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Exhibition commemorating those who died at the Vilnius TV Tower 1991.

Features History on Trial in Vilnius

Earlier this year in Vilnius, the Socialist People’s Front leader Algirdas Paleckis was fined 10,400 litas (about 3,000 euros) for denying and grossly downplaying Soviet aggression against Lithuania the night of January 13, 1991.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic worlds 3-4 2012, p 47
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 7, 2013

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Is freedom of speech threatened in Lithuania as it is in Russia?

The politically correct answer in Vilnius is, “Of course not!”

But not everyone in Vilnius is politically correct. The well-known Lithuanian journalist and commentator Artūras Račas has likened verdicts against Pussy Riot in Russia to verdicts against Algirdas Paleckis in Lithuania: both involve criminal sentences for insults.

Earlier this year in Vilnius, the Socialist People’s Front leader Algirdas Paleckis was fined 10,400 litas (about 3,000 euros) for denying and grossly downplaying Soviet aggression against Lithuania the night of January 13, 1991.

This is about modern Lithuania’s most cherished historical narrative. The whole of Europe has seen the photo of the young woman throwing herself in front of the iron caterpillar treads of Soviet armor. Fourteen unarmed civilians were killed and hundreds were injured when they bravely stood up against Soviet army forces and special units that tried to take control of Lithuanian radio and television in Vilnius on that legendary night.

That all fourteen were killed by Soviet troops was self-evident, until Algirdas Paleckis shocked the nation. While the evidence is obvious in some cases, like that of the young woman in front of the military vehicle, it is lacking in others, according to Paleckis. As a former MP and former journalist, he has made his own investigation and claims to have found indications that secret snipers were present on rooftops and fired into the civilian crowd on the January night in 1991. Paleckis refers to witnesses, and he quotes ballistics expertise saying that the lethal bullets could not have been fired by Soviet troops on the ground.

So Paleckis claims that, in January 1991, Lithuanians shot at Lithuanians.

In Russia, Pussy Riot cursed in the church. In Lithuania, Algirdas Paleckis’s words are sacrilege against the nation’s holy of holies. To make things worse, Paleckis was already a hated man. His name in itself is enough to provoke antipathy, to put it mildly. Algirdas’s grandfather Justas Paleckis was the Lithuanian Quisling, heading a puppet government in 1940, when the Soviet Union took control of Lithuania. The one and a half months that Justas Paleckis served as Prime Minister was enough to besmirch the family name for generations to come.

The son of the late Justas Paleckis is today an MEP in Brussels for the Lithuanian Social Democrats, a fairly respectable role, while the grandson, Algirdas, has fallen under the nation’s wrath.

Algirdas Paleckis claims that Lithuania’s ruling party Homeland Union instigated the trial against him by writing to the state prosecutor. Paleckis was first acquitted in a lower court, which ruled that he had quoted sources rather than stating a personal opinion. State prosecutors appealed, and the Vilnius district court convicted Paleckis in June of this year.

Paleckis was prosecuted under a 2010 amendment made to Article 95 of the Lithuanian criminal code, which bans the denial of crimes committed by the Soviet or Nazi regimes in Lithuania. The law also states that whosoever “grossly underestimates” aggression or crimes carried out by the USSR or Nazi Germany against Lithuania “in a threatening, hostile or insulting manner” shall be punishable by up to two years in prison.

This law is in fundamental conflict with international treaties protecting freedom of speech, claims Paleckis. Even people opposing Paleckis’s political views and describing his version of the events in 1991 as “nonsense” support his right to state a diverging opinion on the historical narrative.

But Justas Paleckis is at odds with much of the common historical wisdom in Lithuania. His reputation has not been strengthened by his criticism of the downgrading of Holocaust memory in Lithuania. Paleckis spoke out against official laxity towards the right-wing extremist marches during the Lithuanian national holiday, March 11, when neo-Nazis were heard chanting “Juden raus”. He has also, together with others, condemned the ceremonial reburial in June this year of Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, head of the Provisional Government of Lithuania in 1941, proclaimed by some a national hero, and known by others for his links to the Nazi-led extermination of Jews in Lithuania.

The government of Lithuania supports the effort by MEP Vytautas Landsbergis and other Baltic and Central European MEPs to establish a “reunification of European history”. In the Prague Declaration of 2008, they stress “substantial similarities between Nazism and Communism in terms of their horrific and appalling character and their crimes against humanity”.

This double genocide approach is seen by Jewish representatives as a denial of the uniqueness of Holocaust and downgrading the role played in it by Lithuanians and other Balts. Some Lithuanian Social Democratic politicians, including Algirdas Paleckis’s father, have signed a counter-declaration, the Seventy Years Declaration, which rejects “attempts to obfuscate the Holocaust by diminishing its uniqueness and deeming it to be equal, similar or equivalent to Communism”.

The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis accused those Social Democrats of being pathetic and echoing Kremlin ideologues. But when Ažubalis claimed that the only difference between Hitler and Stalin was the size of their moustaches, one Social Democratic MP reminded the Foreign Minister that people used to come back from deportation, but usually not from the gas chambers.

Later the Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said there had been “misunderstandings” over his minister’s words, and in an interview with the New York Times Kubilius declared that “Holocaust crimes are unique”.

What the historian Timothy Snyder named Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin has become an ongoing political and cultural war in the Baltic and Central European countries of the EU. Who suffered the most? Who was the worst perpetrator?

It has turned out to be a fatal battle, where free speech seems to be on the retreat in the face of strong nationalistic forces. ≈