Freedom of thought under fire in Lithuania

  • 2001-06-14
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - As reported by The Baltic Times, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Vilnius at the end of May was remarkable for its lack of what have become standard images from international forums: clouds of tear gas hovering over angry mobs of protesters. Vilnius was a kinder venue to NATO parliamentarians, with Lithuanian public support for membership clearly in the majority.

Even so, a small group of protesters, mainly youths, did appear. It has become clear that some were later persecuted by Lithuania's State Security Department for taking part.

Speaking on the television show "Summa Summarum," in which pro-NATO Lithuanian journalists and politicians discussed the assembly, one media pundit called the protesters "just punks, that's all." Another pointed out that the protesters proved Lithuanian plurality of political opinion. Perhaps he spoke too soon.

While the assembly was underway, the Lithuanian tabloid Lietuvos Aidas, well known for its nationalist standpoint, ran a series of articles claiming Russian intelligence paid the protesters to appear.

This is fairly standard fare among Lithuanian right-wingers. When the popularity ratings for Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the Conservatives, started plummeting to record lows in polls in the late 1990s, right-wing elements set about "proving" the Kremlin was behind it. Even respectable publications such as Voruta, the organ of the Lithuanian Institute of History, ran editorial-as-news pieces unveiling what they said was the Russian hand in Landsbergis' downfall.

But the Lietuvos Aidas series, written by Giedre Gardauskaite from May 28 to June 2, claimed to have sources inside the Lithuanian intelligence community. According to Gardauskaite's informant, the "underground socialist youth organization" behind the protest, referred to elsewhere in the newspaper to as "Satanists, homeless people and drug addicts planning to desecrate Jewish cemeteries," were paid by Moscow in currency and drugs.

The author then went on in her May 30 piece to say, "While an underground organization led by Tomas Verbaitis and the Socialist Party is clearly trying to show its lack of affiliation, information (from intelligence agencies) shows they are 'suckers' from the same octopus."

A photograph accompanying the June 1 Lietuvos Aidas piece shows Mykel Board of the U.S. magazine Maximum Rock & Roll in Vilnius with the caption: "The man with the hat is suspected of distributing marijuana to NATO protesters." The accompanying article claims protesters were paid in marijuana to take up anti-NATO positions.

The Lietuvos Aidas reporter also claimed "KGB officers" revealed that the anti-NATO gathering in Vilnius was organized by the GRU (Gosudarstvennoje Razvedovatel-noje Upravleniye), a branch of the Russian intelligence network. The GRU also instructed its young recruits in Lithuania to desecrate Jewish cemeteries, according to Gardauskaite.

The newspaper's easy take on journalism might be easier to bear if some of the statements in the articles had not actually been accurate. The Baltic Times has learned that Lithuania's State Security Department has repeated many of the allegations attributed to Lithuanian intelligence by protester Tomas Verbaitis' employer, Lietuvos Zemes Ukio Bankas agricultural bank, which responded by asking Verbaitis to "leave of my own accord," as he put it.

Officially, Verbaitis was accused of administering his Web page,, during working hours and using bank computers. However, Verbaitis told The Baltic Times that Lithuanian State Security Department agents went to the board of directors and claimed he was a danger to national security. State security also told Lietuvos Aidas that Verbaitis was an organizer of the meeting and that his Web site was a front for drawing drug users into political protests.

Verbaitis, who served as head of the agriculture bank's computer network department until his dismissal, called the charges ludicrous. Although he does support the legalization of marijuana and is against NATO membership for Lithuania, nobody has paid him to hold these views.

Verbaitis said that some of the high-school students who took part in the small NATO protest were expelled from school just as they were preparing for the summer vacation.

"Don't make me a martyr, I don't want to be an icon," he said shyly when asked what he plans to do now. "The bank offered me a good severance package. I'll be okay," he said.

Verbaitis holds a degree in computer science and mathematics.

The NATO campaign by Lithuanian state security follows hard on the heels of another questionable episode involving the department, the arrest of espionage suspect Eugenijus Jonika.

At first the state security department reported it had captured a spy but refused to release the name of the country he had worked for. It turned out Jonika was framed by the department in an elaborate scheme lasting several years.

It was later revealed that state security had "recruited" him while posing as Russian Embassy staff, fed him a diet of supposedly classified secrets and then paid him to regurgitate them.

The lawyer for the unemployed Eugenijus Jonika smuggled samples of prison food out of the facility where his client was incarcerated last week. The lawyer suspects state security is lacing the suspect's food with drugs to make interrogation smoother.

Next week, U.S. President George Bush is scheduled to visit Warsaw, Poland, where Rafael Estrella, the chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, has asked him to make a public statement on NATO expansion.

By adopting the forms of Western democracy and free markets Lithuania remains hopeful of gaining entry into NATO and the European Union. But whether the world decides Lithuania is ready for NATO membership or not, many observers agree the country has a long way to go in learning to respect human rights, and the plurality of public and political opinion.