MAKING WAVES: Extreme views on the events around Jan. 13, 1991, have put Algirdas Paleckis in the heated glare of the spotlight.
KLAIPEDA - What started out as an ordinary radio interview in late November has wound up as a major public uproar that has shaken Lithuania. In November, in an interview on a Ziniu radijas (News Radio) program, Algirdas Paleckis, leader of the radical Socialist People’s Front (SPF), was asked about the approaching 20th anniversary of the January 13 massacre. That day, in 1991, while defending the Lithuanian TV Tower, a symbol of national freedom, in a standoff with Russian paratroopers from the special Alfa paratrooper unit, which was given orders to occupy the TV Tower, 14 Lithuanians were killed and dozens wounded. Confronted with the question, Paleckis blurted out, “So what happened at the tower on January 13? As it is getting clear now, our own people were shooting our own people.”
Under other circumstances, that profane statement may have died out without causing a flare-up, but with the 20th anniversary of the tragic events upon us, it has set off a big political and societal blaze, raising serious questions. For example, should anyone, voicing even an utterly extreme view, be subject to criminal prosecution? What are the boundaries of the free speech in Lithuania? Will Lithuania’s hard-fought independence not be in jeopardy some day again?
These questions seem tougher today as they are viewed in a different light by the legislature now. Last year, Lithuania adopted legislation that prescribes punishments for denying or grossly underestimating the scope of aggression by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany against Lithuania. The law also allows criminal punishment of people who express approval of other grave crimes of aggression committed against Lithuania in 1990 and 1991.
European states regulate denial or belittling of extremely grave crimes in different ways. The Czech Republic and Poland prescribe criminal prosecution for approval, denial and belittling of the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes. Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Germany and France call to criminal account those who express approval of, deny or belittle genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Nazis. The above-mentioned states and Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Romania and Switzerland have also criminalized approval or justification, denial or belittlement of other similar crimes without specifying the perpetrators. France has expanded the application of these laws to the Armenian genocide.
Vladas Sirutavicius, a lecturer at Vilnius University’s Political Sciences Institute and a senior research worker at the Lithuanian History Institute, took a calm stance on Paleckis’ blasphemous assertion, trying to downplay his words. “As much as I am angered by his point of view, I stand strongly against any criminalization of it. No view, even a most extreme one, can be criminalized and prosecuted. Criminalization of any view shows a society’s weakness, not strength,” he emphasized. According to the scholar, extreme views, regardless of their promulgators, are rather common in more developed Western societies and melt in the spectrum of other views. However, this is not the case in Lithuania. Thus, Vilnius City District’s Prosecutor’s Office was quick to react to Paleckis’ sordid words, opening a pre-trial investigation in the criminal case on charges of denial of the 1991 Soviet Union aggression against the Republic of Lithuanian and its inhabitants.
The National Criminal Penalty Codex, if applied in its severity, threatens Paleckis with incarceration of up to two years. The court decided that he does not have to be held until trial. Unlike Sirutavicius, other scholars and political scientists reacted to the statement vehemently, denouncing it “as a serious political provocation, and absurd.”
“Paleckis’s affirmation is a sheer provocation that contravenes the reality of January 13. However, regardless of the profane distortion of the recent history’s facts, I have to admit, [Paleckis] is not the only one to think that our own people were shooting at us back then. I had heard the absurd version earlier from others. It would have been insanity to do that on January 13. What would have been the purpose to act like this? It is a total absurd,” Norbertas Cerniauskas, a graduate student of Vilnius University’s Modern History Department, said. He is convinced that these kinds of assertions pose a certain threat to statehood itself, as radical politicians, like Paleckis, cater to a society stratum that misses the Soviet Union. “People like Paleckis try to sow certain doubts in our country’s historical facts. Over 20 years, in conferences being organized by his Front, such statements always surface, besmirching January 13 and the post-war Lithuanian insurgent movement. By doing that, political animals of Paleckis’ kind attempt to cast doubts on the historical facts, affirming the supposed ambiguity and obscurity of them.
Having in mind that there is a certain contingent of people who doubt even the well-known historical events, or feel a certain nostalgia for the past, such history-distorting assertions hit the nail right on the head,” Cerniauskas emphasized.
