Why it matters to the Labour and Trade Union Movement – Part Two by Peter Tobin
What became distinctive about the Sajudis government was that far from recoiling from its policies as they wrought increasing havoc with Lithuanian society, they doggedly clung to them, on the “no pain – no gain” principle. Adding to their brew of economic and structural mismanagement they • further increased their unpopularity with a series of show trials and purges of ex-communists and alleged former KGB agents. It was a response to demands from a vindictive right-wing nationalist bloc which wanted to settle accounts with the supporters of the old regime and to finally extirpate communism as a political and ideological force within Lithuanian society.
It started in an atmosphere of hysteria and quickly became a full-scale witch hunt. Denunciations and exposes formed a regular diet from which nobody was safe; even Lithuania’s first Prime Minister, Kazimiera Prunskiene, was exposed, after her resignation, for her links with the KGB. Certainly, it was not hard to find individuals who had some sort of contact with the previous regime given its long tenure and pervasive control, in fact it would have been harder to find anybody who had not!
A less blinkered government might have pursued a policy of reconciliation. The basis was there; any evaluation of the role, for example, of Lithuanian communists in the liberation struggle against Moscow would have recognised the validity of their patriotic credentials. Also at the official policy level the Communist Party accepted that the command model had ossified and needed to be replaced by some form of market economy.
This profound shift was symptomatic of the process initiated by the CPSU under Gorbachev and echoed by CPs throughout the Eastern Bloc. It was clearly a genuine change, accompanied by sometimes gratuitous self-abasement and at others a real contrition for past excesses.
The nationalist right, for the most part embodied by Sajudis, was too mired in the crusade against socialism, however, to respond even pragmatically to these developments. Habituated to oppression during the decades of “Sovietizacija”, it had exhibited sectarian patterns of behaviour as a response. In a different situation, when Sajudis became the party of government, such exclusiveness was a liability hampering the political maturation necessary to unify the new nation.
At the level of practical politics the continuing hunts for agents of the old regime were counter-productive for the government, undermining its own commitment to democracy and alienating many Lithuanians who saw it as psychopathic fiddling while Rome burnt (or froze, as was the case).
Finally, it began to consume itself. Even those with hitherto impeccable nationalist or right-wing credentials fell as victims. The nadir was reached when President Landsbergis’ own information officer, Rita Dapkute, was exposed as a KGB agent! She added to the farce stating she had acted with the tacit agreement of the Lithuanian and American secret services.
Given that the former is a sub-branch of the CIA, which has a highly visible presence in Lithuania, and given that double, triple, and perhaps even quadruple agents were a feature in the onion-layered world of Cold War espionage there may have been something in their claim, but it wasn’t enough to save her and she was forced out. (Undaunted, however, she has since shown commendable entrepreneurial spirit – at least for a ‘communist’ – by launching Vilnius’ first home pizza delivery service. (Baltic Ind., Nov 6-12, 1992)
Insecurity played a large part in the motivation behind the witch hunts. Sajudis and the extreme right, despite their early electoral success, felt threatened on two counts; the first was the effect that over forty years of socialism had had on the social and political make-up of the mass of Lithuanians, and, the second, very much related, was the residual popularity of the, by now, ‘ex’ communists. As the latest elections showed these fears proved well placed.
With respect to the former; the concern of the rightists, as has been said earlier, was to break down the habituation to state control of all aspects of social and economic policy. They asserted that this had produced habits of docility which were inimical to the development of a thrusting entrepreneurial society. The term most frequently heard from right-wing ideologues to describe their fellow citizens was that they had become ‘sheep’. It demonstrated a . contempt bordering on arrogance as well as emphasising the fragility of the right’s social base once the nationalist tide receded to be replaced by more pressing economic concerns. The problem for the ever shrinking Sajudis government was that while attempting to pursue unpopular and crackpot free market economic policies, the ‘sheep’ had votes.
