The Lithuanian gamble
When the full scale invasion started on the 24 February, Lithuania and Poland stood up against Russia, supported Ukraine, and spoke in favour of sanctioning Russia. If we consider the question of Kaliningrad, it is the EU who imposed the sanctions. They are open for interpretation. The key question is whether the sanctions apply only to Russian export or to transit towards Kaliningrad as well – says Andrius Bielskis, professor of philosophy at Kaunas University of Technology.
Interview by Wojciech Łobodziński.
What is the structure of Lithuanian’s politics? The ruling party is Homeland Union Lithuanian Christian Democrats. What can you tell me about them?
We have a right-wing government at the moment. The Homeland Union is a conservative party, the former National Movement, which supposedly gained us independence from the USSR. So this is the main party in our politics right now, run by Gabrielius Landsbergis, the grandchild of Vytautas Landsbergis, founding father of Lithuanian “Sąjūdis“ (National Movement), someone a bit like Lech Wałęsa. The current Homeland Union is run by the Landsbergis family. Gabrielius is the foreign minister of Lithuania, not the prime minister. Historically, the Lansbergis family is rather unpopular. This is the difference from Lech Wałęsa or Kaczyński. Gabrielius Landsbergis does not have high ratings, electorally he is unpopular.
Why is that?
To cut the long story short, it is because Vytautas Lansbergis, the grandfather of Gabrielius, in the late eightees and early nineties, created a nationhood on the basis of ethnolinguistic nationalism. So he was really anti-Soviet, but in a way that strongly polarized the whole society. He was accusing people of having pro-Russia, pro-Soviet sentiments. This was too radical for post-Soviet Lithuanian society, and so conservatives lost the election in 1992.
This is history now. But in a way that’s the style of their politics. Often they are perceived as arrogant.
So why are they in power then?
Well, they occasionally win elections, since historically they have a high moral ground for their role in winning Lithuania’s independence. However, our politics is rather different from Polish politics. The coservative party is normally an opposition party.The Ex-Communist Social Democratic Party was the ruling party of Lithuania in the first two decades of independence.
There is a pendulum effect in Lithuanian politics. In Poland, Law and Justice (PiS) managed to secure power through economic populism. But here the conservatives are completely different from Polish conservatives, who are socially conservative, yet has aspects of socially oriented economic policy.
The prime minister of Lithuania is Ingrida Šimonytė, an outsider of the party. She ran in presidential elections in the past and gained considerable popularity. She was then invited to be the Prime Miniter by Gabrielius Lansbergis after the last elections. Both Landsbergis and Šimonytė are LGBT-friendly. That’s the fundamental difference from Polish conservatives.
Landsbergis is a modern politician, who is pro-western, pro-European, so it would be hard for him to be anti-LGBT. Our government is composed of conservatives and liberals, who are pushing legislation for the LGBT partnership. LGBT community is saying that the bill is not robust enough. But still they are pushing for it. Also, the rulling coallition is obviously pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian, economically liberal and LGBT friendly.
And there is also Gitanas Nausėda, your president.
He is a completely different political personality. He is a former banker and his wife has a considerable influence on him. Diana Nausiedienė and Gitanas Nausėda are is conservative in a more traditional sense. So for example the president is working on stronger ties with Poland, with Polish government, probably more than the leadership of the conservative party would like. There is also a tension between the president and the government.
What is this tension about?
Well, the main tension is that he is not one of them. He is independent. He does not have a party. Our constitution states that the candidate for president ought to be independent. However, the reality is more subtle than that. Mr Nausėda clearly does not come from conservative circles. The former president Dalia Grybauskaitė flirted with conservatives, while Gitanas Nausėda is not doing that. So the tension really is about that.
More importantly, whether the conservative party is in power or not, the media are always on their side. This is the default in Lithuania.
So the dominant media outlets are more critical towards the president as compared to, say, Dalia Grybauskaitė. The conflict emerged because Mr Nausėda is independent and more socially conservative than the current leadership of the conservative party. He is not an LGBT supporter, he is in favour of more traditional family values, and campaigned for the policies of welfare state. Hence the tension between him and the government.
So Gabrielius Lansbergis was the main architect of the push to sanction Kaliningrad for the transit from Russia. How did this idea come about?
The conservative position on foreign policy is by default anti-Russian. I mean, you cannot get more anti-Russian. If you ask what is the conservative party’s foreign policy, the key ingredient is being anti-Russian.
When the full scale invasion started on the 24February, Lithuania and Poland stood up against Russia, supported Ukraine, and and were in favour of sanctioning Russia. If we consider the question of Kaliningrad, it is the EU who imposed the esesanctions. They are open for interpretation.
The key question is whether the sanctions apply only to Russian export or to transit as well. The Lithuanian government’s interpretation was that sanctions also apply to some transit goods (metal, etc.) which go to Kaliningrad from Russia via Lithuania. In other words, the government’s take was that if the sanctioned goods go through the territory of the EU, they should be banned. The conservatives were really into this idea.
