A vicious circle of marginalisation: the EAPL-CFA’s rhetoric on Ukraineicelds
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has affected societies throughout Central and Eastern Europe in many ways. Among other things, it exacerbated inter-ethnic relations in the region. Numerous examples demonstrate the rise of unjustified discrimination against ethnic and linguistic communities, notably Belarusians and Russians.
Lithuania was no exception in this context. However, recent public statements by Remigijus Šimašius, mayor of Vilnius, and Ingrida Šimonytė, Lithuania’s prime minister, confirmed that the country’s top-level politicians will not tolerate unjustified ethnic-based hatred and are ready to raise public awareness of this issue. As Šimašius and Šimonytė underlined, manifestations of hatred can serve as a potential tool for Russia’s propaganda against Lithuania. As a result, it can undermine the country’s security in relation to the new challenges caused by the war in Ukraine.
In Lithuania, a significant number of people belonging to national minorities support the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (EAPL-CFA), a political party led by its long-standing chairman Valdemar Tomaševski. It differs from all other political parties in Lithuania in the way that its electorate almost entirely consists of Poles, Russians, Belarusians and members of other national minorities.
Valdemar Tomaševski was a co-author of the March 1st European Parliament resolution on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Thus, he supported Kyiv against Moscow. At the same time, Tomaševski consistently argued that western politicians are partially responsible for the ongoing war in Ukraine. This suggests that the EAPL-CFA’s leadership is trying to find balance in a conflict in which there is no room for balancing. The roots of the party’s dubious behaviour, not limited to Tomaševski himself, can be found in its previous messaging to its electorate and Lithuania’s society in general. The next two sections of this article will look at the content of these messages and the characteristics of its target constituency.
In the Kremlin’s shadow?
It seems that the EAPL-CFA leadership prefers to use Lithuania’s Russian language media to communicate with voters. Data confirms that the party used 146,000 euro for advertising in Russian language media during the 2012 parliamentary election. This primarily concerned the pro-Kremlin First Baltic Channel (PBK). The durability and strategic nature of cooperation between the EAPL-CFA and PBK would be confirmed by Tomaševski’s meeting in October 2015 with several people affiliated with this group. This includes its former Executive Director Anton Blinov and Romualda Poševeckaja, a current member of the Vilnius City Council and former journalist with PBK. In its 2014 report, the State Security Department of Lithuania designated PBK as one of the major tools used to promote the Kremlin’s narratives and agenda among national minorities. At the same time, analysis of the EAPL-CFA’s electoral lists during various elections confirms that they include several politicians with pro-Kremlin political views. The most profound examples are former MP and leader of the Russian Alliance party Irina Rozova, former member of the Vilnius City Council Rafael Muksinov, former PBK journalist Dmitrij Ikonikov and Romualda Poševeckaja, who in addition to sitting on the Vilnius City Council serves as an advisor to the EAPL-CFA MP Česlav Olševski. Whilst some, such as Muksinov, deny these allegations, their affiliations suggest that these links are real.
During the 2014 presidential elections, Tomaševski also found himself at the centre of numerous controversies. A few days before the election, he took part in the May 9th Victory Day celebrations. This tradition is rooted in the Soviet times and gradually became one of the main ideological pillars of contemporary Russia’s ideological narrative. He also pinned a controversial Saint George ribbon on his jacket. Within the context of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, the public use of this symbol can be interpreted as implicit or deliberate support for Putin’s regime and pro-Kremlin militants. At the same time, Tomaševski used it to attract potential voters and thereby convince them to vote for himself and, subsequently, for his political party.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania announced the suspension of six Russian channels due to their spread of propaganda and incitement to war. Private rebroadcasters also suspended the transmissions of dozens of Russian channels. While commenting on this, Tomaševski criticised the approach of Lithuania’s government. He argued that the suspension of the broadcasts can be seen as censorship that only harms society and encourages inter-ethnic conflict. According to Česlav Okinčic, a Lithuanian politician of Polish ethnicity and Signatory of the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, Tomaševski’s attitude can be partly explained by the fact that his electorate is composed of those who watch Russian TV. To keep these voters, many of whom were or remain under the influence of the (pro-)Kremlin media, the EAPL-CFA leader has no other option but to demonstrate a moderate pro-Russian position. This will help convince these segments of Lithuania’s society to keep voting for him and his party in the future.
