Vilnius mayor: How Kremlin propaganda tested Vilnius’ wariness

Russian St. George's ribbon on a car in Vilnius on May 9
Russian St. George's ribbon on a car in Vilnius on May 9 DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

We received an interesting request a few weeks ago. At first glance, it was nothing bad, but on a more thorough look – Kremlin propaganda tried to covertly sneak into the heart of Vilnius, the Town Hall Square. I do not know what other cities in Europe and around the world think, but Vilnius knows, why Trojan Horses coming from the East must be carefully filtered out, as well as why the Western world must be warned of it, the Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius wrote.

This week, a request from Estonia written in Lithuanian arrived at the municipality. The concert agency Artmusic proposed to organise in May a free concert Unity Songs in the Town Hall Square, which according to them has been touring various capitals around the world. The concert would feature two groups – Soprano and the Turecki Choir. There is no mention of either what country these groups are from, nor who is organising or financing the concert, there’s only mention of it being “an international project”. The request states that in 2018, this concert was held in eight countries and they are expanding their tour this year. In 2020, apparently they already have made arrangements with Tallinn and Riga and are thus inviting Vilnius as well.

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We looked into the team a little – while the Estonian request mentions that the concert has received international news media attention, there’s not much information on it online. However, quickly something we suspected emerged – the Kremlin’s tendrils. It is probably no coincidence that this country receives no mention in the request – Russia knows that Lithuanian s are more resistant to propaganda than most in the West.

The Red Soviet star in Europe

The project’s official website has the logos of the Moscow government and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs shining in it, a red Soviet star and at the bottom, it is specified that this is a project by the Moscow government, which is supported by Russia’s ministries: “UNITY SONGS is a project by the Government of Moscow. The events are organized with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.”

What do the concerts that for two years have been held in various countries and that the organisers, under the cover of an Estonian concert agency, sought to bring to the heart of Vilnius? Take a look.

Here’s the Unity Songs concert in Rome in May:

Paris:

In Warsaw, the Unity Songs title now becomes Песни Победы (Victory Songs). It is no coincidence that all the concerts are organised in May – that’s how their goal is unveiled.

A little more military symbolism from Budapest:

In Berlin, this Soviet propaganda concert even has the audacity to display a background photo from the Second World War, where Soviet troops raise the Soviet Union’s flag in occupied Berlin.

Would they have displayed imagery in Vilnius of how the Soviet army marched through Vilnius?

Ribbons of the St. George

Thus, this aesthetic package would probably have featured a true dose of propaganda – a Victory Day commemoration with ribbons of St. George, Soviet military uniforms, Soviet imagery. “A peace carrying project,” says the project’s introduction. “A vegetarian lion” would sound more convincing.

The Kremlin has no lack of audacity to sing about peace – remember, just a year after the Crimean occupation, Russia featured a song about peace in the Eurovision – Praying for Peace and Healing. Now it takes no issue with displaying images of occupied Berlin and Soviet military uniforms in Germany’s capital.

And everything is described “From Moscow with love.” Thanks, Moscow, but we do not need such love. Same as the similarly attempted to mask Moscow House, the opening of which I prohibited because it would pose a threat to Lithuanian security.

The Russian ambassador was also angry at me when during the Russia Days on stage at Vingis Park, I asked our Russians to choose – do they want to be Lithuanian Russians or hostages to Kremlin policy. He even had me included in the list of those prohibited from visiting Russia – a loss I was not at all saddened by.

The Mayor’s response

Thus, my response, which we sent to the Estonian concert agency Artmusic was laconic and clear:

“Free Vilnius needs neither Russian propaganda nor Soviet symbolism, to which we feel no nostalgia. As such, your concert can be held neither in the Town Hall Square, nor any other public location in Vilnius. Not in 2020, nor later. If you try to organise this concert in closed private spaces, let me remind you that the use of criminal Soviet symbolism in Lithuania risks accountability as per the Penal Code because under these symbols’ banner, across Lithuania, Europe and Russia itself, terrible crimes to humanity were perpetrated.”

But the mission of Vilnius as one of the last bastions of freedom in the East is broader – not only to care for our own citizens, but also to prevent Kremlin propaganda from infecting Western capitals.

Thus, already today or tomorrow, we will request all city municipalities, where the Unity Songs propaganda concerts were held or are to be held next year, to evaluate well, whether they truly want it. Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw, Rome, Paris, Washington, New York, Toronto, Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Berlin – I do not think that they are happy with Soviet propaganda.

I have also informed our Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it should be prepared when/if such carriers of the dove of peace apply for visas.

I have said before – Vilnius is a city, where Russian culture and free thought can flourish without being pressed into propagandist frames, a city where the memory of the great sons and daughters of Russia such as Andrei Sakharov, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov and other fighters for democracy is respected.

Any attempt by the Kremlin to dish out yet another dose of propaganda in Vilnius will not pass easily here.

Remigijus Šimašius is the mayor of Vilnius city.
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