Confrontations over gays and WWII in Vilnius' streets

  • 2010-05-12
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - Lithuania’s first ever parade of homosexuals for equality as well as the first WWII-commemorating march by local Russians since the collapse of communism, provoked confrontations in the streets of Vilnius. The especially tense atmosphere was on May 8 during the gay and lesbian Baltic Pride parade. Some low-scale riots started after the parade. The police accuse Kazimieras Uoka, MP of the ruling Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats, and Petras Grazulis, MP of the opposition Order and Justice Party, of instigating the riots.

On March 4, Raimondas Petrauskas, interim prosecutor general, asked the Vilnius court to freeze the Vilnius municipality’s permission for the Baltic Pride parade, stating the he had information about the possibility of riots. The court decided to freeze the permission. On May 6, Vladimir Simonko, leader of the Lithuanian Gay League, assisted by Helle Jacobsen, representative of Amnesty International, presented to the Lithuanian president’s office a petition demanding to allow the Baltic Pride parade. The petition had 14,000 signatures which were collected by Amnesty International worldwide in half a day. Then, Linas Balsys, spokesman for President Dalia Grybauskaite, expressed surprise over contradictions in Petrauskas’ demand and police statements reassuring about the readiness to guarantee the security of the parade. That was a signal to the court to satisfy the appeal by the Lithuanian Gay League, and on May 7 the parade was allowed.

On the night from May 7 to May 8, unknown people threw three stones and two Molotov cocktails into the windows of the Tolerant Youth Center, which assisted in organizing the parade. Luckily, no large damage was done.
On May 8, about 30 mostly elderly people, led by Catholic priest Alfonsas Svarinskas, gathered near the Vilnius Cathedral to pray for salvation of Lithuania from gay danger.

The Baltic Pride event, which also included a conference, cost 40,000 litas (11,600 euros), which was paid by the state of Netherlands and various foreign funds, while the Lithuanian state paid 180,000 litas to guarantee the security of the parade: 800 policemen were guarding the area, including mounted police and anti-riot units. The horses of the mounted police had masks, protecting the horses’ eyes, which could be useful in case of street battles. The area was surrounded by a fence. Policemen were ready to electrify some parts of the fence to shock those who would try to jump over. A police helicopter was hovering above the event.

Some 1,500 spectators watched the parade from a rather far distance. Many of those spectators were in a quite aggressive mood. A sausage, a coffee cup, half-full Coca-Cola bottle and smoke bombs were thrown at the police during the parade. A young woman held a poster “Impeachment for Grybauskaite!” A group of men holding flags with signs similar to a swastika also held a poster with a painting which presented the sexual intercourse of Vilnius Mayor Vilius Navickas and Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Some protesters were in an inflatable boat on the Neris River, holding an English-language poster condemning “sodomy,” in unprintable language. Protesters on the Neris River bank, opposite to the parade, brought a huge wooden cross.

On May 8, at midday, some 350 people, half of them Lithuanians, marched with rainbow flags as well as with flags of the European Union, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. They marched some 250 meters alongside the Neris River. A large part of the participants were from gay and lesbian organizations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as well as from the U.S., Scotland, Brazil, Israel, and other countries. There were also several members of the European Parliament, Swedish minister of EU affairs, a German MP, activists from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among the parade participants. Two Lithuanian MPs, Social Democrat MP Ausrine Marija Pavilioniene and Christian Party MP Rokas Zilinskas took part in the parade. Zilinskas, who is openly gay, had no intention to participate in the parade, but he changed his mind when the interim prosecutor general attempted to ban it.

“Now we talk not about the gay parade - now we talk about human rights,” Zilinskas said, explaining his change of mind. Speaking about the high spending on the parade’s security, he said, “It is a shame for our society that such forces are needed for protection, though the spending is not important in comparison with the importance of human rights.”

Heterosexuals dominated the Lithuanian participants of the Baltic Pride parade. They came to show their solidarity. “I am Christian, heterosexual, and father of a family. I support human rights” - such inscriptions were on a poster which was held by philosopher Algis Davidonis. Holding this poster, which was decorated with the peace sign, he stated that this day is as important as Jan. 13, 1991, when Lithuanians defended their democracy against the Soviet tanks. A Lithuanian group of European-style leftists, who participate in many street demonstrations, also came to the parade stating that they are marching “for freedom,” and held their huge red banner with the inscription, “For sexual revolution!”

When the parade finished at 14:30 and the majority of participants left in buses, which were rented for the event to guarantee the participants’ security, two Lithuanian MPs, Uoka and Grazulis, who stood among the anti-gay protesters, got hysterical and started to shout at policemen, demanding to be allowed to go into the fenced-in area. The crowd started to throw stones and even road signs at the police. Part of the fence was temporary dismantled by the crowd, though only Uoka and Grazulis, who have MPs’ immunity, had the courage to jump over the fence and have some fight with the policemen. Finally, both MPs were stopped from moving further. Eighteen anti-gay protesters were arrested and two policemen received minor injuries.

“If not for those two citizens, the event would have passed without incident,” Kestutis Lancinskas, chief of Vilnius police, said, adding that some legal punishment for Uoka and Grazulis should be considered. Kubilius stated to the media, via his aid Virgis Valentinavicius, that the initiators of the riots should be punished. Rimvydas Valatka, leading columnist of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, wrote on May 10 that the anti-gay protest showed the “provincialism” of Lithuania.
The first ever Baltic Pride parade was held in Riga last year. In 2011, the parade will be organized in Estonia. The next Baltic Pride in Lithuania will be held in 2013.

The next day, on May 9, Lithuania’s Russian Union, a political party which received no seats in the latest parliamentary election, organized some 200 Russian-speaking people to march 100 meters from the Cathedral Square to Mindaugas Bridge in commemoration of the end of WWII. They carried balloons of yellow, green and red, which are the colors of the Lithuanian flag. They also held small flags of Lithuania, Russia, the U.S. and the UK. There was no Soviet symbol, which, as well as Nazi symbols, is banned by law in Lithuania. Some 20-30 young people - from rather radical nationalist organizations such as the Lithuanian National Youth Movement (some of them were present in the anti-gay demonstration a day earlier as well) to the non radical members of the Lithuanian Pupils’ Parliament - stood alongside the route of the march. Protesters held posters with inscriptions of Soviet crimes, pointing to 22,000 killed in Katyn, 10 million starved to death in Ukraine in 1932-1933, 135,000 (including 32,000 children) deported from Lithuania to Siberia in 1941 and 1944-1953. Some protesters were dressed in uniforms of the anti-Soviet Lithuanian guerrilla movement of 1944-1953. The march’s participants chanted “Victory” in Russian while the protesters sang post-WWII guerilla songs promising “death to enemies,” but the atmosphere was not tense or aggressive - it reminded one more of some happening or flash mob.

Uoka also stood among the protesters, but he was just a shadow of what he was just the day before - he stood quietly and silently. Vilnius residents, except that small group of protesters, showed no interest in this demonstration. The police presence was almost invisible.

“Judging from the nation’s reaction to demonstrations by fascists on Gedimino Avenue [radical nationalists’ marches on March 11], which were tolerated by the government, as well as to the open demonstration of former invaders, they [fascists and Russian WWII veterans] are considered to be 1,000 times better Lithuanian citizens than gays,” Valatka stated ironically in his column of May 10.