Lithuanian Politicians Have Different Ideas of Russia - It's Also Influenced by Historical Traumas - MRU

12 June, 2022
Lithuanian Politicians Have Different Ideas of Russia – It’s Also Influenced by Historical Traumas

Although after the Kremlin’s military aggression in Ukraine there were no longer any discussions about the threat posed by Russia, Lithuanian politicians still perceive Russia quite differently. We asked MRU International Policy Master’s Degree studies programme head, Lecturer and news agency ELTA Political Editor Benas Brunalas to answer a few questions. Politicians have different perceptions of what Russia is and where it is in terms of the international community, he said. Therefore, Brunalas noted that it is not surprising that Lithuania does not speak in unison in assessing the efforts of some major leaders to end the Russian-caused war in Ukraine through diplomatic means with Moscow.

How much has the attitude of Lithuanian politicians towards Russia changed after the invasion of Ukraine?

- It would be difficult to answer unequivocally. Perhaps two questions should be asked here: whether the assessment of the Russian threat has become more uniform among politicians and how the perception of Russia, as a state, has changed. On the one hand, we really see a unified approach among politicians to Russia's threat to Lithuania. In this respect, there are almost no differences between the right and the left. And the fact that Conservatives and Social Democrats agree on an assessment of Russia's threat, looking back over the past 20 years, is not a very usual matter. But I do not know if I would be so sure in stating that there has been a complete unification of opinion regarding Russia itself in recent months. In this respect, the long-standing divergence between assessments of what Russia really is has not completely disappeared. There are interesting nuances. For example, the center-left more often sees Russia as a state that, while bad, dangerous, aggressive, unspoken, is still a state among other states. For the right, it is more of an entity outside the international system. In other words, some kind of illegitimate derivative.

- But even if you say that the threat posed by Russia is treated in the same way and Russia itself is not, even then, after February 24th, there has been no major discussion on actions to increase security: a significant increase in defense spending has been agreed, and an agreement on security measures is being prepared.

- Yes, I agree, but the political decisions in question have emerged as a consensus on the changed threat from Russia, rather than an assessment of Russia itself as an international entity. For example, let us note how Lithuanian politicians assessed the conversations of E. Macrono or the leaders of other major EU states with V. Putin differently. Conservatives see Macron's diplomacy as the least futile, unjust, or even harmful. Meanwhile, there are slightly different opinions among the left. First of all, diplomacy with Russia is not a doomed decision, but rather a positive thing that can cushion the threat.

In other words, there is an attitude here: no matter how evil Russia is, it is still a state. So, even Russia's created problems, whether we want to or not we should resolve by the usual diplomatic means. Thus, some see Russia as a state inevitably close to other states. Others, in turn, see Russia as an abnormal derivative. Such an image probably becomes an important impetus to say that even the desire (like Germany and France) to have some kind of diplomatic relationship with aggressive Moscow is unfair and unacceptable. Is it possible or moral (even hoping to reduce tensions) to talk with those, which are beyond the international community and what is considered "perfect evil?" Figuratively speaking, is it possible to call Lucifer to de-escalate a crisis? Thus, it can be said that one of the important factors why Lithuanian politicians evaluate diplomatic intentions towards Russia differently is a different understanding of who and where Russia is in relation to the international community.

- I understand that the different treatment of Russia as a state is important not only in assessing the diplomacy of Mr. Macron or Mr. Scholz.

-Of course. Now, the discussion among politicians is more often limited to whether it is worth contacting Russia at a diplomatic level as an aggressor state. But the issue of policy towards Moscow, in general, may also be considered in the future. There is no need to look far for examples. Almost five years after Russia occupied Crimea, it was on the left of the center that the question of whether it was normal not to have any ties with Lithuania's neighbor became more active. This question naturally arises if, on the one hand, we look at Russia as another state in the neighborhood and, on the other hand, if we imagine the international system without raising bigger moral expectations - simply as a space where both good and bad states are active.

Here, the legendary and controversial former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently related thoughts aloud that Ukraine should hand over part of its territory to Russia to end the war. We might think that his proposal stems precisely from the idea that Russia is a state that is inevitably the larger piece of the puzzle of the international system and international security. And this notion of Russia, and thus of the international system, as an arena in which great powers inevitably meet, naturally offers up morally cynical proposals. So, it wouldn’t be completely off topic if we said that imagination in politics is a powerful thing.

- And what would be the main accents, if you can say so, of Lithuania's left and right's imagination about Russia?

If we write in a notebook all the statements of the Conservatives and, for example, President Dalia Grybauskaitė on Russia and its actions, we see that they refer to Russia not as a state, but as an entity or force that is inherently contrary to state and statehood in general. Russia is presented as a “terrorist state,” a derivative with the features of a Soviet or Nazi empire, and ultimately a derivative that is a tool for realizing Putin’s sick fantasies. We should view these references not just as rhetorical forms to draw the attention of the Allies, for example. This, in turn, are the arguments in the form of a politically important discourse that Russia is inherently the embodiment of evil. It is in this respect that the Lithuanian right and the left differ on their references to Russia. The right refers to Russia as as evil in itself. In other words, the occupied territory of Crimea and the ensuing war in Ukraine are just more proof that the nature of Russia is despicable. Meanwhile, the left is more accustomed to emphasizing the process -the threat is not Russia itself, but what it is doing...In this case, Russia is just one more non-democratic state that is problematic in terms of security. And that “one more“ is like some real constant. It is as if the social democrats are saying: it‘s unfortunate, but there‘s no way to run away from relations with such unpleasant regimes.

