Quantcast

In an Era of Geopolitical Uncertainty, Lithuania Inspires

Lithuania celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence and democratic statehood on February 16, a milestone that will be observed in the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, later this year. In an exercise that showed Lithuania’s understanding that it must keep its democracy vibrant and forward-looking, it organized a grassroots process on the anniversary, involving mostly young people, that accumulated more than 1500 ideas for reforming the country and shaping its future.

The initiation of such a process of democratic renewal at a time when Lithuania’s national consciousness is relatively robust is an encouraging sign that this small country doesn’t take its democracy for granted. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many other Western democracies today. Indeed, it is well known that the world is now in the midst of a grave crisis of democracy.  The mood of confidence in the inexorable progress of democracy that prevailed after the collapse of communism in 1989-91 has been replaced by pessimism and apprehension. The latest Freedom House survey released last month provides troubling evidence of the retreat of democracy. It reports that political rights and civil liberties in the world have declined for the 12th consecutive year, with new and established democracies dominating the list of countries suffering setbacks in freedom.

It was to address this crisis that the National Endowment for Democracy, in cooperation with the Czech organization Forum 2000, convened a meeting last May of several dozen public intellectuals and democracy advocates who adopted a statement called The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which opened with the declaration that “Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.” The Appeal described the threat as comprehensive and multi-faceted, having both external and internal dimensions. Democracy is threatened from without, it said, by resurgent despotisms like those in Russia and China, where the regimes are tightening repression internally and expanding their power globally by “filling vacuums left by the fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies.”

The Prague Appeal also warned that democracy is threatened from within by a number of troubling developments, including the rise of illiberalism in backsliding countries like Turkey and Hungary, and the erosion of support for liberal values in many established democracies, especially among young people who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism. It decried the declining faith in democratic institutions, leading to the rise of populist parties and anti-system movements in advanced democracies where governments seem unable to cope with the difficult challenges of globalization and immigration, and elites managing multi-lateral institutions like the European Union seem remote and over-bearing. 

The Prague Appeal warned that further backsliding could occur as the diverse threats to democracy reinforce each other. Anti-democratic forces around the world could gain strength and confidence as a result of the geopolitical retreat of the West and the growing influence of authoritarian regimes. In addition, authoritarian propaganda and disinformation campaigns using social media could succeed in deepening the demoralization of democratic countries, whose internal weaknesses and divisions have made them inviting targets of such manipulation.

Lithuania is obviously gravely affected by these developments because it is a small and vulnerable country, caught between assertive Russian power and the eroding geopolitical influence and political will of the West. At the same time though—and this point needs to be emphasized—Lithuania is not gripped by complacency, fear, or confusion. While it is endangered by the external threat, it remains internally strong, clear-headed, pro-active, and determined. It knows what it’s up against, and it has the will to defend itself. 

Lithuania’s political determination grows directly out of its national experience over many centuries. The core of that experience is that Lithuania has always been on the front lines of the political and civilizational clash between Europe and Russia. Today it is celebrating 100 years of independence, but its struggle to defend its freedom and right to self-determination started long before 1918.   

Lithuania was a frontline state and became part of the West when Mindaugas was crowned King by Pope Innocent IV in 1253. For three centuries after the start of the first Muscovite war in 1492, Lithuania was constantly at war with Russia, which saw the Grand Duchy as the standard bearer and propagator of European Catholic values that were alien to Russian Orthodoxy and a rival successor to Kievan Rus. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also represented a political challenge to Russian absolutism since it had developed a democratic system with an elected parliament, religious toleration, and an independent court. Russia would not tolerate such a challenge, and with the final partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, the independence of the Grand Duchy came to an end.

The fall of the tsars in 1917, following the catastrophic losses suffered by Russia in World War I, provided an opening for the restoration of Lithuanian statehood and independence. But Lithuania remained a threatened frontline state at a very tumultuous and violent period in European history.  It was occupied by the Red Army in 1919-20 and again after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 at the outset of World War II. This was followed by the horrors of the Nazi occupation, after which the Red Army once again occupied Lithuania in 1944 as it advanced on Berlin. 

Lithuania remained on the frontlines when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. Its resistance fighters battled the Red Army and the Lithuanian communist government in the country’s vast forests for almost a decade after the occupation. The Soviet intelligence files called the partisan war “The Invisible Front.” Some tens of thousands of the “Forest Brothers” were killed and as many as 60,000 of the Lithuanians who were deported to the Soviet Far East died in the early post-war years.

Resistance continued in various forms, armed and unarmed, throughout the period of Soviet rule.  The self-immolation of the 19-year old student Romas Kalanta on May 14, 1972 triggered the Kaunas demonstrations that were among the largest pre-glasnost protests in the Soviet Union.  Such a rebellion had never happened before in the Soviet empire, and it signaled to the world that Lithuania had not given up the dream of freedom and independence.

