‘A fight for your way of life’: Lithuania’s culture minister on Ukraine and Russian disinformation

Lithuania’s Minister of Culture Simonas Kairys spoke to FRANCE 24 about Lithuania’s fight against Russian disinformation and why the Baltic nation feels so bound to Ukraine.

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In March 1990, Lithuania became the first nation to declare its independence as the Soviet Union collapsed, setting an example for other states that had been under the Kremlin’s influence for half a century. As a nascent democracy emerging from Soviet control, Lithuania was free to rediscover its own history and culture.

But Vilnius has once again become a target for Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long considered the demise of the Soviet Union as a historical tragedy in which Russians were innocent victims. As part of efforts to justify the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has launched a disinformation campaign aimed at Kyiv’s allies in the West.

In addition to putting pressure on Ukraine’s supporters, the Kremlin has attempted to intimidate them. Russian authorities placed Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and others on a wanted list in February along with other Baltic officials for allowing municipalities to dismantle WWII-era monuments to Soviet soldiers, moves seen by Moscow as “an insult to history”. 

Upon being informed his name was listed, Culture Minister Kairys was insouciant. “I’m glad that my work in dismantling the ruins of Sovietisation has not gone unnoticed,” he said.

Read moreThe Kremlin puts Baltic leaders on ‘wanted’ list

FRANCE 24 spoke to Kairys on why it is vital to fight Russian propaganda, and why the Baltic state feels so invested in what is happening in Ukraine.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

What historical narratives has Russia tried to distort when it comes to Lithuanian independence?

Simonas Kairys: Russia is still in “imperialism” mode. The way they inscribed me onto their wanted list shows that they think and act upon the belief that countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union – sovereign and independent countries such as Lithuania – are still part of Russia.

Russia has its own law system, which – from their point of view – is [the law even] in free countries (in the Russian criminal code, “destroying monuments to Soviet soldiers” is an act punishable by a five-year prison term). It’s absurd and unbelievable how they interpret the current situation in the world. If they say, for example, that they are “protecting” objects of Soviet heritage in a foreign country like Lithuania, they are spreading their belief that it is not a free country. But we are not slaves, and we are taking this opportunity to be outspoken and say Russia is promoting a fake version of history.

Why is combating Russian disinformation essential for Lithuanian national security?

It is not important for Lithuania – it is important for the EU, for Europe and for the entire free world. The war in Ukraine is happening very near to the EU; it is happening only a few hours away from France. Culture, heritage [and] historical memory are also fields of combat. Adding me to their wanted list is just one example of this. When we see how Russia is falsifying not only history but all information, it’s important to speak about it very loudly. Lithuania has achieved a lot in this domain, along with Ukraine and France. 

When France had the [rotating, six-month] presidency of the EU [in early 2022], we made several joint declarations. The result was that we signed a sixth package of sanctions against Russia and we designated six Russian television channels to be blocked in the EU – this was the first step in considering information as a [weapon]. In other words, information is being used by Russia to convince their society and sway public opinion in other European countries. Now we have a situation in which we are blocking Russian television channels in EU territory.  

Our foreign partners often ask us upon which criteria Russian information can be considered as disinformation. These days, it’s very important to stress that any information – from television shows to news to other television productions – coming from Russia is automatically disinformation, propaganda and fake news. We must understand that there is no truth in what Russia tries to say.

This fight against disinformation is crucial because we are in a phase of big developments in technology and artificial intelligence. We have to ensure that our societies will be prepared, be capable of critical thinking, and understand what is happening in the world right now.

Olympic and world champion Ruta Meilutyte swims across a pond colored red to signify blood, in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. © Andrius Repsys, AP

To borrow a term from Czech writer Milan Kundera, would you say that Lithuania was “kidnapped from the West” when it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940?

During the Middle Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania spanned from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. We were the same country as Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. We were oriented to the West and not the East. In much older times, during the Kievan Rus period, Moscow didn’t even exist; there were just swamps and nothing more. But with [growing] imperialism from the Russian side, they began portraying history in a different way. Yet our memory is like our DNA, our freedom and orientation are ingrained. The eastern flank of the EU is currently talking about the values of Western civilisation much more emphatically than in the past.