In the case of the latter, the ex-communists, now the Democratic Labour Party, were always in a position to benefit from government blunders. This reflected the unique position of the old Lithuanian Communist Party within not only the Baltic states, but within the Soviet Bloc. In the first place it had a genuine historical base in the country long before Soviet penetration. One of the great leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Felix Dzherzhinski, was a Lithuanian Jew (a statue to him was recently pulled down in Vilnius along with dozens of Lenins).[A]
Even under Soviet colonisation the Party had largely local roots and this reflects the fact that there are fewer of Russian extraction in Lithuania, as opposed to Estonia and Latvia, helping it to avoid the accusation that it was a purely foreign imposition; (the percentages are 9.8%, 30% and 37% respectively). Even its indigenous leadership were never regarded by the majority as being Soviet puppets. For example, compare the respect accorded to Antanas Snieckus, First Secretary from 1940 to 1974, to the opprobrium heaped upon the heads of Gomulka in Poland, Ulbricht in East Germany, Husak in Czechoslovakia, &c, by their respective populations.
This phenomenon was strong enough to sustain the position of the present First Secretary, Algirdas Brazauskas, who remained the most popular politician in Lithuania when his reformed Party was receiving a drubbing at the polls, Accused of being no more than a Gorbachevite epigone by the nationalist right, his standing increased as the government became more right-wing, incompetent and incoherent while his reformed party shifted to occupy the left-of-centre ground awaiting the inevitable electoral nemesis for the right.
The strategy of the Sajudis government had been two-pronged; the social and economic policies based on the rapid transition to capitalism were designed to break up the flock while the witch hunts were to ensure that the old shepherds did not return. It was a reckless gamble that came unstuck as Lithuanians became increasingly disenchanted with the breakdown of their society and with the growing hardships that followed. Their patience finally snapped when, in spectacular fashion, a government brim-full of ideological puff could not even organise the fuel supplies necessary to keep the country moving and warm for the present Winter.
Lithuania lacks the indigenous fuel supplies necessary to run a modem society. When it was part of the Soviet Union this was no problem as it had vast oil reserves which were exchanged within the Bloc for the particular commodities designated for production in various republics which comprised the USSR. The attempts by the Soviets to move parts of this economy away from dependence on oil to nuclear power had failed in Lithuania as they were still constructing a reactor similar to Chernobyl when that disaster struck.
Being almost downwind of Chernobyl, this produced an early nationalist backlash and 5,000 demonstrators joined hands at Ignalina to prevent its completion. (Had they perhaps campaigned for safe nuclear power as opposed to no nuclear power they might not be so cold today. Countries lacking indigenous fossil-fuel resources, who wish to be modern industrial societies, do not possess the luxury of choice.)
The total dependence on oil became a liability after independence. Relations with Russia were strained and oil at one point formed part of a general blockade as early as June 1990. It was also the case that Russia, as it was now becoming, was no longer interested in a simple exchange of commodities for oil. Russia wanted only dollars as payment, and being now a capitalist state itself, it wanted the price the market would bear.
Lithuania’s problem was that dollars were in short supply and it became increasingly difficult to meet the payments demanded. The last crude oil deliveries were therefore made in July 1992, and by September the effects were being felt. In mid-October there was a heavy and unseasonal fall of snow which caught the country by surprise. Hot water had already been turned off, first on alternate weekdays and weekends, and then altogether. Heating was turned on two weeks later than usual and even then restricted to 13 degrees Celsius. It would have been a bad Winter without the early onset of the snow and the Baltic Observer retrospectively expressed the opinion that it was:
” … a clear omen of bad news … The damage was not just physical but it was also political.” (BO, Nov 5-11 ’92)
It was the final straw for many Lithuanians who when they went to the polls on October 25 gave the ex-communists a respectable 44.7% of the vote with Sajudis getting a derisory 19.8%, and a multiplicity of rightist and centrist parties taking the rest. To quote one editorial:
“The Lithuanian election result may mark the first time in history that heating and hot water (or lack of them) have decided a country’s future.”
It continued to make a common sense observation that:
“Most important is to subsidise the energy needs of the weakest… This is an urgent matter. Children learn little in, or do not attend, unheated schools. Patients suffer in cold hospitals. And old people will die of hypothermia if they cannot afford to heat their homes.” (Baltic Independent, Oct 30 – Nov 5, 92).
A large number of Lithuanians had concluded that the government’s attitude was to let them suffer and let them die. In fact as the crisis was worsening, Sajudis was squandering limited resources on military posturing. One of its last acts was to purchase a warship (admittedly the Russians let them have it for roubles), which had no guns of any description and which was intended to provide the basis for a Lithuanian navy. This went down badly in a situation where people – especially pensioners on fixed incomes – were freezing. It was this mixture of crassness and incompetence which this instance typified, that produced substantial electoral revulsion.
