Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Calvin Klein and Communism
Artūras Račas

Some years ago I got advice on how to test for the legacy of Communism in the post-Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, and to find how deeply this ideology is rooted in the minds of the people.

Ask ten passers-by what do the capital letters CK mean, the advice suggested, and if you find more than a half of those questioned associate these two letters with a perfume from Calvin Klein, relax, and have no fears about this country reverting back to Communism.

Testing the waters

One of course may be surprised and ask what the legacy of Communism has to do with a perfume. The answer comes from my own experience, and, after hearing this advice, I followed it and asked the question on the streets of Lithuania.

Seven out of ten, on hearing the question, at once said that CK stood for the Central Committee (of the Communist Party), only one girl immediately blurted out her opinion about the smell of the perfume, and two of the respondents gave me both answers.

That was about five to six years ago, and, though that time did not stir much enthusiasm in people, these replies could, however, easily be explained by looking at them from today’s perspective.

At that time, Lithuania was moving through a troubled period in its short history since recently regaining independence, in spite of the Russian army having already left, and the KGB was no longer in its headquarters on the main avenue of Lithuania’s capital.

Furthermore, all monuments of Lenin, Dzerzhinsky and local Communists had been taken down and were replaced with statues of Lithuanian Grand Dukes and wooden crosses. Many from within the country and abroad saw black clouds hanging over the country, threatening it with a return from whence it had departed in 1990, when it was first to break away from Soviet empire.

The legacy

The clouds: the former Communist party was in full control of Parliament after the first free and fair elections in 1992, and the former head of local Communist party had been elected as the first President of an independent Lithuania in 1993.

This, together with the domestic opposition writing letters of complaint about the ruling party to the British Parliament and their home-and-away-targeted statements that the Communists were delivering Lithuania back to the Soviet Union, gave fuel for analysts abroad to write columns on a so-called Soviet mentality, prohibiting people in the territory of the former Soviet Union from living democratically and with a market economy.

After all that, the outcome was not actually that bad. Despite flourishing corruption and a banking crisis, the country’s economy began to improve and Lithuania became one of the first former Communist countries to officially apply for NATO membership, as well as sign the EU Association agreement, which was all
Former President Algirdas Brazauskas
Former President
Algirdas Brazauskas
done by the same former Communists.

After the former Communists suffered a heavy defeat in the 1996 elections and the right-wing Conservatives won power, and when Lithuanian-born American pensioner Valdas Adamkus replaced Algirdas Brazauskas as Lithuanian President in 1998, one could think that the threat of Communism and of black-red clouds had disappeared from Lithuania forever.

Unfortunately, with the parliamentary elections in October 2000 drawing near, these expectations seem less realistic.

A possible "red-brown" revival ?

Communism, its legacy, the threat from the East and a search for enemies from within are once again on display in Lithuania, reviving controversy in newspaper columns and considerations on whether the country is on the right track.

After the Conservatives lost recent municipal elections which were won by the newly created New Alliance (Social Liberals), the Lithuanian saying, "The first swallows have already appeared," comes to mind, not least because warnings about a red-brown coalition appearing in Lithuania have now appeared in the Western media.

It would be almost funny if one looked at these developments and knew that support for the "brown" elements is purely populist, backed with a record of anti-Semitic remarks, with one candidate who recently
Vytautas Landsbergis
became a mayor but has no major support outside his home town. Or it one knew that the only argument for the "red" elements is the fact that the father of the head of the New Alliance used to be a KGB officer.

However, if one is not familiar with these arguments, everything could seem more serious and threatening. Especially when Vytautas Landsbergis, chairman of Conservatives, publicly agrees that Lithuania's independence is once again threatened and that those who might win the next parliamentary elections are working for Russia and are against Lithuania's integration to the West.

It could be tempting to believe all this, to make fast and far-sighted judgements and write another column on how difficult Lithuania's route from dictatorship to democracy and from socialist planning to market economy has been.

But, it's far better to take a considered view, because, in fact, Lithuania's main problem is not the Communist legacy nor the threat from Russia, but how these concepts are used in Lithuanian society.

The burdens of the past

The problem is that even ten years after regaining independence, the main Lithuanian parties are still divided by their relation to history, not by their politics.

To be more precise, being right-wing in Lithuania, first of all, means being anti-Communist and being suspicious of everything related to Russia, while being left-wing means little more than being opposed to whose who say they are right-wing.

Because of these divisions, everybody in Lithuania who opposes the policy of the Conservatives, be it in the economy, education, health reform or even in the changes of time zones (already changed twice in Lithuania, because it is right-wing to live under Brussels but not Moscow time, even if night then comes at three in the afternoon), is left-wing.

