Why is Lithuania such a staunch ally of Belarus' opposition movement?

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By Linas Jegelevicius
Lithuanians form a human chain in August 2020 in solidarity with Belarussians opposed to Alexander Lukashenko
Lithuanians form a human chain in August 2020 in solidarity with Belarussians opposed to Alexander Lukashenko   -  Copyright  Mindaugas Kulbis/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Lithuania has been a staunch ally of Belarus' opposition movement, hosting its exiled leaders and being among the first to slap sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko.

But, beyond sharing a border, what drives 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.

AP Photos
The state funeral of commanders Zygmunt Sierakowski and Konstanty Kalinowski and 18 other participants of the 1863-1864 uprising in Vilnius on November 22, 2019AP Photos

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 an ocean of white-red-white flags were 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.”

AP Photos
People with the former flag of Belarus at a state funeral of commanders Zygmunt Sierakowski and Konstanty Kalinowski in Vilnius on November 22, 2019AP Photos

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.”

Lithuanian Prime Minister's Office/AP
Belarusian opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, left, meets with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, in Vilnius.Lithuanian Prime Minister's Office/AP

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."

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