Where Polarization May Lead
Loud protests during Lithuania’s Freedom Defenders’ Day last week are signs of extreme polarization. The organizers of the rally said they were protesting the government’s pandemic policies and demanding its resignation.
Last year saw a number of similar protests, one of which descended into a riot outside the parliament building. A rally of several thousand citizens last May opposed moves to ratify the Istanbul Convention which would legislate same-sex civil partnership, while subsequent protests focused on Covid-19 vaccination and pandemic restrictions.
Ainė Ramonaitė, political science professor at Vilnius University, says the social strife in Lithuania is part of larger developments in Europe and North America. She criticizes the way the current government and its supporters approach the discontent, saying they fail to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. According to Ramonaitė, any military action in Ukraine or elsewhere, these divisions will diminish the society’s resilience against military pressure, particularly hybrid threats. When people feel marginalized, insulted, angry, they cannot be expected to defend parliament or anything else.
The second threat is that the disgruntled electorate may vote into power an anti-democratic government. “We will certainly get the government like the one in Hungary or Poland and will head in the direction of authoritarianism,” Ramonaitė says. “We may have truly dramatic and frightening consequences, and we will have created them with our own hands.”
The results of interviews conducted by Ramonaitė’s students showed that people who took part in protests last August and September genuinely believe they are fighting evil, and see it as their moral duty to protest.
Political scientist Ainius Lašas, dean of the Humanities Faculty at Kaunas University of Technology, is critical of how some leaders reacted to the protest on January 13. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė responded to protesters booing during her speech by saying that they have the right to express discontent with their government, former leader of Lithuania’s independence movement Vytautas Landsbergis called them fascists and compared the protesters with Yedinstvo, a small movement that opposed Lithuania’s secession from the USSR in 1990. In Lašas’ view, such statement lead nowhere, and members of the government and the ruling parties should engage more with voters, particularly outside the main cities.
Donatas Puslys of Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis (VPAI) argues that it is the protesters and their leaders who refuse to engage in a conversation, and thus prevent any real dialogue.
In Ramonaitė’s view, President Gitanas Nausėda should show initiative and try to bridge the divide. He has some favour with the protesters and was the only speaker last week who was not booed. The president could use their trust and control the crowd, and direct it in a constructive way. LRT.lt