Lithuania throws Europe-size party

  • 2002-05-16
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

Despite differences over nuclear reactors, farm subsidies and other issues, a recent festival seemed to indicate that many Lithuanians are still keen to see their country join the European Union.

The Europe Day festival held in Vilnius on May 9 showed that, regardless of their thoughts about politics, most people love a party.

The celebration traces its origins to May 9, 1950, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann made a declaration for closer cooperation between European countries. His statement led to the creation of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which eventually grew into the EU.

In 1985, Brussels declared this to be something like the EU's birthday, and Lithuania has been blowing out the candles with the rest of the continent for the last four years.

However, the scale of the rejoicing was greater this year than ever before.

Thousands of people gathered in Europe Park, a spot on the map near Vilnius that Lithuanians consider to be the geographical center of Europe.

Here they saw President Valdas Adamkus crowned as "Most European Lithuanian" according to an Internet vote. Despite spending most of his working life as a civil servant in Chicago, Adamkus saw no contradiction in accepting the award

"I never felt myself American. I've always felt myself to be a European and a Lithuanian. And where is Lithuania? In Europe. I think that this award should be given to our nation, not to me," he said.

However, the president did not agree with the idea that Europe Day should become a holiday if Lithuania gets into the EU, since it already has enough commemorative dates of its own.

However, despite the pro-European sentiments expressed by the country's leadership, there remains an undercurrent of Euroskepticism in Lithuania. This came out at the speaker's corner set up near the Parliament in Vilnius, where citizens were encouraged to express their views on the EU, no matter how eccentric or implausible.

Either of these adjectives could be applied to Justinas Burba, a far-right agitator whose pet causes include independence for Zemaitija, the western region of Lithuania. Despite a crowd of just 20, he let loose a xenophobic rant that left no doubts about his position on the EU.

"The Lithuanian Parliament's policy is a crime! EU entry chapters are being completed without our say!" he shouted.

At times the ideological battles looked like they might get too personal. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis also spoke at the speaker's corner, saying that, while their tough history has made them natural skeptics, Lithuanians should take the plunge.

"Lithuanian traditional conservatism is good in extreme situations, but now Lithuania should make a courageous decision and join the EU," he said.

However, Valionis was then approached by another fringe politician, Visvaldas Mazonas, the leader of the far-right Lithuanian Patriots Union, known for walking around his native Kaunas in a paramilitary uniform. Amidst accusing politicians of serving the mafia and calling for the election of a "patriotic dictator," he also made it clear that he thinks Lithuania should stay out of the EU.Wagging his finger in the foreign minister's face, he used undiplomatic language to get his point across.

"If the nation's expectations about EU are not justified, the nation will hang you. It will lynch you. A rope is ready," said Mazonas.

Valionis just smiled.

And most people seemed to just enjoy themselves. In the evening, youths from 22 schools marched down Gedimino Avenue in Vilnius carrying the flags and wearing the costumes of EU countries.

Some of the most interesting improvisations were the "French," who danced a can-can in a fountain, and the "English," who offered a demonstration of how to cook porridge with jam.