Lauras Bielinis, a political scientist and ex-senior advisor to former President Adamkus, reckons that Paleckis, a member of Vilnius Municipality Council, strives to capitalize on the tense social situation. “First, this kind of statement is related with the upcoming municipality election. Obviously Paleckis seeks to fill the political void, luring the Soviet nostalgia-ridden citizens to his own political movement,” Bielinis maintained to The Baltic Times. He asserts that should not overstep neither moral boundaries, nor legal lines. Certainly, Paleckis has already violated the moral boundaries. As far as whether the legal lines have been overstepped, I leave it up to the judges,” Bielinis suggested.
The harshest condemnation of Paleckis’ statement came from MEP Vytautas Landsbergis, who was chairman of Lithuania’s Restoration Seimas in 1990-1992. “We have ruined ourselves to the point at which the sacrifice of our brothers’ and sisters’ lives is being snubbed. Do not keep silent when morons and paid loudmouths whimper about the good occupant’s state. I wonder where all those doomed past’s worshippers come from. Before, they poisoned us with it [the past]; nowadays, they poison our littlest. Modern little Bolsheviks have founded some shady Red front, though the real Lithuanian front is ever since drawn with blood, starting January 13, 1991,” Landsbergis said, employing all his vitriol and disdain while speaking at a Jan. 13 commemoration event in Seimas.
Both Justas Paleckis, the upstart son’s father, and Rimvydas Paleckis, director of Lithuania’s Radio and Television Committee and a brother of the SPF leader, also condemned his allegation, instigating rumors about ideological quarrels in the noted family. Algirdas Paleckis’ grandfather, Justas Paleckis, chairman of the pre-war Lithuanian Supreme Council Presidium, in 1940 went to Moscow to sign an agreement on Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union, while his father, the aforementioned Justas Paleckis, is a member of Lithuania’s Restoration Seimas and MEP for a second tenure. “I have always stood for viewing past and contemporary events with open eyes, as well as for taboo-free discussions. However, I have to notice that, in recent years, there are more and more assertions by my son that caught me by surprise, while some of them simply shocked me. I would attribute his latest allegation that “our own people were shooting at our own people on January 13” to the latter,” MEP Paleckis said in a statement before the Jan. 13 commemorations.
The SPF leader’s brother, Rimvydas, in his statement, also issued just before Jan. 13, said he feels “shame” over the assertion made by his brother. “Honestly speaking, I do not have any answer to why my brother acts this way. Sadly, we have not found common language for a long time. I am ashamed of his ravings. I apologize to all relatives of the victims of the tragic events of our history,” Rimvydas Paleckis said in his public address.
However, Paleckis, facing the criminal accusations and family ostracizing, remains unswayed and maintains his position. “I do not admit my transgression. I do not admit to having besmeared and belittled anyone,” he said last week. Asked whether he sticks to his words regarding Jan. 13, he did not stagger at all, “Of course I do. I am responsible for what I have said.”
While talking to reporters last week, he was contemplating his legal course with his lawyers and planning a picket of several radical political movements, including SPF and ex-MP Algimantas Matulevicius’ Nation Future Forum, last weekend. On Jan. 16, a dozen radicals from both extreme movements gathered at Seimas, waving banners, announcing “Get rid of the corrupt Conservatives! The Constitution forbids persecuting for views! Hands off Paleckis; let the people’s democracy long live! We urge labor, bread and justice!” An hour later, more pickets showed up, shouting, “Real order is in Belarus, not in Lithuania.” Some of them held placards, proclaiming, “Innocent people were shot on January 16, 2009. We will not let it happen again [that day, a large unruly crowd of picketers got violent, smashing Seimas’s windows and some people were seriously injured].” This time, the picketing went calmly, attracting little attention from scarce passers-by. A heavy police presence was visible. Since there were only around ten people in each separate picket, the police did not interfere as, according to Lithuanian law, no permission for picketing is required if its attendance is limited to ten persons.
Major Lithuanian Trade Unions were planning a major picket in the same spot as well on Jan. 16, but fearing possible incidents with radicals, Trade Union leaders called it off.
While Paleckis’ criminal case is pending, last Monday, Jan. 17, the Vilnius District Prosecutor’s Office began a pre-trial investigation against the Socialist People’s Front over the allegations denying the Soviet aggression in Lithuania in 1991.