O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
This year Lithuanian neo-Nazis organized by Marius Kundrotas, Ričardas Čekutis and Julijus Panka with Lithuanian MP Kazimieras Uoka as their mascot marched in Kaunas on February 16 and through central Vilnius on March 11. February 16 is the old, pre-World War II national day of independence while March 11 is the date in 1990 when the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet voted to restore national independence and exit the Soviet Union.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania now, Kaunas was in the interwar period, when Vilnius was administered by Poland and the two countries contended for the ancient city and surrounding territory at the League of Nations. One of the fiercest proponents at the League for Lithuanian ownership was Oskar Milosz, or Oskaras Milasius as he was known inside Lithuania, a French symbolist poet from what is now Belarus who considered himself both a Lithuanian and a Jew and worked for the French, then the Lithuanian diplomatic corps.
This year the fascists tried to stress the “tradition” of the marches in an attempt to claim they are in fact mainstream patriots and not neo-Nazis. While they were traditionalizing and mainstreaming themselves, they also claimed that the media, Lithuanian human rights organizations, “tolerasts” [a coinage combining: tolerant+pederast], the Kremlin, the Jews, the Poles and others—their new buzzword is “cosmopolitans”, used without understanding by the rank-and-file but known by the leaders to mean “rootless cosmopolitan Jews”, a slogan taken directly from the Third Reich—were slandering them, and that they reflect the traditional Lithuanian patriotic public.
To enhance the sense of tradition they appealed to Vincas Kudirka, a national activist figure from the period of the interwar Republic, whence they allege they took the phrase “Lithuania for Lithuanians”, instead of the obvious source, “Deutschland für Deutschen”, or the more proximate “Polska dla Polskych”. After official Advisor to the Prime Minister and Jewish Lithuanian Arkady Vinokur (Arkadijus Vinokuras) appeared on national television to “balance” the combined intellect of Lithuania’s neo-fascist masterminds Uoka and Panka, the Nazi youth began to use Vinokur’s observations to further their own agenda of traditionalizing themselves and insinuating themselves in the body politic: Vinokur noted that part of the preamble of the Lithuanian constitution has a somewhat strange phrase about how all sovereignty rests in the Nation.
In Lithuanian, the word tauta (cognate with English “Teuton” and the “Deutsch” in Deutschland) means ethnic group, or Volk in German. The next day, Ričardas Čekutis, another neo-Nazi mastermind, tried to repeat Vinokur’s observation on state television to lend foundation to the neo-fascists’ claims to traditional status. Nor is it merely public relations, in Lithuania “tradition” implies allowable or sanctioned, just as there are several “traditional” religions recognized by the state as legitimate.
So how traditional are the fascist marches through Vilnius? The first one seems to have been in 2008, when marchers chanted for the death of Russians and Jews, “Juden raus”, carried swastikas and generally had as good a time neo-Nazis can possibly have as police watched on. In 2010 they held two big marches in Vilnius on both national independence days featuring various kinds of pseudo-swastikas and chanting “Lithuania for Lithuanians”. All four years now the Vilnius municipality has freely issued permits for the neo-Nazis while in 2009 they rejected applications by gay rights groups and in 2010 they were outgunned when the president demanded gay peoples’ right to freedom of assembly be allowed in one way or another, even if only for appearances.
Both years officials said little to nothing about the marches until prodded by controversy from abroad or the local foreign diplomatic corps from Western nations. In both years the marches did cause serious concern abroad. In 2010 the symbolic gay pride march was outnumbered by about ten-to-one by virulent haters bearing swastika-like symbols (with explanatory notes handed out, just in case someone failed to see how the symbols were connected to swastikas, which had just been nominally banned in the country, although actually not) and those who look back to Hitler’s Germany as a realistic model of government seemed to feel they had captured the momentum and gone mainstream at last. So, to answer the question of tradition, the neo-Nazi marches have a solid tradition of four years of controversy, loss of national prestige and growing societal intolerance behind them.
While the Vilnius municipality saw no reason to decline a permit this year (despite letters from attorneys citing a whole series of laws which make such demonstrations illegal), the prime minister went quite a bit further this year in criticizing the marchers, even saying they were trying to usurp the concept of patriotism. In earlier years he had more or less ignored the marches, or brushed them off as meaningless and part of the consequences of living in a democracy. He did so through the prime minister’s press representative, a man whose voice was heard on the two-part BBC World Service radi special on Holocaust denial broadcast in the Heart and Soul program last year, where he more or less dismissed the growth of fascism in Lithuania as exaggerated. Since Arkady Vinokur is also the prime minister’s official advisor, it’s safe to assume that his words on the fascist march also reflect some degree of agreement by the prime minister.
