Will an attempt at addressing injustices of the past hinder Lithuania's progress in the future? That unlikely scenario became more possible, as a diplomatic row broke out between Vilnius and Beijing over an unintentional coincidence in timing. However trivial the entire escapade looks to others, it nevertheless has become a problem for Lithuania, which is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council in the year 2003. And to upset China, a permanent member of the Security Council, is not the best way to achieve that goal.
The chairman of China's National People's Congress, Li Peng, scheduled several European stops on his way home from a meeting of parliament speakers hosted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in New York. The itinerary indicated that Li was due to stay in Lithuania for a two-day visit before moving on to Latvia. As the trip was planned to reciprocate a visit by Seimas Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis to Beijing earlier, part of the programme was based in the Lithuanian Parliament building. However, at the last moment, Li changed his itinerary, making a two-day visit to Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Belarus instead, which reduced his Vilnius trip to a short and symbolic two-hour drop-in.
Change of plans
Why the sudden change? China, notorious for diplomatic sensitivity to symbolic acts, likely found offensive another event planned at the same time at the Seimas buildingâ€”the reconvening of the tribunal of the International Congress on the Evaluation of Communism. Though both Vilnius and Beijing have not commented on the reasons behind the sudden and drastic change in schedule for Li, most local press attributed the decision to the coincidental timing. As one of the top leaders of the world's largest Communist state, Li obviously found the notion of "Communist crimes" incompatible, to say the least, with his visit.
Organisers of the reconvening of the tribunal played down the connection, saying their tribunal's work focused on Communist crimes in Europe. There is little indication that the timing of the tribunal meeting was deliberate. However, this provided some extra fodder for the Parliamentary opposition to use against the ruling Conservativesâ€”especially Seimas Chairman Landsbergis. Gediminas Kirkilas, a leader in the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP), scolded Landsbergis for "undermining" Lithuania's foreign policy. How ironic that the LDDP is the direct successor of the Lithuanian Communist Party, itself guilty of enough atrocities against the people of Lithuania over the decades.
Government officials played down the "low-fat" edition of the Li Peng visit, saying the two-plus hours spent in the VIP lounge of Vilnius Airport were fruitful. Landsbergis himself said, "I do not think that the content of the visit would have been broader." Also, President Valdas Adamkus met with Li a day earlier in Reykjavik, while both were visiting Iceland during a Trans-Atlantic journey (Adamkus was travelling to the UN Millennium Summit in New York). Though Li could not see it from the VIP lounge, several dozen protestorsâ€”led by well-known writer and Tibet specialist Jurga IvanauskaitÄ— (see CER's article about her works, A Colourful Bird in a Pale Land )â€”picketed outside the airport against Chinese policies in Tibet and demanded freedom for the captive nation. The day before, MP Vidmantas Ĺ˘iemelis tabled a parliamentary resolution supporting Tibet, which was indeed timed coincidentally.
The government played down the symbolic snubbing, while the opposition tried to use it for fuel in the ongoing campaign for the October general elections. But will this little fiasco cause real and long-term problems for Lithuania? Li reiterated Chinese policy that all states have the right to choose their own path, which benefits China's own policy against the West's "encroaching values" and Lithuania's desire to join NATO for security. However, that is standard Chinese policy for the Baltics, so nothing new was gained in the two hours at Vilnius Airport in that respect.
The damage could be more long-term, however. China has a reputation of remembering symbolic issues and is notoriously sensitive to perceived disapproval for its way of running its centralised state. Any state flirting with the idea acknowledging Taiwan's statehood has faced China's ire in the international community. Even though Taiwan offers what can almost be called "bribe" money to switch recognition, most countries in the world recognise the power China has only because of their permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
When Macedonia recognised Taiwan, China made an incredible fuss over the UN peacekeeping mandate in the Balkan state from the powerful position on the Security Council. Lithuania, which has declared its desire to win a spot on the Security Council in 2003, may have just damaged its chances of joining that body, if a certain permanent member remembers this trip a few years down the road.
The second meeting of the International Congress on the Evaluation of Communism was not covered by the press much, until this incident brought it into media attention. That is symptomatic of the double standard that remains in world thinking, when considering Soviet / Communist crimes to Nazi / Fascist crimes. Hopefully this little incident will show the world how devastating Soviet Communism was to Europe and the world, and its crimes will be recognized for being as horrible as they were to the nations subjected to them. If there is no international recognition of the atrocities committed by Soviet Communists, then any criticism of Communist China's human rights record will be hollow.
Mel Huang, 11 September 2000
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