Kiryl Kascian: Despite the Kremlin and Minsk propaganda, national minorities remain an important part of Europe’s ethnic and linguistic diversityicelds
Vitold Jančis: How seriously should we take the fact that the Kremlin might try to use national minorities in the Baltic states to destabilize the political situation in Lithuania and Latvia?
Kiryl Kascian: I believe that a clear distinction must be made between the Kremlin’s vision of the situation and the position of the Lukashenka regime. In its rhetoric, the Kremlin usually focuses on the rights of Russian-speakers. In the context of the Baltic States, it includes almost the entire non-titular population of these countries. In other words, the Kremlin is trying to appeal not only to ethnic Russians and other peoples traditionally living in Russia, but also to local Belarusians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and other ethnic groups.
VJ: Like the Kremlin, the Lukashenka regime actively addresses national minority issues in the Baltic states, particularly in Lithuania. What goals does the administration in Minsk pursue?
KK: The Lukashenka regime merely copies Kremlin’s rhetoric. An example of this is the traditional reports on the most resonant cases of human rights violations in certain countries of the world, regularly published by the Belarusian MFA. There, one can traditionally read about alleged violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States, especially in Latvia and Estonia. Similar rhetoric is largely repeated by propagandists affiliated with the Lukashenka regime. They do not focus on Belarusian national minorities in the Baltic states and, thus, treat them as part of the amorphous category of so-called Russian-speakers. Usually, the Lukashenka regime recalls the Belarusians only in the context of the events of World War II, trying to accuse individual representatives of the Baltic States of what official Minsk calls “the genocide of the Belarusian people.” Therefore, it is true that national minorities in the Baltic States remain parts of both the Kremlin and the official Minsk agendas. However, the dominance of the Kremlin narrative clearly indicates that the main danger to the Baltic States comes from Moscow.
VJ: Does the Lukashenka regime play the card of Belarusian emigrants in the Baltic states? In what way?
KK: As discussed earlier, the Lukashenka regime and its propagandists largely adhere to the Kremlin narrative of national minority issues in the Baltic States. In other words, official Minsk does not care so much about supporting Belarusians in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia as it does about adherence to the Kremlin cliché about some sort of “oppression of Russian-speakers.” The situation of political emigrants is different. The regime in Minsk is interested in them to the extent that their political activities disturb its comfortable existence. Nevertheless, even a simple analysis of the texts on the websites of Belarusian state-sponsored media allows us to conclude that the political activities of the regime’s opponents are closely monitored in Minsk.
Regarding the rhetoric of the Lukashenka regime after August 2020, I would like to draw attention to a somewhat different aspect of the politics of memory. First of all, it refers to the proclamation of the 17 September as the “Day of National Unity.” Let me remind you that on this day, in 1939, the Soviet army entered the territory of Poland, and as a result, the lands of Western Belarus were annexed to the Belarusian SSR. Speaking at an event commemorating this date in 2021, Lukashenka recalled that Białystok, Vilnius, and the lands around these cities are ethnically Belarusian. Despite his assurances that “we have plenty of our own,” such rhetoric raises questions. Previously, he had never used this rhetoric with respect to Poland and Lithuania. Official historians of the Lukashenka regime mold the image of Poland as the main enemy of Belarus, for which they try to present the period when the modern Western Belarusian territories were part of interwar Poland as colonization and put the Polish Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa) on par with the Nazis. The attempts of the Lukashenka regime to link Valdas Adamkus with the “genocide of the Belarusians” have the same logic. Therefore, it is expected that the policy of memory related to the events of the 20th century will become the main focus of manipulative information influence, which the Lukashenka regime will rely on when defining its policy towards the Baltic States and Poland. And it is worth noting that despite some Belarus-centric specifics, this rhetoric is generally consistent with the Kremlin’s narrative.
VJ: Is the radicalization of national minorities possible in Lithuania or, for example, Latvia?
KK: The radicalization of national minorities would be a gift for Moscow. However, the differences between Lithuania and Latvia must be considered. In Latvia, the share of national minorities in the electorate is approximately 30 percent. The results of the recent elections to the Latvian Saeima showed how the current political situation related to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine affects the context of election campaigns and election results.
VJ: Does the support or protest of politicians representing minority interests in Lithuania or Latvia against the war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine affect their election results?
KK: The failure of the integrationist party Harmony (Latvian: Saskaņa, Russian: Soglasie), which has been the unchallenged leader in the Russian-speaking electoral segment for the past 15 years, demonstrates the potential trend toward radicalization. At the same time, I would like to emphasize that Harmony cannot in any way be called a pro-Russian party, given, among other things, its position in the war in Ukraine. Another potentially dangerous trend is the emergence or return of parties of so-called political entrepreneurs who are ready to hand out promises to achieve short-term goals, targeting niche electorates.