While the response from the prime minister was much better this year, the media—which the marchers claim are smearing them, the traditional strength of the nation—seem to have completely downplayed the hatred on display this year. The initial articles on Delfi.lt and Lietuvos Rytas’s Lrytas.lt gave the impression that the march had gone off peacefully with only some minor incidents involving anti-fascist protestors, who had been sweet-talked by the police into moving out of the way of column of skinheads making their way up the main street in Vilnius. Yes, “traditional” Lithuanian skinheads led the march and carried the main banner, recycled from last year, showing a number of portraits of Lithuanian figures with the inscription “I Take Pride That I Am Lithuanian.” Delfi did mention that two people had been “detained” by police, but there were no real details except an eyewitness who told me he saw some scuffling and a guy taken away to a police van.
Poking around websites likely to host real information from the anti-fascist protestors’ side, I discovered that the police only arrested the anti-fascist protestors, at least two, while escorting away a marcher who had attacked them physically so he could rejoin the march. Further, there were allegations the police beat one of the anti-fascist protesters while he was sitting calmly, handcuffed in the police van with a police baton. Another witness said he was beaten with a club while police had their backs turned to him, and the assailant passed the weapon into the throng of marchers and someone made off with it. Also, Anarchija.lt reported that there were anti-fascist protestors along the entire parade route holding signs, and provided pictures of what seemed to be different groups who had turned out to oppose the nazification of Lithuania.
Why did Delfi and Lrytas.lt try to pretend nothing had happened? Wouldn’t it be better, or at least more intriguing, reporting to include more details of conflicts? Photos published by photographers on the web of the march also indicated a lot more going on than could be gleaned in the major media.
While the neo-Nazi march in Vilnius is not traditional in any real sense of the word, the SS legionnaires’ annual march in Riga, the Latvian capital, on March 16th, or “Legionnaires’ Day”, is. But again, Delfi.lt reported the march took place almost without incident, despite hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators. Here’s the headline from http://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/world/rimtu-incidentu-per-antrojo-pasaulinio-karo-metais-ss-legione-tarnavusiu-veteranu-eitynes-rygoje-neivyko.d?id=43207359:
No Serious Incidents During March in Riga of Veterans Who Served in SS Legion During World War Two
(Yes, it seems like an awkward headline to me, too).
According to the article, several dozen SS legionnaires remained after the march at the Statue of Freedom in central Riga to chat and sing patriotic songs. But according to http://www.standbynews.info/news/9039, “Latvia’s Freedom Monument Closed to Public” the Latvian statue of liberty was closed off and barricaded this year. There is even a photo of barricades set up around the thing.
So in the Latvian and Lithuanian capitals this year police seem to have protected the rights of the neo-Nazis and old Nazis at the expense of the rights of those who turned out to protest them. Neo-Nazis were allowed to assault protestors in Vilnius, and in Riga the historical (World War II era) Nazis and their supporters were given access to the national monument while others were kept outside, it would appear.
In both countries the news reports basically downplaying both fascist marches were mostly taken from BNS. Delfi added the line that according to their information two people had been detained by police. BNS is Baltic News Service, which operates in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In 2001 I happened to attend their annual get-together, held that year in Jurmala, a suburb of Riga. One of the chiefs of a national bureau spoke to everyone assembled and said that a journalist in the Baltic countries didn’t just have to be a good reporter, they had to be a nationalist as well. What she meant exactly, I’m not sure, but it is possible BNS has their own agenda underlying their under-reporting the reappearance of fascism in the Baltic states.
An encouraging item came out of Estonia in the wake of the Vilnius and Riga marches. Apparently a bus filled with neo-Nazi youth intent on protesting something in Estonia was stopped at the Estonian border and denied entry. In November last year, the Estonian ambassador to Lithuania signed a protest letter along with six other European ambassadors over an article by an Interior Ministry employee and historian denying the Holocaust and over spurious attempts to equate the Holocaust and Soviet crimes. Then, in December, the Estonians backed out of a Lithuanian Foreign Ministry organized letter, ultimately signed by six East European foreign ministers, to try to insinuate “Double Genocide” in the Stockholm Programme, an effort that met with ignominious failure. When asked about the Estonian abstinence, the Lithuanian foreign minister could only resort to a recent blizzard.
This might be a positive example of Estonia “breaking with Baltic unity” and hopefully one that prime minister of Lithuania Andrius Kubilius will himself decide to follow this year.