The data analytics provided by the Kantar Group confirm that the TV channels in the Russian language were quite popular. In 2020, the Russian language New Time Media group (NTV Mir Lietuva, PBK, REN Lietuva and Dom Kino) attracted 5.8 percent of the TV audience in Lithuania. More recent data from January 2022 from the same source confirmed that the average daily reach of the New Time Media group TV channels was still high, with PBK reaching 6.9 per cent of the country’s audience. The popularity of such media among Russian speakers in Lithuania could explain why Tomaševski criticised the decision of the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania to suspend Russian TV channels. He did it not only to attract voters. Indeed, he did it because he and his party lost a communication channel useful for reaching the electorate.
A leader who models himself on Lukashenka?
It is not the first time that Tomaševski has criticised the Lithuanian government during attempts to consolidate his constituency. One of the most recent examples could be seen during the 2021 migration crisis, which was orchestrated by Lukashenka’s regime in Minsk. Tomaševski’s messages during this time offered little if any criticism of Belarus’s self-proclaimed leader. Such attitudes place Tomaševski’s ability to properly lead the party in doubt.
Valdemar Tomaševski has led the EAPL-CFA since June 1999. This party emerged in 1994 to comply with the provisions of Lithuania’s legislation that differentiated between the activities of civil and political organisations. Yet, the party remained closely affiliated with the Union of Poles in Lithuania. Following a series of scandals around Michal Mackevič, the group’s former leader, Tomaševski was elected its chairman in June 2021. As a result, the long-term leader of a political party claiming to represent the interests of Lithuania’s Polish and other national minorities assumed his control over the main civil organisation for Lithuania’s Poles. Although this overlap is not forbidden by law, this concentration of power in one leader may be interpreted as a manifestation of authoritarian trends within Lithuania’s Polish community.
Within this context, it is worth looking at the response of EAPL-CFA figures to the 2020 fraudulent election in Belarus. Soon after the election, Zbignev Jedinskij, the party’s top candidate at the 2020 parliamentary election, stressed that “Lukashenka has learned from the Lithuanian conservatives [i.e. the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats] how to suppress protests” and “the only difference is that in Belarus, the police are defending the constitution, while in Lithuania in 2009, the police were defending those who breached the constitution.” He was referring to the events of early 2009, when the police used rubber bullets and tear gas against a mob that attacked the parliament in Vilnius. In turn, Tomaševski called Lukashenka a strong leader who, despite some decrease in popularity, still enjoys undeniable support in the country. Tomaševski asked Lithuania’s government for more flexibility on its policies towards Belarus and demanded a focus on such important issues as the “Islamisation” and “anarchisation” of western civilization. This approach by the EAPL-CFA’s leadership is similar to their recent accusations that western politicians are partially responsible for the war in Ukraine. It is clear that the country would likely have escaped its current de facto military occupation by Russia if Lukashenka’s regime collapsed in 2020. For Tomaševski, however, it remains irrelevant, as its statements target those exposed to pro-Kremlin propaganda. These people also often used to positively assess the personalities of Putin and Lukashenka.
Conclusions and further implications
Tomaševski makes pro-Russian political statements in an attempt to attract support for his party among Lithuania’s minorities. For his party, it is a matter of political survival to maintain links with these groups. Indeed, Tomaševski personally claims to represent the interests of Lithuania’s Polish and other national minorities. The war in Ukraine puts him in a very uncomfortable position. On the one hand, he desperately and urgently needs to look for new channels of communication for his party to reach its potential electorate. On the other hand, it could further radicalise Tomaševski’s rhetoric as a leader who models himself on Lukashenka.
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.
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.
Note: This article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.
Image: © Vitold Jančis