Litvinism: when history becomes securitized

Litvinism: when history becomes securitized

Hanna Vasilevich

Lithuania’s support for those Belarusians protesting against the Lukashenka regime has become well known in recent years. Despite this, an argument over the centuries-long interactions between the two peoples could possibly threaten this unity.

Since 2020, ties between Belarusian and Lithuanian societies have been significantly strengthened. The long-lasting common history, starting from the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with of course some breaks throughout the periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, has encouraged the two nations to show comprehension and support to each other. The greatest support was shown in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections of 2020 in Belarus, when Lithuania generously accepted around 45,000 Belarusians fleeing from political persecutions, imprisonment and torture. In addition, solidarity actions were organized in support of Belarusian protests, such as “The Way of Freedom” protest in 2020. This gathered around 50,000 people from the centre of Vilnius to the border with Belarus. As of February 1, 2024, there are 62,474 Belarusians in Lithuania

However, this understanding proved short lasting and, in some aspects, short-sighted. Shortly after the start of the hybrid war that involved an artificially organized influx of migrants to the Lithuanian border with Belarus, and to a much larger extent after the Russian war against Ukraine, Belarus, and later most Belarusians despite their political position, started to be viewed through the prism of Lukashenka’s regime. In the most recent cases, Belarusians are perceived as a fifth column that could destabilize the situation in Lithuania.

Recent debates in Lithuania have shown increasing concerns about the growing number of Belarusians in the country. Thus, the president of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, twice suggested limiting the number of not only Russian citizens but also Belarusians entering Lithuania. After 2022, Belarusians are viewed in the same way as Russians, facing similar limitations and distrust. The most recent concerns were expressed about Belarusians who often travel to Belarus, with questions asked about the need for such travels and suspicions regarding their potential collaboration with Lukashenka’s regime. As a result, one recent suggestion that has been made is to strip Belarusian people who travel to Belarus more often than once a month of Lithuanian residency status.

However, it is not only the suspected support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or close ties with Lukashenka’s regime, that Lithuanian politicians are concerned about.

The growing distrust of Belarusians is also closely linked to the theory of “Litvinism”, which is seen as a threat by Lithuanian politicians. Thus, the head of the Committee on National Security of Lithuania Laurynas Kasčiūnas claimed that he was very concerned about the potential appearance of a community that could appropriate the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, comparing Belarusians with Litvins and subsequently pushing Lithuanians to the periphery.

Such a debate is not new, but a new round of discussion on the topic reappeared in the second part of 2023. Lithuanians understand “Litvinism” in its radical form as a historical theory or concept according to which Belarusians are presented as the leading ethnos in the creation and governance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The marginalized position of Lithuanians in the state’s structure and decision-making processes contributes to the seeming threat posed by Belarusians, as they might have territorial claims on Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

The Vilnius-based political scientist Vadzim Vileita, who has conducted research on the topic of Litvinism, claims that despite the existence of a radical form, which is thought to be rather unpopular and marginalized, the moderate form of this concept is the core of modern Belarusian historiography. Accordingly, the grand duchy is presented as a Belarusian-Lithuanian state whose legacy equally belongs to both nations. At the same time, the notion of “Litvin” does not represent an ethnic affiliation but rather a political one that identified the old state’s citizens. The common history of the grand duchy unites Belarusians and Lithuanians, and brings the first group into the realm of European history, distancing Belarusians from Russians. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its democratic nobility and religious tolerance, is presented as being more progressive than the Muscovite Duchy, against whom the state fought a lot during the Middle Ages. Thus, the concept of modern Litvinism, especially in the current geopolitical situation, corresponds with the democratic aspirations of Belarusians who have protested in and since 2020.

The Belarus-born historian Alexander Friedman claims that the current debates on Litvinism are taking place in the political realm, not in the scientific one, and are led by emotions, not facts, which only contributes to hostility and intolerance. He underlines that there are no political or territorial claims from the side of the Litvinists. Instead, the claims have a cultural context.

The legacy of the grand duchy became the cornerstone of the relationship between Belarus and Lithuania. For Lukashenka, the history of the contested state has always been used as a justification for emphasizing a centuries-long Belarusian history. At the same time, little attention has been paid to this historical epoch. Lukashenka’s focus has always been on the history of the Soviet Union and, in particular, the Second World War (which is still known as the Great Patriotic War in the country).

On the other hand, Lukashenka signed a border treaty with Lithuania in 1995, recognizing no territorial claims in the city of Vilnius and its environs.

The collaboration between Belarusian and Lithuanian historians on the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has not resulted in any public conflict or dispute. However, there have been cases in which Belarusian historians have been excluded from academic debates over the state’s legacy.

The political situation in Belarus has not contributed to any acceptance of Belarusians as successors to the grand duchy. Such exclusion has been demonstrated in recent years by Lithuanian President Nausėda.

Thus, during his visit to Czechia, after visiting the monument of Francysk Skaryna, one of the first book printers in the grand duchy and the person who translated the Bible into the Old Belarusian language, Nausėda called him an important figure for Lithuania and Czechia, totally ignoring his role for Belarusians.

During last year’s NATO summit, Nausėda claimed that “this country [Belarus] is no longer independent, it is another province of the Russian Federation.” Such an exclusion of Belarusians from both political and historical contexts contributes to growing discrimination and hostility towards Belarusians, without dividing them into those who support or oppose the Lukashenka regime.

In light of this attitude, the 2023 legislative changes affecting Belarusians and speculations on possible territorial claims contribute to further alienation of the fourth largest ethnic group in Lithuania. Growing distrust assumes a lack of constructive dialogue in the future and the gradual exclusion of Belarusians from the history of the grand duchy and European history in general.

As an illustration, it is worth looking at the round table on Litvinism organized by the Committee of the Future in October 2023. One of its participants, Raimundas Lopata, suggested the introduction of radical measures against Lukashenka’s regime, including a total closure of the border with Belarus. During the discussion, the difference between the radical and moderate forms of Litvinism was not articulated. Belarusian representatives focused mostly on calming down their Lithuanian counterparts, which, as one can see from the recent decision to close two more border-crossing points with Belarus, was not very successful. Such a decision has been heavily criticized by the leader of the country’s democratic forces, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as such actions will affect only Belarusians, not the regime, and contribute to the creation of a new Iron Curtain.

The general debate on Litvinism and its outcomes contradicts the initial signals sent by the Lithuanian government. Inviting and supporting thousands of Belarusians who escaped from the regime created a positive image for a country that wanted to support not only democratic changes in Belarus, but also Minsk’s reintegration with the European family. However, attempts to politicize historical narratives and push them into the domain of securitization not only diminish initial moderate aspirations, but also contribute to the polarization and potential radicalization of ethnic groups residing in Lithuania. The history and legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has been recognized as a useful and effective tool for combatting the concept of the “Russian World”, widely promoted by Putin’s regime. The exclusion of Belarusians from the narrative leaves Belarusians, especially those who stayed in the country for various reasons, with no other alternative. Moreover, such an approach will support and contribute to the promotion of propaganda, which once again aims to re-write the history of the region. Various handbooks on Belarus and Russia’s common history offer a good example of this attempt to influence modern perceptions. As a result, Belarusians might disappear from regional historical narratives and return to the Soviet version of history.

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

Image: People forming a human chain connecting downtown Vilnius and the border with Belarus in August 2020. Ausra Barysiene / Shutterstock.

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