In a recent article by Kęstutis Girnius, titled “Is there an effort to antagonize the Russian minority of Lithuania?”, the status of national minorities living in Lithuania has again been interpreted in a way that makes it seem like there’s an attempt to forcefully assimilate them through repressive methods, thus ensuring a nationally homogenous state of Lithuania. The text of K. Girnius matches nicely with the viewpoint expressed as of late by certain political analysts of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science (TSPMI), namely J. Dementavičius and M. Antonovičius, who have expressed their views on the question of national minority communities in Lithuania. Commenting on the members of the Parliament who suggested that 60 percent of subjects in minority schools should be taught in the official state language, M. Antonovičius called these politicians “the fifth column of W. Tomaszewski“.
Meanwhile, in response to the negative reaction expressed by some citizens in regards to the anniversary celebration of Vilnius’ occupation in the hands of Armia Krajowa, which was organized by the Polish Embassy in Lithuania, J. Dementavičius stated that such reactions were “of the blind sort” and “quite expected”. The underlying message of both such statements is rather clear – apparently, there is nothing wrong with either the issue of commemorating the actions of Armia Krajowa or the question of minority schools.
K. Girnius takes it a step forward. In discussing the topic of Lithuanian Poles, we can actually reflect on the consequences that our own domestic policies had on the relations with our problematic, and yet essentially important partner, Poland. However, when the conversation turns to Lithuanian Russians, and the attempts of Russia, a country that is factually hostile towards us, to influence this group of our population, there can be no discussion on our fault in regards to the state of these relations, as there is no basis for it. Most of the disagreements between Lithuania and Poland can be reduced to our differing assessments of each other’s past, but when we’re referring to Lithuania-Russia relations, we must first consider the geopolitical divisions, which a small country like ours finds unavoidably related to the national security and existential threats to its statehood.
It’s not even worthwhile to talk about Russia’s efforts to influence the state of Lithuania, and especially the national minorities residing here. All of this is obvious, and has already been proved with substantial research. Lithuanian Russians are the #1 target group of Russia’s influence; while not large in quantity, the minority can nevertheless become an especially problematic aspect of the domestic politics in Lithuania, if no appropriate preventive measures are taken by the government. According to K. Girnius, one of the main reasons that representatives of national communities are seeking patronage from countries that are antagonistic towards us, is the apparent distrust of foreigners, characteristic of our entire country, or maybe propagated by certain politicians. He states that national minorities are far more trusted in the West, and thus the policies regarding minorities are a lot more liberal there.
It is not at all appropriate to compare the case of Lithuanian Russians with the foreign citizens of the Western European countries. Most of the Western countries are not constantly facing direct geopolitical threats in their neighbourhood; Lithuania, on the other hand, has a national community residing within its borders, hailing from a country that is pursuing a policy hostile to Lithuania. The community itself – and we should be honest about it – has formed here mainly as a result of an occupation. Not one person in support of Lithuanian interests can in good conscience be happy about this situation, but the reality is that Lithuania has a certain group of citizens, who are eagerly awaiting the return of that regime, speak the language of our adversary neighbour, watch the same television and belong to the same cultural sphere.
Naturally, such a situation does not in any way mean that we’d be better off not trusting a single Lithuanian Russian. However, we cannot ignore the fact that residing in a state that neighbours your country of origin is inevitably a potential source of tension between the loyalties towards your host nation and the neighbouring one. In cases of successful integration, this matter of loyalty tension could merely be theoretical; when the integration fails, the issue is realized through an anti-state sentiment, or even action (as shown by the events at Donbas and Luhansk regions). Direct and subtle propaganda has for several centuries been one of the main instruments for inciting such tensions.
Various regimes, from the democratic USA to the totalitarian USSR, invested hundreds of millions into propaganda, being fully aware of its usefulness in scrambling the minds of their citizens. It may feel reassuring to talk about critically-thinking citizens, who are impervious to propaganda and capable of “discerning truth from fiction”, but in reality the majority of residents in any given country are susceptible to propaganda. Members of the Lithuanian national communities, especially the residents of South-eastern Lithuania, who tend to be of lower income and education, are hardly an exception. Based on this, it can be stated that the government should place greater importance on the issues of the spread of Russian information, culture and education here in Lithuania.