VJ: How might this affect the attitudes of states toward national minorities or, conversely, those of ethnic majorities toward national minorities?
KK: It is important to understand that national minorities are part of a country’s society. As citizens of the country, they have the same rights as the titular population. Therefore, political communication is the primary factor in this situation. As a positive example, we can quote Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė on the inadmissibility of discrimination on the basis of language and nationality. The government should act as a mediator between different segments of society and base its decisions on a strategic approach rather than immediate political needs. Simply put, the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s hybrid attacks on the Baltic states should not affect the attitudes of these states toward national minorities. In contrast, the role of the state in this case should be to protect national minorities living in these countries, including in the face of hybrid challenges from Russia. All possible restrictions should commensurate with the problems and challenges at hand.
VJ: What is the situation of the political parties representing the interests of national minorities in Lithuania and Latvia?
KK: If we discuss Lithuania, the issue concerns only one party – the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (Lithuanian: Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija – Krikščioniškų šeimų sąjunga, Polish: Akcja Wyborcza Polaków na Litwie – Związek Chrześcijańskich Rodzin). And, speaking about the future of this party, I would not be optimistic. As the previous elections to the Seimas showed, it was in crisis because of several factors. The most important of these is the party’s personnel policy and the practice of “autocracy.” For a long time, we have seen the same names in its electoral lists. The second reason is the focus on Christian values. It is worth noting that among the Poles, Russians, Belarusians, and other national minorities in Lithuania, there are people with very different political views. Therefore, the EAPL-CFA attempt to occupy a fairly narrow ideological niche is unlikely to lead to the expansion of its potential electorate, including at the expense of ethnic Lithuanians.
In Latvia, the situation is somewhat different. In the recent election in October 2022, there were at least three parties with predominantly Russian-speaking electoral constituencies–the moderate Harmony, the pro-Kremlin Latvian Russian Union (Latvian: Latvijas Krievijas savienība, Russian: Russkiy soyuz Latvii), and the populist For Stability! (Latvian: Stabilitātei!, Russian: Stabilnosti!). Only the last political group made it to the parliament. However, in certain scenarios, all of them could end up in the Saeima. Some other parties also actively competed for national minority votes. As mentioned earlier, the clearly pro-Ukrainian stance of Harmony was unlikely to find support among a certain part of its previous electorate. Additionally, in independent Latvia, no party with a predominantly minority electorate has ever been part of a government coalition. This combination of objective and subjective factors is not conducive for moderate parties to vote. Since ethnic voting tendencies have been very strong in Latvia thus far, the presence of several political forces with a predominantly Russian-speaking electorate opens up additional opportunities for populists and radicals.
VJ: The war in Ukraine caused worldwide, including in Lithuania and Latvia, an impulse toward de-Sovietization and a rejection of Russian culture. In the long term, how can this affect national minorities in the Baltic States?
KK: I will separate the notion of de-Sovietization from the rejection of Russian culture. By and large, the monuments that are now being dismantled have nothing to do with Russian culture; they are linked with the Soviet period of the Baltic States’ history. The decision to dismantle them is part of a difficult dialogue within the societies of these countries. Certainly, history must be remembered to avoid repeating mistakes. On the other hand, the Kremlin uses this topic as an element of propaganda. In this case, it is not the historical truth and willingness to dialogue on difficult issues of common history that are more important to them but the physical presence of these monuments in the visual space of cities in the Baltic States. It seems to me that many of these monuments would look more appropriate in special places like the Grūtas Park (Lithuanian: Grūto parkas).
Regarding the rejection of Russian culture, this situation first concerns the Russian national minority in each of the Baltic States. However, this should be approached with caution. First, the presence of Russians in the Baltic States has a long history, and is unrelated to the Putin regime. The vast majority of local Russians perceive Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia as their homeland and are loyal citizens. Over this long period, a layer of Russian culture has formed in each of the Baltic states, which is an integral part of the cultural heritage of each of the three countries. This should be remembered and, if possible, used as a counterargument against the Kremlin propaganda.
VJ: The 2020 events in Belarus and the 2022 Russia’s attack on Ukraine brought tens of thousands of Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees to Lithuania and Latvia. Could this lead to a change in the ethnic structure of these countries and cause conflicts?
KK: The presence of refugees from Belarus and Ukraine in Lithuania and Latvia is unlikely to significantly affect the ethnic structure of these countries. Representatives of indigenous national minorities will in any case have an advantage over newcomers, as they know the state language as well as the specifics of local societies. Therefore, one should not be afraid of an influx of refugees. They should not be considered as competitors. In contrast, Lithuanian or Latvian citizens of respective national minorities can serve as a bridge for the successful integration of newcomer emigrants, provided that the latter are willing to stay in the country for a long time.
Interview conducted by Vitold Jančis
Note: This interview was originally published in Russian by DELFI.LT