2013 in the EU: Lithuania in Focus
From 1 July 2013 Lithuania begins its presidency in EU Council. Half a year of symbolic leadership in the EU appears as a time for tackling hot issues and identifying priorities. At the same time, it strikes Lithuanians as an opportunity to be vocal on what they take as a critical juncture of their short, albeit dramatic, history as a member of European family. Very few would expect to have an exclusive right reserved for Lithuania to voice top priorities of the EU as a whole or to have the final say on them, yet the fact is that this is high time for critical self-assessment and also for self-positioning as a small yet conscious and ambitious European player.
A latecomer to modernity and a small country from a boundary region of Europe which was doomed to become the playground of Europe’s powers, first and foremost, Germany and Russia, Lithuania is more than a statistical unit. Instead, it comes with a rich perspective on modern history. An imaginative and creative political historian would undoubtedly be tempted to take Lithuania as a nexus and as a protagonist when dealing with the history of the twentieth century.
Having disappeared from Europe’s political and cultural map sinking into oblivion after the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, and making up part of the north-western province of tsarist Russia, Lithuania then made an incredible comeback to history in 1918 as an independent state. The emergence of the Baltic States – part of which was Finland until the Second World War – was nothing short of a miracle. The miracle didn’t last long, though. In 1940, the Baltic States were occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1941, they were invaded by Nazi Germany, which resulted in the disastrous and nearly total extermination of Lithuanian Jews. In 1945, Lithuania and her Baltic sisters in misery and fate were occupied and annexed repeatedly.
The first rebellious and breakaway republic in the former Soviet Union, Lithuania regained her independence on 11 March 1990. And yet if anybody had told me or any other person of my age and experience that Lithuania would become, in not too distant a future, a member of the EU and NATO, we would have thought of such a daydreamer as incurably naïve and devoid of any sense of history and reality. The history and reality surpassed and caught Lithuania. In exchange, Lithuania’s pace trying to catch up with European democracies merit the description which reminds me of the title of an interesting art project that I have had a pleasure to join in Helsinki some time ago – as being faster than history yet slower than a lifetime.
Having experienced almost unprecedented social and political change, Lithuania appears as a twofold phenomenon. On the one side, we are a dynamic beginner in terms of dramatic acceleration of social and political existence in the global world; on the other, we secured our place in history as a success story in post-Soviet and post-Communist space. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova can hardly perceive Lithuania otherwise than as living proof that it is possible to build a second political life, a new political identity, a mobilising political programme, a consolidating vision of the future, and a successful blueprint for a viable social and moral order.
This is to say that Lithuania will try her utmost to speak up in favour of Eastern partnership countries trying to win the EU’s benevolence and its will to understand Ukraine better than it did before or than it normally would, without an additional and emphatically open move. Lithuania’s leadership is expected to make such a move manoeuvring and winning more good faith in the future and in Europe among the elite of Ukraine, Moldova and other post-Soviet countries aspiring to get closer to the EU. From this standpoint, the fact that Vygaudas Usackas, the former foreign minister of Lithuania, later the EU special representative and the head of EU mission for Afghanistan, has recently been appointed the EU ambassador in Moscow is deeply symbolic.
Lithuania has a historically formed double identity. She has always been inseparable from Western Europe in terms of Christian legacy, political and cultural history, and modern sensibilities. At the same time, Lithuania had long been close to Slavic peoples due to a joint history and a shared cultural space of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural state, itself an early anticipation and prototype of the EU in Eastern Europe. This duality appears as an asset nowadays, rather than a liability.
It was with sound reason that the Nobel Prize winner and the greatest modern Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, born in Lithuania and inseparable from Vilnius and his birthplace, the Lithuanian village of Seteniai, immortalised in his novels and essays, once made a joke that modern Lithuania was forged by a bunch of philologists. Becoming a small nation focused on the survival of her language and culture, Lithuania departed from the time-honoured pattern of her history – a proudly open and cosmopolitan existence. Yet now we have a unique chance to return to it.
No wonder then that if Lithuania had long cherished exclusively ethnic Lithuanian artists and culture personalities, such as the painter and composer Mikalojus Konstatinas Ciurlionis, now it is a sort of bon ton to include Czeslaw Milosz, Emmanuel Levinas, or Chaim Soutine, in the gallery of Lithuania’s greatest people. The same applies to politics. To keep fidelity to one’s sensitivities and historical path, allowing and celebrating multiple identities and responsiveness to all countries and nations, and also enriching oneself with the best of Europe – this is something that makes up nearly a perfect project for the future.
Lithuania has greatly benefitted from her membership in the EU. Safety reasons and security concerns were doubtlessly among the primary driving forces behind the nation’s strong wish to join the EU, yet it would make little if any sense to write off a passionate dream to return to European family from which Lithuania, like other Eastern and Central European nations, was isolated for five decades. Milan Kundera once wittily noted that there is something profoundly conservative and anachronistic in every Central European revolution, as the reason that lies underneath is the dream to re-enact history returning to Europe.
The EU gave Lithuania and new democracies a sense of dignity and raison d’être. It shaped a common political agenda and integrated Lithuania and other new democracies into the global trade, security and awareness system. Democracy and human rights are among those critical areas of modern political and moral sensitivity that can never be left to separate nations’ own devices. Yet the EU itself can benefit from our unique historical and political experiences. The time comes when you have to reciprocate by playing a role and taking a stand on matters of common concern. This is how the logic of modern political reciprocity and co-operation works.
Lithuania’s presidency in the EU will allow this happen.