Alexandra Ashbourne. Lithuania: The Rebirth of a Nation, 1991-1994. Lanham, Md. and Oxford: Lexington Books, 1999. xii + 203 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0027-1.
Reviewed by Joanna Rohozinska (Editor, Freedom House, Budapest)
Published on H-Russia (June, 2000)
Democracy, the right to self-determination, and sovereignty are wonderful ideals to strive for. They translate, in short, as freedom. But, as ten years of transition (give or take a year depending on the country) in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union have demonstrated, freedom is only the beginning of a whole series of problems -- logistic and ideological.
In her study Alexandra Ashbourne strives to delineate the specific problems faced by the Lithuanian state after its long subordination to (and absorption by) the Soviet Union, and to ascertain how well it managed in the first four years of regeneration. Looking at four specific areas of state policy: domestic, foreign relations, defense and security and economic, she seeks to measure, essentially, how successfully Lithuania dealt with the burdens of the past.
The pre-1940 past, to a large extent, shaped the expectation and goals of the new state, which, as Ashbourne points out, "completely failed to anticipate the dramatic impact of the legacy of the 50 years of Soviet occupation." The new authorities hoped, perhaps rather naively, that after regaining independence Lithuania would return to its pre-war economic levels and swiftly reintegrate into the (Western-oriented) international community. Currently, and six years beyond the end of Ashbourne's study, Lithuania is still waiting for admission into western military (NATO) and political-economic (European Union) structures and will continue to wait a few more years.
Despite falling well short of the 1991 aspirations Lithuania did manage to achieve quite a bit in terms of institution-building and administrative consolidation in its first four years. Due credit must be given for establishing basic state organs out of practically nothing; unlike the former Soviet satellites, which at least maintained separate (if entirely subservient) military and administrative structures, foreign and domestic policy and economic planning. These are the mundanities of sovereignty and though in the satellite countries they may have been terribly corrupt, inefficient and cowed at least they existed and the importance of this should not be underestimated. The only tangible links to independence consisted of a few derelict missions established by the government-in-exile, most of which were run by aging staffs many of whom had lost hope (or interest) in Lithuanian independence.
One of the most interesting accounts concerns the drama surrounding the Lithuanian embassy in London. The building itself was acquired in 1945 for "The People of Lithuania" by interwar Minister Balutis, but put in Deputy Minister Balickas's name in order to prevent it from being seized by the Soviet authorities. Over the years Balickas grew accustomed to calling the building home and was reluctant to have it converted back to a working foreign mission. As a reward for his years of holding vigil, Balickas was appointed ambassador shortly after independence but remained hostile to people visiting his 'home' and resulted in the embassy being run from a solitary attic room.
This incident also links to another interesting issue Ashbourne raises several times throughout her work; relations between the new state and the Lithuanian diaspora. By all accounts the new state failed to effectively co-opt its vast diaspora, which perhaps could have given it significant advantages in developing several policy areas and benefiting from the groups' potentially significant material resources. For example, looser policies regarding dual citizenship may have facilitated the privatization process. Instead of allowing for dual citizenship the Lithuanian government instituted a policy that required giving up all other citizenship rights in favor of Lithuanian citizenship. Though patriotism among Lithuanians living abroad was on the whole quite strong, giving up a western passport was a proposition most were unwilling to entertain. This certainly would have been a tremendously difficult choice for the some 381,000 Lithuanians living in the United States. And citizenship, along with permanent residency, was required in order to be considered for the restitution and land reform schemes as well as to be eligible to purchase property.
In addition to the difficulties of acquiring citizenship, offers of assistance made by the emigre community were often simply flatly refused - thus only alienating them further. Ashbourne concludes that, especially as compared to neighboring Latvia and Estonia, this alienation "has without a doubt been a brake on Lithuania's redevelopment."
Aside from what can be called grievous miscalculations, Lithuania was burdened by several problems shared by almost all the post-communist countries and societies: inefficient and cumbersome bureaucracy, lack of transparency in all sectors, rampant corruption of public officials, little training in diplomatic protocol, on the administrative side and a passive public on the other. In short, the absence of a civil society with all its concomitant structures. This concept of the need for civil society has become far more prominent as almost all of the transition countries have hit stumbling blocs that have prevented them from fully 'normalizing' or, more accurately, westernizing.
