World

Row breaks out as Vilnius tears down Stalin-era WW2 memorial

December 03, 2022
The Antakalnis memorial in Vilnius, Lithuania
The Antakalnis memorial in Vilnius, Lithuania

VILNIUS — A row has broken out in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius after the local authority began taking down a WW2 monument on Thursday, despite a UN injunction.

Critics of the decision to remove the Stalin-era memorial to fallen Red Army soldiers claim it is divisive and gives Russia a propaganda victory.

But supporters say it is a painful reminder of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and should be taken away to show solidarity with Kyiv amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Professor Stanislovas Tomas, a lawyer representing those who have petitioned against the removal, told Euronews the move would hand Moscow a propaganda victory.

“Putin needs the destruction of the monument at [Antakalnis] cemetery in order to mobilize Russians, so he can say: ‘They are destroying key elements of Russian culture, they are supporting Hitler’,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly claimed that invading Ukraine was necessary to protect his country from far-right neo-Nazis in Kyiv, a claim dismissed as a “plain and simple lie” by experts.

Prof Tomas said his 20-strong group of petitioners opposed the Ukraine war and hoped one day Russia would be ruled by another leader.

Local authorities in Vilnius contest this, saying the memorial must be removed for historical and political reasons.

“The time has come to remove one of the last symbols of Soviet occupation from our city,” said Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius, told Euronews in a statement.

He added that the decision had also come “as a response to the unwarranted Russian aggression toward Ukraine”.

He noted that the Vilnius municipality “has been steadily cleaning the city of Soviet symbols -- memorials, statues, and other reminders of former occupants -- over the years.

“Most attributes were removed once Lithuania regained its independence [from the USSR] in 1991,” he said.

The small Baltic country was occupied by Russian forces in 1944 and became part of the USSR. Some Lithuanians blame Russia for economic stagnation and are critical of its political control during this time, though others view the USSR more positively.

Speaking to Euronews, Prof Tomas feared that the removal of the statue, which is due to be completed in three weeks, would drive a wedge between Lithuania’s Russian-speaking minority and the wider population.

“These actions will push the Russian population towards Putin,” he said. “You should [reach out] to the Russian population in Lithuania ... in order to convince them of the values of European society, instead of making the residents of your country enemies”.

Russian speakers are the second-largest minority in Lithuania, making up around 5% of the population. Many of them were born and raised in the country.

Those against the move claim vehicles will pass over burial sites and tombstones will be displaced during the removal process, desecrating the graves of those who died fighting Nazi Germany in World War Two (WW2).

“People have relatives who are in that cemetery [...] the monument represents our forefathers, heroes of the Second World War, courageous soldiers,” said Prof Tomas.

“There is a general Russophobia because of the war in Ukraine. But the war in Ukraine has nothing to do with World War Two.”

Šimašius fiercely dismissed these claims as false.

“No graves or gravestones will be removed or damaged during this entire process, and there has never been any intention to do so,” he said.

“All operations are being implemented with the utmost regard to all international regulations. The Soviet propagandistic stelae will simply be removed from the territory of the cemetery and taken to a site for safekeeping.”

Around 25,000 Lithuanian troops are estimated to have been killed in WWII, fighting in both the Soviet and German armies.

The cemetery where the monument stands is used by Lithuanians to mark the anniversary of the end of the war.

Prof Tomas, who said he was a Lithuanian Jew, called out what he saw as hypocrisy around the removal.

He claimed that Lithuania has erected monuments to far-right figures and those who took part in the Lithuanian holocaust, during which nearly 200,000 Jews were massacred in 1941.

Until it was removed in 2019, the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences displayed a memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika, who ordered the murder of 1,800 Jews that year.

He later became a lawyer and organizer of anti-Soviet resistance, until his execution in 1947.

In May, the United Nations Human Rights Committee put an interim measure in place, prompting Vilnius municipality to postpone removing the memorial.

A group calling themselves “ethnic Russias” had petitioned the UN body to intervene, reported LRT, a Lithuanian media outlet.

However, according to Šimašius, the UN was given misleading information.

“It is unfortunate that the United Nations Committee has been misled by people who want to throw accusatory statements at Lithuania to degrade it,” he said. “Their accusations are not correct”.

The Human Rights Committee declined to comment on the case. — Euronews


December 03, 2022
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