As is popular among the liberal political analyst types of today, K. Girnius, in talking about state regulation in the aforementioned areas of policy, claims that restrictions are not the right measure to take. Some time ago, the cliché rebuff of “restrictions won’t change anything” was often provided in response to the alcohol restriction policy of A. Veryga. And now K. Girnius is claiming that there’s no reason to prohibit the use of ribbons of St. George, no need to stop V. Titovas from publicly slandering the Lithuanian partisans, and that there’s no reason for the government to be at all interested in whether or not the various events and celebrations held in Russian language promote any sort of anti-state content. Time and time again, he provides the absolute argument of the West: “It’s not hard to image how the Western societies would react to the elderly being fined heavily due to them wearing a ribbon.”
According to K. Girnius, the argument that the ribbons of St. George incite hatred is merely empty statement, that doesn’t refer to any specific case. The so-called “Colorado beetle ribbons”, being the symbol of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and the armed forces that occupied Lithuania during the Second World War, can evoke a completely justified reaction of hate among honest Lithuanians towards those who willingly chose to wear these accessories, thus providing a reason to think they support terrorists at the moral level, at least. Wearing these ribbons is an open and conscious provocation, aimed not only at individual citizens, but also the state as a whole. The meanings of symbols are not chosen completely subjectively – it is impossible to erase the legacy of Nazism from the swastika, even though some might consider it to be an innocent sign of the sun. These indelible meanings can be offensive to the very basic principles of a society. The ribbon of St. George is one of such cases, as it attempts to deny the Stalinist and Putinist aggression, the equality of nations and their sovereignty, the principle of equivalent condemnation of the Nazis and the Soviets, and the historical justice in Lithuania. The ribbon of St. George proclaims everything that denies Lithuania’s right to exist. It would be hard to find a symbol more openly hateful towards the Lithuanian state. Such as it is, it incites in Lithuanians a justified hatred for anyone wearing it. A question arises on what is more important – the freedom of absolute self-expression, or protection of the aforementioned principles of the state.
K. Girnius seems to claim that there’s no real reason to fight Russian propaganda, as, based on his own analysis of sociological research, the propaganda “isn’t very effective” in the first place. Views on the Soviet era, and not the activities of the Russian media are, according to him, the most relevant factor upon which the citizen’s susceptibility to Kremlin propaganda depends. That’s a classic example of “Russian’s aren’t attacking” narrative, which is often apparent in the texts of K. Girnius (it is worthwhile to try and Google the terms “Girnius Rusijos Grėsmė”, only if to form a general impression). In reducing the problem of national communities into the way they view the Soviet era, it is easy to completely eliminate the element of foreign threat out of this issue, and to proclaim that it’s Lithuania’s own fault that its Russian-speaking population was not provided with sufficient conditions of living, thus encouraging them to be nostalgic about the Soviet Union, and it’s current legal successor, Russia. In this way, the economic argument is raised above the informational one with no real basis for it.
Why should we limit the amount of Russian content in television? Why is it necessary to limit and sanction the disinformation of Kremlin channels? Why should we even resist the activities of foreign influence agents at the national minority schools? According to K. Girnius, it’s unnecessary and even harmful for Lithuania, as it can potentially have an adverse effect on how the West views us, due to the apparent paternalist approach to national communities and the violations of their human rights and freedoms. He seems to forget that even by the most liberal of Western standards, a person has no right, nor freedom to slander their country or to be disloyal to it. Admittedly, the national minorities in most of the Western countries do not receive this much specific attention of the government as in the case of Lithuania, but it should once again be noted that the Western countries do not have a powerful and hostile neighbour like Russia right in their backyard, one constantly offering various forms of “help” for these national communities.
Such “help” is quite real indeed. In 2006 Putin signed a state-enforced compatriots’ programme, according to which Russia obliges itself to seek ways of returning Russians from foreign countries to their homeland, and to ensure the protection of their rights. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable, does it? Well, the Russian media is continuously reporting on supposed discrimination of ethnic Russians in the Baltic States, and the majority of Russian citizens believe it. As for the protection of their rights, we’ve already seen how that worked in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and Georgia before that. Shedding of crocodile tears about the apparent rights violations, even when nothing is actually being violated, betrays a simple truth – no matter how hard Lithuania may try to improve its relations with the Russian minority, nobody in Kremlin seems to care.
Lastly, K. Girnius compares the national minority policies of Middle-Eastern Europe to those of the West. He claims that the West tends to be a lot more trusting of the national minorities, while in the Middle-Eastern Europe they are viewed with a baseless suspicion, often in relation to the influence of foreign adversaries. K. Girnius would be right if he bothered to mention how the minorities in our region tend to politicize their problems by abusing the soft governmental policies in order to improve their own political influence and incite new national tensions.
