VILNIUS - An unsanctioned march of skinheads carrying flags adorned with swastikas and shouting anti-Semitic slogans in downtown Vilnius passed uninterrupted, with authorities dismissing the event as a "provocation" from abroad.
The march, which took place March 13 and included 200 participants, was apparently even escorted by police, according to Lithuanian media reports.
The skinheads started their march in Cathedral Square and walked along Gedimino Avenue, shouting racist slogans and singing hate-filled songs, according to police.
The walk finished by Tauras Hill, where a concert of extreme nationalist bands was taking place.
The participants, mainly youth, chanted "Juden raus" and "Lithuania for Lithuanians." They carried Lithuanian and Latvian flags and one with swastikas and a skull.
Songs included despicable lines such as "You take that little stick and kill that little Jew" and "Lithuania is beautiful without Russians," according to reports. Many participants covered their faces with scarves or hoods.
Police refused to stop the march, asking the participants to walk on the sidewalk rather than the street. The skinheads followed the orders.
Incitement of hatred is a criminal offence in Lithuania, though investigators only started looking into the case after a widespread backlash in the media.
By comparison, in 2002 police apprehended participants in a demonstration in support of Tibet that had been organized by the late writer Jurga Ivanauskaite.
Also, a couple of animal rights activists were apprehended during a protest in 2006.
Likewise, the city of Vilnius has repeatedly rejected requests by homosexual rights groups to unfurl a rainbow flag.
Simonas Alperavicius, the president of the Lithuanian Jewish community, deplored the incident and said he did not understand the police's passiveness.
"I hope that the majority of Lithuanian people, the citizens, do not support extravagant actions of these un-educated youngsters," he said, noted that news on the fascist rally appeared the same day medals for the Righteous Among the Nations were handed out. On March 13 Israel's ambassador presented these medals to 17 Lithuanians who helped save Jews from persecution during WWII in Vilnius.
The march inevitably raised questions about the level of tolerance in Lithuania, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Indeed, a recent poll conducted by the Ethnic Research Center of the Institute of Social Research shows that only one third of Lithuanians consider the society tolerant. Tadas Leoncikas, head of the center, expressed concern with the alarming tendency of intolerance toward minority ethnic groups among Lithuanian youth.
"It came absolutely unexpected and sends a certain signal - the share of people with negative beliefs towards Russians and Poles is relatively higher among the youth, and the difference is drastically higher than the average," he told the Baltic News Service.
"We sometimes believe that changing generations will make society more tolerant; however, we see here from the results of the survey that the belief is not true," he said.
Lithuanian Human Rights Center's lawyer, Gediminas Andriukaitis, informed the European Network Against Racism on the skinhead march.
Politicians, meanwhile, have been alarmingly silent about the event. There were no public condemnations about the rally. The Liberal Party said its members had discussed it, while the Social Democrats said they didn't have the chance to bring the matter up.
The Conservatives commented on the event almost a week later, saying on March 17 that they see it as a "provocation" attempting to discredit Lithuania in the eyes of the international community.
Conservative Rasa Jukneviciene addressed the State Security Department to inquire whether the anti-semitic rally in downtown Vilnius "was not a part of a plan implemented from abroad to discredit Lithuania."
She said that the department's director had previously informed the parliamentary national security and defense committee that he has some information on "special services of some countries hostile to Lithuania intentionally using the anti-Semitic card."
Vytautas Landsbergis, a member of the European Parliament, described the rally a "provocative campaign of half-wits," saying that the timing and the form shows this was a carefully chosen provocation.
Landsbergis said that an anti-Lithuania campaign was taking place in Russia and included reports on a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.
Developers want to build on a site believed to have been part of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery, where a Soviet-built stadium now stands.
The battle has attracted the attention of Jews around the world and even sparked a discussion in the U.S. Congress.
President Valdas Adamkus called for an immediate solution of this problem on March 12, reminding that a U.S. foreign affairs committee resolution over the Snipiskes debate criticized Lithuania's failure to preserve objects of historical memory.
"The scandal has been very detrimental to Lithuania's image in the international community," said Adamkus, demanding the government take specific actions to tackle the problem of construction on a possible Jewish cemetery.