Vilnius protesters clash with police

  • 2009-01-21
  • By Adam Mullett

FREE-FOR-ALL: What began as a peaceful protest in Vilnius erupted into violence as participants began throwing snowballs, rocks and glass bottles at the parliament building and at police. Riot police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

VILNIUS - The Prime Minster has condemned hooligans after police were forced to resort to rubber bullets and tear gas to deter violent youths who hijacked a peaceful protest against higher taxes outside of the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament).
"There are forces that are interested in destabilization and chaos in Lithuania, and they are using the public's dismay over painful reforms to achieve their hostile plans," Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said after the Jan. 16 riot.

Security experts have warned that the riot 's the second to strike the region in less than a week after a violent demonstration tore through Riga 's could easily happen again.
"Assessing the situation at hand in Lithuania, I can say that yes, this can happen again, and we don't need special services to ascertain this. This is already in the public arena, a protest rally is in the cards for February," State Security Chief Povilas Malakauskas said.

Peaceful protests outside the Seimas turned ugly when protesters began throwing snowballs, stones, bottles, bricks, flares and fireworks at the windows of the parliament building and at police.
Following an unsuccessful attempt by some protesters to storm the doors of the Seimas, riot police with shields, batons, tear gas and rubber-bullet guns were deployed.
The crowd, which was demanding to hear from Parliamentary Speaker Arunas Valinskas, were scattered by tear gas and attack dogs, but soon returned in numbers to attack the Seimas from all sides.
Seimas National Security and Defense Committee member Saulius Peceliunas reported that a gunshot had even broken one window of the Seimas during the attack.

The Seimas has announced that repairs of the building will cost more than 200,000 litas (57,924 euros), with total damages from the riot around the city amounting to around two million litas.

The protests and riots, which lasted for about three hours, were a result of bad communication between the public and the government, the president and other politicians said.
"I speak out of a dialogue that should be lead not by street riots and clashes, but by normal, calm dialogue between the people and the government," President Valdas Adamkus said.
Adamkus said that the government is detached from the people "to a certain extent."
"However, cooperation between the government and the public should by no means be pursued by tumbling of cars or breaking of display cases as was seen here near the Seimas. I am only happy with the relatively successful maintenance of order save for a few outbreaks," he said.

Former mayor of Vilnius and Liberal-Centrist Seimas member Arturas Zuokas was among a handful of politicians brave enough to come outside and talk with people before violence broke out. 
"I think this is a good message for the ruling coalition that we need to talk more with people about the situation that exists in Lithuania and not to do some strange and quick reforms that have been done in the last months. Its an important part of democracy," he told The Baltic Times.
"This is part of democracy and I think this demonstration will be in peace. I can understand what they are saying and doing. Their main question is how to live and what their future will be like for them."

The protests were against the government's crisis plan, brought in on New Year's Day, which includes large tax hikes. The tax burden on individuals and business has risen substantially.
"We are against this system and the government which is pauperizing Lithuanians. Now they are attacking small businesses. Before, Lithuanians used to emigrate, but now they are staying and fighting for their rights," Algirdas Paleckis, leader of the political party Frontas, told The Baltic Times during the protests.

Citizens are angry about the emigration of many people, likening it to deportations of past occupying regimes.
"In the Soviet Union, 138,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia. Today after the new Lithuanian state, 2 million have gone 's that is fifteen times more. The government has destroyed the Lithuanian nation," pensioner and author Edvardas Satkevicius told TBT.

"I don't like Kubilius 's he is one of these who have done the genocide of the Lithuanian nation," he added.
Others have accused the government of making the wrong reforms, and pushing them through too quickly.
"We are angry from the policies of the politics and the rise in prices. They should cut more expenses from the budget, not raise taxes. If there is not enough money, you have to cut expenditures 's stop building, stop celebrating things and stop raising Seimas salaries," one student told TBT.
"I think it is stable now 's They have to make these decisions, but the problem is that they are hurrying a lot. The government has just changed and they have to do everything fast 's they are rushing and making mistakes," he added.

The heightened tax burden on workers and business owners has put many out of work, but Zuokas claims the government has already learned from its mistakes.
"Unemployment, and how to live with the increasing crisis [are the big problems]. We are seeing a lot of small business people 's they got a big shock with the tax reforms. For some of them, taxes increased 20, 30 or even 50 percent. This was not a good decision in general and we should support the small and medium sized businesses so they can work and provide for their families," Zuokas said.

"It's important now to stimulate business and to open up the banks so they can give loans to people with small and medium sized businesses. The government should try to borrow money not from local banks, because they should give that money to the businesses. I spoke with Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and we spoke about the [government] bonds to get people to give money," he said.

Prior to the first wave of violence, protestors were pelting the Seimas with snowballs and rocks, but after riot police arrived, the protestors turned violent and began throwing fireworks, glass and bricks.
Tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd, which then returned throwing bricks, glass, and fireworks at the riot police.

Directly after the first tear gas attack, one student said while crying and coughing, "I think this is shit 's our parliament works bad 's people are without work. There are young people without work 's there isn't any money. We have to pay for cars, but we have no money. I don't think the police should have acted like this, because we haven't done anything."

The fighting escalated when hooligans began trashing construction barricades and rubbish bins. Police began firing rubber bullets in response to glass shards broken from the Seimas fountain.
One student who was observing the riot said that the police were doing the right thing.
"I think this is just some hooligans who are making trouble for the city. If you saw at the protest, there were a lot of old people. When the hooligans started to hit the windows, the real protesters went away. Now it is normal that the police can do their work," he said.

"In this moment it's a hard time for all of us. I was laid off in December 's I think the government is doing their best. The strike is just people saying that they don't have money to eat." Police pushed the hooligans down Gedimino Avenue to Lukiskes Square where they dispersed. Another group of hooligans attacked the Seimas again, but were dispersed by about 4 p.m.

Police reported that 151 people were arrested during the riots and that 15 of them had already been sentenced to jail time 's ranging from seven to 28 days 's at the time TBT went to print.
A large protest has been planned by union chiefs for early February, where an estimated 20,000 people will go to Cathedral Square to voice their opinion.

(Additional reporting by Nathan Greenhalgh)