Perhaps the best example of this practice is Romania, which has since 1990 been continuously providing more and more rights to the Hungarians living in Transylvania: the educational programme for national communities is being expanded, a Hungarian university was founded, use of Hungarian language in courts and administrative bodies was permitted, bilingual street nameplates were approved, etc. According to K. Girnius and the representatives of the Polish Discussion Club, such liberal policy of “conditional loyalty” should in fact depoliticize the problems of national minorities, and encourage benevolent integration. In Romania, however, everything is proceeding in a backwards manner: the more Hungarians receive, the more they ask for. In Romania today there is an effort to ensure that in 15 years Hungarian language would be legally recognized as the official language in the regions with large Hungarian populations. The liberal policy of national minorities in Romania encouraged Hungarians not to integrate, but to disintegrate and become culturally isolated: most representatives of Hungarian national communities in Romania do not speak Romanian, or know only the very basics of it. Hungary supports these processes, and encourages them – exactly how Russia (and, sadly, Poland as well) does in Lithuania.
All of this shows that applying western standards in regards to the national minority policies in MEE states is wrong and impossible, as the relations between the nations in this region are being intrinsically affected by actors of foreign states and local political figures, who are purposely inciting discord, as well as historical tensions, constantly being rejuvenated and used to maintain the antagonistic sentiment alive and well.
The way K. Girnius views the threat of Russia (constant denial) or, for example, the position J. Dementavičius and M. Antonovičius hold on the issue of national communities’ policy are hardly exceptions in the midst of VU TSPMI or political analysts in Lithuania in general. Especially so in the case of holding Lithuania responsible for the problematic relations or the lack of minority loyalty; these views have a strong grounding at the institute. Case in point: Dovilė Jakniūnaitė, the new head of the TSPMI Department of International Relations, has also stated some time ago that the current state of the inter-relations is the fault of both Russia and Lithuania. “We cannot solely blame Lithuania.” she said. Phrases like that are the water on the mill of Russian propaganda, and is essentially a lie, causing harm to the state of Lithuania.
The problem runs much deeper than this single quote. Efforts to blur the line between the aggressor and the victim have acquired an institutionalized form. For the past few years, D. Jakniūnaitė and N. Arlauskaitė have taken the initiative in the field of Russian studies. These studies have been radically shifted from the so-called “hard factors” (economics, geopolitical interests, military power, political systems, etc.) to the “soft” questions of narrative-building, discourse analysis, images generated by politicians through media. This is in itself a very problematic misuse of state resources for education, as they’re being wasted on issues of second-hand importance.
Even more importantly, the research undertaken there strengthens the illusion of a multi-faceted Russia, one not in support of Putin and imperialist aspirations. Back in 2011-2012, VU TSPMI performed a piece of research funded by the Research Council of Lithuania, the summary of which stated that the research “aims to reject the single-sided image of Russia, such as that of an “evil empire” or a “(post)totalitarian state”, to show that various actors are involved in the creation of representations of the Russian state, who use different methods and means in order to reach that goal, and to reveal the discontinuities, malfunctions and diversity of the newly-created and modified discourses. It is also added that the Russian government is not to be considered homogenous. It’s a known fact that there’s a resistance movement in Russia. It’s also well-known that it has little relevance or import in the country, and Putin‘s regime is stable, so there are can be no assumptions that some narrative or image, deconstructed by D. Jakniūnaitė, could possibly challenge it. The so-called opposition in Russian politics is something the regime itself allows to exist within strictly-defined boundaries, and is thus of no actual threat to it.
This fairy-tale of a misunderstood, heterogeneous, and therefore not unambiguously aggressive Russia, wrapped in an academic robe, has been propagated throughout the last decade and backed by state funding. This project, even if not necessarily reflected as such, exists as an aspect of Russia’s soft power – one used to improve its image in the “fascist” foreign lands, exactly how it was used during the inter-war period by the Lithuanian Fellowship for the Recognition of USSR’s National Culture. It also matches the 19th thesis of the manifesto produced by the most radical of anarchist (as in, treating the functions of a state as oppressive towards the individual) movements in Lithuania, the “New Left 95”, which states that “We find unacceptable the conspiracy theories of the constant threat of Russia; relations between Lithuania and Russia are one of the serious issues, but it cannot be at the centre of political views or political programmes.” Lithuania’s relations with Russia are not merely “one of the serious issues”, but an existential threat to the survival of our state. This threat is no conspiracy theory; and yet, a decade was spent performing research that subtly leads to the threat of Russia being considered just that, and Russia itself would give away the status of the most important object of security studies to a more global perspective. The aforementioned project, as well as the general trend of this sort has been observed after the fact that Russia – using actual tanks, instead of playing around with discourses – attacked Georgia, and later Ukraine.
