Lithuania: a stranger in the south of the north

Article published on Oct. 31, 2007
Article published on Oct. 31, 2007
Since achieving independence in 1990, it has strived to walk steadily on its own. On the eve of reaching adulthood as a self-governing country, Vilnius is like a little girl who has been picked on too many times by her bigger neighbours

Lithuania is a country with a turbulent recent history. Vilnius, the capital, changed hands twelve times in the last century. It was last occupied by the USSR, and for almost 40 years Lithuania received orders directly from Moscow.

The river Vilnia runs through the city and it is from the river that the city took its Lithuanian name. The Lithuanian language is of Indo-European origin and, together with Latvian, is one of the oldest languages in Europe. It is spoken - second to Russian and English - by the three and a half million inhabitants of this central European state, a population which is declining as a result of an extremely high rate of emigration, which is five times the European average. Four years will soon have passed since this Baltic republic became one of the 27, although it was among the last to join. Until its rate of inflation falls it will not introduce the euro.

Soviet hangover on a European Sunday morning

This small, discreet country sheds tears into the Baltic Sea: some are tears of euro-optimism, others are shed through sadness for a long and confused transition - what the Lithuanians call 'post-soviet'. What lives on into these times is an aversion to 'Russian-ness', although this 'Russian-ness' lives on in Lithuania since the Russian giant maintains the Baltic republics in its zone of influence. It continues to be present in the media, through the radio and television channels, and, unlike the European Union - with the exception of Norway and Poland - has correspondents in Vilnius.

It was through television that Lithuanians were able to follow and empathise with the 30 September early elections in the Ukraine, in the hope that their neighbours will slowly start to distance themselves from Russia and from the parties through which it perpetuates itself in governments in the east.

Lithuania knows all too well that it is once the Soviet omnipresence disappears that you have to be most alert. With the arrival of legislation and a society no longer protected from the first tentacles of capitalism, the first drink to toast the new independence was followed by regret as a result of some of the confusion in the heart of this capital city with shades of the provincial about it. One graphic example of this confusion is the fact that the streets are swamped in advertisements for laptops, of which many can be seen in cafes, while the Lithuanian medical system will not be computerised until 2013. Another is the arrival of free press: free of the state, it has fallen into the hands of publishers who extort money from companies by threatening to print negative information about them. Societies need time, and these are just two examples which suggest that Lithuania's time is still to come.

As a start, Vilnius will be capital of culture in 2009. In preparation for this, its streets are adorned with photos and paintings. There are streets with doors that become other streets and narrow streets dotted with Catholic churches, a few Orthodox churches and a couple of synagogues. The streets of Vilnius are like a cobbled chessboard on which a game to the death is played out between the worst of capitalism and the defiant remnants of the soviet period. These remnants remain in schools, with the teachers of the old regime and children who were born under independence, and with the expectation of educational reforms which were as necessary as they were undefined. What are the pupils taught? Who we are now, who we were...

Who is Vilnius? What is Lithuania?

No-one but a Lithuanian would want to be able to answer that one. While Riga is now officially the gay capital of the north and Tallinn its touristy downtown area, Vilnius has remained poorer and more reflective in the south of the north. It wonders what it should say, what it wants to say, and even which traditional dish is its own and which belongs to former invaders. Nevertheless, that is where the present is, much more than in any of our own fat, colonising countries.

Now means right now in Lithuania and many of its citizens are conscious of this. They all have different ideas, most of which are critical. In the absence of a marked identity and of a desire to label themselves in any way, they acknowledge that they are somewhat disoriented. Running parallel to this search for an identity is the process of adaptation to EU standards. This is confirmed by the agenda of their busy parliament.

There is still some way to go, as there is in the whole country, but when the Lithuanians were able to make a start the wall had already come down and freedom, when it arrived, was slightly old and distorted, having already been conquered by others and covered in specks of dust by the time the Lithuanians inherited it.

Without the help of the editorial team at cafebabel Vilnius this article would have been simply impossible. With their previous work, translations, help placing things in context and critical spirit, this dossier assimilates some of the country's current main goals