by Egle Kesylyte-Allix, Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Oslo
This paper examines the tensions that arise between the nation and the state in the process of symbolic nation-building in post-Soviet Lithuania. It investigates how nationhood and statehood are perceived in the legal, parliamentary and societal discourses of Lithuanian citizens who have spent their formative years in post-1990 Lithuania, concerning the national flag after independence from the Soviet Union. As regards symbolic nation-building, the official state discourse appears to prioritize the fostering of civic awareness and emotional attachment of the nation towards the state, over attempts to solve issues relating to the unity and cohesion of the national community itself. However, this focus on the perceived fragility of statehood, with attempts to strengthen its importance within national community, may also lead to a separation between the nation and the state rather than rapprochement between the two: reserving matters of the state for politicians, political institutions or experts, thereby excluding the nation, may contribute to the persistence of symptoms of political apathy and alienation among the populace. By contrast, national cohesion and inter-ethnic co-existence emerge as key preoccupations within focus group discussions conducted for this study. Finally, societal discourse features greater importance given to the national community in the process of achieving and sustaining statehood than in the political discourse.
The main inquiry of this paper revolves around possible tensions between the nation and the state in post-1990 Lithuania. The three Baltic states differ from other former states of the Soviet Union by having managed to establish relatively stable democratic regimes and achieve membership in the European Union and NATO. Compared to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has been subjected to less international monitoring concerning ethnic minorities, due to its less restrictive laws on citizenship and minority rights (Budryte 2005, 143, Kasekamp 2010, 184-188). This legal framework and relatively small ethnic minority groups are main factors for the absence of open, large-scale ethnic clashes (Kasatkina 2003, Steen 2006). However, these circumstances have not guaranteed tension-free integration of ethnic minorities. The relationship between the Lithuanian state and the titular ethnic group is at least as complex as that between the state and its ethnic minorities. I have not found academic studies which focus on possible tensions solely between the state and ethnic Lithuanians. However, the findings of academic studies on Lithuanian society as a whole inevitably relate also to ethnic Lithuanians. Scholars have noted significant and continuing levels of political alienation, exemplified by low trust in state institutions (in particular, the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas), low political participation and disenchantment with democracy, as main challenges for Lithuanian society (Donskis 2011, 105-116, Ramonaitė 2005, 2007).
The co-existence of relatively stable democratic regime, achieved membership in the EU and NATO, and relatively low levels of social protests and unrest, on the one hand, and problematic integration of ethnic minorities as well as persistent problems of political alienation, on the other, makes Lithuania a pertinent case for investigating tensions between the nation and the state and the problematique of nationhood in the post-Soviet space.
Literature review and methodology
There is no consensus on the causes for this state/society alienation: explanations vary from attributing it to the ‘fast and drastic sociocultural change’ (Donskis 2011, 107) to explaining it as an outcome of the way an individual relates to the Soviet regime (Ramonaitė 2007, 147) and lack of political rather than ethnic understanding of nationhood (Civitas report 2007).
I hold that examination of similarities and differences in perceptions of the nation and state as well as their interaction between the official (political) and societal discourses can contribute to better understanding of this puzzle. I see official and societal discourses on the national flags as allowing exploration of the images of the nation and the state. This research may provide insights into the use of symbolic policies and practices in the process of improving the situation regarding systemic political alienation in Lithuania.
Research on the role of symbols in the construction of national identity in post-Soviet Lithuania has been relatively sparse, and can be divided into four (often overlapping) groups. First, there are studies analysing the politics of history (see, e.g., Lopata et al. 2012, Radžvilas et al. 2011) and politics of culture (see, e.g., Jankevičiūtė 2009, Rindzevičiūtė 2010, 2011); second, research within the field of memory studies (see, e.g., Nikžentaitis 2011); third, studies of the meaning and importance of national symbols for private individuals (see, e.g., Akstinavičiūtė and Petraitytė 2007); and finally, academic literature on the history, status and use of the Lithuanian national flag (see, e.g., Elgenius 2011 – as part of a larger comparative study, Jarutis 2011, Mesonis 2012, Rimša 2008).
