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2020.02.23 10:00

Lithuanian far-right walking into Putin's trap – opinion

Fabio Belafatti2020.02.23 10:00

Far-right figures routinely accuse anyone who raises questions about the moral purity of Second World War-era national figures of being Russian fifth columnists or pitiful ‘useful idiots’. This only benefits the Kremlin, writes researcher Fabio Belafatti.

This seems to be common both among the so-called old guard of the Lithuanian far-right and among members of newer, but very active and social media-savvy groups that emerged in recent years.

Read more: Israeli Holocaust centre apologises for historical 'errors', leaves links to Putin unaddressed

What I want to address here is precisely the role of such far-right personalities, observers, websites and groups in helping Russia undermine the existence of the Lithuanian state.

Holocaust laws and Putin’s trap

We can clearly see how the intimidatory mindset and the ‘shut up, you’re helping the enemy’ logic are now seeping through to the mainstream political arena. The recent law proposal being planned by Arūnas Gumuliauskas that would ban allegations of responsibility of the Lithuanian nation or state in the Holocaust fits this pattern.

The law, at best, is a ‘nuclear option’ deployed against a vague issue: as historian Arvydas Nikžentaitis correctly argued, nobody accuses the whole nation of genocide, which makes the legislative initiative excessive.

Despite not bringing any benefit, the law can however cause two problems, both of which advance Russia’s goals.

The MP advancing the proposal argues that “the Lithuanian state did not take part in the Holocaust, because it was occupied”.

Yet if we claim that there was no institutional responsibility in the Holocaust because the Lithuanian state did not exist as it was occupied, we are demolishing the idea that the Provisional Government and the election of national leaders by the Partisans were legally-legitimate continuations of the interwar state.

Thereby, it would also undermine the 2009 decision that recognised Jonas Žemaitis-Vytautas as de facto Head of State, in recognition of the 1949 decision by the leaders of the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters.

By doing so we directly support the Soviet view that the Lithuanian state did not oppose any legal resistance to the Soviet occupation, and that the Partisan movement was illegal.

The other issue is with the concept of "nation”. Obviously, the “Lithuanian nation” does not bear responsibility for the acts of individual (or groups of) Holocaust perpetrators. On this, both the promoters of the law and its critics agree.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the judicial landscape has changed dramatically since last year’s landmark decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which confirmed that the extermination of the anti-Soviet Lithuanian Partisans was an act of genocide.

In stating that “the partisans who had resisted Soviet rule could be considered as an important part of the nation and thus be covered by international law, Article II of the Genocide Convention,” the ECHR de facto opened the door for a broad correspondence between “Partisans” and the “Lithuanian nation”.

Therefore, a law that forbids to move any accusation against the “nation” will automatically make it impossible to investigate the few cases of complicity of anyone associated with the partisans, insofar as they historically represented the nation during a certain period.

I assume the first problem is simply something that the promoters of the law failed to notice. The second problem seems more like the outcome they were hoping to achieve.

This reflects the far-right’s idea that debating history is a threat and, as shall be discussed later, will serve Putin’s interests perfectly.

The right-wing’s mistake

The underlying belief behind the refusal to debate history is that if Russia can say that at least some Lithuanian anti-Soviet activists were Nazi collaborators, today’s Lithuania’s social unity, statehood legitimacy, image, and international standing will be destroyed: ‘You are making us look bad just like Russia wants’.

This approach is entirely wrong. If the fear is that 'historical debates divide us', we can easily solve that by uniting in being honest about the past. But what about the arguments about Lithuania’s image, international standing, and statehood legitimacy?

First, we need to ask ourselves what is the real issue here: is it the way Lithuania is portrayed in Russian media?

No: in our struggle with Russia’s internal propaganda, it is utterly irrelevant if national figures are on historical trial here in Lithuania. Russian media already lost touch with reality years ago.

If the far-right activists fear that the Kremlin might use historical investigations to stir up hatred of the Baltics among the Russians, their fears are misplaced – the Kremlin will do it regardless of historical evidence.

Russian media would still peddle the same propaganda that all Balts were fascists, because the Kremlin needs it for internal political cohesion, given how heavily contemporary Russian discourses rely on the selective weaponisation of the memory of the Soviet system, and especially the narrative of Soviet innocence and merit.

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

So, we can just carry on with our historical research in serenity and honesty and worry about the real issue instead, which is not Russian internal propaganda, but Russia’s ability to influence the perception of the Baltics among their security partners in Europe and the US.

The core of the issue: looking at history and the present differently

The Russian narrative that ‘Eastern Europeans are fascists’ is powerful and highly damaging to the interests of Eastern Europe. On this, I believe even far-right commentators would agree, but they are wrong in a fundamental way.

The danger here is not the loss of legitimacy for the Lithuanian state that can originate from exposing the collaborationist histories of some national figures. It is the loss of legitimacy of today’s state.

