Wartime Lithuania

On Sunday 26 May, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda was re-elected for a second five-year term, winning a decisive majority in a runoff with current Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. Nausėda, a centrist who stood on an independent ticket, and Šimonytė, who represents the conservative Homeland Union–Christian Democrats, had previously run against each other in the 2019 presidential contest, with similar results. The ballot reflects a deep-seated inertia among the country’s political establishment, which has taken a maximally hard line against Russia while neglecting a wide range of social and economic problems on the domestic front. How long can this approach last? What opposition might it face?

Lithuania’s ongoing militarization is set to continue over the coming years, spearheaded by Defence Minister Laurynas Kasčiūnas, whom Šimonytė nominated and Nausėda appointed in March. The former head of a neo-Nazi youth organization, Kasčiūnas has accelerated the government’s sabre-rattling, pushing for a civilian armed force, universal military conscription and withdrawal from treaties banning cluster munitions. He has also allowed a US Army battalion to remain in Lithuania indefinitely and visited Washington to pitch the defence industry on his ‘vast acquisition plan’, which includes rocket launchers, air-to-air missiles, four Blackhawk helicopters, 500 tactical vehicles and unmanned aerial systems.

Nausėda’s administration is also ushering in a new era of military cooperation with post-Zeitenwende Germany. Just weeks ago, the first tranche of a planned 4,800 German troops and 200 civilian workers were stationed on Lithuanian soil, with the aim of being ‘combat-ready’ by 2027. They will augment the 1,100 German soldiers already based there under NATO’s mission Enhanced Forward Presence and Germany’s Operation Vigilant Owl, which trains Lithuanian forces in electromagnetic warfare. Twelve thousand NATO troops were deployed for live-fire operations as part of last month’s Operation Steadfast Defender, which NATO describes as its ‘largest military exercise since the Cold War’. Lithuania has also announced that it will acquire German Leopard tanks and spend €200 million annually on a new army division, while opening a Rheinmetall factory to produce NATO-standard artillery shells. The national defence budget has grown by more than 16% each year since 2020, and a law passed in April aims to expand the domestic arms industry. The Finance Ministry has proposed raising taxes and extending a bank levy to increase military spending.  

Lithuania’s hawkishness has been too much for some of its Western allies. In 2022 it was forced by the EU to lift sanctions it imposed on Russian rail transit through its territory. At the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, the host nation was the only one to call for Ukraine’s immediate accession. And this year, when Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis demanded a ‘firm response’ following reports that Russia was planning to redraw borders in the Baltic Sea, he was rebuked by Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, who remarked that ‘In Finland, we always first investigate the facts in detail and then draw conclusions’. Landsbergis, who chairs the Homeland Union–Christian Democrats – currently the country’s largest parliamentary grouping – is among Lithuania’s most rabid New Cold Warriors. He has denounced Hungary for blocking military aid to Ukraine and railed against the US policy of not allowing long-range missiles to be fired on Russian territory. Under his watch, Taiwan opened its first official embassy in the EU, creating an ongoing diplomatic scandal and straining relations between Beijing and the trading bloc.

While Lithuania prepares for war, the home front looks bleak. After three quarters of declining GDP, the country entered a technical recession in autumn. Growth is among the lowest in the EU while inflation is among the highest, reaching over 24% in September, although it has slowed this year. Food price inflation, partly exacerbated by a drought, was over 30% for eight consecutive months from 2022 to 2023. The country’s secular decline in population was recently reversed, but educated young people continue to emigrate in large numbers to seek higher wages. A once-promising tech sector is now beginning to contract. Lithuania has also been one of the focal points of the European migration crisis, after EU sanctions against Belarus in 2021 prompted Aleksandr Lukashenko to send migrants to his country’s forested border with Lithuania, which responded by constructing 500 kilometres of new border fence and engaging in illegal ‘pushbacks’. The general population has mixed feelings about migrants. In some border towns, locals have hung signs demanding their removal; yet the country has also opened its doors to over 65,000 Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war, prompting accusations of favouritism.

Economic pressures, along with EU regulations, have meanwhile activated Lithuanian farmers, who, like their counterparts across Europe, have been organizing a series of mass protests. Last year, farmers campaigning against low milk prices dumped manure near parliament. In January they staged a two-day demonstration in Vilnius, clogging thoroughfares with tractors and demanding changes to EU land management rules as well as the government’s exorbitant excise tax on liquified petroleum gas (which was subsequently scrapped). Unrest has not been limited to the agriculture sector. The union that represents most of Lithuania’s teachers launched two strikes at the start of this school year, while public transit workers engaged in a work stoppage for most of December 2022.

