Go to the most popular Lithuanian news site, delfi.lt, and glance at the comment section below any politically charged article. You will most definitely see how Lithuanian residents of major local ethnicities – Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Belarusians – verbally battle one another. And what a heated debate that is! The sad thing is that this arguing is not resorted to politics, tastes, preferences, etc.; it is way distant from a polite conversation. It often crosses into the realm of culture battles where the ethnic groups recall the battles of old: Polish occupation, disfranchisement of minority groups, Lithuanization of Vilnius, Belarusian claims for Vilnius…
The historical argument is heated by the modern-day nationalism spearheaded by differing traditions of historiography in Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania and channeled through national and diasporal media, education, and politics. Everyone is a historian here, everyone is preoccupied arguing who Vilnius belonged to in the past, whose it should be now, and whether true Lithuanians were of Slavic or Baltic origin. It almost seems as if Lithuanian modernity was nonexistent. The discourse is so much history-related that even current political status quo is weighed in vis-à-vis “the historical truth,” which is always different depending on who you ask.
The nationalism in Lithuania, maybe not as dismal as in Latvia, Estonia, or even Poland, is still so much of a mainstream weltanschauung. And it is sad to see how it traumatizes Lithuanian youth and leaves Lithuania far behind its Western European counterparts as it comes to cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.
Here are just few examples. Two days ago Lithuanian patriotic youth celebrated the 70th anniversary of liberation of Vilnius from Polish occupation. Some 200 young nationalists – many clad in military – marched through Vilnius center chanting patriotic songs and carrying torches. Boy, that creepy site truly reminded of Nazifying Berlin in 1939.
Another event dedicated to this date was an exhibition of children’s paintings about the liberation of Vilnius from Polish occupants. Just think how screwed up the minds of those kids get when they are raised to hate a large minority group in their own country.
What Lithuanian history books teach Lithuanian kids? Russians, Poles, Germans are bad because they occupied us; Belarusians are bad because they also dreamt to tear off Vilnius from Lithuania. The world around is a scary place, isn’t it? And then here’s a positive message: our country was once huge, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded from sea to sea. So, yeah, there’s something we can pride ourselves into. But doesn’t it make us despise our neighbors even more?
Yeah, any nation-state is pretty much like that. The same kind of scaremongering, history entwined with geopolitics, etc. Local minorities are heated up by their national and diasporal media, Internet blogs, and nationalistic politicians. So, no, it’s not just Lithuanian nationalism causing dissent from minorities, it’s also nationalism from Russians, Belarusians, and Poles, as well, adding to the clash of differences in Babylonian Vilnius.
Something has to be done to appease these dangerous trends for the sake of all. Maybe the state itself needs to be more welcoming towards the minorities. For instance, the language law could be made more liberal so as to reflect the historical diversity of Vilnius. Maybe the Card of the Pole should not be seen as a threat to the national security, or maybe this card itself is a mere effort to bring back the ideas from the XIX century. I don’t know what the cure could be from nationalistic rhetoric, as it is so deeply rooted in our national identities. But if we want to get better, we might want to start looking for commonalities, not differences.