Yes, the legitimacy of the interwar state matters for the Russian public as it makes them feel better about their Soviet past. But this is of little concern, as Russian media will push politically convenient narratives regardless.

What we should be concerned with is the legitimacy that Lithuania holds among our Western allies, the legitimacy that would secure NATO’s help in case of need. This, however, does not depend on interwar Lithuania or the facts of WW2.

Most voters, journalists, and politicians in the West do not know the chronology and dynamics of 1918–1945 in the Baltics and do not care if or what moments of collective resistance took place in 1941 and who took part in them.

Most people probably even ignore that there was an independent interwar Lithuania in the first place. And nobody cares about what happened in 1941, because Western Europe also had plenty of Nazi collaborators, Nazi–Fascist countries, fascistoid regimes and fascist-appeasers.

So, the problem is not the past. It is the present.

What matters is not whether someone’s grandfather or great-grandfather was a fascist, but how someone feels about that now. It is the West’s pro-Russian views of Eastern Europe as today’s ‘land of Fascism’ that really threaten the countries in the region.

This system of truth is convenient because it whitewashes the West’s numerous shortcomings in memory policies. Suffice to say that this system of truth relies on the narrative that 'Eastern Europeans are fascists’, not that 'Eastern Europeans were fascists'.

The far-right’s nationalism as national masochism

This narrative sustains itself with the far-right’s policies: denial, obfuscation, celebration of ambiguous figures, and refusals to even talk about history is what empowers the ‘Eastern Europeans are Fascists’ narrative.

This helps vilify Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians or Latvians in the eyes of their Western allies. Partly because of this, every time Eastern Europeans ask for help – military or economic – they are met with indifference, caveats, questioning, requests to show democratic credentials, half-promises, and weak reactions, such as the insufficiently-strong sanctions, half-heartedly applied after Russia occupied Crimea.

Countries can veer drastically away from the rule of law and still be acceptable partners for new business. But we are not talking about promoting business, here. We are talking about matters of sacrifice: at a bare minimum, economic sacrifice (the jobs lost because of sanctions); at a maximum, sacrifices of troops sent to help friends and allies. These issues activate a totally different level of calculation.

Read more: Lithuanian president retreats from stricter rules for memory policy

Countries that joined NATO in 1999 and 2004 know that the introduction of Holocaust commemoration and education policies was a key prerequisite for accessing this potentially life-saving security umbrella. Memory and defence have always gone hand-in-hand: Western ‘willingness to defend’ always depended on the rejection, by potential receivers of help, of peace-threatening discourses, such as Nazi nostalgia.

For non-NATO members who need Western help – like Ukraine – awareness of these issues is crucial. Russia certainly understands this, which is why it invests so much in trying to make the world believe that Lithuania or post-Euromaidan Ukraine are “fascist” states. The far-right only helps it achieve this.

The price to pay to defend Eastern Europe

Material interests explain Western pro-Russian ‘appeasement’ policies only to some extent. As a fellow researcher from the University of Groningen, Professor Francesco Giumelli, recently put it in a study about the impact of sanctions: “It is noticeable that economic impact does not seem to explain foreign policy decisions across the EU when it comes to the sanctioning policy on Russia.”

When time comes to impose sanctions, it is not just the matter of how much it will cost us that will determine the popular support for sanctions. It will be the consideration of how much we are willing to sacrifice, how long for, and for whose sake, that will or will not make sanctions or military aid feasible, desirable and pursuable.

That, ultimately, depends entirely on a complex range of ideational factors, crucial among which is the perception of the countries that the sanctions are supposed to defend: the fewer spots the image of the victims of Russian aggressions have, the more likely voters in NATO countries are to accept sacrifices to protect them, and vote for politicians that will follow through with this.

Read more: Lithuanian officer in Holocaust controversy saved Jews – does evidence stack up?

None of this can happen if the only thing people in other countries hear about Lithuania is that some people spontaneously erected a monument to an alleged Nazi collaborator.

Yes, Lithuania cannot be generalised based on this minority trend.

But narratives are often built on the generalisation of trends that albeit small in scale, are significant in meaning.

This is what far-right commentators are helping produce and what keeps reappearing in Western media. Part of the solution lies in changing the media narrative and re-balancing it, but this will take decades. A much quicker (and obvious) fix could be to stop celebrating alleged Nazi collaborators.

Poland’s self-destructive policies

It has taken three decades for Western Europe to finally listen to Eastern Europe’s view of WW2 and understand that the narrative of the victory over Nazi Germany hid the suffering of those who were abandoned under Soviet occupation.

This has led to some small, but symbolically important steps in getting to a more nuanced understanding of those events, understanding Eastern European suffering under Communism. Now, however, the Holocaust-obfuscating policies of local far-right groups risks destroying these achievements, providing Putin with the tool to do that.

