2020.06.11 17:18

Anti-racism rally bares divide between Lithuania's young and old

Ieva Žvinakytė, LRT.lt2020.06.11 17:18

Around a thousand young Lithuanians marched in Vilnius in solidarity with anti-racism protests in the US. Many elderly onlookers were left baffled, saying the youths were taking on issues foreign to Lithuania.

After the protest, many older people took to social media to criticise the younger generation for rallying against racism that allegedly doesn’t exist in Lithuania, for displaying slogans and chanting in English instead of Lithuanian, or for allegedly mimicking ‘liberal trends’ from abroad.

Read more: ‘We are all human beings’. People in Vilnius march in support of US protests

Research shows that the young in Lithuania are more cosmopolitan, while older people “have a stronger national identity”, Rūta Žiliukaitė, director of the Sociology and Social Work Institute at Vilnius University, told LRT English.

The split between national and global identities may have led to miscommunication surrounding the protest, according to Žiliukaitė.

“The message to the youth was ‘how dare you ignore our issues and care so much for the global ones’,” she said.

A poster during the protest with anti-police slogans caused particular outrage, because a Lithuanian policeman had been killed on duty only a week prior to the rally.

Many commentators mentioned the international anti-police acronyms displayed during the rally as a sign that the Lithuanian youths were unaware of issues at home, and instead were quick to jump on international trends.

Read more: Lithuanian police launch probe into Black Lives Matter rally in Vilnius

“But young people, who were at the rally, live in Western information space” and follow English-speaking media, said Aušrinė Armonaitė, a liberal Lithuanian MP who took part in the march. “For them, issues in the US are as close as issues in Lithuania.”

Nevertheless, misunderstanding goes both ways, Žiliukaitė noted.

“We should try to understand [the older people],” she said. “There are a lot of problems in Lithuania, such as discrimination of seniors that the elderly were fighting against and tried to involve young people, who didn’t see these problems as theirs.”

But criticising the young for showing more interest in global issues “is not going to change their thinking”, the sociologist said. Instead, critics should find ways to engage with the younger generation to “make them also understand the relevance of local issues and encourage them to contribute to solving them”.

Read more: #Voices – Lithuanians should care about US protests

Attacking youth for the issues they care about might also deter them from political and civic activism and could “marginalise them”, said MP Armonaitė.

Žiliukaitė also noted that angry comments on the internet were not representative of the entire generation, as there were many “elderly people, who supported the peaceful protest organised by youngsters”.

Not only generational differences

The protest has also exposed regional and social divisions in Lithuania, said Vytautas Magnus University sociology professor Vylius Leonavičius.

The anti-racism rally took place in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius that stands out from other cities in the country, he explained.

“Vilnius is quite unique in Lithuania because it is very fragmented socially,” said Leonavičius. “The youth that came to the protest belong to a very specific category – children from families of cultural, political, and economic elite that other cities don’t have.”

Social and financial differences are important in forming value structures, said Leonavičius. High-income families have the means to travel with their children or educate them in international schools and universities, where they get acquainted with global social movements.

“Research about value orientations in Lithuania shows that children from wealthier families have similar values to those of youths from Western countries,” said the professor.

However, he added, Soviet legacy is also visible in the Lithuanian society and contributes to creating divisions between older generations and those who grew up in independent Lithuania.

“Eastern European societies are quite conservative because their social evolution was frozen [during the Soviet occupation],” said Leonavičius.

“At the same time, we have a new generation that has been very swiftly incorporated into the global world,” he added.

Read more: LRT FACTS. Was Antifa behind the Black Lives Matter rally in Vilnius?