Despite its appalling record and despite the fact that it had become increasingly rent with internecine squabbles, the precipitate collapse in Sajudis’ vote caused consternation across the political spectrum – even the polls were confounded – again. It had been assumed that the strident anti-communist hysteria, involving smears and denunciations, directed against the left would work for the Lithuanian right as it had elsewhere. The informed opinion was that the electorate would wilt under this barrage and, however reluctantly, re-elect Sajudis. In fact the hitherto stoical Lithuanians had taken the opportunity, in the privacy of the ballot box, of ‘throwing the bums out’, (as one commentator delicately put it).
The ‘bums’, for their part, reacted with barely concealed fury. The extreme rightist leader of the Nation’s Progress Party, Egidijus Klumbys, echoed the thoughts of many on the right when he threatened guerrilla war. (Baltic Independent, Oct 30 – Nov 5, 92). Contempt for the electorate and its decision was mixed equally with bewilderment. Sajudis blamed everybody but themselves for their defeat and their supporters in the following days and weeks leading up to the second round on November 10 hinted that they might not let the election result go unchallenged.
The reformed communists who admittedly had fought a strong populist campaign offering to preserve living standards and social security, were nevertheless equally stunned by the scale of their success. Partly overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they faced (“more power means more responsibility”, commented Brazauskas), and partly fearful of a backlash from a well-armed right, (similar to the coup attempted by Latvian fascists the previous year), they made conciliatory noises in the immediate aftermath of victory offering a coalition government to Sajudis. So fearful were they in the following period they even collaborated in juggling with the result in order to increase the Sajudis share of the vote up to 21%!
The notion of a national government was rejected out of hand by Landsbergi on behalf of Sajudis. In the run-up to the second round a menacing hauteur emanated from this increasingly weird and autocratic individual, His trajectory had been a singular one, an earlier quote illustrated his primitive social and economic views, but his origins lay in music as a teacher and latterly as an authority on the mystical Lithuanian composer and artist, Mikalojus Ciurlionis. For Landsbergis, he represented the highest expression of Lithuania’s unique cultural and intellectual identity, and as an aesthetic symbol of national resistance to Slav influences, which followed upon Russian control.
The creation of a cult around this strange genius illustrates the important role music played in the breaking of that control, with folk and popular song evoking the mood of general protest. It was as big a battleground as that of the struggle for the Lithuanian language to the extent that the upheavals of 90/91 were dubbed ‘The Singing Revolution’.
Landsbergis was then very much in tune with the times; thereafter his relationship with the mass of Lithuanians became increasingly discordant. They held the Sajudis government and Landsbergis, as Chairman of the Supreme Council, largely, if not wholly, responsible for the litany of problems afflicting the country. It was a common perception that there had been more damage inflicted on Lithuania in two years than the communists had achieved in forty. The reaction of the Chairman and his shrinking band of associates was to retreat even further into a surreal political landscape offering symbols when people wanted bread.
The attitude of Landsbergis to electoral rejection added to the tension in the ensuing days and weeks. Asserting that the Lithuanian people had somehow failed his exalted vision he retired to brood, like Coriolanus in his tent following his expulsion from Rome by the Senate and a ‘rabble of plebeians’. The hostility was mutual and sometimes openly expressed, always a sound indicator of the ‘Vox Populi’ you could hear the old women, whose pensions and savings had evaporated, hurling his name into the faces of the icon sellers outside the Catholic Cathedral on Sunday morning in Vilnius.
Landsbergis’ attitude was symptomatic of many on the nationalist right, who could not bear the thought of the ‘communists’ returning to power. Their hostility manifested itself during this period with anti-communist marches organised by right-wing students, and an attempt to ban any winning candidate from taking his, or her, seat in the Seimas (Parliament) if it was shown that they had any links with the former KGB.
On the day the second round was postponed, November 10th, armed civilians appeared on Gedimino (formerly Lenin) Prospekt, in a city already swarming with police, many of whom were recently recruited young Sajudis supporters. Off the streets, in the bars and cafes, there was nervousness and speculation, in the more exclusive restaurants unquiet Americans gave serious face-time to subdued locals on the subject of ‘security’.