It would be a mistake to pretend that denying the threat (the “Russians aren’t attacking” paradigm of K. Girnius) and searching for the alleged politically relevant diversity in Russia (the “need to reject the single-sided image of Russia” paradigm of D. Jakniūnaitė) are merely sophisticated academic games with no political consequences. These consequences are already apparent and are very dangerous. After the external factor of Merkel and Macron‘s goal to form pragmatic relations with Russia was actualized, it was the conservatives – not just anyone, mind you – who began to repeat this delusion of a possibility that there is a huge difference between Putin and Russia itself, that we must wait and prepare of the inevitable fall of Putin’s regime, and that Russia will remain a country suitable for close and amicable relations. This delusion has been proclaimed during the last month by V. Landsbergis and Ž. Pavilionis, as well as V. Ušackas. This imagining that Russia after Putin could be a friendly liberal democracy is possible only if we accept the assumptions of a “multi-faceted Russia”, as disseminated by D. Jakniūnaitė. However, this viewpoint is nothing but an act of self-deception. As Germany and France are pushing the USA out of the European military security architecture, this strategy of self-deception is the worst possible way to react to this shifting situation.
Today’s political science in Lithuania is not in a particularly tragic condition, under the condition that we begin giving the proper value to the status of this discipline in the context of the Western world. Its tragedy arises from our everlasting habit of blindly replicating Western trends into context they don’t really fit. In matters related to politics, such conformity is dangerous, because not only it attempts to practically apply methods that don’t work, but is itself a sign of lack in sovereignty. Without the ability to asses our national interests and to adequately build on our own a discipline of political science that reflects these interests, the sovereignty of the state comes under threat, as it will inevitably face a shortage of decision makers and executors who operate on the categories of state and nation, as opposed to more globalist ones.
That’s the current situation in Lithuania. Political science is ideologized, because it’s being held hostage by political trends – or, more precisely, it has been subjugated to the propagation of an ideological synthesis of the so-called liberal democracy, the neoliberal economic system, and various Marxist cultural policies. A political science of this sort is not interested in providing adequate assessments of foreign threats, or in offering solutions that match our national interests. It is mainly concerned with imposing upon the society the economic and political model of behaviour that is prevalent in the West, paying no heed to whether or not it is actually beneficial or harmful to our national interests and our enemies.
I permit myself to use such radically-sounding statements because I’ve spend four years as a student at the highest-ranked school of political science in Lithuania, the VU TSPMI. After all, one of the main slogans of the student’s representative body is the empowerment of the students’ voice. Even though my older colleagues have told me that the crucial changes in TSPMI have happened back in 2010 or so, I can honestly say that the TSPMI I’ve joined in the autumn of 2014 was vastly different from the one I graduated from in the summer of 2018: gone are the lecturers, capable of critically assessing foreign and security policy questions, such as V. Radžvilas and L. Kasčiūnas, the philosophy programme was narrowed substantially, courses on Lithuanian foreign policy and diplomacy were removed (following a course on geopolitics before that); they were replaced by such Western trend-chasing subjects as “Feminism: texts and practices” (incidentally being taught by the aforementioned D. Jakniūnaitė and N. Arlauskaitė).
Alongside my studies at the TSPMI, I’ve worked for two years at one of Lithuania’s foreign policy think-tanks, which, unlike the TSPMI, pays much attention to the problems of national security. While the Russian studies at the VU TSPMI are continuously drifting towards researching visual arts and discourses, Russia is making good use of the Western Europe’s inability to comprehend the essence of Russia itself. During my two years of tenure, I’ve rarely seen Russia’s experts from the TSPMI working alongside the country’s diplomats and experts at the events organized by my think-tank. K. Girnius, recently proclaimed by DELFI to be the most influential political analyst in the country, is a mirror of these trends.
All of this raises serious concerns regarding the analytical potential of the experts at the TSPMI, as well as their standpoints for researching the problematics of Russia, assessing the security status of Lithuania, and formulating the national interests of the state in general. D. Jakniūnaitė, head of the Department of International Relations, seems to be rejecting the latter completely, as she recently proclaimed on social media that it is wrong to even raise questions concerning the national interests, as well as to accept the premise of Lithuania as a unitary state. What alternative form of Lithuania – federalized, rationalized, or autotomized – the professor is suggesting us to contemplate, remains unclear. The current situation not only discredits the image of Lithuanian political analysts in the eyes of the society, but can also have long-term consequences for our national security.