending a message to Russia. Until the Crimean occupation by Russia and the war in Donbass continue, we cannot resume business as usual.
Truth is important when considering the recent past. The demonstrations in Kiev in 2014 were not a “coup d’état” and the annexation of Crimea not a mere “exit” from Ukraine. The consequences of past crimes must be rectified. Not overlooked or ignored, not falsified, not forgotten, but made right. Only then the past will truly become the past.
Therefore, to resume the dialogue, Russia must first fulfil certain conditions. Return Crimea to Ukraine, end the war in Donbass, withdraw troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Release political prisoners. Allow the independent media to operate.
My dream is a democratic and peaceful Russia in the family of European nations. We Lithuanians saw such a Russia 30 years ago. Russia that tried to break away from the USSR. Russia that helped Lithuania during the bloody January events of 1991. Russia that respected others and was respected.
And I believe that Russia is not the past. It is the future.Gitanas Nausėda, President of the Republic of Lithuania