To better understand what I mean, suffice to look at Poland. Politicians in the PiS government have torpedoed their country’s image, first by adopting the debate-smothering ‘Holocaust Law’, then by failing to react as influential politicians and religious leaders made more and more outrageously anti-Semitic statements. Poland’s image internationally has been shattered.

As Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky explained, Putin has singled out Poland as “main scapegoat” to target in the effort to strengthen Russia’s role in the world.

Read more: Auschwitz: Lithuanian president calls to 'search for truth' amid disputes with Moscow

This contributes to throwing Poland and Brussels on two opposite sides of what I call an intra-European ‘clash of civilizations’, a by-product of the disagreement over WW2 memory that I have noted in my research, and that Bershidsky’s findings confirm.

The Polish government’s continuous row with Israel and the Jewish community, caused by the country’s increasing ambiguity on the issue of the Holocaust, and worsened by the Polish right’s inability to accept the responsibilities of local collaborators, have caused great discomfort abroad and made it possible for Putin to “build” Poland as a demonic ‘common enemy’ for him and the European Union.

This comes at a time when the largest Central Eastern European state challenges EU norms and the rule of law, Putin can easily fuel disagreement by activating the 'fascist Eastern Europeans' trope, and the Polish right-wing is doing this job for him.

Given that Poland already starts in a disadvantageous position (not only because of the presence of pro-Kremlin figures at Yad Vashem, as noted by Haaretz, but also because of long-lasting historical prejudices against Poles), a sensible policy would be to tread much more carefully with such issues.

The result of this carelessness? When in late 2019 Russia blamed Poland for starting WW2 with Hitler, surprisingly few people were outraged. A country, complicit in partitioning half of Europe with the Nazi, accused its own victim – one that also suffered more than most others under Nazi occupation – of being a “culprit”.

In normal times, this would have caused an uproar and turned Russia into an embarrassment, not unlike the Holocaust-denial statements of former Iranian president Ahmadinejad a few years ago. Instead, the news was registered, some diplomatic statements were made, and the world moved on to more interesting issues.

The seeds of this indifference have been sown by the Polish right itself. It is only when the leaders of a country are unwilling to discuss the obvious that it becomes possible to accuse that country of the absurd.

What game are the 'real patriots' playing?

Ultimately, it is not history that allows Lithuania’s enemies to unfairly depict Lithuanians as ‘fascist’, but the very attempts to shut down historical debates.

The far-right figures naively believe that this will protect Lithuanian honour. Censorship of books or articles, torch-light ‘patriotic marches’, a demonstration with banners adorned with quotes by inspirators of the Holocaust, commemorative plaques dedicated to dubious heroes with dirty curricula, displays of swastikas or variations thereof – this is what reproduces the narrative of Eastern European fascists that Russia is so keen on pushing.

Western European media devour tales of Eastern European backwardness and failure to come to terms with its past.

They have Russia, with its hypocritically-inflated credentials as an ‘anti-fascist’ country, as a favourite purveyor, and they regurgitate those narratives to produce one of Western superiority and forward-thinking.

Pro-Russian commentators on the left and the right wait only for a crowd of Lithuanians to celebrate alleged Nazi collaborators to have their beliefs reconfirmed. The last thing we need here in Lithuania is more of what will only confirm the misconceptions that Western allies already harbour.

Unless of course we decide, as a country, that we do not need the security umbrella of NATO, and we want to stand up to Russia on our own, perhaps in alliance with a couple of other countries in the region.

Maybe replacing NATO with some alliance modelled on similar, utter failures in sub-regional integration from eight decades ago.

Either way, Russia wins. The question is – why are so many on the far-right helping it?

A note from the author: this article does not point fingers at anyone specifically, for two reasons. First, it would be redundant. Anyone interested in these topics stumbles all the time across articles and social media commentaries of the ‘shut up, you’re helping the enemy’ type. But more importantly, recent intimidations have made it unsafe to voice criticism, as newer far-right cliques and activists appear willing to destroy the careers of anyone they disagree with. The reader might recall how, a few months ago, a prominent young activist tried to silence a Vilnius University professor by dragging him in front of a disciplinary committee for daring to like a Facebook comment. What is worse, such groups appear to be inexplicably well-funded, and it stands to reason to assume that they have the capacity to wage court battles that their opponents could not afford. Sadly, this state of affairs and these intimidating practices warrant extreme caution.

Fabio Belafatti is a PhD student at the University of Groningen, where his research focuses on the impact of Orientalist pro-Russian narratives in Western Europe, the mechanisms through which they help enable Russian neo-imperialism, and how this damages the interest of Central and Eastern European states. He is also teaching assistant at Vilnius University’s Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies. He has been living in Lithuania since 2011 and following Holocaust-related debates since 2009

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.