Lithuania - united we stood

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Forget Catholicism - basketball is the official religion in Lithuania. Besides, we were the last in Europe to be baptized - barely in 1387. Yet one could be totally ignorant of basketball and one will be forgiven. The worst heresy of nowadays is to be an emigrant.

A beautiful yet painful journey towards new beginning

On the 23rd of August 1989, less than three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - three tiny Baltic countries with a total population of about 8 million - joined their hands to form an over 600 kilometer long human chain across the three Baltic states.

About 2 million people joined their hands in this completely peaceful protest. Demonstrators linked hands for 15 minutes at 7 p.m. local time.

Baltic Way. Photo by Z. Kazėnas

This demonstration was organized to draw the world's attention to the common historical fate which these three countries suffered. It marked the 50th anniversary of August 23, 1939 when Soviet Union and Germany in the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided spheres of interest in Eastern Europe which led to the occupation of these three countries. The human chain symbolized the Baltic peoples' solidarity in their struggle for more autonomy and eventual independence from the Soviet Union.

Lithuania - a country of which majority of the people living on the other side of the Berlin Wall have never heard before - was the first Soviet republic to proclaim its renewed independence on March 11, 1990. It took nearly a year for a Western country to recognize Lithuanian independence and the first to send a message of acknowledgment was Island - on the 4th of February, 1991. A month before that the world heard about a Singing Revolution and 14 non-armed protesters who died in Vilnius defending the Vilnius Television Tower and the Parliament from Soviet troops and tanks.

The people were united as never before.

A new foe is facing the country

16 years have passed since those events. With fireworks we proudly joined the prestigious club called the European Union. Our economy is improving, there's more and more building sites rising in the capital Vilnius yet for the past 5 years or so another foe - well-known to the countries like Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Italy - has been threatening the future of the country. Since 1990, around 404,000 people have emigrated, driving the population down from its level of 3.6 million people 16 years ago to its present level of 3.2 million. The number of Lithuanians emigrating has more than doubled since the country joined the EU.

Welcome to the joys of freedom of movement, - I say. Loosers, you were not able to adapt in the changing situation, - say those who have remained in Lithuania.

The people are divided as never before.

Life is improving yet people are moving

Every second Lithuanian has a relative or a friend who have emigrated after the restoration of the independence. According to the survey which was conducted in the beginning of this year for Lithuanian weekly "Veidas", another 13 percent of the population claim that they will be leaving the country shortly. Nearly half of them state that if the salaries were increasing more rapidly the emigration might be stopped. The second most important reason which drives Lithuanians to leave their home country is the attitude of employers and officials towards them.

Minimum monthly salary in Lithuania is 174 Euro a month, average (before taxes, there's a flat 27 percent income tax) - 503 Euro a month. During the past year though average salary has increased by 21 percent. As they say in one Russian propaganda movie - life is getting better, life is getting happier.

Propaganda and accusations

Speaking of propaganda, in the beginning of this year a campaign called "Stay in Lithuania" was launched. It aims to encourage young people to seek better living in Lithuania, not abroad. Ironically, the campaign was not initiated by Lithuanians, but by a Canadian and a Danish. Perhaps there's not too many locals who believe the message? Lithuanian celebrities, businessmen and politicians keep repeating the message "stay", yet more than a third of emigrants are 20-29 years old. Yet these are the official figures, but there those who have never officially stated of going to UK or Ireland for a couple of years. Like myself for instance. In fact I don't even know why should I, since I don't even know how long will I be away for.

This is were I face the impossibility of defining who is an emigrant nowadays. My Oxford American Dictionary defines emigrant as a person who leaves his or her own country in order to settle permanently in another. I don't even know were I want to settle yet. Although probably somewhere sunnier and warmer than Ireland, but with white Christmas, please.

I've been away for two years now. I don't know when will I come back, but I am certain I will. I do not despise Lithuania and now and again I send some money home. Like thousands of other Lithuanians who are working abroad. It's been estimated that last year alone over 300 million Euro where transfered from personal foreign accounts into Lithuanian banks - which would be about 1.2 percent of our GDP. Yet those who are away are blamed for wasting Lithuania's budget - especially the resources that have been invested into our education.

Thus the accusations start to flow: we are not patriotic, we don't care about Lithuania's future or about the future of our children who may not learn to speak Lithuanian, we live or get married to the people of other races than white, etc. As if those who remain were chained to their jobs, friends or lovers like Prometheus to a cliff. A toast to them, a gold medal and a statue!

At the end of the day humans are selfish and pragmatic. That's the reason we try to get better education, better jobs, better living conditions. And if somebody has found this in Ireland or Greenland why should one be despised? At the end of the day - wasn't it this freedom that we were yearning for?

Perhaps it is time to encourage to come back rather than to stay and preferably not only by propaganda means? And remember the days when we were like one fist working for one cause - we could achieve much more this way.

I have been trying to look up for some information on whether other countries who ever had to face emigration had so much hostility towards those who have emigrated. So far I've only come across an attitude sported by the Polish president Mr. Lech Kaczyński calling Polish emigrants in UK and Ireland “born losers” or “feckless”. But he shouldn't be an inspiration!

This Post has 11 Comments Add your own!
Labas - May 30, 2007 at 10:44 AM

Well done, Lina! Excellent timing, as there are obviously hundreds of immigration topics that never seem to be covered by Lithuanian or English media. Looking forward to reading your analysis and observations.

mackozer - May 31, 2007 at 6:09 AM

It seems that attitude to the emigrants is the same in our countries.

Those who left the country are sometimes regarded as those who are weak and couldn't fit themselves in changing economy, but now those who claimed that try to change their statement, due to increasing number of emigrants. It seems that more than 2 millions of Poles are weak and helpless.

We were growing up in a patriotic bullshit, but how can we be patriots if we can earn only from 150 do 400 Eu per month.


Anonymous - May 17, 2008 at 6:46 PM

Lina, I myself have said to my best friend in 1995 that she might stay in Norway, it is her choice to live a nicer life.
There is no valid reasonable way to condemn emmigrants or people who choose to work in and for other countries while you are not thinking in categories of nationalism of 19 century.

But I'm worried about what will Lithuania be like. Who will change this country into less corrupt place to live, into a country of smiling polite educated people, if all the determined to be polite, educated and not corrupt ones leave for other - already made better - countries instead? Nobody. Alright. That's sad, though. That's the only sad thing I see in emmigration of our nation.

Those who left are rather strong, sane, rational, and wanting to be normal & happy like others in the luckier (never occupied by some big evil) countries. There is something selfish in that, but you said that people are selfish by default and I can't really deny this. This is true for the most or even all uf us. Freedom to leave is part of freedoms we fought for, indeed.

I'm just not the hyper sure that money you send to your relatives is enough to pay for the education you got in LT. You send money for your own realtives, not for our country's social system, not for teachers. You do not fight for the better Lithuania as we who left might do (only if we aren't cowards and losers, of course). It's sad that we lost your support. :(

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