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Lithuania: Analysis From Washington -- A New Red-Brown Coalition

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Extreme nationalist and openly anti-Semitic leaders increasingly are taking office in post-communist countries with the support of parties linked to the old party nomenklatura and its successors.

That pattern raises the specter of the populist anti-Semitic nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, it seems certain to make it more difficult for these countries to integrate into the West. And it calls into question left-right typologies for post-Communist politics.

The latest such case happened on 13 April in Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city. There, a politician with a history of anti-Semitic outbursts won election as mayor only because a party closely tied to the old Communist party and security elite voted for him.

Vytautas Sustauskas won election as mayor even though his party, the Lithuanian Freedom Union, won less than a quarter of the popular vote and gained only 11 of the 41 seats in the city council.

He gained three more seats from the equally populist Young Lithuania Party. But he won only because the New Alliance, headed by former presidential candidate and the son of a KGB colonel Arturas Paulauskas, cast its eight votes for him.

Three things about this election are striking and have more general application. First, Sustauskas has a history of open anti-Semitism, yet he won a quarter of the vote in a university city which served as the cosmopolitan pre-war capital.

Like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sustauskas has frequently claimed that the Jews are responsible for most if not all of Lithuania's problems. Even after the elections, he said publicly that many Kaunas businesses "are in the hands of the Jewish mafia."

Not surprisingly, local Jewish groups are horrified by his rise. Masa Grodnikiene, the deputy chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, said that "it is a tragedy when people like Sustauskas are elected to such posts."

Many other Lithuanians are horrified as well. More than 75 percent of Kaunas electors did not vote for Sustaukas. And Laima Andriekiene, the parliamentary leader of Lithuania's Homeland Party, was one of many who denounced the city's selection of an anti-Semite as mayor.

Second, Sustauskas' anti-Semitism is part and parcel of a broader populist message of blaming Lithuania's current problems on outsiders and opposing that country's integration into broader Western institutions like the European Union and NATO.

Most attention to Sustauskas so far has focused on his anti-Semitism. Agence France Presse, for example, noted that Lithuania already has "a public relations problem" on the question of anti-Semitism and that Sustauskas' election will only make that worse.

Sustauskas has argued that Western capitalism is destroying Lithuania's traditional way of life and that the higher defense spending NATO requires will not give Lithuania more security.

Such positions play well in a country where many people are suffering economically. And even more they provide the basis for Sustauskas' alliance with Paulauskas' party, which opposes the same things and which also includes people with anti-Semitic views.

Indeed, a preliminary analysis of the vote these two parties received suggests that Sustauskas' populist message attracted the votes while Paulauskas' organization provided much of the muscle for this take-over of Kaunas.

And third, this alliance between Sustauskas and Paulauskas raises questions about the meaning of "left" and "right" in the politics of post-communist countries. Sustauskas is always identified as an extreme right-wing nationalist, but Paulauskas is invariably described as being center-left. But on this key vote in Kaunas, the two were on the same side, supporting the same things.

And that in turn suggests that they occupy the same portion of the political spectrum rather than being at opposite ends. A recognition of this commonality is not trivial either for the people of post-communist countries or for the West.

On the one hand, it suggests that both groups should evaluate parties less by their own characterizations of where they stand on the political spectrum than by what they say on specific issues.

And on the other hand, it implies that the return or rise of mass politics in these post-communist countries is likely to find some of the same alliances between what are usually called left and right parties that first appeared in Europe after World War I.

Because of the dangers such a development would have, the alliance of Sustauskas and Paulauskas in the Kaunas city council has broader implications. It is one that poses a challenge to Lithuania, her neighbors, and all those who hope for a genuinely democratic future.