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2021.06.24 08:00

Is Lithuanian president flirting with right-wing crowd?

Modesta Gaučaitė-Znutienė, Gytis Pankūnas, LRT.lt2021.06.24 08:00

Amid cheers from the crowd of several hundred people, an adviser to the Lithuanian president ventured outside his office to meet the protesters rallying for traditional values. The same people were part of the Big Family Defence March on May 15 that attracted widespread controversy.

When addressing the crowd outside the presidential palace on June 17, presidential adviser Povilas Mačiulis thanked them for “showing that Lithuania is an active nation” and for “showing that you can defend your opinions and beliefs”.

Critics pointed out that Mačiulis was pictured speaking to a prominent conspiracy theorist in a protest that was organised by the same movement responsible for the Big Family Defence March against “genderist propaganda” on May 15 that attracted some 10,000 people. The rally's demands included scrapping the Istanbul Convention and plans to legislate gender-neutral civil partnership.

An LRT investigation has detailed that people behind the rally feature prominent conspiracy theorists, fringe politicians, and pro-Kremlin figures.

On May 18, the president had a conversation with Police Commissioner General Renatas Požėla, which had not been announced on the presidential agenda. Later, despite the widespread disregard for quarantine restrictions during the march on May 15, the police decided not to launch a pre-trial investigation. Some have alleged that this was due to the president’s personal views and his call with the police chief.

According to the president’s spokesman, Nausėda only discussed the pandemic situations and such calls were common. The Big Family Defence March was not discussed during the call, Požėla later told LRT RADIO.

Mačiulis defended the president, saying Nausėda wants to talk to all of Lithuania’s citizens. However, observers say that the president should not be addressing those who violate the law.

President does not fear people, adviser says

According to Mačiulis, the president himself speaks to all protesters who gather near the presidential office, pointing out that Nausėda addressed an anti-Astravyets NPP protest last year.

“It would have been disrespectful of the president or his spokesman not to come out to talk to the people”, Mačiulis said on June 18. “The president was busy yesterday, so I did it for him.”

The adviser added that Nausėda would talk to all protesters, regardless of whether he agreed with their cause.

In a written comment, the president’s office said Nausėda “does not fear talking to people, and doesn’t think that it should only be done once in four years”, adding that he will hear people out regardless of their stance and that he follows the debates regarding divisive issues such as the Istanbul Convention or the same-sex partnership law.

'Defending lawbreakers'

According to political observer Rimvydas Valatka, the president made a poor choice addressing the protesters via his adviser on Thursday, since there were several controversial figures attending this anti-LGBTQ+ protest.

“[The] president should not be defending lawbreakers or those that go against the constitution [...]. He’s talking to the crowd that Gibonas, Algirdas Paleckis are in, essentially the fifth column,” he said, using a term to describe people who work against the country from within. “Show me a president in any country that would eagerly go and talk to the fifth column, praising it.”

The president is communicating with controversial figures to secure his power and status. “He is alone and he’s desperately looking for allies,” he added.

If Nausėda is not kept in check, his actions can lead to political instability, said Valatka, adding that the president is manipulating people and fueling their anger.

“It takes nothing to fuel negative emotions, such as hatred, jealousy, and anger for someone that’s different. It is near impossible to control them when they unite into a crowd,” he said.

Valatka compared Nausėda’s actions to those of medieval monarchs, who would not defend their Jewish subjects when they were wrongfully accused of causing a plague and persecuted. They did not get involved due to fear of being attacked themselves.

“Only the most inexperienced and cowardly of politicians gamble with negative emotions, placing all their bets on tactics. Nausėda is new to politics, he does not know the strategy,” said Valatka.

He also criticised the ruling Homeland Union party for publicly raising the issue of Lithuania’s representation at the European Council, saying that they have forced Nausėda into a position where “the fifth column is his protection, his voters”.

Standard playbook

Tomas Janeliūnas, a professor at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI), sees the current anti-LGBTQ+ rallies as a typical subversive act from Russia.

“We’re proud to be near-experts on Russian provocation and disinformation. We’ve even begun teaching other Europeans how to identify Russia’s subversive acts and various hybrid operations,” said Janeliūnas.

According to him, it’s a common tactic to go for the most sensitive, divisive topics and fuel people’s distrust, dividing them and creating tensions.

Reports from intelligence services are useless if the president himself “can’t put two and two together”, said Janeliūnas.

“Is there a lack of information – public information, not to mention data from intelligence services – that the organisers of the Family March are obvious provocateurs going against the state?” he said.

The rally does not become any more innocent by attracting members of the public, according to Janeliūnas.

“The people who are genuinely confused about changes in the society and are [as I understand] fearful of them, [...] I have to disappoint you: your anxiety [...] was stolen, trampled, and used as a tool for subversive activity,” said Janeliūnas, adding that the president should distance himself from people engaging in “anti-state activity”.

President must not ignore the people

The president must talk to the society, which is what Nausėda did, according to Mindaugas Jurkynas, professor at Vytautas Magnus University (VDU) in Kaunas.

Jurkynas pointed out that since his election, the president has always come out to address protests near the presidential office.

“People can have different opinions, there’s no need to fear them for that,” said Jurkynas, adding that Nausėda was not singling out any particular groups of people.

“This wasn’t the first nor, I believe, the last time that the president came to speak to protesters,” said Jurkynas. “I’m sure that if there is a march for equality taking place by the presidential office, the president and his spokespeople will also come to talk to people holding different opinions.”

Other politicians have also tried addressing the recent anti-LGBTQ+ rally, including MP Mantas Maldeikis, who was harassed by the protesters.

Whether Nausėda is siding with the protesters is up for interpretation, since he hasn’t yet outwardly stated his position, said Jurkynas.

In his annual address on June 8, Nausėda pointed out that the society is divided. However, the president should be the mediator between political parties, not people, according to Jurkynas.

“President can be the mediator between political parties, he communicates with the opposition, with the government, the prime minister, it’s a continuous conversation,” said Jurkynas. “If there are groups within the society that are protesting, [...] it’s an expression of democracy.”

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