There was restlessness also amongst the security and armed services where the right had established dominance; of particular concern was the agitation within the die-hard ‘Skucai’ elite presidential bodyguard. In this way the spiral of uncertainty traced back to the petulant Landsbergis whose political personality by now owed more to Coriolanus than Curlionis.
If the right hoped that the combination of political stratagems and intimidation would change the result in the second round they were to be confounded when it finally took place on Sunday November 15th. The LDDP took 80 of the 141 seats in the Seimas with Sajudis and its allies getting about 40. The already hard-pressed Lithuanians had accepted the additional burden of political unrest and with their customary determination more than confirmed the anti-Sajudis vote of October 25th.
That they did so was as much a tribute to the political skills of the LDDP as it was to the ineptitude of the Sajudis. In this difficult period they demonstrated the pragmatism which distinguished them even in the long Soviet night. As the victorious LDDP candidate in Kaunas, Linas Linkevicius, defined it: “In Lithuania communism was not a religion, it was the rules of the game”. (BI Oct 30 – Nov 5, 92).
In contrast to their opposition they offered competence and flexibility to an electorate physically and psychologically exhausted by the crude free-market excesses of the past two years. And if Landsbergis encapsulated the political personality of Sajudis then that of Brazauskas typified that of the LDDP.
A leading proponent of reform, from a solid engineering background, he had replaced the hardline Rimgaudas Songaila, in 1988, and as stated earlier had led the national upsurge in pulling the first brick in Moscow’s wall. During the first economic blockade imposed by the Soviets it was his shrewdness which had mitigated the worst effects while at the same time he was never inclined to unnecessarily provoke the retreating Russians. This approach coincided with the growing realisation that the West had not been able to fill the trade vacuum created by the collapse of economic relations with Russia, and that practical considerations dictated accommodation rather than the confrontation of the heady days of national liberation.
It was said that the LDDP won the election by default, that it was a negative vote against Sajudis rather than a positive vote for them. Nevertheless, they still had to position themselves to receive that mandate. Had they not modified and changed themselves from communists to a species of social democrat it is just as likely that the protest votes would have gone to a myriad of Christian Democratic or centrist parties.
The combination of patriotism and pragmatism enabled the Party to attract many new recruits. The influx further revived it and confirmed its adaptations. It also decisively strengthened the reformist wing in the organisation. The figures show that one in three Party members had joined within the last two years and had not been in the former Communist Party.
If ‘the rules of the game’ dictated accommodation to unpleasant realities then the new Party would not let former antagonisms or prejudices stand in the way of judicious politics. This can be seen in its attitude to the institution that embodies trans-national capital, the International Monetary Fund, which was at that time negotiating a loan with the Lithuanian government in return for continued ‘good behaviour’.
Within this framework it is apparent that the policies implemented by Sajudis were not wholly internally generated. Privatisation, ‘Liberalisation’ and ‘Decentralisation’ were required by the IMF if Lithuania was to be made secure for Capital. On this balance sheet social cost is never a consideration, whether it’s Lesotho or Lithuania. The IMF acts as the Herod of Finance Capital, slaughtering the first born on the altar of free market capitalism.
Four days before the first round of the elections, the IMF approved a US loan of $82 million and the following day its partner in international finance, the World Bank, advanced another $60 million. Per Hedfors, the IMF agent in Vilnius, made it clear that any deviation from the ‘reform’ plan would produce the immediate cessation of such financial support. If it was hoped that. this stratagem would save their local running dogs by warning the Lithuanian electorate off supporting the opposition: it dd not succeed. The message, however, was not lost on the leadership of the LDDP who, once in government, moved quickly to placate the IMF, underlining their commitment to a market economy, and, for example, giving an assurance that some form of privatisation programme would continue.
The difficulty the new government will face will be reconciling the campaign pledges of higher wages and lower prices with the austerity and rectitude demanded by international capitalism. Since October some have been redeemed, such as the rapidly introduced price freeze.
In respect of building a new national consensus and despite the rebuff from Sajudis, the Party honoured its offer of coalition by giving all but three of the seventeen or so seats in the cabinet to non-Party members. Since the elections last year the Party’s support has continued to grow, a fact reflected in February when Brazauskas got a 60% plurality for the formal post of President under the new constitution.