Eventually that dream became a reality on January 13, 1991, called Bloody Sunday, when tens of thousands of Lithuanians confronted Soviet tanks by encircling the Supreme Council building and the Vilnius TV Tower singing, praying, and shouting pro-independence slogans. This climactic uprising forced the retreat of Soviet military forces and precipitated the events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lithuania has been independent now for almost three decades, but it remains a threatened frontline state. Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, bordering Lithuania and Poland, is the most militarized zone in Europe. With 25,000 Russian troops permanently deployed there and roughly three-quarters of the population connected in one way or another to the Russian military, Lithuania has had to build a border fence to deter military incursions and smuggling. 

Other frontline dangers include the possibility that Russia could close the Suvawki Gap, the 60-mile-long border between Lithuania and Poland that stretches from Kaliningrad to Russia’s ally Belarus. Such a move would cut off the Baltic States from the rest of Europe. In addition, Russia regularly blocks transit and trade from Lithuania across its border; it is building a nuclear power plant in western Belarus, about 40 miles from Vilnius, that is strongly opposed by Lithuania; and it is conducting a pervasive disinformation campaign that includes the publication of bogus histories claiming that Lithuania is a fake country that has no real justification for an independent existence.

In the face of this threat, Lithuania has refused to back down. Its resistance is reminiscent of something that Golda Meir once said about Israel’s unwavering determination to defend itself.  Our secret weapon, she said, is that we have no alternative. Lithuania also has no alternative but to defend itself against Russia, since the threat is existential. What is not sufficiently appreciated is how comprehensive and well-conceived Lithuania’s policies have been in response to this threat.

A case in point is Lithuania’s political support for Russian democrats, which has been informed by its experience under Soviet occupation. Lithuania took the right lessons from the occupation, meaning that its outlook and policy combine a clear-eyed view of the Russian government’s domestic authoritarianism and international aggression with solidarity and sympathy for the Russian people, whom Lithuanians largely recognize as victims of the same kind of oppression they themselves faced under communism.

We should not forget that Lithuania’s courageous frontline role has also been a source of inspiration for Russia’s democratic movement. When Lithuanian citizens confronted Russian tanks in January 1991, more than 100,000 Russians took part in a solidarity march in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin shouting “Hands off Lithuania!” and “Lithuania today, Russia tomorrow.” Such mutual solidarity stands in the noble tradition of the famous slogan “For Our Freedom and Yours,” which was first used by democrats of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the rebellion of 1830 and in support of the Russian Decembrists, who had revolted against Tsarism in 1825.

In that tradition, the Democracy Shelter Program, organized in Vilnius by Freedom House, provides emergency assistance to Russian democrats who have been forced into exile. It is the best program to shelter democrats-at-risk that I am aware of anywhere in the world. This is largely due to political support from the Lithuanian government, which regularly takes all necessary steps to assist these brave activists. Russian democrats-at-risk who have had to flee are given visas rapidly, and those who have been the victims of extreme human rights violations are given counseling and relocation and immigration status assistance. Lithuania’s government and civil society also make a strong effort to engage with Russian political activists in exile to help them continue their activism by supporting work still being done inside Russia.

Lithuania also provides platforms for voices promoting a peaceful and democratic vision for Russia. For example, Lithuania hosts an annual “Forum of Intellectuals” bringing leading Russian democratic activists and political experts together with their European counterparts to work toward developing a common vision of a democratic Russia with normalized relations with the West. Lithuania also supports efforts organized by Russian democrats that work toward similar goals, such as the Free Russia Forum. Lithuania is the most frequent venue for international events focused on questions of democracy in Russia, and its embassies around the world are also active in organizing similar discussions. Lithuanian politicians have a reputation for being important voices for democracy and human rights in European political bodies. An example is the work of Emanuelis Zingeris as the Special Rapporteur of the Council of Europe on the Boris Nemtsov assassination.

Finally, Lithuania has promoted a strong and unified international response to Russian aggression. Since the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Lithuania has been a leading voice in favor of a firm response from the European Union and the transatlantic community. It has consistently and strongly spoken in favor of maintaining sanctions on Russia and providing military support to Ukraine, and it has invited wounded Ukrainian soldiers for treatment in its hospitals. The depth of its commitment is exemplified by its submission of the movie Frost, recounting efforts by a Lithuanian couple to provide aid in eastern Ukraine, as the official Lithuanian candidate in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 2017 competition for an Oscar.