[During the Cold War] not only was our freedom taken but [Russia] tried to delete history and paint a picture only from the time when this imperialism entered our territory. But we remembered what happened in the Middle Ages; we remember how modern Lithuanian statehood arose after World War I and how we regained our freedom in 1990. It’s impossible to delete this memory and name Lithuania as a country that isn’t free. Once you take a breath of freedom, you never forget it. This is the reason why we understand Ukrainians and why we are so active to not only defend the territory of Ukraine, but also the values of Western civilisation as well.   

How has the war in Ukraine influenced Lithuanian life and culture?

The main thing is to think about freedom; we have to do a lot because of that freedom, we have to fight for freedom … we understand more and more that culture plays a big role in this war, because it is based on culture and history. You can see what Putin is declaring and it is truly evident that culture, heritage and historical memory are used as the basis for an explanation of why Russia is waging war in Ukraine right now. (To justify the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and uniting them is a historical inevitability.) 

There are important collaborations taking place with Ukrainian culture and artists. It’s important to give them a platform – for everyone to see that Ukraine is not defeated, that Ukraine is still fighting, that Ukraine will win, that we will help them. 

The best response to an aggressor is to live your daily life, with all your traditions, habits and cultural legacy. This fight is also for your way of life. The situation is not one where you must stop and only think about guns and systems of defence – you have to live, work, create, and keep up your business and cultural life. 

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The Kremlin puts Baltic leaders on ‘wanted’ list for challenging its worldview

The Kremlin placed Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and other Baltic officials on a list of wanted criminals on Monday in a move aimed at preserving Russia’s view of its glorious past from present-day challenges. The Kremlin said Kallas was put on the list for her efforts to remove WWII-era monuments to Soviet soldiers, moves seen by Moscow as unlawful and “an insult to history”.

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Russia has a track record of putting foreign officials on wanted lists, but this latest move makes Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas the first foreign head of government to be sought by Russian police. Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys are also on the list, along with dozens of other Baltic and Polish politicians.

Kallas and Peterkop made the list because of their efforts to remove monuments to Soviet soldiers who served in World War II, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was blunt, saying the move was a response to those who have taken “hostile action toward historic memory and our country”.

A Russian security source told the TASS state news agency that the Kremlin is seeking to prosecute Kallas and Peterkop for the “destruction and defacement of monuments [honouring] Soviet soldiers” along with the Lithuanian minister of culture, Simonas Kairys.

“These wanted notices are Russia’s way of saying: ‘You come under Russian legislation and we consider you still, more or less, part of the Russian Empire,’” says historian Cécile Vaissié, professor of Russian and Soviet studies at Rennes-ll University.

“It’s simply provocation and an insult to an independent, autonomous country.”

Moscow has issued such wanted notices in the past, for instance, against exiled writer Boris Akunin over his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Akunin was accused of “terrorism” and placed on the Kremlin’s list of “foreign agents”.

The Kremlin’s list is long indeed.

Meta spokesman and Ukrainian farmer on the list

More than 96,000 people – including over 31,000 Russians and nearly 4,000 Ukrainians – are on a Russian wanted list, according to the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, which published a compilation of various Russian interior ministry databases on Monday.

The range of people targeted is wide. The list includes Andy Stone, spokesman for Meta (parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), accused of “supporting terrorism”. The Polish president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Piotr Hofmanski, is also on the list. His name was added after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin in March 2023 for the Russian president’s role in the deportation of Ukrainian children.

Given the war in Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the majority of foreigners targeted by Russian law enforcement agencies are Ukrainians. Mediazona has identified at least 176 people “prosecuted in absentia” for various reasons: participation in the war, links with Ukrainian authorities, public statements. The list includes the former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valery Zaluzhny, and even a Ukrainian farmer who supported Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and made unflattering remarks about Putin.

Some 59 Latvian MPs – two-thirds of the parliament – are also under investigation after voting in May 2022 to withdraw from an agreement with Russia on the preservation of Soviet memorials. The parliamentary vote, taken a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine, was followed by the demolition of a Soviet-era monument in the capital, Riga.

“All these wanted notices give the impression of a catch-all approach, a hodge-podge of people supposedly hostile to Russia and against whom it is taking action,” notes Marie Dumoulin, programme director at the European Council for International Relations think tank.

Only one version of history

For Dumoulin, there is “no doubt that Russian prosecutors can support their contentions for each of these people”. But she has reservations about Kaja Kallas: “The case of the Estonian prime minister seems to me to be legally a little shaky: to single out foreign public figures on the basis of their discourse on history, that’s quite a reach.”