-It is quite common to say that France’s or Germany’s attitude towards Russia is determined by the size of the country and its economic or global interests. Apparently, E. Macron, while calling for a return to dialogue with Russia before the war in Ukraine, emphasized the issue of China. It is said that Moscow cannot be left to the “dragon.” And where are the economic interests of the big European countries? Perhaps the relations with other countries and the attitudes are based simply on pragmatic interests?

- Of course, this is one of the most important factors. On the other hand, we may ask why in one country, in our case Lithuania, some politicians see or have seen Russia in terms of pragmatic and economic issues and others do not. A very good and very recent example deals with Belarus. Until recently, we were living with the problems of the migrant crisis caused by Mr. Lukashenko. Rising tensions on the Polish-Belarusian border over several thousand concentrated migrants trying to break through the barricades increased the threats to the health of migrants and the risk of conflict at the border. In order to normalize the situation, Lukashenko was called by the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister criticized the move. In general, he assessed the situation at the time, figuratively speaking, in the context of "crime and punishment": Mr. Lukashenko was portrayed as a criminal against whom it was possible to have only one intention, punishment. In other words, justice is becoming the dominant motive and goal. This dissonates with what was relevant to Chancellor Merkel at the time: a pragmatic interest in avoiding tensions and unrest. And this was more important than justice or dignity. I think we can assume that Chancellor Merkel really did not enjoy talking to Lukashenko and did not feel humanly comfortable dialing his number.

Thus, the question of why the Minister in this case calls for the pursuit of "justice" and criticizes Chancellor Merkel and part of the Lithuanian opposition, which called for de-escalation measures. Why does it seem right for those in power to fight China for Taiwan in the first place and uneconomical and impractical for the opposition? The answer could perhaps be dictated by the fact that politicians may have very different ideas about both the states they are dealing with and the international system in which everything is happening.

- What, in your opinion, determines the fact that Lithuanian politicians refer to Russia differently in the public sphere?

- There really is no single reason. One should consider a whole host of factors: from the tradition of geopolitical thinking to the expectations of different electorates. Perhaps I could single out one factor specific to the case of Lithuania: collective memory. More specifically, the extent to which politicians tend to incorporate memories that are important to society and the identity of the state into the political process or make it the object of the political process. For example, the use of traumatic memory as an argument in support or defense of proposed policy decisions. Let's say that defense spending needs to be increased because Russia's aggression has changed the security architecture in the region. But at the same time, it can be argued that Russia has intentions to again re-occupy Lithuania and this time we will have to "come out shooting." In the latter case, the argument becomes an important moment for Lithuania's identity - the traumatic depictions of the occupation and repressions carried out by the USSR, or even the fact that in 1940 the state was remembered with some shame. On June 14th, 1940, after the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum, the Lithuanian elite decided to resist and fight. In other words, the question of security practices (whether to increase defense spending, or introduce mandatory soldiers’ summons to war, etc.) becomes a broader issue than just physical security. Dignity, historical justice in this case also finds itself on the security radar, which does not necessarily correlate with physical security or what is commonly considered "pragmatic" action.

If we analyze in detail how, since 2014, the Conservatives talked about security and relations with Moscow, and how the Social Democrats did, we would see that the latter largely avoided mentioning historical analogies and traumatic memories for Lithuania. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, explaining the necessity of one or another political step, increasingly emphasized the fact of the occupation, deportation and partisan resistance of Lithuania. Such highlights have become an important argument in assessing Russia and the threat it poses. When there are no more contexts to consider Russia as an important component of international security architecture or economic cooperation, only the entity that has through the centuries threatened, mutilated, deported and raped, remains. And here, as an affect, anger, punishment, the pursuit of justice, is demanded. This, in turn, increases the willingness to emphasize foreign policy initiatives that are perceived by

Western countries as risky due to the impending military conflict or economically damaging. And there is no shortage of such initiatives in Lithuanian foreign policy.

- Perhaps Lithuania's policy on Taiwan’s representative office could also be an example?

I think that there are similar principles at play here: Lithuania is imagined as having to do not so much as what is necessary as what is right - to fight for a democratic world, and so on. And here, if you notice, a divide is forming between the same political camps. The left is calling for a pragmatic policy, in assessing China’s importance in balancing Russia’s threat. Meanwhile, those in power are reiterating: China is evil, as evil as Russia is. Therefore, the issue of past costs, after China began to take revenge on Lithuania regarding Taiwan, is seen as secondary, as insignificant, keeping in mind the monster that we are dealing with. And this different perception of China is the reason.