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2020.01.22 11:51

What is the message behind Lithuanian president's cancelled trip to Jerusalem?

LRT.lt2020.01.22 11:51

The Lithuanian president was to attend a major Holocaust commemoration event in Jerusalem this week, but cancelled only days before the trip. There is a clear message behind the decision, Lithuanian analysts say.

President Gitanas Nausėda had accepted early on the invitation to Jerusalem to take part in the event on January 23 marking the 75th anniversary of the freeing of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. On Tuesday, however, Nausėda announced he was not going to Israel.

Read more: Lithuanian president cancels trip to Holocaust forum in Israel, to go to Auschwitz instead

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is to deliver a speech in Jerusalem is only one of the factors, believes political scientist Linas Kojala of the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

“One must not assume there is only one reason,” he has told Elta news agency. “Sure, complicated relations with Russia is a factor. Russia's view on the history of World War Two does not match that of Central European countries [...]. Current attempts at revisionism and Putin's actions can be contributing to it.”

The Russian president recently made statements justifying the secret 1939 non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which led to the occupation of the Baltic states and Poland. He has also suggested that Poland was partly responsible for the outbreak of World War Two.

Read more: Poland and Putin in war over World War Two

Andžejus Pukšto, the head of the Political Science Department at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, says that Nausėda is taking a lead from his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda. The latter cancelled his trip to Jerusalem in December after his request to speak at the event had been declined.

“Symbols and diplomacy matter in this and such subtle things are very visible and send a clear message,” Pukšto tells LRT TV.

Instead of going to Jerusalem, Lithuanian President Nausėda said he would pay tribute to Holocaust victims at another event in Auschwitz itself, organised by Poland.

“He [President Nausėda] has said many times that Poland is a strategic partner [...] with whom Lithuania shares views on security and history,” Kojala commented.

Šarūnas Liekis, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University, suggests that, in addition to Poland and Russia, Israel's stance may also have played a role.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “pandering to his own electorate and Russia” that he has visited over 10 times over the recent years, Liekis tells LRT TV.

“Despite good relations between Lithuania and Israel, Putin is clearly a more important ally than Lithuania,” Liekis says, noting that Russian troops are present in Syria and in Israel's vicinity.

Another reason why Nausėda decided to skip the Jerusalem event, according to Liekis, may have been a planned protest outside Lithuania's embassy in Tel Aviv. The rally was to be a protest against a resolution initiative in the Lithuanian parliament.

Arūnas Gumuliauskas, an MP of the ruling Farmers and Greens Union, recently suggested a resolution asserting that the Lithuanian state and the Lithuanian nation were not involved in the Holocaust. The MP plans to submit it to a plenary vote during the parliament's spring session in March.

Pukšto says the initiative is ill-advised and also represents historical revisionism “somewhat along the lines of the Kremlin's methods of rewriting history”.

Markas Zingeris, an author and former director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, says that Gumuliauskas' initiative “has done great harm” to Lithuania's reputation. Despite being only a resolution with very little potential legal force, it has been compared to Poland's controversial Holocaust memory legislation in international media, according to Zingeris.

He adds that while a number of Lithuanians were involved in mass killings of Jews, no serious historian is asserting that the Lithuanian state or nation as such are responsible for the Holocaust. “I don't understand [...] why we need to incite these unnecessary arguments, to degrade the discussion to the level of ‘the nation’ being to blame,” Zingeris tells LRT TV.

Pukšto adds that Holocaust remembrance is important and should not be overshadowed by political battles between or within countries.

“It is unfortunate that, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day [in Poland and Jerusalem], the focus will not be on the Holocaust survivors, but on political feuds over historic memory,” he says.