May Day holiday returns to Lithuania

  • 2002-05-09
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

After working on May 1 for several years Lithuanians once again enjoyed a state holiday on May Day this year, thanks to a decision by the Social Democrat government.

Most people spent the day as they would a Saturday or Sunday, but several thousand, from trade unionists to extreme nationalists, turned out for a variety of events.

In the Soviet era May 1 was celebrated with demonstrations, at which attendance was obligatory, and military parades.

President Valdas Adamkus did not celebrate this now almost forgotten holiday. "Personally for the president May 1 is still associated with Soviet tanks and occupation," said Adamkus' adviser Darius Kuolys.

The Social Democrats however claim the holiday was simply stolen from "working people" by the communists and that May Day has nothing in common with communist ideas.

In Vilnius the day began with a parade by dozens of balloon waving young Social Democrats, assisted by a sightseeing bus hired from the municipality and several hired bikers clad in leather.

Many participants seemed confused about the meaning of May Day.

The young Social Democrats said they were celebrating spring and the sunny weather while the bikers seemed mainly interested in the four-day beer festival which opened in the Concert and Sports Palace.

The beer festival drew many of the Social Democrats' leading lights including Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, the party's leader.

Brazauskas showed up with his new wife Kristina to drink beer, eat pork and dance late into the night along with hundreds of other Vilniusites.

While the Social Democrats avoided making any political statements the Lithuanian Workers' Union, almost a spent force in Lithuanian politics, took a more traditional approach.

Some 150 of the union's members and supporters took to Vilnius' central streets demanding work for the unemployed and protesting against unpaid overtime.

"Many employers don't pay attention to the law stating that the working day is eight hours and demand extra work for free. May Day started with protests in America against such a practice and it is still a problem here," said Aldona Balsiene, leader of the Lithuanian Workers' Union.

Balsiene also expressed her regret at the small number of Lithuanians who are members of a trade union - some 200,000 people in all - and urged working people to be more active in defending their rights.

The Lithuanian Workers' Union participated unsuccessfully in the last parliamentary elections and has virtually disappeared from the political stage.

May Day was celebrated more actively in Lithuania's second largest city, Kaunas, where around 1,000 members and supporters of the Social Democratic trade unions gathered in the heart of the city, again protesting against unemployment and unpaid overtime. A huge poster bore the words "Mes ne vergai!" - "We are not slaves!"

The day was also celebrated by the far right, with some 200 mostly aging supporters of the National Democratic Party attending a rally in Kaunas by the statue of King Vytautas the Great.

The main slogan of the event was "No to Lithuania's membership in the EU and NATO!" but anti-Semitism was also much in evidence.

One demonstrator held a blue flag bearing the gold stars of the European Union, but also a Jewish Star of David and a skull.

"The EU is a Jewish organization," claimed a poster.

The main speaker was well-known extremist Mindaugas Murza, who expressed his joy at the success of France's far right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the country's presidential election.

"Already for 12 years Lithuania has been ruled by exploiters and traitors! If our party wins power we'll give people bread and work. We'll stop selling our factories and land to foreigners. All criminals will be put in jail. We demand new parliamentary elections now! We are here also to show solidarity with the workers of the rest of Europe. They are exploited by international monopolistic companies," Murza bellowed.

The meeting was gate-crashed by two men wearing false beards and wigs and waving Soviet flags, adorned with a portrait of Lenin. Murza's activists quickly forced them to leave.

The National Democrats later held a party congress at which they elected Murza leader. His election follows his failure to register his own far right party, an application which was refused by the Justice Ministry.

Opinion polls currently show no support for the National Democratic party in Lithuania.