The American political theorist Mark Lilla once wrote a perceptive review essay on the New Right in France, which he entitled “The Strange Birth of Liberal France” (The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1994). This title, if slightly paraphrased, would be tailor-made to draw attention to the adventures of liberalism in Central Europe.
In fact, we have to draw a strict dividing line here, between Eastern European and Central European politics. Otherwise, we will be at the peril of missing the main point trying to understand the genesis of liberalism in Lithuania. At this point, Lithuania stands closer to the Central European pattern of post-Communist politics than to that of Eastern Europe. No matter how similar the cases of endemic corruption, populism and simplistic political reasoning in all post-Soviet countries, time flies, and Lithuania swiftly became to Moldova or Ukraine what Denmark used to be to Lithuania in the early 1990s – a model state, a benevolent patron, and nearly a rock star in public perception.
I will never forget how an Armenian colleague of mine once wittily explained to me the crucial difference between the logic of becoming a politician in Armenia and Ukraine. Whereas in Ukraine he insisted with the stroke of subtle humor that you become rich and only then go into politics, things in Armenia are simple and straightforward: you go into politics to become rich. We would deceive ourselves by lightly assuming that we are an epoch away from this sort of politics, as much remains to be desired and even more so to be done in Lithuania to get closer to the level of the German political class; yet we deserve to be classified as a different case.
The matrix of Central European politics would shed more light on the strange birth of liberal Lithuania. What is that matrix? I would argue that it is a bipolar logic of political cleavages between the former establishment, whose political offspring are still there, and the new one that came into existence after 1990. Whereas the former is essentially made up by the remnants of the Communist party and, therefore, has a family resemblance name, be it Socialists or Social Democrats, the latter appears as a fiercely nationalistic and churchly party. It is a Heimat-type party with an established moral monopoly of patriotism and local sensibility even if it claims more or less identifiable liberal ancestry (which is the case with Fidesz in Hungary).
Such a Heimat-type political lineage deeply permeated by churchly and conservative value orientation is characteristic of the Homeland Union in Lithuania. In the European Parliament, this political formation is quite logically represented in the EPP – European People’s Party, the largest political family dominated by German Christian Democrats. Without a shadow of a doubt, the heirs to the former Communist establishment in Central Europe are embraced by the second largest political family in the EP – that is, S&D, or the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
What is left to hardcore communists and the radical left in the EP, is the GUE/NGL (European United Left – Nordic Green Left), which is known as home for a mishmash of left-wing radicals of various shades in Europe and pious communist believers from the former Soviet bloc where nobody is quite shocked by figures like Alfreds Rubiks, who can defend such despots and demagogues as the late Hugo Chavez or Aleksander Lukashenko in a public debate with tears in their eyes.
And where are the liberals in this matrix? This is the pivotal question. They are doomed to be somewhere in between the two trying to fish in the muddy waters of ideological and political leftovers. This is not to say, however, that genuine liberals don’t exist in Lithuania or elsewhere in Central Europe. Of course, they do. Yet the problem is that due to weak traditions of liberal thought and politics in Lithuania, they are relegated to the fringes or are scattered across the spectrum, where they may find themselves in other parties that claim and use the same adjective “liberal.”
What happens frequently is that people who pass for liberals may well function anywhere across that same political spectrum – having been dismissed or forgotten elsewhere they become “newly discovered” liberals only due to their inability to get closer to the distribution of power and prestige in other parties. Vladimir Tismaneanu once described a big part of Romanian liberals as an opportunistic and ad hoc political force; I am afraid, we could hardly avoid that same labeling.
The most difficult task is to consolidate the truly liberal electorate not only in Lithuania itself, but across the UK and Europe as well. Young Lithuanians who study in British, German, Danish, Swedish, or American universities are leaning towards liberalism. Yet they are not always happy with an outdated, not to say politically worn-out, version of militant ideological liberalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with almost no attention for the moral and political sensibilities of today.
Unfortunately, such an out-of-date variety of liberalism, if not libertarianism, is presented in Lithuania as sensational news, which comes as embarrassment to more sophisticated voters who would not exclude the sensitivities and values of the center left from the European and national liberal agenda. Political technocrats who parrot the vocabulary of American neoconservatives appear even more remote from inclusive liberalism, able to tackle the most difficult challenges and dilemmas of our time. Therefore, it is high time to think.
Otherwise, Lithuanian liberalism will be inexorably doomed to be merely a passing political fact that ceased existing without even having been properly born.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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