The prime minister, a fierce critic of Russia who has supported the removal of Soviet monuments in recent years, doesn’t seem to be fazed by her new status in Russia, dismissing the move as a “familiar scare tactic” by Moscow.

Posting on X, formerly Twitter, she said: “The Kremlin now hopes this move will help to silence me and others – but it won’t. The opposite.”

The threats of prosecution are largely symbolic, since they have little chance of leading to an arrest. But they are representative of Moscow’s continuing battle with the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe over the historical narrative.

Above all, Vaissié explains, Moscow “aims to reaffirm the existence of a ‘Russian world’ (a concept born after the collapse of the Soviet Union to encompass the entire Russian-speaking diaspora outside Russia) and of a Russia at the centre of an empire and overseeing the lives of its citizens”.

“Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has maintained a deliberate confusion between Russian speakers, Russians, Russian citizens, former citizens of the USSR and former citizens of the Empire,” she said.

Dumoulin cited Moscow’s “long-standing hard line with the Baltic States on the question of memory”, adding that tensions ratcheted up a notch after the 2020 reform of Russia’s constitution.

“The historical memory of the Russian state was then enshrined in the constitution,” she said. “And from that moment on, there was a stiffening of internal attitudes, notably with the dissolution of the NGO Memorial (which, among other things, was the guardian of the memory of the Gulag).”

“It’s an approach in which there is only one possible historical discourse,” she said. “It’s not good to be a historian in Russia today.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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The state of the planet in 10 numbers

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM.

The COP28 climate summit comes at a critical moment for the planet. 

A summer that toppled heat records left a trail of disasters around the globe. The world may be just six years away from breaching the Paris Agreement’s temperature target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, setting the stage for much worse calamities to come. And governments are cutting their greenhouse gas pollution far too slowly to head off the problem — and haven’t coughed up the billions of dollars they promised to help poorer countries cope with the damage.

This year’s summit, which starts on Nov. 30 in Dubai, will conclude the first assessment of what countries have achieved since signing the Paris accord in 2015. 

The forgone conclusion: They’ve made some progress. But not enough. The real question is what they do in response.

To help understand the stakes, here’s a snapshot of the state of the planet — and global climate efforts — in 10 numbers. 

1.3 degrees Celsius

Global warming since the preindustrial era  

Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have been driving global temperatures skyward since the 19th century, when the industrial revolution and the mass burning of fossil fuels began to affect the Earth’s climate. The world has already warmed by about 1.3 degrees Celsius, or 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of that warming has occurred since the 1970s. In the last 50 years, research suggests, global temperatures have risen at their fastest rate in at least 2,000 years.  

This past October concluded the Earth’s hottest 12-month span on record, a recent analysis found. And 2023 is virtually certain to be the hottest calendar year ever observed. It’s continuing a string of recent record-breakers — the world’s five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015. 

Allowing warming to pass 2 degrees Celsius would tip the world into catastrophic changes, scientists have warned, including life-threatening heat extremes, worsening storms and wildfires, crop failures, accelerating sea level rise and existential threats to some coastal communities and small island nations. Eight years ago in Paris, nearly every nation on Earth agreed to strive to keep temperatures well below that threshold, and under a more ambitious 1.5-degree threshold if at all possible. 

But with just fractions of a degree to go, that target is swiftly approaching — and many experts say it’s already all but out of reach.

$4.3 trillion  

Global economic losses from climate disasters since 1970  

Climate-related disasters are worsening as temperatures rise. Heat waves are intensifying, tropical cyclones are strengthening, floods and droughts are growing more severe and wildfires are blazing bigger. Record-setting events struck all over the planet this year, a harbinger of new extremes to come. Scientists say such events will only accelerate as the world warms. 

Nearly 12,000 weather, climate and water-related disasters struck worldwide over the last five decades, the World Meteorological Organization reports. They’ve caused trillions of dollars in damage, and they’ve killed more than 2 million people.  

Ninety percent of these deaths have occurred in developing countries. Compared with wealthier nations, these countries have historically contributed little to the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming – yet they disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change.  

4.4 millimeters  

Annual rate of sea level rise

Global sea levels are rapidly rising as the ice sheets melt and the oceans warm and expand. Scientists estimate that they’re now rising by about 4.4 millimeters, or about 0.17 inches, each year – and that rate is accelerating, increasing by about 1 millimeter every decade.

