VILNIUS - A refusal by Russian consular officials to issue visas to a group of Lithuanian students who wanted to travel to Siberia in order to pay respects to victims of Soviet repression and deportations has sparked indignation and an official note of protest from the Foreign Ministry.
The Council of Lithuanian Youth Organizations, which organized the expedition, said on July 21 that it was unclear why the group had been refused visas.
"The Russian Embassy has sent a reply, saying that it is impossible to issue visas. We intend to ask Lithuania's president and prime minister to help solve this problem. We hope we will have an opportunity to decorate the graves of Lithuanians killed in the Krasnoyarsk region," LiJOT program manager Sarunas Frolenka told the Baltic News Service.
The Foreign Ministry expressed protest to Russia over its refusal to issue visas, a high-ranking ministry official said. In the diplomat's words, Russia was warned that Lithuania, in its turn, would respond on the basis of parity and would not issue visas to Russian citizens.
"The Foreign Ministry has intensively worked for several days to achieve that the Lithuanian youth expedition be issued Russian visas. Russia refuses to provide official comments as to why they have not been issued visas," the Foreign Ministry official said.
In his words, Russian officials explained off the record that when the embassy issued visas to the first youth expedition to Siberia earlier this summer the aim of the expedition was believed to be to visit places of exile, decorate victims' graves, but not to politicize. But, as the official explained, since group members and Lithuanian politicians allegedly started making political statements, members of the second expedition have not been issued visas.
In the Russian officials' words, the participants in the expedition should make up their mind as to whether they want to go to decorate graves or politicize.
"We disagree with such an explanation and have expressed protest. There will be a respective response based on parity - visas will not be issued to Russian citizens," the Lithuanian diplomat said.
News about the refusal rankled some politicians. Audronius Azubalis, deputy chairman of Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said, "In refusing to issue visas to the group of Lithuanian youth going to Siberia to decorate Lithuanian exiles' graves, Russia resembles Belarus, whose visa issuance policy is used as a tool of revenge against foreigners criticizing Alexander Lukashenko's regime."
"But what have young people of Lithuania going to honor the places of exile and the graves of victims of Stalin's regime done wrong to Russia? Maybe by refusing to issue visas Russia is just starting to deny Stalin's and his collaborators' crimes against mankind?" Azubalis has asked rhetorically.
The group planned to go to the Krasnoyarsk region, where 165 Lithuanians were brought for forestry work in 1948. They were accommodated in several stables. Some 50 Lithuanians are buried at a cemetery in the area. The expedition was planned to decorate the Lithuanian cemetery and get acquainted with the living conditions of Lithuanian exiles.
But there was hope the group would still be able to make the trip. Ambassador to the U.S. Vygaudas Usackas, who intended to go to Siberia together with the group, has expressed hope that the Russian consuls' decision was just a misunderstanding.
"I hope that this misunderstanding will be resolved and Russian diplomats will understand the significance of the LiJOT mission to not only Lithuania's youth but also to humanitarian relations between Russia and Lithuania," Usackas has said. The diplomat and his son have received Russian visas in Washington.