Over the coming period, however, the LDDP government faces massive problems in rebuilding from the economic and social rubble created by the ‘supply side’ policies of its predecessors. It is also salutary to reflect that no matter how well it copes domestically it could still be undone by political instability and advancing reaction in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. Here it looks as if the West is not-prepared to see its client in Moscow subjected to the same forces that ousted Landsbergis. The preferred American option would be to back Yeltsin seizing autocratic powers, better to protect and prolong the free market experiment and, of course, ‘democracy’.
The fatal mistake made by the so-called reformers in the Eastern Bloc was the Utopian assumption that they could leap to capitalism in a single bound. Admittedly many market economies have experienced periods of take-off but they have only occurred after a much longer period of some form of primitive accumulation. This process is a complex and material development, its gestation cannot be replaced by wishful thinking; the laws of physics may allow a singularity but the laws of economics do not. There was never any realistic basis for the belief that subjecting countries like Lithuania to a ‘Big Bang’ effect would produce a successful market economy.
Similarly naive was the assumption that there was only one ‘monetarists’ model of a market economy, and that therefore, necessarily, there are no unresolved contradictions within capitalism. This is not so; market economies exhibit marked differences reflecting their particular historical and social origins. They range from the comprehensive welfare state systems of Germany and Scandinavia to the more elemental, individualistic, ‘laissez-faire’, American system.
Proponents of the latter model dogmatised its alleged principles as a weapon against ‘Keynesian’/welfare capitalism. In America it was Reaganomics, when exported to Britain – Thatcherism. The radicals in Eastern Europe are therefore partisans in a struggle over the nature over the nature and future of capitalism and not, as they would have wished, purveyors of a ‘Holy Grail’.
And because communism had failed it does not follow that capitalism has succeeded; the radicals of Sajudis tried to ignore the fact that this system had its different cruelties equal to those under command communism. Instead of atavistically pulling down the entire system it would have been more realistic to have utilised its social and economic sinews as a cushion against those cruelties. This would have meant adopting a social market philosophy providing protection for vulnerable groups and maintaining social cohesion in what was bound to be a traumatic period.
Instead they reversed the communist mistake of “putting politics above economics by putting economics above politics”. (Observer, Nov. 15th W. Keegan) In doing so, they rent Lithuania asunder for what at best was no more than a street vendor’s version of a market economy.
The Labour movement in the West should involve itself in Eastern Europe. Its enemies are the same; wherever there is a market economy, at whatever level of development, it needs to advance the argument that “there is ample evidence to support the claim that social harmony goes hand in hand with economic success”. (Capitalism Against Capitalism, M. Albert.)
If also Eastern Europe is left in some Wild frontier form to be ravaged and subject to hyper-exploitation by international capital then the organised workforces of Western Europe will be undermined. As a reservoir of cheap labour, ‘in situ’ for industrial processes and migrant for the construction industry, they will be used to ratchet down wages, conditions, and regulations. In this light it is no accident that the likes of Thatcher are arguing for the countries of Eastern Europe to be admitted to the EC; seeing them as a Trojan Horse with which to undermine the move to ‘Corporate Europe’.
Lithuania, is then representative of the problems of the former Soviet bloc. Perhaps the open violence in Yugoslavia has distracted us from the great hardship being endured throughout the area. In this sense it is salutary to note that the situation in Lithuania, while grim, is actually better than elsewhere.
There are parts of Poland and the Ukraine, for example, where a medieval blackness has descended on the land. Many innocent and vulnerable people are being sucked into a vortex of hunger, cold and despair. By electing Democratic Labour, Lithuanians have attempted to reverse the spin into the abyss, they have not, as that crypto-Thatcherite organ The Independent headlined on November l7th, 92 chosen “a party of the past”, but rather threw out a party of incompetence, corruption, and reaction.
It is something the British people signally failed to do on April 9th, 1992!
This is based upon a week’s visit and therefore some important issues, such as the role of the Catholic Church, and the argument over the withdrawal of the Red Army, are not touched on. Similarly there is a gap on the trade union situation, this is because I did not make any contacts: partly out of deference to the wishes of my would-have-been hosts and also because I had been informed that the CIA had set up duplicate unions covering most sectors, and that it would have been inadvisable to go blundering around.
This article appeared in September 1993, in Issue 37 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.
[A] The author is mistaken here. Felix Dzerzhinsky was born to ethnic Polish parents of noble descent. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Dzerzhinsky.) But he was a follower of Rosa Luxemburg, who was indeed Polish Jewish.