Those sound like small numbers. They’re not.  

The world’s ice sheets and glaciers are losing a whopping 1.2 trillion tons of ice each year. Those losses are also speeding up, accelerating by at least 57 percent since the 1990s. Future sea level rise mainly depends on future ice melt, which depends on future greenhouse gas emissions. With extreme warming, global sea levels will likely rise as much as 3 feet by the end of this century, enough to swamp many coastal communities, threaten freshwater supplies and submerge some small island nations.  

Some places are more vulnerable than others. 

“Low-lying islands in the Pacific are on the frontlines of the fight against sea level rise,” said NASA sea level expert Benjamin Hamlington. “In the U.S., the Southeast and Gulf Coasts are experiencing some of the highest rates of sea level rise in the world and have very high future projections of sea level.”  

But in the long run, he added, “almost every coastline around the world is going to experience sea level rise and will feel impacts.”

Less than 6 years

When the world could breach the 1.5-degree threshold

The world is swiftly running out of time to meet its most ambitious international climate target: keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Humans can emit only another 250 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and maintain at least even odds of meeting that goal, scientists say. 

That pollution threshold could arrive in as little as six years.

That’s the bottom line from at least two recent studies, one published in June and one in October. Humans are pouring about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, with each ton eating into the margin of error.  

The size of that carbon buffer is smaller than previous estimates have suggested, indicating that time is running out even faster than expected.  

“While our research shows it is still physically possible for the world to remain below 1.5C, it’s difficult to see how that will stay the case for long,” said Robin Lamboll, a scientist at Imperial College London and lead author of the most recent study. “Unfortunately, net-zero dates for this target are rapidly approaching, without any sign that we are meeting them.”

43 percent 

How much greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 2030 to hit the temperature target

The world would have to undergo a stark transformation during this decade to have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5-degree cap. 

In a nutshell, global greenhouse gas emissions have to fall 43 percent by 2030, and 60 percent by 2035, before reaching net-zero by mid-century, according to a U.N. report published in September on the progress the world has made since signing the Paris Agreement. That would give the world a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. 

But based on the climate pledges that countries have made to date, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to fall by just 2 percent this decade, according to a U.N. assessment published this month

Governments are “taking baby steps to avert the climate crisis,” U.N. climate chief Simon Stiell said in a statement this month. “This means COP28 must be a clear turning point.” 

$1 trillion a year 

Climate funding needs of developing countries

In many ways, U.N. climate summits are all about finance. Cutting industries’ carbon pollution, protecting communities from extreme weather, rebuilding after climate disasters — it all costs money. And developing countries, in particular, don’t have enough of it. 

As financing needs grow, pressure is mounting on richer nations such as the U.S. that have produced the bulk of planet-warming emissions to help developing countries cut their own pollution and adapt to a warmer world. They also face growing calls to pay for the destruction wrought by climate change, known as loss and damage in U.N.-speak. 

But the flow of money from rich to poor countries has slowed. In October, a pledging conference to replenish the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund raised only $9.3 billion, even less than the $10 billion that countries had promised last time. An overdue promise by developed countries to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to rising temperatures was “likely” met last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said this month, while warning that adaptation finance had fallen by 14 percent in 2021. 

As a result, the gap between what developing countries need and how much money is flowing in their direction is growing. The OECD report said developing countries will need around $1 trillion a year for climate investments by 2025, “rising to roughly $2.4 trillion each year between 2026 and 2030.”

$7 trillion 

Worldwide fossil fuel subsidies in 2022

In stark contrast to the trickle of climate finance, fossil fuel subsidies have surged in recent years. In 2022, total spending on subsidies for oil, natural gas and coal reached a record $7 trillion, the International Monetary Fund said in August. That’s $2 trillion more than in 2020. 

Explicit subsidies — direct government support to reduce energy prices — more than doubled since 2020, to $1.3 trillion. But the majority of subsidies are implicit, representing the fact that governments don’t require fossil fuel companies to pay for the health and environmental damage that their products inflict on society. 

At the same time, countries continue pumping public and private money into fossil fuel production. This month, a U.N. report found that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the 1.5-degree target. 

