What life is like in the Lithuanian Suwalki Gap?

Suwalki Gap. Source stratfor.com

“The most dangerous place on earth” is how a journalist from the US publication Politico, who visited Druskininkai last year, described the Suvalki corridor. On a warm summer Saturday morning, however, the towns near the Belarusian border seem to be completely calm, with the inhabitants seemingly more bored than scared, Indrė Naureckaitė is writing at the lrytas.lt news portal.

“They can provoke as much as they want here – they won’t move us. They need to think about one word – what NATO means. That says it all. If the Wagner band of musicians sticks their noses into either Lithuania or Poland, they will be burned at the stake. They will not even have time to stick their nose in. We feel very confident here, believe me,” said one resident near the border with Belarus.

In the towns closest to the border with Belarus, journalists from the news portal lrytas.lt found that it is not Wagner’s mercenaries or Russia’s threats that are most worrying for locals.

What is surprising is the preparation

In the Lazdijai district, the town of Kapčiamiestis, just 7 kilometres from Belarus, was completely calm on Saturday morning – even the feral cats lazily marching towards us outnumbered the inhabitants in the town’s central square.

Predictably, the residents love the cats – they rub against our feet, want to be petted, and even multi-storey houses exist for them in the vicinity.

We soon realised we were not the only ones in the square – an older woman was smoking a cigarette on a bench. When we talk to her, it turns out that she has been drinking a lot.

“That Wagner is a f***ot!” – she exclaims when asked about Lithuania’s new neighbours before the ash of her cigarette falls straight onto her trousers.

She, too, is up-to-date with the latest news in the country.

Soon, the town comes to life as cars start arriving one by one at the grocery shop next to the square.

“It’s the summer season, especially at weekends, and there are many people,” explained one of the vendors. They are here canoeing on holiday.”

The conversation is suddenly interrupted by the first drunken woman they meet in town bursting into the shop, shouting at a man in the queue and demanding what appears to be a repair of her bicycle.

When the family, who were also waiting in line, asked the woman not to shout, at least in front of the children, the woman left. The thought struck me that the biggest threats to Lithuania are not external at all but much more mundane, though perhaps more difficult to solve.

And the Lithuanian border residents interviewed say they are not afraid of Wagner – the crisis of illegal migrants has hardened them quite well. But seeing on TV how Polish politicians are preparing for possible provocations, they would like the Lithuanian authorities to react accordingly.

“There is no sense of anxiety. Well, when the military reinforcements passed by yesterday, it was a bit, but otherwise, people are used to it,” she said.

However, she continued, the impression is that Lithuanian politicians, unlike Polish politicians, do not believe that they will actually have to deal with Wagner mercenaries: “So we did not believe that Russia would invade Ukraine either”.

But there is no panic in the town because there are few people left in the village. “Every second hut is empty in winter. You come in winter, and it’s never a man,” she remarked.

“If they stick their noses in, they’ll be burned right away.”

Antanas, who grew up in Kapchiamiestis and married here, did not hide his sadness about his empty homeland.

“And what to do here in winter? There is no work here, no fun here. Now there is a new elder, so something has started to come to life – the New Year, Christmas, Midsummer, and Christmas tree decorating. Kapčiamiestis is coming to life, but it still needs to live up to that”, he explained.

In the afternoon, the bustle of summer visitors in the town square was replaced by a more serious mood as relatives of the deceased began to gather in the building on which the sign Kepyklėlė is hanging to say goodbye to him.

However, according to Antanas, most of the people who came here on Saturday no longer live in Kapčiamiestis – they have left for Alytus, Druskininkai, Kaunas and Vilnius.

“Now the whole of Lithuania has gathered here – look how many waters there are, how many forests, how many canoes. The movement – oh my, what a movement!” – Antanas laughed.

The man said he had heard warnings from President Gitanas Nausėda that some Wagner mercenaries had approached the border and taken up positions in the Grodno region, less than 50 kilometres from Kapchiaiescie, but this information did not worry the local population.

“Wagner will do nothing here. He’s about to be furious and take them to Putin. That’s all. As if we didn’t have enough Russians here. I am an exile myself, born in Russia. They’re my bitches,” Antanas shoved his finger down his throat.

“Tell me, why doesn’t anyone bomb him? Putin! Poor Americans with such intelligence. They have depth charges that would blow up half the Ural Mountains,” he wondered.

However, according to him, the greatest sense of security comes from Lithuania’s membership in the NATO Alliance.

“They can provoke as much as they want here – they won’t move us. They only need to think of one word – what NATO means. That says it all. If the Wagner band of musicians sticks their noses into either Lithuania or Poland, they will be burned at the stake. They will not even have time to stick their nose in. We feel very brave here, believe me”, said Antanas.

On Friday, Antanas said, a column of Lithuanian armoured personnel carriers drove towards the border. The town was immediately stirred up, and everyone was interested to see what was happening.

However, Antanas says he sees no reason to follow Poland’s example and strengthen Lithuania’s border even further, although he also praises the Polish preparedness. “God protects those who protect themselves”, he believes.

A frightening night

Meanwhile, Kęstas does not deny that the locals are a bit worried, but the general situation with the war in Ukraine and migrants is causing anxiety, he says.

“Last night there was a fire, the slates were shot, so people were scared, they thought maybe someone was attacking,” he says.

However, the possible threat of Wagner is far from being the main topic of conversation among local residents.

“I wouldn’t say that anyone is very worried about it or that the neighbours are talking about Wagner – it’s not such a single or very scary topic. People go about their lives – mushroom picking, going to the woods, going to the same border,” Kęstas remarked.

He believes that the migrant crisis has affected the local population more than the Russian mercenaries on the other side of the country, as there was also a migrant accommodation camp in Kapčiamiestis town, and more than one local resident has seen the migrants with his own eyes, wandering around the town at night. 

“Wagner seems to be more of a show from the Belarusian side – to raise tensions, to escalate the situation, to scare people. The Poles reacted, and that still gives them an economic downside,” he said.

The Poles were surprised

The village of Lipliūnai in the Druskininkai municipality is only a few kilometres from the Belarusian border.

Vytautas, who has lived in one of the village’s farmhouses for 20 years, works there – he and his wife grow medicinal plants and use them to make natural cosmetics and essential oils and organise training sessions in the summer.

He said that the new neighbourhood of Wagner mercenaries does not make him or his guests feel unsafe – even though he lives on the border, he rarely sees border guards passing by.

However, the calmness of the locals and officials surprised the Poles who recently visited the farmhouse.

“We had a visit from Poles who live on the Kaliningrad border, and they were surprised to see that there was nothing here. They are constantly patrolled by armoured vehicles, soldiers and anti-tank hedgehogs”, he said.

However, Vytautas is convinced that Lithuanian officials need to sit idly by and may have used modern warfare.

“Our neighbours said that there is a drone on the mountain all the time, so maybe they are using it for surveillance. Maybe our border guards are now very modern, more modern than the Poles, and they are using these high technologies”, he said.

At that time, Vytautas believes that the peace of mind of Lithuanians, even those who live closest to the border, is mostly linked to Lithuania’s very complex history.

“I am a local, my grandparents lived here too – they lived through both the First and Second World War, so maybe there is no fear of historical continuity. Those armies were here through and through, but the locals stayed as they were here. During the guerrilla war, you had to watch out for some during the day and others at night.

And I told my wife, “Look, we might live like our grandparents had to live – you meet some people during the day and others at night”, Vytautas joked.

“You think about it, you imagine what might happen, but we don’t feel any serious tension about it,” he assured.

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