Under the best circumstances, carrying out an analysis of immediate history is problematic. Ashbourne relied heavily on oral accounts for her study. Though this will certainly prove a valuable record in the future, these sources, as indeed all sources, should be approached cautiously and with a degree of incredulity. There is no doubt that interviews with some of the people who were actively involved in the events described transmit the mood and details better than any wire-service report or government document could. However, as with all first-person accounts, they are certainly subjective and must be balanced against the accounts of other involved individuals and groups.
What Ashbourne's study, perhaps unwittingly, demonstrates just how far national historical myths have been accepted as facts; these 'facts' are then used by the state as the impetus for pursuing a certain course of action. The opening chapter sets up the historical background, and is clearly intended to account for and legitimize certain concerns that preoccupied state authorities after 1991. The problem is that the historical framework, with all its beliefs and prejudices, did not fully correspond to contemporary realities and circumstances and perhaps pointing this out would have added depth to Ashbourne's analysis. Many shortfalls in policy making could be linked to decisions made based on assumptions left over from the interwar period.
The case of Polish-Lithuanian relations is illustrative in this respect. Ashbourne emphasizes several times the poor relations between the Polish and Lithuanian states. Beginning in her introductory chapter, she establishes the centuries of enmity between the two groups. Yet the history presented is not altogether well balanced and is substantially over-simplified. The long period of cooperation within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is scantly covered and the sense is generally that the Lithuanian nation (a term hardly applicable prior to the nineteenth century) chaffed under Polish rule. This underlying hostility came to the fore when both groups fought (figuratively and later literally) to establish independent nation-states during the first World War. In reality relations were far more complex than is even hinted at in the text.
The seizure of Vilnius in 1922 is presented as an act of straightforward aggression on the part of Poland; Ashbourne fails to mention that the majority of the city's population was Jewish and Polish and thus Poland's claim to the city was not entirely illegitimate. The fact that Vilnius was still an issue (the Lithuanians insisted that Poland renounce its 1922 invasion) in negotiating the Lithuanian-Polish Friendship and Co-operation Agreement with Warsaw (finally signed 26 April 1996) demonstrates the administration's tendency of dwelling on the none-too-relevant past. During the early interwar period Poland could be considered as having posed a viable threat to state security; in 1991 this certainly did not apply. Which is not to say that the issue of national minorities does not continue to mar current relations.
Relations with Russia were (and are) more problematic, especially where the military bases at Kaliningrad were concerned, and far more acute and immediately threatening. However, security concerns are probably far more relevant now then they were in the 1991-1994 period. Shrunken Russia faced a myriad of internal problems and was not in a very good position to launch expeditions into its 'near abroad' (a term that, incidentally, Ashbourne finds rather loathsome and indicative of unsavory Russian intentions). Its adventures into the Chechen republic ended in a humiliating defeat for Moscow after the Russian public vociferously decried the action; this has (so far) not been the case the second time around. Besides military concerns, relations with Russia required a delicate hand on Lithuania's part; because of the economic structure of the Soviet Union Lithuania was still dependent on Russia for its basic services. Interference into the regularity of fuel supplies during 1991-1992 may have had a political motivation (as did the same behavior in Ukraine) but the fact was also that Lithuania hadn't paid the bills and their unwillingness to engage in a dialogue with Moscow prevented a satisfactory settlement from being quickly reached.
History is important in understanding contemporary politics; but it is equally important to remember that it provides only provides a context and does not dictate outcomes; nor should it be the determining factor in policy making. If state administrators did do this then they would continuously be treading over the same intractable issues. Failing to point out the apparent preoccupation the Lithuanian authorities had with history, and the brake this surely put on the state's development, constitutes the greatest oversight of this study. Its value lays in its documentary format and in the attention it draws to the importance of symbolism and ritual in state consolidation.
A considerable amount of time may still have to pass before Lithuania becomes a prosperous country along Western standards but it still managed to achieve a considerable amount -- even in its first few years of independence. Ashbourne obviously cultivated a great affection for the country and admirably balanced the successes and failures of the new state. Hopefully Lithuania's administrators have acquired greater first-hand experience with the mechanisms of sovereignty and will go on to base their decisions on this immediate past rather than delving to what is essentially pre-history.
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Joanna Rohozinska. Review of Ashbourne, Alexandra, Lithuania: The Rebirth of a Nation, 1991-1994.
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