Lithuania has been a staunch ally of Belarus” opposition movement after its neighbour’s disputed presidential election in August.
Vilnius has hosted the opposition’s exiled leaders and been among the first to slap sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko, who was declared the winner with an 80% vote share. His critics say the election was rigged in his favour.
But, beyond Lithuania and Belarus sharing a border, what is driving this support?
For a clue, we have to go back to an extraordinary state funeral held in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius late last year. It was for insurgents involved in a January 1863 uprising aimed at restoring the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Their remains had been discovered during works at Gediminas Hill, a landmark in Vilnius, in 2017.
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which existed from 1569 to 1795, covered a vast area of modern-day Europe, including Belarus and Ukraine.
The funeral of insurgents Konstanty Kalinowski and Zygmunt Sierakowski is, therefore, a pointer to the shared history of Belarus and Lithuania.
Present for the service that day in Vilnius were the then-presidents of Poland and Lithuania. Lukashenko, their counterpart in Belarus, did not attend. But, in an ominous sign, an ocean of white-red-white flags was on display.
The flag — now a symbol of Belarus’ opposition movement after the disputed presidential election in August — was introduced in 1918. It made a short reappearance in the early 1990s before Lukashenko banned it later in that decade in favour of the red and green one.
“We [Belarus and Lithuania] were together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for centuries, but few want to emphasise that, partly due to the slightly different interpretation of, say, the landmark 1863-1864 insurrection,” Arvydas Juozaitis, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian national movement Sajudis, told Euronews.
“The funeral of Kalinauskas [Lithuanian spelling of Kalinowski] in late 2019 was a game-changer, I believe.”
“It turned out to be quite ominous for authoritarian Belarus. It was when we started seeing the national white-red-white Belarusian wave.”
It isn’t just the January 1863 uprising that links Belarus and Lithuania. The shared history goes deeper than that. They were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 13th century to 1795 and together again, briefly, at the end of WWI. The Lithuanian–Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic — or Litbel — consisted of modern Belarus and eastern Lithuania for roughly a half-year during 1919.
“It was created after the merger of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia,” Emanuelis Zingeris, a Lithuanian MP, told Euronews.
“The republic was dissolved after the Polish army took over its claimed territory of eastern Lithuania during the Polish-Soviet war.
“So in a word, our two nations have been together and shed blood on numerous joint occasions throughout our centuries-old history.”
For others, like Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian MEP, the bond between Lithuania and Belarus is linked to both having been under Soviet control.
“We are well above the EU average in that [supporting Belarus’ opposition movement],” said Austrevicius.
“But our exuberance and involvement do not surprise me, as both Belarus and Lithuania have always been very close – in terms of history, culture and the economy.
“Because of that, we tend to understand Belarus better and we are more sensitive to what our eastern neighbour is going through now. Frankly, some other, more distant European nations cannot perhaps understand that as they have never been in the Soviet empire and they haven’t experienced the atrocities.”
Another historical dimension to the Belarus-Lithuania relationship is the link between national movements in both countries around the time of independence from the Soviet Union.
“Much has been said about our common history, but many omit the fact that, with the national movement, Sajudis, in full swing in Lithuania, we maintained very close ties with the Belarusian Popular Front, especially with Stanislav Shushkevich, one of its leaders,” said Mecys Laurinkus, the former head of the country’s state security department and philosopher by profession. “We helped the Front to hold its convention in Vilnius in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, with Lukashenko in power, the spirit of the force has faded.”