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Lithuanian Fascism, Yesterday and Today

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[7]COMMENT: One of the sources for the “Putin the Boogeyman/Russian Aggression” narrative captivating the American and much of the rest of the world’s media has been Lithuania. A former Soviet republic and now a member of the EU and NATO, that Baltic country has seen the resucitation of the Lithuanian Rifleman’s Union, a paramilitary group that lent support to the Nazi occupation.

This is–supposedly–in response to the Russian “threat” of invasion.

Missing from this scenario are a number of critical points of discussion:

“Russ­ian Threat Sees Rebirth of Lithua­nia Para­mil­i­tary Group” [Agence France-Presse [13]]; Global Post; 9/2/2014. [13]

In thick pine forests hid­den in the remote wilder­ness of east­ern Lithua­nia, young pro­fes­sion­als are ditch­ing their suits and ties for cam­ou­flage gear, and swap­ping iPads for rifles.

These week­end war­riors also proudly wear bracelets with emblems of green fir trees on their wrists, sym­bols of their small Baltic country’s wartime resis­tance against the Soviet Union, which occu­pied it in 1940.

Now, Russia’s takeover of Crimea and increas­ing signs of its involve­ment in Ukraine’s east, cou­pled with sabre rat­tling in its Kalin­ingrad exclave bor­der­ing Lithua­nia, are spark­ing a sharp rise in para­mil­i­tary recruits here.

Like oth­ers in the region, Lithua­nia is call­ing on NATO to put per­ma­nent boots on the ground in the Baltics to ward off any poten­tial threat from their Soviet-era master.

But while they await a deci­sion that could come at a key two-day alliance sum­mit start­ing Thurs­day in Wales, Lithuan­ian civil­ians are lac­ing up their own com­bat boots.

Stu­dents, busi­ness­men, civil ser­vants, jour­nal­ists and even politi­cians are among the hun­dreds who have joined the government-sponsored Lithua­nia Riflemen’s Union, a group first set up in 1919 but banned in 1940 under Soviet rule.

“The Vil­nius unit has tripled in size since the begin­ning of the cri­sis in Ukraine,” says Min­dau­gas Bal­ci­auskas, unit com­man­der of the groupwhich boasts about 7,000 mem­bers in the nation of three mil­lion, a num­ber almost on par with its 7,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 4,200 reservists.

– ‘Take up arms’ –

Pres­i­dent Dalia Gry­bauskaite, a karate black belt dubbed Lithuania’s ‘Iron Lady’ for her tough stance on Rus­sia, has also sworn to “take up arms” her­self in the unlikely case Moscow would attack this 2004 NATO and EU mem­ber of three million.

“Being in a para­mil­i­tary unit will give me priv­i­leged access to infor­ma­tion and make me bet­ter pre­pared than those who don’t join,” Arturas Bortke­vi­cius, a 37-year-old finance spe­cial­ist, told AFP, adding that he wants to learn the skills he needs to defend his coun­try and family.

Mem­bers spend week­ends on manoeu­vres deep in the woods or at a mil­i­tary train­ing range in Pabrade, north of the cap­i­tal Vilnius.

Lib­eral MP Remigi­jus Sima­sius says that while his place “would be in par­lia­ment” given a cri­sis, he joined the rifle­men in the wake of Russia’s Crimea land grab in the hope of encour­ag­ing oth­ers to fol­low suit.

Even some Lithua­ni­ans with Russ­ian roots have joined up amid the Ukraine crisis.

“I’m a Lithuan­ian cit­i­zen of Russ­ian ori­gin. I am who I am, and I am Lithuan­ian patriot,” pho­tog­ra­pher Vladimi­ras Ivanovas, 40, who also joined up, told AFP.

– Check­ered past –

The Rifleman’s Union “has left an indeli­ble mark on the his­tory of Lithua­nia,” says his­to­rian Arvy­das Anusauskas.

It was cre­ated after World War I in 1919 dur­ing a series of “Wars of Inde­pen­dence” fought by Lithua­ni­ans in 1918–1920 against Russ­ian Bol­she­viks, mixed Russ­ian and Ger­man forces and Poles.

Aside from Lithua­ni­ans, from 1919–1940 research shows its mem­bers also included Russ­ian, Poles, Jews and even Chi­nese, reflect­ing the eth­nic com­plex­ity of and ten­sions in the region.

Its rep­u­ta­tion is how­ever tainted by alle­ga­tions that cer­tain mem­bers were involved in a series of Nazi mas­sacres between 1940–44 that claimed the lives of an esti­mated 80,000–100,000 Jews, Poles and Rus­sians in Panierai, a sub­urb skirt­ing the cap­i­tal Vilnius.

The Riflemen’s Union was banned in 1940 by the Soviet Union when the Red Army swept in from the east to occupy Lithua­nia dur­ing World War II, but mem­bers fought a guerilla war against the Sovi­ets until the early 1950s.

Its revival in 1989 came as the Soviet bloc began to crum­ble and now its large new crop of mem­bers say they are will­ing to fight again should their coun­try come under attack.