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A New Challenge for Lithuanian Americans

Paul A. Goble
Senior Advisor to the Director
Voice of America*

*[The views expressed here are Mr. Goble’s own and not necessarily those of the VOA or the U.S. Government. The Address was delivered at the Lithuanan Independence Day commemoration sponsored by the Lithuanian American Council Chicago Chapter on February 10, 2002 at Maria High School Auditorium in Chicago.]

In May 1991, I had the honor of visiting Lithuania for the first time as a member of the first senior U.S. diplomatic visit to the Baltic countries. On our last night in Vilnius, we had dinner with several senior officials in the administration of President Vytautas Landsbergis. At the end of the meal, I was given the chance to say what was in my heart: I noted that many of them might be curious as to why I, an American with no Baltic blood in my veins, had nonetheless become a partisan of the Baltic cause. The answer I said was simple: in those difficult months of 1990 and 1991, the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians were being the real Americans, and those of us who had been fortunate enough to be born in the U.S. had all too often forgotten who we were.

I mention this now to call attention to the special situation Lithuanian Americans have always found themselves in, as defenders of the ideas and ideals of both Lithuania and their adopted country, the United States. During the long, dark years of Soviet occupation, Lithuanian Americans played a key role in keeping hope alive. Without the actions of Lithuanian Americans, there would not have been a non-recognition policy, and without the hard work of so many Lithuanian Americans past and present that policy would not have served as the beacon of hope it was for Lithuanians in Lithuania.

Not surprisingly, many Lithuanian Americans concluded at the time of the end of Soviet occupation that their job was completed. After all, what they had done for more than 50 years was little short of heroic. And there was the additional and for some extremely painful fact that many in Lithuania itself felt that the diaspora had made its contribution but that Lithuanian Lithuanians must now take the lead in the future development of their country.

As a result, many Lithuanian Americans ended or at least reduced their participation in public life – a withdrawal that all of us have seen in the declining numbers of people subscribing to newspapers or taking part in Lithuanian American activities.

Now, a decade later, this withdrawal from public life threatens to become a stampede. Lithuania is almost certain to become a member of NATO this year, a step that many have seen as the final guarantee of its independence and security. And Vilnius is also likely to be asked to join the European Union within the next few years, another step toward the reintegration of Lithuania into the European world from which it was so brutally wrenched by the Soviet government in 1940.

Obviously, both of these events are going to be occasions for celebration. I will certainly be joining you in welcoming both. But they are not the “end of history” for Lithuania, and consequently, there are serious challenges ahead both for Lithuania and even more for Lithuanian Americans. On this anniversary as we look Janus-like both past and forward, I want to tell you the unwelcome news that the three greatest challenges for you may lie in the future and that as a result, all of us who care about Lithuania may have to work harder than we ever did in the past.

The Shadow of the Soviet Past

The Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries continues to cast a shadow on the political calculations in Moscow and in the minds of many Lithuanians, and because this is so, Lithuanian Americans have a special role to play in dispelling both these shadows.

Many in Moscow continue to believe that Russia should play the predominant role in Lithuania. Russian policy pronouncements over the past decade suggest that few in the Kremlin or the Russian Foreign Ministry believe that Lithuania should be allowed to make all its choices for itself. Instead, Moscow has routinely used a variety of pressures – economic pressure, corruption of some Lithuanian elites, and frequent public charges of human rights violations now and Nazi complicity in the past. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the government of President Vladimir Putin is even more committed to making use of these levers on Lithuanian behavior than was his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

But many Lithuanians and Lithuanian Americans have comforted themselves with the thought that Moscow is using these tools to prevent Lithuania from gaining membership in NATO and the European Union and that because Moscow has failed in this campaign, these levers can be ignored. But that conclusion is unjustified: the fact of the matter is that neither NATO nor EU membership will block Moscow from using any of these unconventional tactics in the future. That is not what either of these institutions is designed to do, and neither can serve as a magic defense against such actions. Indeed, precisely because those memberships will give Vilnius greater freedom of action, at least some in Russia are likely to try to use these tactics even more frequently and with effect.

In the past, Lithuanian Americans have taken the lead in calling the attention of the world to such moves. Indeed, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that had there not been a Lithuanian diaspora, the Soviet government might have survived far longer than it did. Now, it is imperative that Lithuanian Americans again play the key role in making sure that Lithuania will not suffer because of such actions. And that includes not only telling the West but making sure that people in Lithuania understand what is at stake as well.

