Migration crisis presents opportunites for Lithuania’s Orbán admirer

Migration crisis presents opportunites for Lithuania’s Orbán admirer

Kiryl Kascian and Vitold Jančis

The recent migration crisis has brought new issues to Lithuanian politics. Home to the country’s Polish minority, the south-eastern part of Lithuania was one of the regions most affected. It appears that the situation has opened up new opportunities for the ‘Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance’ to sustain and mobilise an electorate that remains highly responsive to “traditional values”.

Belarus’s hybrid aggression against Lithuania

At the end of May Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka threatened that he would allow migrants and drugs into the EU. Several weeks later, hundreds of migrants, mainly from Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa, started crossing into Lithuania looking for safe haven and a better life in the European Union.

Lithuania’s government has accused Lukashenka’s regime of ultimately enabling and facilitating this irregular migration. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė described the actions of Minsk officials as “hybrid aggression” against the country. In mid-July, Lithuania’s parliament even adopted a resolution that similarly described this infringement of Lithuania’s segment of the EU external border with Belarus. Evidence provided by Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service suggests that Belarusian border guards in riot gear pushed migrants from Belarus into Lithuanian territory. Whilst performing this task, these guards also violated Lithuania’s state border.

Lithuania’s official statistics indicate that there are regional differences regarding these illegal migration waves. In total, 926 migrants crossed the Belarusian-Lithuanian border into the territory of the Šalčininkai district municipality. This is followed by 924 in Varėna, 860 in Druskininkai, 457 in Švenčionys and 219 in Vilnius districts.

The ethnic Polish factor and Lithuania’s politics 

In the Šalčininkai and Vilnius districts, ethnic Poles constitute the majority of the population, while in the Švenčionys district they comprise a significant minority. The areas’ ethnic composition also determines political configurations at the local level. In Šalčininkai and Vilnius districts, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (EAPL–CFA) is the dominant actor and has controlled local politics for many years. During the most recent municipal election in 2019, the EAPL–CFA obtained 18 of 30 seats in the Vilnius district municipality council and 19 of 24 seats in Šalčininkai. The EAPL-CFA has very little ability to attract voters beyond Lithuania’s Polish, Russian and other national minorities.

The EAPL–CFA is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party. Its sole MEP and longstanding leader, Valdemar Tomaševski, belongs to this group. Overall, the group is largely controlled by Polish MEPs from Law and Justice, Agreement, and United Poland. Altogether, these parties make up 27 of the group’s 63 members. This group has strongly advocated for “a migration system which respects the voice and wishes of its Member States and its citizens”.

The EAPL–CFA has argued that the country needs to carefully approach migration issues, rejecting liberal values and mass migration from Muslim countries. Yet, during the 2020 parliamentary election, it failed to reach the five per cent threshold needed for the nationwide multi-mandate electoral constituency. With just 4.8 per cent of the vote, it failed to gain any representation in this constituency. However, it was able to achieve success in three single-mandate constituencies in the Šalčininkai and Vilnius districts. This performance contrasts greatly with the election in 2016, when the party received eight seats, including five seats in the multi-mandate constituency. Subsequently, the party became a member of the governing coalition. The 2020 elections therefore saw the group experience a significant decline in its influence at the national level, as well as a reduction in its ability to shape political agenda-setting. For its leader, Valdemar Tomaševski, this failure threatened to cast his party into the political wilderness.

The migration crisis as an opportunity to escape political oblivion

In May, representatives of Lukashenka’s regime announced their intention to end cooperation with the EU regarding the prevention of illegal migration. As a result, Belarusian border guards no longer prevent migrants from illegally crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border and entering the EU. The Lithuanian government’s plan to establish centres for these migrants in the Šalčininkai and Vilnius district municipalities outraged the local, predominantly ethnic Polish, population.

Local communities organised protests, which were backed by EAPL–CFA politicians. The Šalčininkai district municipality council unambiguously rejected the idea of creating a migrant centre in the borough of Dieveniškės. EAPL–CFA MPs Beata Petkevič and Česlav Olševski even backed this move in a public statement. They described border municipalities as hostages of the crisis and called on Lithuania’s government to take responsibility for its decisions.

Valdemar Tomaševski also made several public statements on the migration crisis. It is interesting to note that in none of his public statements or media appearances did he express any major criticism of the Belarusian regime or Alyaksandr Lukashenka. This trend was made more than clear in his address to anti-migrant protesters in Dieveniškės.

Spiritual ties above all

In this address, Tomaševski argued that the crisis was part of a larger anti-Christian battle. He claimed that the migration flows are designed to frighten Christians and expressed his determination to resist. He emphasised that Lithuania has been a Christian nation and should remain so. Tomaševski also expressed similar desires in relation to Poland and Hungary and noted the strong international pressure faced by these countries’ authorities. As a result, he called for solidarity among pro-Christian political groups throughout Europe.

Tomaševski also mentioned Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The prime-minister recently expressed his gratitude to Tomaševski for his support during a European Parliament debate. This ultimately led to a resolution that condemned a Hungarian law banning LGBTQI+ content for minors. In early July, the EAPL–CFA also became one of the signatories of a declaration on the future of Europe, along with Poland’s Law and Justice, Hungary’s Fidesz and Italy’s Lega. The declaration speaks about the preservation and protection of nation-states, families, and traditional Christian values in Europe. The EAPL–CFA’s website portrayed the signatories as “the leaders of parties that value freedom and tradition in Europe”.

Before his electorate, Tomaševski tries to model himself on Orbán. The Hungarian prime-minister believes that Europe is heading towards a risky post-Christian and post-national chapter of its history that could have unpredictable consequences. Thus, Orbán has argued that “each nation has the right to reject this risk”, convinced that in 2015 Hungary’s refusal to aid immigration was the only reasonable decision. This year, Tomaševski got his chance to address a migrant crisis that severely affected his traditional political base. In many ways, the crisis became an enormous opportunity for the EAPL–CFA. Issues such as the spelling of personal names or the use of the Polish language on street signs virtually disappeared from the party’s agenda. The addition of the phrase “Christian Families Alliance” to its name implied an ideological drift towards “traditional values” shaped by the spiritual ties of Christianity. It is, however, hard to imagine how Lithuania’s Poles, Russians, and other national minorities with different views on politics and society will embrace traditional values being placed at the centre of party rhetoric. In recent years the party has faced serious challenges in retaining its voters. The migration crisis, however, has brought new issues to Lithuania’s politics. As a result, it is quite certain that the EAPL–CFA and its leader will use the migration crisis in their struggle to sustain, and ultimately expand, the party’s loyal electorate.

Kiryl Kascian holds a doctoral degree in Law from the University of Bremen. He is currently a board member at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies.

Vitold Jančis holds a master’s degree in Economics from the University of Białystok. He is a journalist for ru.DELFI.lt and editor-in-chief at InBaltic.lt

Note: This article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

Image: ©  Vitold Jančis

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