Lithuania offers to help United States

  • 2001-10-04
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - As the world waits for a response by the United States to last month's attacks on New York and Washington, Lithuanian politicians last week made important decisions about the country's participation in the anti-terrorist campaign.

On Sept. 26, the Lithuanian government agreed to a U.S. request for an air corridor over Lithuania as part of the campaign against terrorism. Estonia and Latvia have so far not been asked.

According to officials at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry, the United States could use Zokniai Airport near the town of Siauliai in northwest Lithuania. The former Soviet military air base now used by the Lithuanian air force can accommodate planes of any size. Flights might come from NATO bases in Norway and U.S. aircraft can fly south over NATO members Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

If Belarus and Russia opened airspace corridors for American flights, U.S. planes crossing Lithuanian airspace would head on directly to Central Asia.

"It was the right thing for Lithuania to do," Gediminas Kirkilas, a Social Democrat MP and head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told The Baltic Times.

Kirkilas is one of the key figures forming Lithuanian foreign policy. He says he is ready to replace Algirdas Brazauskas as leader of the powerful Social Democrat Party when Brazauskas decides to retire.

"Parliament will need to make a decision in case Washington sends a request for the participation of Lithuanian soldiers in the current anti-terrorist campaign. I think that our Parliament's answer would be positive," Kirkilas said.

At the moment the Lithuanian medical brigade is ready if a request for its services comes from Washington.

Kirkilas added that the current crisis should speed up NATO expansion. "The United States and other NATO countries recognize Lithuania's solidarity. Russia will become closer to NATO in the current situation. Being almost a NATO ally, Russia will have no arguments against NATO expansion," Kirkilas said.

He added that he does not think the world is moving toward a clash of civilizations. "Different civilizations coexist all the time. There are only local conflicts. I don't predict radical changes," Kirkilas said.

At least one NATO and EU leader disagrees. According to The New York Times on Sept. 26, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi praised "Western civilization" as superior to the Islamic world and urged Europe to "reconstitute itself on the basis of its Christian roots.""We should be confident of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion," Berlusconi said on German television. "This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries."

The West "is bound to (westernize) and conquer new people," he said. "It has done it with the communist world and part of the Islamic world, but unfortunately, a part of the Islamic world is 1,400 years behind. From this point of view, we must be conscious of the strength and force of our civilization."

But such views are not popular in Lithuania although it is not any less Catholic than Italy. The Vatican expressed opposition to a military response soon after the attack on the United States, but later qualified this, saying it would understand steps by the United States to defend itself.

The Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church follows the same line. Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis has emphasized that the United States' response should be adequate. Lithuania's Muslims hurried to emphasize their loyalty to the Lithuanian state.

Romas Jakubauskas, a young leader of Tartar origin in the Kaunas Muslim community, came to LNK TV news studio to say that Muslims supported Lithuania.

Jakubauskas said there was no conflict of civilizations involved.

"Arabs think that the United States helps Israel ignore the UN-designed borders of 1948, but that is the only conflict. Muslims defend. They never start attacking first. The occupation of Palestine is a political not a religious issue. Osama bin Laden belongs to a small Wahabbi sect and is not popular in the Muslim world," Jakubauskas said.

Irena Veisaite, head of the George Soros-sponsored Open Lithuania Fund and a Holocaust survivor, was hidden as a little girl during the Nazi invasion. She said the West must take whatever steps necessary to avoid religious persecution.

"A rethinking of Western policy is necessary. Maybe the Judeo-Christian civilization pushed Muslims into a corner. I've been having the same nightmare for several nights. I dream that I'm hiding three Muslim kids from persecution," Veisaite said on Lithuanian national radio.

Nijole Kryzanauskiene a school psychologist in the Marijampole district of southwestern Lithuania, said children had been less affected than adults by events in the United States.

"Children have seen the World Trade Center falling down on TV many times. But they take it as just one of many feature films, the kind of scene they have seen before. They also think that it is far away from Lithuania can't happen here. There are no obvious changes in their behavior," Kryzanauskiene told The Baltic Times.

But tourism firms say people are more reluctant to travel to Tunisia, Egypt and other Muslim countries. "Some of our clients are paying some 30 percent more to go to Nepal, India, Thailand, or Latin American countries," said Julijus Fisas, commercial manager of Vilnius-based West Express. "My prognosis is that there will be some reduction in tourism to the United States. But those who go there to do business, to study and to work will not refrain from trans-Atlantic flights."