A recently published survey caused a surge of debate on the role of minorities in Lithuania and the implication of the findings to national security, particularly when discussing the Russian and Polish minorities in Lithuania. With Russian propaganda and pro-Kremlin entities and political parties touting issues with Lithuania, US and the West in general, the survey data provides a number of curious insights, Vaidas Saldžiūnas reported in DELFI
Warsaw str. sign in Polish in Vilnius
Warsaw str. sign in Polish in Vilnius
© DELFI / Orestas Gurevičius

The portrayal of Lithuania and many other pro-Western states in Russian media ranges from belligerent to outright oppressive of minorities and fascist. Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the US continue appearing in the top 5 of countries viewed as hostile in Russian polls. This is also amplified by the role of local Lithuanian parties such as Waldemar Tomaszewski’s Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania in stressing the supposed oppression of the Polish and other minorities. The picture from Russia is fairly clear, but what of the minorities in question and the influence of foreign propaganda on their perceptions?

500 minority representatives were interviewed for the survey, with most being women (55%) in the 50-74 year old category. 46% were of Polish origin, 35% Russian, 8% Belarussian, 6% Ukrainian, 2% Jewish and 3% of other ethnic or national origin. The absolute majority (83%) were born in Lithuania.

When discussing the results with Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science lecturer Mažvydas Jastramskis, he noted that the survey confirms some earlier beliefs. Typically minorities tend to view Russia, its leadership and relations with it in a more positive light than the rest of the populace.

Russia was viewed as friendly toward Lithuania by 66.14% of Russian respondents and 63.86% of Polish respondents. To compare in a general survey of the population 71.4% found Russia to be hostile to Lithuania. The political scientist noted that Belarus was particularly well received, with 88.9% of Russians and 96.4% of Poles viewing the country as friendly, once again separating from the general trend, where the general survey found that 55.1% of Lithuanian citizens found Belarus to be a friendly state. Nevertheless he conceded that in general minorities viewed foreign states more positively in general, even more so than Russia. An important highlight, however, is that in the past ten years the number of ethnic Russians in Lithuania viewing Russia as hostile has significantly decreased despite the continuing tensions between the two states.

Given this, minority representatives found Russia and its policies not threatening at all toward Lithuania, the EU or NATO; albeit importantly, up to 25% of the respondents were unsure or had no opinion on the question.

To compare state leadership, Russian President Vladimir Putin is more popular than Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė with 75% of respondents viewing Putin neutrally or better, while up to 37.4% of Russians and 44.4% Poles view Grybauskaitė negatively. Furthermore Waldemar Tomaszewski is well received by 80% of Poles and 39.6% of Russians in the survey. The negative perceptions of the Lithuanian President may be formed by her support for the 2011 amendments to the law of education which expand learning of the Lithuanian language in minority schools.

Despite the positive views of Russia and its leadership, the Russian media’s claim that Crimea was not occupied or annexed, but legally returned to Russia was not universally accepted. 41.3% of respondents completely disagreed or disagreed with such a view being objective, 30.6% of respondents agreed or agreed completely and 27.8% had no opinion. M. Jastramskis connected the respondent’s viewership of Russian and Lithuanian media to perceptions, with those viewing Lithuanian or international broadcasters seeing Lithuania and the West more positively, while those focusing on Russian media being more negative in that regard.

The politologist noted that an important takeaway from the survey data is that the ethnic minorities are each not a homogenous group. “We can see clear and constant connection between perceptions of contemporary and Soviet Russia and their policies with viewership of Russian channels,” he noted. While it was observed that various age groups tended to respond similarly, those fluent in Lithuanian tended to shy away from endorsing Russian policy, even if not completely viewing it negatively.

Jastramskis notes that two decisive factors other than media viewership are living location and income. Those living in Vilnius were found to be less positive about the stance Russia has toward Lithuania, while those in Klaipėda tended to see Russia more positively. Around 80% of those earning under €800 saw Russia as a friendly state to Lithuania, those in higher income brackets tended to be less positive about Russia. The political scientist noted that in general surveys income does not play much of a role, but the tendency does not carry over into minority surveys. He muses that it may be not nationality, but economic issues that form perceptions in some cases. While cases where only Russian media was viewed tended to be more likely to be positive in regard to Russia, Jastramskis stressed that in the end media viewership is not a sufficient condition for becoming pro-Russian.

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