With the recent economic recession in Lithuania, increasing unemployment and the decreasing standard of living, more and more critics of the Conservative government's policy have appeared in Lithuania, in turn, considerably increasing the number of leftists looking out from the perspective of the ruling party.

Earlier, this issue was illustrated through a truly "right-wing" policy of subsidies to agriculture, including, for example, high fixed prices for milk and crops, as well as a masterpiece of "conservative" economic policy – compensation of those savings lost due to hyperinflation [some LTL (Lithuanian litas) 3.6 billion - or USD 800 million - worth].

But, as foreign debt and the current account deficit ceaselessly increases, and GDP in 1999 contracted by more than four percent, the Conservatives announced an austerity policy and again asked for a moratorium from the IMF and a structural loan from the World Bank, the above-mentioned instruments of attracting right-wing voters were taken away.

Recycling old fears

What was once left-wing is now the only instrument the right-wing has with which to attract support: fear of Communism and Russia.

Recently this technique has been utilised to full effect. At first, the Conservatives suddenly remembered that there are some 200 to 300 former KGB officers still working in Lithuania and decided to protect Lithuanian central and municipal governments, banks, post offices, telephone companies, railroad, ports and even schools from their covert activities.

Then they remembered that the KGB also had networks of agents and informers, who still could be dangerous and decided to register all of them publicly, announcing and promising legal sanctions against all those who refuse.

Meanwhile, everybody who dared to suggest that the military was not receiving enough money or whether they use it effectively was proclaimed as working for Russia.

The same has happened with those who were brave enough to doubt the success of the privatisation of the Mažeikių Nafta refinery, of which a 33 percent stake was sold to US-based Williams International, obtaining less money from the deal than was paid to the refinery to keep it running.

The argument was simple: We shall not let the Russians have access to the pipeline (Russians left in a hurry and have not returned, the result being millions of dollars of losses for the refinery).

Spectre of the Russian bear

The Russian argument was used
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again by the Conservatives when they decided to form a coalition with the Union of Political Prisoners and Deportees. A law obliging the government to demand compensation from Russia for damage done during Soviet occupation was passed in the Parliament, and negotiations with Russia on this issue are to be initiated starting in November.

Soon, this anti-Russian atmosphere was complimented with public statements by one of the Conservative's leaders that half of the Russian Embassy staff are secret agents (a fact that hardly needs to be denied), followed by a parliamentary resolution speaking about dictatorial tendencies in the East and Russia's attempts to draw a red line, which would leave Lithuania outside of NATO.

Everybody who disagrees is left-wing, has Communistic thinking and works for Russia. Not to forget the American-raised President, who, according to Landsbergis, is not worth bringing into discussions on Russia any more than discussing Russia itself.

One has to accept that all this hard work has brought some results. After a law on compensations for Soviet damages, Russia replied by saying that Lithuania was never occupied and has joined the Soviet Union by its own will.

This gave the Conservatives, and Landsbergis, a solid argument – they were right to speak about Russia's intentions and its threat and those who opposed them appeared wrong.

Back to the beginning again

The show has now started again, with the former President Algirdas Brazauskas returning to politics and heading a Social Democrat and Democratic Labour (former Communist) coalition, and everything has returned to where it was few years ago.

The economy, social care and health reform, education and everything else aside, Landsbergis and Brazauskas return to the stage and the hysteria surrounding Russia and Communism become the trump cards again in Landsbergis's hands.

But, perhaps not. I recently tried the CK test again and, believe it or not, six out of ten first named CK for perfume, two still remembered the Communist Party and the other two let me choose from both.

Although I would never forget what CK had meant in the past, I firmly believe that the former meaning of these two letters will never again have a major influence in Lithuania's future.

Forced friendship?

Except, paradoxically, for one sphere:
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Lithuania's integration into NATO. The attempts to make attitudes towards Russia the main indicator of party ideology and playing the Russian card in domestic political struggles could serve as a good excuse to refuse Lithuania membership in the Alliance.

"We need to bring relations with Russia back on track," said NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, during his recent visit to Vilnius, adding that Russia is a major player in regional security and that NATO has a huge stake in the future of this large country.

These remarks do not seem to fall within the policy framework of the major supporters of integration in Lithuania, as they take away one of the main arguments of being right-wing in Lithuania.

The worst thing is that this argument could stay in use for quite a long time to come, if Lithuania is not invited to join NATO in the near future.

Artūras Račas, 10 July 2000

Artūras Račas is currently the AFP correspondent in Lithuania. He is one of the most read columnists in the country, formerly with the largest daily Lietuvos Rytas and now in a variety of media, including Lithuanian public radio and the daily Lietuvos Žinios.

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