Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lithuanian diary

Here is a short (three-day) diary from last week's trip to Lithuania


Back on the map
Mar 16th 2010

How an invisible country rocked the world

Day one

EARTHQUAKES are a horrible way of changing the physical landscape—but geopolitical ones can have marvellous results. Lithuania has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of its declaration of renewed independence, when late in the evening of March 11th 1990, deputies of the “Supreme Soviet” of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic voted unanimously to dump the symbols of Soviet rule and to restore their country’s independence.

It seemed a hopeless gesture at the time. But the seismic shocks shattered the Soviet Union, bringing freedom, or at least the chance of it, to 15 new countries. It put Lithuania—literally—back on the world map, from which it had been wiped by its forcible annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.

A poignant exhibition in the parliament building shows the mass murder, deportations, collectivisation, forced atheism and unrelenting propaganda inflicted on Lithuania under Soviet rule. It also shows the determination to resist. Particular moving are the souvenirs created by Lithuanians in the Gulag, bearing national symbols and the red-green-yellow colours of the national flag. Possession of that flag, or let alone humming the old national anthem, was a criminal offence.

Yet that flag, along with those of Latvia and Estonia, was visible in in the lobby of the American State Department throughout the period of Soviet occupation. (America, like almost all western countries, never formally recognised the Baltic states’ incorporation in the Soviet Union). Thanks to that non-recognition policy, a dwindling handful of elderly diplomats in moribund embassies, chiefly in Washington, DC, the Vatican and Britain, retained their diplomatic status, living and working in a kind of limbo which all too easily seemed futile. One of their few real jobs was issuing passports, carried with pride by Lithuanian emigres, though seldom used in practice.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, old Lithuania stirred: neither gone, nor forgotten, just buried. Huge demonstrations began to challenge the Soviet occupiers. Political prisoners returned from Siberia. Independent media emerged, and began overturning the systematic lies and propaganda of the past. In late 1989 the Communist Party turned against its masters in Moscow and then split. In elections to the Supreme Soviet, the candidates endorsed by the pro-independence “Sajudis” movement (pictured in 1990, above) swept the board. On March 11th, barely 24 hours after they first convened, the new members restored the pre-war coat of arms, ripping down the hammer and sickle from the building’s entrance. Then—to the amazement of the outside world—they declared the pre-war republic re-established with immediate effect.

Had it all gone wrong, those men and women would have been the first to suffer. Some of them had been born in Siberia, the children of parents deported there for no other reason than that they had been officials in the prewar republic. But bravery aside, what the gesture meant in practice was unclear. Lithuania had no money, no state institutions, no experience, no means of defending itself. The KGB was still a threatening presence, housed, appropriately, in the building that had once been the Gestapo headquarters. The Lithuanian authorities’ power was dependent on the Soviet military staying in their barracks. Initially, only a few hunting rifles and sandbags defended the parliament. Lithuania’s borders were still under Soviet command. Anyone wanting to cross them needed a Soviet visa. There was one exception. On March 28th, your correspondent managed to enter the country, gaining Lithuanian visa 0001. Using visa 0002 had to wait for more than a year, until the Soviet Union collapsed in August 1991.

The effusive congratulations for the 20th anniversary belie the fact that at the time most outsiders reacted not with cheers but a mixture of caution and outright horror. The top priority for most countries was not supporting a forgotten country’s quixotic quest for freedom. It was to keep the embattled Mikhail Gorbachev in power in the Kremlin, and his hardline opponents out of it. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany was gingerly negotiating the terms of reunification. That depended on Soviet consent.

Foreigners counselled the Baltic states to play it slow and soft. Better to be autonomous in a Soviet Union where glasnost and perestroika (openness and reform) were ascendant than to aim for the seemingly impossible goal of restoring full statehood. Lithuanians disagreed. As Vytautas Landsbergis, the first head of state of the reborn republic, put it during the celebrations, “they offered a reform of the prison regime. We didn’t want to be in the prison at all”.

Yet the gamble paid off. Barely 14 months later, a failed putsch in Moscow left the Soviet Union in ruins. The Russian leader Boris Yeltsin displaced Mr Gorbachev in the Kremlin. He wanted independence for his country from the Soviet Union too. Almost overnight, the Baltic states were back on the map. It was as if Atlantis had reemerged from the depths of the sea and applied to join the United Nations. A lot to celebrate indeed.

Day two

THE centre of the celebrations was the parliament. Most senior positions there and in the government are still held by people who featured prominently in the independence struggle. They look a lot less tired and worried now. They are also a lot better dressed. Sleek designer glasses have replaced clunky Soviet-era spectacles. Dreadful dentistry has given way to shiny white teeth. Grey shoes and white socks—once a common combination—have vanished. Shabby polyster suits are in the same dustbin of history as the Soviet Union.

In those days the “Supreme Council” building (pictured, right) was rank with cigarette smoke, sweat, cheap Soviet perfume (seemingly applied by the litre) and the lingering smells of boiled cabbage and stewed tea from the cafeteria. All that has gone, along with the improvised defences that used to ring the building. These were built, Lego-style, out of huge prefabricated concrete structures from a nearby building site, under the direction of a mysterious and energetic American who was rumoured to have a military engineering background. They were backed up by what purported to be a minefield. The sign “Stop-Mines!” was in Lithuanian only—a language that attacking Russian soldiers would be unlikely to understand.

The parliamentary guards of those days—twitchy, unkempt and armed with only rudimentary weapons—were the nucleus of what later became Lithuania’s armed forces and security service. Both outfits are in a mess. Swingeing defence cuts have left Lithuania’s military able to do its NATO duty in Afghanistan, but not to defend the country—something that infuriates the Estonians, who still spend the NATO-mandated 2% of GDP on defence. Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, is now gaining formal contingency plans from NATO and big American land exercises are planned for later this year. But outsiders’ willingness to risk blood and treasure in the Baltic may fade if the locals show so little desire to provide their share.

