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Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights national identity issues in Lithuania

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a rally-around-the-flag effect in Lithuania as the tiny Baltic state offered refuge to dissidents fleeing violence and oppression in neighbouring Belarus and Russia. But new restrictions on migrants threaten Lithuania’s liberal values.

Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lithuania has been at the forefront of Western support to Kyiv. Ordinary citizens were particularly active, organising crowd-funding campaigns to buy military equipment and hosting refugees from Ukraine.

The sympathy for Ukraine also extended to government, when, for instance, the Lithuanian parliament on April 6 unanimously approved a resolution proposing an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO.

The fear of a new Russian aggression against its own territory has created a rally-around-the-flag effect in Lithuania. With the war in Ukraine grinding on, the small Baltic nation of 2.7 million citizens is closing ranks against possible threats from neighbouring Russia. Lithuania fought to regain its independence in 1990 after 50 years of Soviet occupation; it was previously independent from 1918 to 1940.

While Russian imperialism fears are running high again in Lithuania, the response to security concerns has raised concerns over a backsliding on the country’s cherished liberal values.

‘Security issues have become very relevant’
Back in 2020, Lithuania granted visas to thousands of Belarusians fleeing a crackdown in the neighbouring state following the August 2020 presidential election, which was widely seen as fraudulent, sparking massive protests.

Vilnius also became the de-facto headquarters of the Belarusian opposition movement led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Already a temporary home to an estimated 40,000 Belarusian citizens, Lithuania welcomed over 73,000 refugees from Ukraine after Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

A sign that times might be changing came on April 4, when Lithuanian MPs passed a series of amendments to tighten restrictions against citizens from Russia, and in some cases, Belarus.

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The adopted bill will prohibit Russian citizens from buying real estate in the country for one year. In the same vein, Vilnius will no longer accept visa applications from Russian and Belarusian citizens, except for certain cases. Lithuanian lawmakers justified the measure by stating that while Belarus is not an active participant in the Ukraine war, it has provided Moscow with logistical support.

“Since 1991, Lithuanian territorial integrity and sovereignty have been the most relevant values,” noted Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik of the Institute of Central Europe and the Catholic University of Lublin.

“Thus, without any doubt, the Russian aggression in Ukraine has reinforced the national idea in Lithuania. Security issues have become very relevant. Some citizens, including national minorities and ethnic groups in Lithuania (15%), may claim it is nationalism and limitation of their human rights, but from the perspective of Lithuanian authorities the aim of Lithuanian domestic and foreign policy is to develop security.”

While Lithuanian lawmakers cite national security concerns, Belarusian opposition and civil society groups have criticised the new measures passed by Lithuania’s parliament.

“Poland is the best country for refugees now because there are debates in the Lithuanian parliament about whether Belarusian refugees should be allowed to extend their stay or not. Our work is to remind politicians that we are against the war, and we shouldn’t be outsiders,” said Anastasiya Kozhapenka, director of the Warsaw-based Belarusian House Foundation.

Border walls, language divides
Lithuania has been pushing back against migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, streaming across its border with Belarus since 2021. The government is seeking nearly 120 million euros in compensation from Belarus for orchestrating the immigration of thousands of migrants, many from Iraq, into Lithuania.

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The EU argues that the migrant influx was a “hybrid attack” orchestrated by the Belarusian regime in retaliation for international sanctions imposed due to the post-election repression.

In a diplomatic note handed to Belarus, the Lithuanian foreign ministry said the 120 million euros was to cover expenses for housing migrants and strengthening “our border control infrastructure that we did not have”.

The border wall, coupled with the new measures tightening restrictions on Russian and Belarusian citizens, have raised fears, in some quarters, of a growing nationalism in Lithuania.

Most observers from Central and Eastern Europe however hesitate to apply the term “nationalism” to Lithuania because of its negative connotation. “Nationalism exists in every country; the question is how aggressive it is. Citizenship was granted to everyone when Lithuania became independent in 1990, unlike in neighbouring Latvia and Estonia,” noted Maksimas Milta, a Yale-based researcher on Eastern Europe.

Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia struggled after both countries achieved their independence. Minorities were granted an ‘alien’ or ‘non-citizen’ status, which meant they had documents but limited rights.

Milta believes Latvia and Estonia have a deeper and more problematic divide between those who have citizenship (native speakers) and those who do not (Russian-speakers), compared to Lithuania. “In Lithuania, there is a broad consensus that it doesn’t matter what language you speak, as long as you are loyal to the state,” he said.

Moscow’s policy of protecting its “compatriots”, a term used to describe Russian-speakers, has been a concern in the Baltic states and former Soviet republics in the post-Cold War era.

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The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine increased those concerns, highlighting identity issues in Lithuania. “National identity in Lithuania is created in opposition to Russia. All political activities including education, visa policy, media policy, migration, etcetera should be seen through the prism of security and threats from Russia. From Lithuania’s perspective, we cannot treat Russia’s citizens in a democratic way since Russia is an authoritarian and totalitarian country,” said Kuczyńska-Zonik.

Some observers minimise the risk of Lithuania’s Russian-speakers and highlight a different threat which comes from an unexpected source. “The only troublesome aspect is a Polish-speaking minority in the southeastern corner of the country and represented by a political party named ‘Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania’. It may sound like an oxymoron, but they are pro-Russian and they get their orders from the Kremlin, not Warsaw. It would be a lot less problematic if it were the other way around,” said Milta.

In 2008, as part of a “nation branding” exercise, Lithuanian communication specialists came up with the slogan, “Lithuania – a brave country”. At that time, the country’s political elite hesitated to use the label, but today it seems more appropriate. Russia’s aggression has strengthened Lithuania’s position in the EU as well as its resolve to defend democratic values at a European and global level. For Emanuelis Zingeris, a Lithuanian MP and Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, “Lithuania is the Checkpoint Charlie of today, the last frontier before Russia and a bastion of resistance against autocracy.”