Lithuania's new Cold War

  • 2004-07-08
  • By Egdunas Racius
On the global scale it is maintained that the Cold War faded away with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The once seemingly indissoluble binary opposition between what the late U.S.

President Ronald Reagan had labeled the "evil empire" and its stooges on the one side and the so-called "free world" on the other has allegedly dissolved and new forms of international relations have emerged. Russia, the inheritor of the Soviet Union's rights and international commitments, is no longer seen as an enemy, let alone archrival, but rather as a partner, even if not always easy to accommodate. This might be true in regards to American-Russian or French/ German-Russian relations, yet on the regional level, especially in the case of the Baltic states, this has taken a specific turn.
With the re-establishment of independence a decade and a half behind them, the Baltic states are still torn by and grappling with the Soviet legacy - the Cold War mentality. This has been particularly evident in Lithuania during the past year-and-a-half. The presidential election of 2002/2003, the impeachment process of the president in 2004, and finally the recent elections (presidential, but also to the European Parliament) all demonstrated an upsurge of this kind of mentality.
It might be recalled that the 2002 presidential election campaign (where Rolandas Paksas ran against Valdas Adamkus) was constructed and portrayed as a clash between a Western orientation - represented by Adamkus, who has lived almost all his adult life in the U.S.A. - and a pro-Russian orientation, embodied in Paksas, whose single main campaign financer was a Russian millionaire with ties to the Russian military industry. Adamkus, who had already served as president for five years, was hailed by his supporters as a Western-style leader recognized and respected by Western leaders. His contestant Paksas, on the contrary, was vilified by his opponents as an anti-Western type of populist politician who blamed all economic and social evils plaguing the lower strata of the population on the West and pledged to revise Lithuania's international commitments, especially those tied with the EU accession process. At the time Paksas won by a slight majority. As he took office, Lithuania's Western partners donned a politically correct yet somber attitude toward the new leader and proceeded to wait for events to unfold.
Six months after Paksas' inauguration, members of his team were accused of having ties with Russian criminal elements, and it was alleged by the Lithuanian State Security Department that Russia's secret services had been preparing ground for their eventual influence on the president's decisions. Preparations for Paksas' impeachment were immediately started, while Lithuania, with its compromised president, underwent a slow but steady descent toward international isolation.

In the course of the impeachment process, Russia more than ever emerged as a threat to Lithuania's sovereignty in the eyes of the political establishment and cultural elite. As a consequence, Paksas and the Russian interests in Lithuania - whatever they might be - became one and the same, and the political establishment moved to impeach him and thus secure the state's integrity. The removal from office succeeded but left the nation politically fragmented.
In the new double elections, practically all political parties, and to only a slightly lesser extent presidential candidates, played the "pro-Western/ pro-Russian" card; the choice to be made by the nation at the ballots was essentially seen in these terms. For politicians, political analysts and the media, the unit of measurement of a given party or individual became its sympathy for Russia. To be sure, in virtually all elections since Lithuania's independence, the sympathy-for-Russia scale has been applied. However, this time it was elevated through the media, both private and state-run, to the level of hysteria. Russian interests were seen in all sorts of events and facts involving certain politicians and parties, while everything allegedly Russian was labeled as a threat.
In this way presidential candidate Kazimiera Prunskiene more than once was demonized as a former KGB agent or representative of Russian energy interests. To read between the lines of what her opponents said, to vote for Prunskiene amounted to voting for Russian interests, and possibly to the eventual drift of the state into Russia's zone of influence. Similarly the ascending Labor Party, headed by the Russian born millionaire-turned-politician Viktor Uspaskich, has been (among other things) accused of being anti-Western and susceptible to sentiments toward Russia. And although Prunskiene lost the presidential election, the Labor Party scored big in the Europarliament elections, getting five out of 13 seats.
Lithuania now has a short break from the election marathon before it plunges into the parliamentary campaign this fall. It is already obvious that the Labor Party will be in the spotlight. However, the uncompromising stance of its leader, with his outspoken and sometimes rudely articulated disgust toward the so-called traditional (and by definition pro-Western) parties who ruled the country for the past 15 years, will invariably call onto itself the fire of pro-Western oriented politicians, political analysts and the media. The clash between the orientations in the upcoming elections will be even more complex and nuanced, as Prunskiene's party and ousted president Paksas' party (both perceived as anti-Western and pro-Russian) will bid to win a chunk of seats in the new Parliament. Lithuania and the whole world is set to see a political show where there will be not just two camps - one pro-Western the other pro-Russian - but a variety of different shades within them.
With the phantom of Russia ever present in political debates, Lithuania is caught in its own predicament and perpetuates this dichotomy of West versus Russia, where the West stands for everything good and Russia for everything bad. The recent political processes in Lithuania suggest that instead of moving from this Cold War mentality of dividing the world into simplified binary opposition, Lithuanian politicians, as well as political analysts and the media, more and more rely on it in their arguments in favor of one or another politician or political party. Apparently, Lithuania (as well as the other Baltic states) is destined to become a hostage to this mentality for the predictable future, which rather than serving the needs of the nation, unfortunately further polarizes it. o

Egdunas Racius is a lecturer at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science.