That latter task is all the more important because of the second shadow of the Soviet occupation: the shadow that occupation continues to throw on the minds of Lithuanians in Lithuania. A half-century ago, Cseslaw Milosc described the impact of the communist system on its victims in his classic work, “The Captive Mind.” He talked about the “murti-bing” happiness pill that poisoned the minds and undermined the will of so many of those who lived under communist regimes. People who were forced to take this pill lost their grip on moral principles and on the personal responsibility that underlies all moral action. And the impact of such pills on people as we now know all too well lasts long after the tanks and the communist party have disappeared.

Lithuania survived because of her people’s beliefs, her attachment to Catholic morality, and her special reserve force, the diaspora. Indeed, the survival of Lithuania is testimony that the murti-bing pill does not always work and that its impact does not always last. But at the same time, many Lithuanians were and remain profoundly affected by that pill, and their actions today reflect that fact: the support for former communists, the desire for others to take responsibility for their lives, passivity in the face of challenges.

Lithuanian Americans have played a key role in fighting this hangover of the communist past, and they and we can be proud of the role that Lithuanian Americans have played both here and in Lithuania itself – particularly the remarkable contribution that Chicago’s own Valdas Adamkus has played and continues to play in helping Lithuania escape from its past.

But the very challenges he faces are compelling reasons why Lithuanian Americans especially must remain engaged, ready to tell both Lithuanians and Americans about what has happened in their country and what needs to happen in the future. No one else is going to do it for you.

The Return of Geography

The events of 1989-1991, events which all of us who lived through will never forget as moments of exhilaration and liberation, did not after all end history, but they did return geography as the central reality of international political life. The ideological struggles of the preceding century had reduced the importance of geography in the minds of most policymakers. Indeed, President Kennedy’s observation at his inauguration that Americans will “go anywhere and pay any price” was simply the clearest statement of that understanding. And in the weeks and months since September 11, we have learned again that we may have to go to unexpected places and pay a high price to meet the challenges that confront us.

But despite America’s unique ability to project force half a world away, in the last decade, most diplomatists have thought in terms of geography again, assessing countries in terms of the regions in which they are located. Perhaps the clearest indication of this has been the acceptance by many of Russian claims of having “a near abroad” whose member countries are “new independent states.” All countries have neighbors, but only Russia has a near abroad, a term that highlights the views of many Russians that the former Soviet space, including the occupied Baltic countries, is or should be part of a Russian sphere of influence. And the idea that countries which have been independent for ten years – or in Lithuania’s case, for almost a century – are “new independent states” is not only offensive but dangerous.

Lithuanian Americans can play a useful role in pointing out just how offensive and how dangerous such terms are even in a world that thinks ever more geographically or as many put it geopolitically. And they can do so because they can speak as both Lithuanians and Americans to both audiences.

Independence is NOT Enough

In only a few years, Lithuania will mark the 100th anniversary of its modern statehood. And in the intervening period, Lithuania’s development seems likely to proceed along one of three paths: toward a modern European state, toward a near abroad country, or toward a marginalized and isolated society at the edge of Europe. First, if Lithuania is able to fully integrate itself into Western institutions and once again be a key player in Europe and overcome the Soviet legacy at home, if it has a fully institutionalized free market economy and democratic political system, then it will have achieved the promise of 1990.

But the second and third paths are less attractive: If Lithuania remains dominated by the near abroad syndrome, if it is perceived as part of a Russian sphere of influence and if its people are unable to dispel the shadows of the Soviet occupation, then Lithuania will have failed to live up to the promise of independence even if it is a member of NATO and the European Union.

And if Lithuania becomes marginalized and isolated, if there is a growth of extremism of the left and the right — developments that may have both domestic and foreign roots – then the dreams of 1989 and 1990 will fade, and the prospects for Lithuania will become ever dimmer.

Unfortunately, because it is a small country, Lithuania does not have complete freedom to choose its future, but Lithuania does have a resource most countries lack – a large and committed diaspora that can help it not only survive but prosper into a country all can be proud of. One that is not only independent but fully worthy of independence. One fully part of Europe and recognized as a leader of Europe. One that will be a full partner with the United States.

I believe that Lithuanian Americans can make a significant contribution to that future. But I also believe that we need to recognize that the threats to that future are real and that Lithuanian Americans need to act as they have in the past in order to ensure that Lithuania’s 100th birthday will be a happy one.