On 8 May each year, the world pays tribute to the victims of World War Two. The following day, 9 May, Russia celebrates its Victory Day with pompous parades of tanks and displays of arms. This year, on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, many Western leaders turned down invitations to come to Moscow, sending instead their lower-ranking representatives, mostly their ambassadors, to Russia.
© AFP/Scanpix

Lithuania is the only European Union country that chose to boycott the event altogether and not to send any official representative to the Red Square on 9 May. The decision has attracted some controversy.

While some say that Vilnius' move is very undiplomatic and might have sour consequences for Lithuania's national interests, others maintain that in the light of Russia's aggressive policies in Ukraine and repeated provocations against the Baltic states it would be untenable for Lithuania to take part in the Kremlin's parade.

Short-sighted standoffishness

Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaitė, commenting on Vilnius' decision not to send even its ambassador to the events in Moscow, said that no Lithuanian should be made to stand in a military parade in Moscow underneath flags of occupied Crimea.

However, historian Algimantas Kasparavičius disagrees. According to him, the Lithuanian leadership's attempt to stand out among EU nations - even Latvia and Estonia are sending their ambassadors to the event - is short-sighted.

"If we see ourselves as part of a united Europe, bound by common European values and determined not to undermine European unity... then this decision is not the best one," says Dr. Kasparavičius, senior fellow at the Institute of History.

Vygaudas Ušackas
Vygaudas Ušackas
© DELFI (R.Achmedovo nuotr.)

Lithuania's former foreign minister Vygaudas Ušackas, who currently serves as the European Union's ambassador to Russia, says the issue has been discussed by EU leaders.

"The issue has been raised on the top level, i.e., among EU leaders, and it was decided to let countries make their own decisions," Ušackas explains.

So Vilnius has decided that the Lithuanian ambassador to Moscow will take part in events paying tribute to war victims on 8 May, but will stay away from the military parade the following day.

Bičkauskas: It is the right decision

At the end of World War Two, when the Red Army pushed out the Germans and entered Lithuania, it was met with different reactions. While some greeted Russian soldiers as victors, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians suffered brutal repressions that ensued, many of them ending up in exile in Siberia or killed.

Diplomat Egidijus Bičkauskas, who was Lithuania's first ambassador to the Russian Federation in the early 1990s, says that decision not to go to the 9 May parade makes perfect sense.

Egidijus Bičkauskas
Egidijus Bičkauskas
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

"One must make a distinction between two things: celebrating the end of the war and paying tribute to war victims. The military parade is a demonstration of the very power, the very weapons that made these victims suffer in the first place. I believe that the decision to abstain from the military parade is the right one."

Faina Kukliansky, leader of the Lithuanian Jewish community, says that her compatriots have particularly strong response to the end of World War Two. The Jewish nation suffered the greatest losses. Some 6 million Jews perished during World War Two, about 90 percent of the Jewish population of Lithuania were exterminated.

"As far as I know, the president [of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė] is planning to lay a wreath in Paneriai [a site of mass murder of Jews] and thus pay tribute to the Jews killed in the war. I much prefer that the president will be here with our Jewish community than in Moscow observing a military parade," says Kukliansky.

Faina Kukliansky
Faina Kukliansky
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Repetition from a decade ago

Similar debates had broken out a decade ago, when Lithuanian leaders were invited to come to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Moscow. Valdas Adamkus, the then President of Lithuania, and his Estonian counterpart turned down the invitation. Meanwhile Latvia's Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga joined several dozen world leaders for a military parade in the Red Square.

Russian President Putin then promised that the world would never again be dragged into a cold or regular war. However, the following day he lashed out at an Estonian reporter who asked why Russia would not apologize the Baltic states for their occupation.

"Once the Baltic countries were made part of the Soviet Union in 1939, there was no occupation in 1945 because they had been part of the country before," he said in 2005. "True, I was not a very bright student at the university, because I drank too much beer after classes, but I still remember the basics quite well."

President Vīķe-Freiberga was hoping to sign a treaty on finalizing border agreement between Latvia and Russia in Moscow, but instead was accused by Putin of making claims to Russian territory.

"As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost huge areas of its native territory. And what are you proposing, to start all over again? To give us back the Crimea and part of the territories of other former Soviet republics? Give us back Klaipėda then. Start dividing everything in Europe again. Is that what you want? Probably not," Putin said in a press conference.

Stalin's portraits in Crimea

However, one of the items on Putin's list of seemingly absurd suggestions has since come true. Last year, Russia took Crimea from Ukraine.

Mečys Laurinkus
Mečys Laurinkus
© A.Solomino nuotr.

That was by no means the first act of aggression on Moscow's part over the last decade. In August 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. During the quick five-day war, Georgia lost control over a fifth of its territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin then claimed that it was thus protecting Russian nationals.

"I saw real occupation, how it was done. Lithuania then held a very principled position, very clear," says Lithuania's former ambassador to Georgia Mečys Laurinkus. "I think the position is still the same and consistent now, except this time it concerns Ukraine. I support this position emotionally and morally."

In April, less than a month before the Victory Day 70th anniversary, President Putin said he had been protecting Russian compatriots in Crimea. "We will go all the way in protecting our own. (...) I think we did the right thing and I have no regrets."

Crimea is also preparing for the Victory Day celebrations. Soldiers are practising their marching in the streets of Sevastopol adorned with portraits of Joseph Stalin.

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