The government has generally been unresponsive to popular discontent. But two recent developments have unsettled an otherwise predictable political landscape. An organization known as the Family Movement was formed in 2021 after a series of well-attended marches against Lithuania’s rigid vaccine passport system. It opposes pro-LGBT legislation, including gay marriage and civil partnerships, and other supposed threats to the nuclear family. It is also out of step with elite opinion on Ukraine. In February, it formed a political party by joining forces with the Christian Union, which broke away from the Homeland Union–Christian Democrats in 2020. Ignas Vėgėlė, a former head of the Lithuanian Bar Association with close ties to the Family Movement, ran a vigorous independent presidential campaign on a platform of soft Euroscepticism, greater investment in education and healthcare, and military de-escalation (although he made clear that he still supported sanctions on Russia). He was placing second in the polls as recently as 21 April, though he failed to make it to the final runoff.

The other development is the rise of the National Alliance, another right-wing party founded in 2020 which opposes emigration and European integration. It is headed by thirty-four-year-old Vytautas Sinica, a former leader of the conservative Christian youth movement Pro Patria, who holds a doctorate in political theory. He describes the outfit as an ‘intellectual party’ which aims to promote ‘national conservatism’ – blending reactionary cultural politics with hardline Atlanticism. Its slogan, ‘Raise your head, Lithuanian!’, is borrowed from the title of an antisemitic pamphlet published in 1933 by Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian general notorious for signing off on the death of thousands of Jews during WWII. In interviews, Sinica has been known appear beside a copy of the memoir of Kazys Škirpa, founder of the Nazi-collaborationist Lithuanian Activist Front. Having won three municipal seats in Vilnius last year, the party is now gearing up for parliamentary and European elections, which will test their popularity outside the capital.

Though the Lithuanian left has grown in recent years, it remains a marginal presence on the national stage. In 2022, a new movement called the Left Alliance was formed out of a thinktank in Vilnius. Last month it launched a political party called Together, whose manifesto calls for large-scale investment in public services and anti-poverty programmes. On questions of war and militarization, however, there is not be much daylight between it and the National Alliance. The Left Alliance has rejected calls for a ceasefire in Ukraine, arguing that ‘peacebuilding is only possible when the autocratic aggressor who invades the sovereign country is fully stopped and punished’. Together likewise endorses ‘comprehensive preparation of the army for national defence’ and ‘civil defence preparedness’. With no serious anti-war voice on the left, elements of the Family Movement have filled the vacuum, forming a group called the Peace Coalition which is contesting the upcoming European elections. Led by a former general, and consisting of members of the Christian Democrats plus a regional party representing western Lithuanians, its platform centres on opposition to sending soldiers to fight in Ukraine and opening up a front in Lithuania. One of its leaders has enjoined the country to ‘start speaking the language of diplomacy’.

Across the spectrum, Lithuanian politicians offer no remedies for the country’s lagging economy, popular unrest and migrant crisis. The Social Democrats and Farmers and Labour Party promote the standard package of centre-right neoliberal policies at home and abroad. The same goes for the Freedom Party, founded in 2019, though it has tried to attract younger voters with its pro-LGBT platform and gaudy pink branding. The Farmers and Greens Union, representing the agriculture industry, has a more progressive economic platform, given its reliance on government subsidies, but is more conservative on social issues. Disenchantment with these electoral options is widespread. A survey conducted last year found that only 20% of respondents had a positive view of the parliament, while 30% had a positive view of the government. Turnout for the upcoming European parliamentary elections is expected to be extremely low, which may benefit newer parties.

It remains unclear whether a popular left can emerge to harness the discontent that has so far been captured by the Family Movement. Will younger generations protest the introduction of military conscription and the rising bellicosity on Lithuania’s borders? New journals such as Lūžis (Fracture) and Šauksmas (Scream) express a more oppositional left perspective germinating in the universities: theoretically sophisticated, firmly anti-capitalist and critical of Atlanticism. The union Gegužės 1-osios Profesinė Sąjunga (G1PS) has also been organizing gig workers, arts workers and domestic cleaners since it was founded in 2018. But the reach of these institutions is limited. G1PS is known as ‘gipsas’ in Lithuanian, which is the same word for ‘plaster cast’. Some have joked that the country’s left consists of nothing more than a fracture, a scream and a cast.

Nausėda insists that he will improve state benefits such as pensions to reduce inequality and ease the burden of inflation. But as long as his priority is ‘national defence’, social progress is unlikely. There are already fears that the billeting of German troops and their families will lead to a spike in rents, in a market where housing prices more than doubled between 2010 and 2023. And as the government welcomes a ‘permanent’ German military presence on its soil, it continues to erode the sense of sovereignty which many Lithuanian are craving – one whose only articulation has so far come from the populist right. Unless the left also begins to challenge the militarization agenda, there is little hope of changing the country’s balance of power.

Read on: Joy Neumeyer, ‘In the Woods’, Sidecar.