I personally criticized them on the basis that such reading of the EU’s sanctions created more tension than we currently needed. The Russian government pressured the governments in Western Europe, and so the European Commission official decision has been that the transit of goods is not the same as export, goods go from one part of Russia to another part of Russia, so the transit should not be stopped. This saga has been resolved for now, the Commission’s decision has been taken and so the Lithuanian government has retracked.
Although tighter checks have been imposed on the transit (and, obviuolsy, these checks are being done by Lithuania), the transit of Russian goods go through Lithuania as it used to do.
How have people reacted to that?
Nationalistically minded media and commentators said that this was terrible. They claimed it was a surrender of our sovereignty. From my point of view, as long as we deescalate where it is possible to deescalate and thus minimize existing tension and threats from Russia, that’s for the best.
And Lithuanians are more against or pro sanctions on Kaliningrad?
It is hard to say. There is no sociological data on this question.
Some nationalist-minded commentators are highly disappointed and claim it was a slap in our face, that our sovereignty was undermined. Up until now, Lithuanians have always been very pro-European. Among certain commentators you can sense that they are feeling betrayed by Bruxells and Berlin. The news has not been received well by the nationalists, but the key people in the government officially said it is all fine, there is now no disagreement between Lithuania and the EU.
This is yet another difference from the Polish conservative party, because the goverment in Poland is much more willing to get in fights with the European Commision. Lithuania as a small country and the pro-Western conservatives would never openly and aggresively challenge the European Commision.
Where in all of that is the Lithuanian’s skyrocketing inflation, is there any influence of this situation on inflation?
I am not sure how much the issue of transit influenced the inflation. There was a lot of money for the government from this transit. The inflation is massive, right now it is around 20 percent, possibly even higher than that. The current government’s measures to tackle inflation are minimal. Again, that’s the difference from the Polish government which is more willing to embarke on economic populism.
Lithuanian conservatives are neoliberals, this is one of the reasons why they are not that popular. This is also one of the reasons why there is a pendulum effect in Lithuanian politics.
I very much doubt that the Conservative Party will be able to form a government after the next elections. Now they are popular because of the war, but they are not doing enough to address the increasing cost of living.
And what, according to Lithuanians, is the true source of inflation?
In the media you can hear that there are two main reasons for high inflation. These are post-pandemic global shortages and the near collapse of supply chains, and, secondly, the war in Ukraine. Supply chains have been broken due to COVID-19, when lockdowns were imposed by neoliberal governments all over the world. The discussion about globalization therefore has to be recalibrated. COVID lockdowns showed that governments and states are not powerless. Sanctions imposed on Russia are also showing that.
The imposition of lockdowns was a right thing to do. Public health was a priority. So these are the two main reasons of inflation globally. Ukraine is important becasue it is the breadbasket of the Global South. Gas and oil from Russia are now rightly seen as a problem in the West, so there will be shortages especially of gas.
A more interesting question is why inflation in Lithuanian is so high? I am not an economist, so I am not sure, but my speculation is that it’s a growing economy, the growth has been stronger than in Western Europe, while prices were lower, salaries and wages were lower as well, energy was also slightly cheaper, and so now that we have the global inflation crisis the sources of cheap energy are gone while the costs of labour have been grwoing considerably as well. So all these factors contribute to higher inflation compared to other EU countires.
What is going to be the main change in Lithuanians politics because of the war in Ukraine?
To a certain extent, the Conservatives have been vindicated: they were right to be anti-Russian. The main change will be further increase in military spending. Again, this is understandable given Putin’s bloody imperialism.
The worry I have is that anti-Russian stance and war in Ukraine may narrow our democratic space in terms of public discourse. But it is a constant battle and it is also up to us – the Left – to keep this space of pubclic discussion opened and truly free.
Andrius Bielskis is Director of Centre for Aristotelian Studies and Critical Theory at Mykolas Romeris University, Vilnius, and Professor of Philosophy at Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania. He is the founder of the progressive social movement ‘New Left 95’ and the director of DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought. Andrius is the author of several books including Towards a Postmodern Understanding of the Political (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), The Unholy Sacrament (Demos, 2014), On the Meaning of Philosophy and Art (MRU, 2015), Existence, Meaning, Excellence (Routledge, 2017), and the (co-)editor of Virtue and Economy: Essays of Morality and Markets (Ashgate, 2015), Debating with the Lithuanian New Left: Terry Eagleton, Joel Bakan, Alex Demirovic, Ulrich Brand (Demos, 2014) and Democracy without Labour movement (Demos, 2009). He was an International Onassis Fellow at the University of Athens in 2017 pursuing research on the critique of natural inequalities, especially the notorious argument for the existence of natural slaves, in Aristotle’s Politics.
Cover photo: Vilnius castle tower over the capital of Lithuania.
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