However, these studies approach the Lithuanian national flag and other material/non-material symbols either with reference to politics (how politicians utilize symbols in order to achieve their domestic and/or foreign policy goals) or within the context of the population (which symbols are perceived as important by people living in Lithuania). This paper incorporates the perspectives of both the state and the nation. It allows evaluating the degree of congruence between the perspectives held by the state institutions and ordinary citizens.
This paper analyses discursive representations of the Lithuanian national flag, nationhood and statehood in legislation regulating the status and usage of the flag, as well as the related parliamentary debates (which represent the perspective of the state) and discussions of a three focus group discussions after independence from the Soviet Union. The sample of the semi-public discourse was gathered in the form of three focus group discussions (FGDs) conducted in Lithuania in March 2015. Targeted participants for the focus groups were adult citizens of Lithuania who started their schooling from 1990 onwards (making them at the time of the FGDs between 18 and 32 years of age). My goal was not a representative study of all adult Lithuanian citizens who started school from 1990 onwards. Therefore, I did not consider all possible demographic variables such as religion, professional occupation, marital status, etc. in connection with the sampling, although I did take care to be aware of them when analysing the data.
Key findings and implications
As regards symbolic nation-building, the official state discourse appears to prioritize the fostering of civic awareness and emotional attachment of the nation towards the state, over attempts to solve issues relating to the unity and cohesion of the national community itself. However, this focus on the perceived fragility of statehood, with attempts to strengthen its importance within national community, may also lead to a separation between the nation and the state rather than rapprochement between the two: reserving matters of the state for politicians, political institutions or experts, thereby excluding the nation, may contribute to the persistence of symptoms of political apathy and alienation among the populace. By contrast, national cohesion and inter-ethnic co-existence emerge as key preoccupations within focus group discussions conducted for this study. Ethnic-based tensions were seen as existing not only between different ethnic groups in Lithuania but also between the state and its ethnic minorities. Thus, two changes in political discourse regarding symbolic policies and practices could be recommended: first, an open acknowledgment of the existing inter-ethnic tensions and aim at resolving instead of ignoring them – social alienation and exclusion among the members of citizenry will eventually have negative effects on the state-citizenry relations; second, shift from rather elitist image of the state and its institutions vis-à-vis national community towards more egalitarian image of a partner of the citizenry.
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 According to the 2011 census, Lithuanians made up 84.2% (2,561,000) of the total population; Poles – 6.6% (200.3 thousand), Russians – 5.8% (176.9 thousand) (Statistics 2013). From 1989 to 2011, the proportion of the population of Lithuanian ethnicity increased from 79.6% to 84.2%, whereas Russian dropped from 9.4% to 5.8% and Polish decreased from 7% to 6.6% (Statistics 2013).
 In a representative opinion survey in 1993, 12% of ethnic Lithuanian, 5% of ethnic Russian and 7% of ethnic Polish respondents stated that they did not trust parliament (Rose and Maley 1994). In 1996, 27% of ethnic Lithuanian and 26% of ethnic Russian respondents declared ‘complete mistrust’ in the parliament (Rose 1997). In 2001, the figures were even higher: 70% of ethnic Lithuanian and 68% of ethnic Russian respondents declared that they did not trust members of parliament (Rose 2002). In 2004, 60% of ethnic Lithuanian and 51% of ethnic Russian respondents stated that they did not trust parliament (Rose 2005). Since 2006, the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Lithuania has commissioned annual representative surveys on trust in state institutions among those living in Lithuania. Presentation of their detailed results is beyond the scope of this thesis (all surveys are publicly available at: http://vakokybe.vrm.lt/index.php?id=307 ); however, we should note that the Lithuanian parliament has remained the ‘least trusted’ state institution from t 2006 until 2015 (latest survey).
 In Lithuania, a person is considered to have reached legal majority at the age of eighteen. As stated in Article 2 of the Law on Fundamentals of Protection of the Rights of the Child: ‘A child is a human being below the age of 18 years, unless otherwise established by law’. Moreover, Article 34 in the Constitution states: ‘Citizens who on the day of the election have reached 18 years of age shall be entitled to vote’.