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Fighting a battle for culture

  • 2002-05-29
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
The Lithuanian press continued this week to cover a festering scandal that wouldn't go away.

It involves arguments over what the national program for the Frankfurt Book Fair this October should be. Lithuania has been given "guest of honor" status, which means it has the unique opportunity of presenting the best of its literature at one of the world's biggest book trade fairs.

A program of which books, speakers and musicians would appear at the show was approved and backed by President Valdas Adamkus. But this was quickly challenged by alternative scenarios floated by the government of Algirdas Brazauskas, who will be running against Adamkus in presidential elections in December.

The press latched on to the prime minister's cultural adviser, Arvydas Juozaitis, blasting him for replacing Jewish and Russian musicians with purely Lithuanian ensembles, and for suggesting that politicians from the ruling Social Democrat party replace Conservative Party stalwart and longtime Brazauskas rival Vytautas Landsbergis and others as speakers.

Juozaitis denied having made any calls to replace musicians on ethnic grounds. But his denial was repeatedly ignored by the press and the opposition Liberal faction in the Parliament, which demanded that Brazauskas distance himself from his "anti-Semitic" adviser.

Speaking at a weekly Q&A session in Parliament, Brazauskas said cultural issues were always sensitive. There were too many good ideas to choose from, he said. It wasn't his place to choose, he added, and the culture minister would have the final say.

Conservative MP Jurgis Razma attacked Juozaitis and demanded that Culture Minister Roma Dovydeniene admit Juozaitis was the de facto minister of culture.

The biggest-selling daily Lietuvos Rytas continued to hammer Juozaitis for most of the month for his allegedly anti-Semitic comments and ran an interview with the organizer of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Lorenzo Rudolf, who warned that changes in the program could bring disaster at the Lithuanian stand this year.

The German news agency DPA reported that 22 German newspapers covered the scandal in Lithuania. They quoted Brazauskas as saying, "We need to present the Lithuanian word, the Lithuanian book, the Lithuanian poem, the Lithuanian encyclopedia" at Frankfurt, words which, combined with reports that Lithuanian Jews were to be excluded, carried an unpleasant connotation for German readers.

Reaction on Lithuanian Internet discussion pages was rabid, including calls for doing away once and for all with ex-communist politicians typified by Brazauskas, and on how the government was destroying the country's image abroad.

The government, which ultimately had to approve funding for preparing the event, finally decided to back down and heed the president, who stressed the need for diversity at Frankfurt. A few Social Democrats were included as speakers to counterbalance Landsbergis, but the music and speakers' programs were otherwise left intact, with some additional funds allocated from reserves.

The book fair scandal was solved. But in a presidential election year the tension caused by the issue is unlikely to go away, what with the public's obvious desire for blood sport and a final showdown between some of the biggest egos on the political scene.

Why is the book fair so important to Lithuania? It's a chance for Lithuania to announce itself to the world as a multicultural state with political plurality. As some more astute observers have pointed out, the scandal may actually help advertise Lithuania in Frankfurt.

Last week the body of a young girl who went missing at Easter in northern Lithuania was discovered. There had been wide public speculation that she had been abducted by cult followers, or even by Jews, since young children had gone missing before on Easter Sunday. That sort of thinking, absent in most of Europe since the end of World War II, and before that since the Middle Ages, serves to show what an uphill battle Lithuania's more educated political elite have to fight on the home front, even if they do get the image thing right abroad.