Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda's refusal to sign a declaration by EU country leaders about the rights of the LGBTQ+ community has sparked controversy back at home.
The letter, which came in response to a law passed in Hungary that is seen as discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people, was signed by representatives of 17 EU leaders.
Although a similar letter raising concern about the Hungarian law had been endorsed by a Lithuanian deputy foreign minister prior to last week's EU Council meeting, Nausėda refused to sign the letter last Thursday.
Nausėda said “I am convinced that letters are not the way to solve problems”. He noted that Lithuania was debating a same-sex partnership law and “no one has the right to tell us or give directives how we should solve this issue”.
Some Lithuanian politicians say it was the president's personal decision and that government institutions should better coordinate their positions.
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, leader of the ruling conservative Homeland Union (TS-LKD), says there is no common position on the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Lithuania and he cannot see how it could be reconciled.
Meanwhile, Ramūnas Karbauskis, leader of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS), the biggest opposition party in Lithuania, has welcomed Nausėda's move, saying it reflects the opinion of the majority of people in Lithuania.
Ruling block: opinions on ‘value-related’ issues differ
Foreign Minister Landbsergis says politicians' opinions on issues like LGBTQ+ rights differ, adding that he cannot imagine how such position could be aligned.
“These are important value-related issues, and we see different attitudes to them. I cannot imagine how we could align such positions in Lithuania,” Landsbergis told BNS last Thursday.
Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilyte-Nielsen, leader of the Liberal Movement, noted that when Lithuania joined the European Union, it committed “to respecting certain values, human rights, tolerance, the principle of non-discrimination”.
“I believe it's important that such positions by the majority of EU countries are expressed, when threats to these rights and values arise in a country. First of all, I would like to say I am glad that the Foreign Ministry and the government have clearly expressed their positions, when the similar letter was signed on behalf of Lithuania last week," Čimlyte-Nielsen told BNS.
Economy Minister Aušrinė Armonaitė, leader of the liberal Freedom Party, expressed her regret that Lithuania was not among the member-states that signed the declaration on LGBTQ+ rights.
“We in Lithuania must do a lot in terms of our domestic policies on the issue of the LGBTQ community, as discriminatory laws still exist, and we must defend the rights of all citizens, both in terms of our domestic policies and in the European or international space,” the minister said.
‘Opinion of Lithuania's people’
Meanwhile LVŽS leader Karbauskis said he fully backed Nausėda's decision, saying that the president represented a majority opinion in the country.
“The president represents the nation, and it's impossible in this case to represent all opinions, when we have different opinions. He represents the opinion that, polls show, is backed by 75 percent of the population,” Karbauskis said.
MEP Vilija Blinkevičiūtė, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, commented institutions should better coordinate their positions as “it doesn’t look good when there's no common position”.
On Tuesday, before the European Council's meeting, 17 EU leaders signed a letter, which did not directly mention Hungary, but deplored “threats against fundamental rights and in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation”.
The letter was signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Arnoldas Pranckevičius. Foreign Minister Landsbergis later said Pranckevičius did so on his own initiative.
The new Hungarian law became a subject of disputes at the European Council on Thursday where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban came under fire from Western European leaders.
Hungary’s law, entitled the Anti-Paedophilia Act, was originally aimed at toughening punishments for child abuse. But its final draft contains amendments that critics say conflate paedophilia with homosexuality. The law bans the “promotion of homosexuality” to under-18s, and says that only government-approved instructors are allowed to teach sex education in schools.
Nausėda backed Hungary after the meeting and said that some EU leader commented on the Hungarian law without reading the text.
Lithuania's law on protection of minors
In 2009, Lithuania passed its own law on protecting minors from negative public information which attracted international criticism over LGBTQ+ discrimination.
The initial wording of the law said minors were harmed by public information that promoted “homosexual, bisexual and polygamous relations”.
After outcry from international institutions and domestic rights groups, the article was changed to say that minors should not be exposed to information that “degrade family values” and promote conceptions of marriage and family “other than those established in the constitution”.
Lithuania's constitution says that marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman.
On several occasions, the law has been used to block ads for LGBTQ+ pride events from airing on TV. In another instance, a children's book that included a story about two princes was removed from bookshops in 2014.