In the security service, the VSD, a huge political row is raging over the so-called “Valstybininkai”—a tightknit group of hawkish senior security officials and advisors. Their nickname is all but untranslatable into English, but could be rendered as “Men of State”. They played a key role in deposing an elected president, Rolandas Paksas, in 2004, supposedly because of ties (which he denies) with Russian intelligence and organised crime. Now they are enmeshed in a scandal over a CIA compound in a suburb of Vilnius, which may have been a secret prison. News of its existence was leaked in America, to the despair of Lithuanian officials. Not that it was very secret: the Americans had acquired the building through a shell company in Panama, engaged in highly conspicuous and unusual construction work, and asked the electricity utility to wire the building up with an American-style 110-volt power supply. Short of putting a neon light on the roof saying, “CIA—your security in safe hands”, it could hardly have been more conspicuous.

Some of the Valstybininkai may face criminal charges relating to abuse of power; others have been exiled to postings in faraway countries. Lithuania is a hugely pro-American country, and many might think that turning the odd dirty trick for the country’s most important ally was nothing to get too excited about. Though the group may have got overly self-important, they still enjoy great respect in many quarters (not least abroad) for their brains and patriotism. Some scent a vendetta by Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite. Since her election last year she has seized on the issue. She also wants to improve her country’s ties with big European states such as France and Germany—and with Russia. Nobbling the VSD could be part of that, say her critics.

But what worries even the most solidly Atlanticist Lithuanians is the mystery around the presumed murder of a senior VSD officer, Vytautas Pociunas, in Belarus on August 23rd 2006. His family and friends believe that his death (falling from a hotel window) was covered up in order to forestall an investigation into a scandal in the VSD. Conspiracy theories abound, involving secret cabals of homosexuals, Russian penetration and high-level corruption. Others think that he was murdered by the Russians, or the Belarussians, in order to sow confusion in Lithuania. If so, that certainly succeeded. More than three years after his death, the issue continues to sow mistrust, and a certain amount of fear.

Day three

CENTRING celebrations around Lithuania’s parliament leaves Ms Grybauskaite in an unusual position: off stage. A former European commissioner, she trades on her image as a political outsider, running against the old-boys club that dominates public life. Without a political machine behind her, she needs to keep her popularity high. Many Lithuanians appreciate her boldness and bluntness, as well as her squeaky-clean image. Unmarried and childless, she has no relatives to embarrass her with dodgy business dealings. Her success in a big job overseas gives her credibility. In a country where politicians are prone to self-enrichment, she does not even draw her full salary. Her tactical skills are formidable—she fought and won a sharp battle to get rid of the country’s high-profile foreign minister, Vygaudas Usackas (who is now the European Union’s envoy to Afghanistan).

That leaves her (at least in her own eyes) as the unquestioned leader of Lithuania’s foreign policy. But to what end? By Lithuanian standards, she is not a great Atlanticist. Her priority is to develop the country’s ties with the EU, especially France and Germany. She shows little interest in causes that have been at the centre of Lithuanian concerns in previous years, such as promoting Georgia. To the displeasure of Georgia’s friends in the region, she did not invite President Mikheil Saakashvili to the celebrations (though the parliament invited heavyweight Georgian lawmakers). Instead she invited Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the autocratic president of neighbouring Belarus—and Dmitri Medvedev of Russia. 

The reasoning behind this is interesting. Ms Grybauskaite said she would go to Moscow on May 9th for the 65th anniversary celebrations of the end of the war if Mr Medvedev would come to Lithuania to celebrate the events of March 11th. He said no, quite politely, and in turn invited her to come to Russia at a time of her choosing. That could be quite a victory: May 9th is not a great day of celebration for the Baltic states, where many see it as irredeemably tainted with the Soviet (and Stalinist) view of the war, in which the three little countries bounced like shuttlecocks between two totalitarian empires. So Ms Grybauskaite avoids the embarrassment of being pictured against the pictures of Stalin which are likely to adorn the Moscow streets. And she gets a chance to talk properly to Mr Medvedev in more congenial surroundings.

But if the price of good relations with Russia is snubbing Georgia, many Lithuanians will balk. Georgia’s plight—divided and part-occupied—could easily have been the Baltic states’. Even those who bemoan Mr Saakashvili’s flaws still care about the country he leads. The speaker of the Georgian parliament, David Bakradze, gained a rapturous reception from a big crowd at an outdoor concert in Vilnius on March 11th. Mr Saakashvili would have had an even bigger one.

Ms Grybauskaite’s invitation to Mr Lukashenka, oddly, was less controversial. Lithuania has rather good relations with Belarus, despite being a base for efforts to aid the opposition there. (Another scandal around the VSD concerns the alleged misappropriation of American money paid to that cause). Lithuania was the only NATO country to be invited to observe the big and threatening military manoeuvres mounted last autumn by Russia and Belarus. Showing the Belarussian authorities that close ties with Russia are not the only option is a good idea: it is strongly supported by neighbouring Poland.

That is another priority for Ms Grybauskaite. Poland and Lithuania should be great friends. They share a long history. From a cultural point of view, they are in some ways indistinguishable (Poland’s best known poem starts, “Lithuania, O my fatherland”). But ties are oddly tense. Lithuanians, with unhappy memories of past Polonisation, have never delivered on repeated promises to sort out an arcane dispute about spelling. That infuriates Polish officials. The Conservative Party, which leads the governing coalition, is deeply divided on the issue. But it may have to swallow its pride: the votes of two Polish deputies are essential if it is to have a working majority.

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