Lithuania has also been a leader in developing and implementing strategies for countering Russia’s foreign propaganda efforts, establishing a strategic communications program within its Ministry of Defense and supporting independent Russian-language media covering the Baltics. It also hosts the annual Snow Meeting, an important security conference promoting transatlantic unity in dealing with Russia. Not least, in November Lithuania became just the fifth country to pass a Magnitsky Act, and it has implemented the law robustly.

In addition to all of this, Lithuania also serves as an important hub for Belarusian democrats forced into exile (including the Belarus Human Rights House) and foreign organizations expelled from Belarus. The National Endowment for Democracy’s two party institutes, International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, run their Belarus programs from Vilnius, as do Freedom House and many other international organizations. IRI also runs a regional program funded by NED that brings parliamentarians from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to Vilnius to learn from Lithuania’s experience in the EU accession and integration process. The Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center also runs a strategic InfoSpace project backed by NED that counters Russian disinformation throughout the Baltics. Not least, Lithuania aids civil-society groups working to strengthen democracy in Eastern Partnership countries, especially in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus. 

In sum, therefore, Lithuania more than lives up to the praise extended by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called it “a stalwart champion of democracy, free markets, and human rights.”

There is much that Lithuania can do in the years ahead to defend its security and advance democratic values. For example, it can build upon its strategic relationship with Ukraine, which remains, as Carl Bildt once said, “the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.” Last November, the Lithuanian Parliament initiated a “Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” a long-term support package that would funnel more investment into Ukraine and strengthen its ties with the West. A key goal would be to replace aging Soviet-era infrastructure in Ukraine and make other highly visible investments. Aside from its economic benefits, such aid would demonstrate to Ukrainians that the West is committed to their recovery and independence, thereby helping to prevent the rise of anti-European politicians. This Lithuanian idea is now a European plan, thanks to Lithuania’s successful lobbying for the plan’s approval at the Eastern Partnership Summit, and Lithuania has also reached out to Washington and Ottawa. As a result of Lithuania’s persistent leadership, the US, Canada, the EU and other potential donors and international financial institutions have been invited to an "Invest Ukraine" conference that will be held in Brussels in early 2018.

Lithuania should also continue to push for the integration of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova into European structures. In the run-up to the recent Eastern Partnership Summit, it strongly advocated for the European aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and it has increased its support to civil society groups in Eastern Partnership countries. Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius recently underlined the importance of European integration when he declared, “The EU should defend the common values shared by both sides and step up its engagement in the region. Today’s situation is more than a ‘geopolitical game,’” he said. “It is a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens.”

Nothing is more important for Lithuania’s security than NATO, and as the largest and most strategically located Baltic state, Lithuania needs to continue playing a leading “front line” role in the alliance. Lithuania has been the main advocate for NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics. It is now proposing urgently needed changes—most importantly, an air-defense shield for the Baltics—to give the alliance the capability for a rapid shift to large-scale collective defense and to prevent a possible military isolation of the region. The fact that Lithuania’s 2018 budget reaches the desired target of two percent of its GDP for NATO spending shows that it is prepared to pay the price for its defense and be a fully responsible member of the alliance.

In addition to Lithuania taking the lead as a frontline state on issues of European integration and strategic defense, there are two additional ways it can aid democracy, not just in the region but in the world. One idea is to replicate in other countries the model of the Democracy Shelter Program. Providing comprehensive support to democracy activists forced into exile is a growing need at a time when many authoritarian governments are stepping up their repression. Georgia offers a good venue for the establishment of such a program to aid activists in the Caucasus and Eurasia regions, and other countries in the Middle East and Asia might offer a similar refuge for activists in their regions.

The second idea is to use the newly-established International Coalition for Democratic Renewal to build a support base in public opinion for strengthening the transatlantic alliance. The Coalition is managed by Forum 2000 in Prague, which has created a Transatlantic Working Group consisting of leading intellectuals and policy advocates in Europe and the United States.  Lithuania can become an international hub for policy dialogue and planning to rejuvenate the transatlantic idea and relationship, which is a precondition for defending democracy in these troubled times. That’s a big job for a small country, but Lithuania helped revive the Community of Democracies when it held the presidency of that global organization almost a decade ago, and it’s possible that it can now be a catalyst in revitalizing the transatlantic alliance.

Despite its modest size, Lithuania has a large role to play, and it has never been more important that its voice be heard. A recent cover story of The Economist about the growing threat of great-power conflict noted that “the best guarantee of world peace is a strong America.” America is still a super-power, but it’s a very divided country today, and it is uncertain about its purpose and the importance of its leadership. The still small voice of a country like Lithuania won’t change America overnight, but it might help remind the United States of what its leadership means to the world and why such leadership is so badly needed today. Nothing would help democracy more than for America to heed this call for democratic renewal.

 

Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on remarks delivered in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the National Conference on “Ideas for Lithuania’s Future” that was held on February 1, 2018.

 

OG Image: