Amid a complex series of internal and external pressures in Lithuania, writing off protesters as “anti-state” actors will lead to more radicalisation, according to professors and analysts.
This article was originally published in Lithuania before the August 10 riot outside the parliament.
In March, several hundred people took part in an anti-lockdown rally in central Vilnius. Protesters targeted Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, an openly gay Lithuanian MP, with a speech that said “he is anti-state” and that “people like him should be shot, at least one a year”.
A few days later, people gathered to protest outside the parliament. “Stop the eradication of Lithuania”, “television is the real virus”, “We are conscious”, the banners read.
The government’s decision to impose mandatory Covid-19 testing for schoolchildren was also met with a protest outside Kaunas municipality.
On May 15, an anti-LGBTQ+ rally took place in Vingio Park in Vilnius. Protesters spoke against the ratification of the Istanbul convention, the adoption of a long discussed law on ethnic minorities, as well as legalising same-sex partnership and possession of drugs for personal use.
Similar protests were held in June, when several hundred people gathered outside the Seimas.
Anti-migrant rallies were being held throughout July, with protests breaking out in Klaipėda, Lithuania’s third-largest city, as well as by the Belarusian border and in Dieveniškės. During a rally at the Rūdninkai military training ground on July 26, protesters entered the territory of the facility, set tires on fire and injured two officers.
On July 29, around 400 people gathered outside the government office to protest against plans to establish a migrant camp in Dieveniškės.
‘Values of tomorrow will not be the same’
Local anti-migrant rallies are a response to actions taken by the government, says professor Ainė Ramonaitė from Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science (TSPMI).
However, some people have also become “full-time protesters rallying against various things”, she adds.
According to Ramonaitė, people keep finding new reasons to protest and there seems to be a prevalent sentiment of disappointment with the country’s current direction.
Many of the rallies and riots of the last decade were the result of uncertainty, according to Povilas Aleksandravičius, associate professor at Mykolas Romeris University’s Faculty of Human and Social Studies.
“Processes are happening in this world that people find difficult to understand, and therefore fear them. The order in the world is changing. The old models of living, social systems that were present back in the 20th century, are falling or looking for new forms,” he says.
“Advanced technologies open up possibilities that a common person can barely comprehend, but there are also loads of strange fantasies about it,” adds Aleksandravičius. “What is most important is that the attitudes of consciousness are changing. Values of tomorrow will not be the same as they were in the 20th century.”
It is difficult for society to accept and understand new values and a more open, empathetic world. People feel that the so-called traditional values, which are often idealised, are being overtaken, Aleksandravičius says.
Afraid of losing traditional values, people allow their survival instincts to kick in and begin looking for enemies, Aleksandravičius says.
“All it takes then is the smallest pretence or silliest conspiracy theory to have people go to the streets and vent their desperation, fear of being alienated from the world that is inexplicably moving without them.”
The main purpose of these rallies is for people to vent their feelings, which is why they attract very different people that are united only by fear of losing their imaginary reality, according to the professor.
“They [protests] have no positive rational origin. If we tried to rationally discuss the motifs of these protests [but a rational discussion is most often impossible], they would all go down.”
Capitalising on government's mistakes
“Scaring and inciting people goes against the state,” Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė said about the anti-migrant rallies in Dieveniškės.
Lina Laurinaitytė-Grigienė, spokeswoman to the Interior Minister, said that attempts to disrupt the construction of a tent camp in the Rūdninkai training area could be linked to “anti-state activity”.
While protests may benefit Russia and Belarus, they do not automatically equal anti-state activity, according to professor Ramonaitė.
“Lastly, the government begins reacting in a strange way, [...] this is the most common tactic for the government,” says Ramonaitė. “It is surprising, taking seemingly the easiest route, freeing yourself of any responsibility. We did not do anything, it’s all the enemies.”
“It’s a question of who does more harm: those who protest, or the government that is unable to talk to protesters nicely,” she adds.
Ignoring problems causes radicalisation
“They [protesters] do not match the beliefs of that Vilnius bubble, therefore, automatically appear foreign. Foreign opinion, foreign stance,” says Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, another TSPMI lecturer.
Government is uncomfortable with people denying the existence of the coronavirus or protesting vaccines, or otherwise bringing what is often left unsaid to the surface.
“Protests may seem dangerous to many, or that they destabilise the state. Protests and demands would be much more relatable if they were about ideas of nature conservation, or support for Belarus. These ideas would kind of match the dominant values and opinions,” according to the lecturer.
What the protesters demand is usually inconvenient, therefore the government wants to brush these rallies off, says Petronytė-Urbonavičienė.
“These protesters are a part of our society. An inconvenient part, perhaps, that not everyone can easily relate to, [...] however, they are our citizens. The gap grows bigger this way, the situation intensifies,” says the lecturer. “The worst we can do is to distance ourselves, [...] humiliate, disregard that opinion.”
Many of the protesters are genuinely scared or angered, and they want to express those feelings. Having their complaints ignored pushes them closer towards radicality, Petronytė-Urbonavičienė says.
Hatred for the other
Our mind is preconditioned to resent anyone that disagrees with our ideology or is different, says Aleksandravičius.
Successful dialogue requires people to become more open-minded and trusting of another, which is very difficult to achieve in practice, he adds.
“You have to accept that you, your community or nation know very little about the world or existence. To accept that you can learn something from someone else, or someone different, is a very difficult task for many. There can be no talks about any dialogue before this acceptance has come,” says Aleksandravičius. “Many dialogues are just clashes of monologues that escalate into conflicts.”
Only through this acceptance can one “find a true compromise, avoid social conflicts, and create harmony among citizens with different needs”, says the professor.
Society is less restrained
Policymaking is concerned with solving problems, rather than considering people and their needs. The government should change its attitude and think of the people, says Ramonaitė.
Research shows that people are more willing to come together over problems of local scale. This also holds true for people who used to be more passive due to poor economic conditions or other factors, according to Ramonaitė.
“There was this feeling that due to an improved general economic situation our society is somehow more free,” says the professor. “These people that may not have [...] had the money nor time to come to Vilnius [...] before, are now more free, have more money, more time, more self-confidence, they want to have their opinion heard.”
Organisers of the rallies speak to the values and fears that people hold, sometimes employing disinformation to do so, says Petronytė-Urbonavičienė.
However, not everyone that believes in these information channels can be called a tool for respective powers, Petronytė-Urbonavičienė points out.
The pandemic lockdown has also played a part in fueling people’s anger.
“It’s now the second year that we have to live through such unusual conditions. We are forced to live differently than how we’d like to, social contacts, forms of leisure are restricted, people are tired, there is a wish to return to the way of life as it was before,” says Petronytė-Urbonavičienė.
Petronytė-Urbonavičienė noticed that people of all walks of life attend the rallies, and express frustration over different issues.
Distrust in institutions
Lithuanians also distrust national and international institutions, says Aleksandravičius.
“Because people don’t feel like they’re actually living, see no meaning in their work, and feel insignificant, they easily fall for the belief that [...] all our institutions and foreign institutions are slaves to some invisible global political power. And one of the alleged goals of this power is to mix nations together through migration flows.”
Some of the protesters in recent rallies were genuinely concerned with migrants being accommodated next door. The others, however, came to express distrust for Lithuanian or international institutions after reading some conspiracy theories, Aleksandravičius says.
“If irrational distrust for institutions spreads to the larger part of the society, our state will fail. [...] there is this idea that our state has already failed, which is beneficial to parties that are invested in the state actually failing, namely Putin’s Russia.”
Nation in danger?
Since people cannot tell the truth and lie apart, nor identify trustworthy sources of information, they believe what they want to believe, says Aleksandravičius.
“What a person wants to believe in the most is that [...] it’s bad for everyone, that all the ‘good ones’ are turned into underdogs, losers, outcasts [...] the entire nation, the good part of the world, which he obviously belongs to.”
Belonging to a group provides people with a sense of certainty and security, says Aleksandravičius.
“It’s enough to tell a confused person that he is truly the greatest, and that he was just hurt by bad people, and he will easily believe in it.”
"All it takes then is to find the “bad guy”, be it an ethnic or religious minority, the migrants, or the LGBTQ+ community. Once the “bad guy” is found, the “good guys” will attack them, according to Aleksandravičius.
“All protests against minorities usually follow this mechanism, and would lead to bloodshed if not stopped.”
Hard to reach a compromise
Protesters at recent rallies were “without substance”, as people were not looking for compromise nor offered solutions, philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis told LRT RADIO.
Petronytė-Urbonavičienė identifies two types of protests. The first type is concerned with having governmental decisions changed, while the second type encourages awareness within the society.
Recent rallies fall under the first category, Petronytė-Urbonavičienė says.
“There are some clear messages, we could not say that just a demonstration is enough, specific decisions are awaited. Government institutions not wanting to or being unable to meet the demands creates confrontation and makes the situation difficult.”
It is easier to reach the middle ground when demands are economic in nature, but when it comes to values it is usually a black-and-white situation, says the lecturer.
In Western countries, trade unions used to organise rallies. Protests would yield results since the government knew who to approach when looking for solutions.
Organisations are weak in Lithuania, and the rallies are different, more spontaneous, organised by individual figures, which complicates the negotiations, according to Ramonaitė.
“When values [clash], a compromise is not really possible, since either one or the other value is dominant [...],” says Ramonaitė.
Both sides should be willing to talk, says Petronytė-Urbonavičienė.
“It is, essentially, an example that we, as a nation, do not really know how to vent. The people that come to the protests are tired, disappointed, do not see any other ways of solving the situation,” according to Petronytė-Urbonavičienė. “Listening [to them] is the step that should be taken.”
The government should take the time to talk to people about their worries before writing the protests off as anti-state activity, she adds.
Protests lead to people shutting themselves in, hoping that they won’t need to get involved in solving global issues, according to Aleksandravičius.
“Opening up to the world does not mean automatically welcoming migrants. [...] it’s an active participation in solving global issues so that the reasons to emigrate over political or economic struggles disappear,” says Aleksandravičius. “ [...] if we want to solve our problems, we need to feel responsible for every single nation and person in the world, not just ourselves. This responsibility alone is the key to authentic politics of today.”