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Lithuania's Independence Day tainted by nationalist demonstration in Kaunas

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Let us start with something positive on this special day. I would like to wish a happy Independence Day to all citizens, inhabitants and friends of Lithuania. May we all grow together and have an opportunity to see this country become increasingly a better, more equal and more welcoming place for all.

Although most Lithuanians do not even know how to celebrate Independence Days (and we have two), although most people probably ended up shopping or simply sleeping longer, it is also a day for popular concerts, passionate speeches and plentiful Facebook greetings. Unfortunately, for many in Kaunas it once again reminded about political tensions that we are experiencing.

Background: Lithuanian Independence in 1918

Debates about the future of Lithuania's nationhood swept the territory for several decades before materialising into a Declaration of Independence. After the ban on press in minority languages was lifted in Czar's Russia, Lithuanian-language media was extensively debating cultural autonomy, and calls for full independence were heard as well. During WWI the territory fell under German rule. To legitimise its rule, Germany agreed to negotiate with leading Lithuanian politicians about the political future. Ideas about self-determination of nations, expressed by both Woodrow Wilson and Lenin, were circulating in the international community and came handy to the leaders of the Baltic independence movements. Lithuania's independence was a product of diplomatic games and extensive negotiations. Initially the plan was to declare partial independence, with an 'eternal union' with Germany. To avoid cultural colonisation, Lithuanian politicians drafted a plan to turn Lithuania into a constitutional monarchy, ruled by a king from distant Saxony. He was to receive a Lithuanian name and formally embody the union with the 'patron', Germany, while Lithuanian politicians would actually run the state. Soon, however, it became evident that Germany would lose the war. Amidst the war, two alternative plans were on the table, until the actual independence was declared in 1918, establishing Lithuania as a sovereign democratic republic. The declaration was followed by international pressures (we all know how powerful states always prefer 'stability', right?) and internal fighting (foreign armies were still present in the territory). The new national army was formed hastily, from volunteers. I know that, enthusiastic about the building of a new state, one of my ancestors also volunteered and applied to get a Lithuanian family name to mark full belonging to the nascent country. Many young men did not return, as the army was poorly armed and organised, but those who did received some land, which automatically made the society somewhat more equal than it was under the Czar, and boosted patriotism. The newborn USSR somewhat supported Lithuania's independence and recognised it before most other countries did.

Lithuania's borders were unstable, and relations among various communities and movements tense. Regardless of the turmoil, there was a commitment to build a democratic republic modeled after France at the time. Lithuanian women enjoyed universal suffrage (something that their counterparts in Portugal had to wait for another 54 and in Switzerland - 70 years), and the writer Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė was, to my knowledge, one of the first women to ever actually chair a parliamentary session. The Constituent Assembly was convened in order to adopt the country's democratic constitution. Historically present ethnic minorities were not only represented in the parliament, but also had seats reserved in the government. In practice, however, this applied to Jews and Belarusians only, as representatives of the Polish community refused to participate due to disagreements regarding borders, and Russians, to my knowledge, were excluded.

Due to the turmoil I mentioned before, various restrictions on constitutional freedoms were imposed. Communism was banned, freedom of assembly was not fully respected. After the wars were over and Lithuania was admitted to the predecessor of the United Nations, the Social Democratic government at the time lifted a part of these restrictions and took measures to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church in political life. This upset clerics and nationalists, and the military was also unhappy about its funding and power. Increasingly, Social Democrats were being blamed for creating a 'mess' in the country. In 1926 a military coup d'etat, lead by former president Antanas Smetona, overthrew the government, thus ending the short-lived interwar Lithuanian democracy. The authoritarian rule that followed restricted freedom of speech and assembly, 'trimmed' representation of minorities, and spent nearly a half of the state's budget on military. On the other hand, its reforms and economic policies lead to increased standard of living, and many elderly people still remember those times fondly. The 1930s also saw impressive development of Lithuanian education, culture and sports. Yet some historians (can't find the source fast enough, but I read it on one of the main national dailies a few years ago) found evidence that Smetona, the authoritarian leader, received financial support from the USSR, and, consistently with this hypothesis, when the Soviet military took over the country in 1940, not a single bullet was shot by the mega-rich Lithuanian army, as no orders to resist were received. While the first, short-lived Soviet annexation of Lithuania during WWII is called 'voluntary incorporation' in Russia (some leading intellectuals indeed applied for membership in the USSR, but without a democratic mandate) and 'occupation' in Lithuania, the complexities of that period are difficult to grasp. If the hypothesis is true, it would make Smetona the gravedigger of both democracy and independence of Lithuania - two things we celebrate today.

Lessons not learned?

You have already heard from me about the worrying signs of overly tolerant attitudes towards nationalist youth among local governments. It has become a tradition since 2008 that there is a nationalist march on the second independence day, 11 March. I never witnessed any though, but there are many reports and videos of racist and exclusionist slogans being shouted. As I read today, a similar march took place in Kaunas, this time on the day of the first independence. A member of a nationalist party, represented in the municipality of Kaunas, helped to get the permission to demonstrate, 15min, a free daily, reports. While the daily calls the march a demonstration of 'patriotic youth', along with Delfi, which adds that the main slogans were "Lithuania is an ethnic state" and "No! to the East and to the West", the main national daily, Lietuvos rytas, has more information and photos. Reporters of the daily noticed such slogans as "Lithuania for Lithuanians", "We are white brothers". A young Pakistani man was beaten up, the police is investigating whether this has any relation to the demonstration. The leader of Lithuanian National Youth, the organisers, denies any accusations and says that his 'patriots' are peaceful and the attack against the foreigner could have been a provocation of Antifa.

In addition to the feeling of hopelessness over local governments creating a hell for trade union or LGBT demonstrations, but happily allowing nationalists to shout their slogans, this last march has another worrying sign. Take a look at the photo No. 16 on the Lietuvos rytas page report. 'Patriots' are carrying a poster with the date of the coup d'etat in 1926! Something that totally undermines the spirit of celebrating the establishment of the democratic Lithuanian republic in 1918, against the dreams of the mothers and fathers of Lithuanian statehood.

Of course, the authoritarian regime perfectly embodies the ideals of these young nationalists. There was a strong ethnic focus, restrictions of press and political activity, and a strong leader to follow. But glorifying the militarist regime, which did nothing to protect Lithuania's independence in 1940, on the Independence day should be taken as an offense even by right-wing political conservatives who celebrate this holiday. Can I expect their solidarity this time?