The past weight on Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda

  • 2023-07-11
  • Kestutis Girnius

More than 30 years after regaining its independence, Lithuania has still not shed completely its Soviet past. In April it was revealed that president Gitanas Nauseda had became a member of the Communist Party in May 1988, barely a month before the founding of Sajudis, the political-social movement the propelled Lithuania to its independence in less than two years. Of the five Lithuanian presidents, only Valdas Adamkus, an emigree who did not live in Lithuania, was not a member of the Communist Party, while Mr. Brazauskas, perhaps the most popular Lithuanian politician, was its First Secretary. Joining the party was wide-spread and widely condoned.

When filing the mandatory questionnaire for presidential candidates, Nauseda did not mention his membership, claiming that such a disclosure was not required. Subsequently he has admitted that both joining the party and hiding his membership from the electorate were mistakes. In general, he has assumed a combative stance, asserting that the revelation of his membership is being used to tarnish him in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections.

    It is impossible to place a positive interpretation on the president’s decision. Nausėda joined the party to further his career. Opportunism, while understandable in some respects, is not a virtue. That many others did so does not justify the decision nor mitigate its inappropriateness. Membership was not a trivial matter. Joining the Communist party cannot be equated with becoming a member of a prestigious golf club in the West in order to meet and network with influential businessmen, potential partners and associates. Gorbachev’s reforms were accelerating by May 1988, but nobody believed that Moscow was prepared to let Lithuania reclaim its sovereignty and leave the USSR. Becoming a party member meant identifying with the organization that was Moscow's tool for governing Lithuania and thus acquiescing to the occupation.

That Nauseda subsequentially recognized the import of his decision is clear from his efforts to conceal his membership. Insignificant matters are revealed rather than hidden for almost 30 years. And mistakes are not equal, some are clearly more significant than others

By deliberately and consistently concealing his membership, Nauseda misled his voters, presented himself as someone he was not. It is not known how many of his voters feel deceived, how many would not have supported him if he had been transparent about his past. 

News of Nauseda’s membership elicited a tepid response. No important public figure or politician called for his resignation. Quite the contrary. V. Blinkeviciute, the chairwoman of the Social democratic party, quickly urged Lithuanians to lay the matter to rest and focus on solving real problems. Such a response could be expected, since joining the Party was considered a normal career move that did not elicit the opprobrium of one’s peers. 

Nauseda did what many of his colleagues did. But their actions undermine a central element of country’s national narrative, namely the claim that many, perhaps most Lithuanians remained ardent patriots who never reconciled themselves to the Kremlin’s rule but fostered a spirit of resistance primed to burst into the open at the first favorable opportunity. Although Lithuania published more samizdat per capita than any other Soviet republic, had an active dissident movement and eventually took the lead in pushing for independence, by the 1980’s most Lithuanians were reconciled to the permanence of Soviet rule. They were concerned to preserve their ethno-culture heritage but one shorn of the political dimension of self-rule that is an essential element of modern national identity. Such politically impoverished ethno-cultural nationalism was not a threat to the stability of the USSR.

Nauseda is not yet in the clear. Questions have arisen about the circumstances in which he was permitted to study for an advance degree in Germany in 1990-1992. The president insists that he interacted only with Lithuania’s Ministry of Education and through them with the University of Mannheim and did not communicate with the KGB in winning the internship. This explanation has been challenged by A. Tapinas, an influential public figure, self-appointed tribune of the people and potential presidential candidate. Since the KGB usually played a decisive role in deciding who could study abroad and required all interns to meet with its officers while abroad, Tapinas has called for Nauseda to make available all the information about his internship. If Nauseda’s current explanation turns out to be less than honest, he could find himself in serious political trouble.