66,000 square kilometers

Gross deforestation worldwide in 2022

At the COP26 climate summit two years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, nations committed to halting global deforestation by 2030. A total of 145 countries have signed the Glasgow Forest Declaration, representing more than 90 percent of global forest cover. 

Yet global action is still falling short of that target. The annual Forest Declaration Assessment, produced by a collection of research and civil society organizations, estimated that the world lost 66,000 square kilometers of forest last year, or about 25,000 square miles — a swath of territory slightly larger than West Virginia or Lithuania. Most of that loss came from tropical forests. 

Halting deforestation is a critical component of global climate action. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that collective contributions from agriculture, forestry and land use compose as much as 21 percent of global human-caused carbon emissions. Deforestation releases large volumes of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, and recent research suggests that carbon losses from tropical forests may have doubled since the early 2000s.  

Almost 1 billion tons

The annual carbon dioxide removal gap 

Given the world’s slow pace in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, scientists say a second approach is essential for slowing the Earth’s warming — removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The technology for doing this is largely untested at scale, and won’t be cheap.  

A landmark report on carbon dioxide removals led by the University of Oxford earlier this year found that keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less would require countries to collectively remove an additional 0.96 billion tons of CO2-equivalent a year by 2030.

About 2 billion tons are now removed every year, but that is largely achieved through the natural absorption capacity of forests. 

Removing even more carbon will require countries to massively scale up carbon removal technologies, given the limited capacity of forests to absorb more carbon dioxide. 

Carbon removal technologies are in the spotlight at COP28, though some countries and companies want to use them to meet net-zero while continuing to burn fossil fuels. Scientists have been clear that carbon removal cannot be a substitute for steep emissions cuts. 

1,000 gigawatts 

Annual growth in renewable power capacity needed to keep 1.5 degrees in reach  

The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is underway, but the transition is still far too slow to meet the Paris Agreement targets. 

To keep 1.5 degrees within reach, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the world needs to add 1,000 gigawatts in renewable energy capacity every year through 2030. By comparison, the United States’ entire utility-scale electricity-generation capacity was about 1,160 gigawatts last year, according to the Department of Energy.

Last year, countries added about 300 gigawatts, according to the agency’s latest World Energy Transitions Outlook published in June. 

That shortfall has prompted the EU and the climate summit’s host nation, the United Arab Emirates, to campaign for nations to sign up to a target to triple the world’s renewable capacity by 2030 at COP28, a goal also supported by the U.S. and China.

“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable,” International Energy Agency boss Fatih Birol said last month. “It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ – and the sooner the better for all of us.”

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

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Are small nations welcome at the EU’s industrial policy table?

It is not just about the money, it is about what each country — no matter its size — can bring to the table, Marius Stasiukaitis writes.

The Green Industrial Plan, comprehensive as it might be, falls short of an industrial policy that would work equally well across the entire European Union. 


Instead, new policies set broad rules, leaving the actual industrial development strategy in the purview of individual member states. 

While bolstering industry in manufacturing hotspots, this approach might significantly distort the market in ways that do a disservice not just to businesses but to the “green” part of the plan itself.

The EU’s industrial policy should not turn into a subsidy race

A new era of competition is unfolding for investments in strategically vital sectors across the world. 

Last year, the United States enacted the Inflation Reduction Act and Chips Act, introducing generous subsidies to incentivize investments in green technologies and semiconductors. 

In February 2023, the EU followed with the Green Industrial Plan, which relaxed state aid rules for member states, granting them the ability to match subsidies offered in other regions around the globe.

While the intention is likely to prove to be a net positive for the EU, reducing the EU’s industrial policy’s role to a rule set for a subsidy race between member states could prove to be costly. 

For smaller economies, it might be a particularly difficult challenge. This has the potential to undermine Europe’s green transition and weaken its competitiveness, losing prospective investment opportunities in the long run.

This could also imperil the bloc’s cohesion policy

We have already seen the EU’s leading economies roll out the red carpet for major investors, backing their invitation with impressive sums. 

For example, recent media reports have revealed that the German government provided Intel with €10 billion in subsidies to establish a €30bn chip plant within its territory.

Whereas France announced that it has received EU authorisation to grant €1.5bn in subsidies to a €5.2bn electric vehicle battery factory.

These announcements come at a time when many EU countries are facing rising borrowing costs, which could further complicate their efforts to secure significant additional funding for their industrial development. 


The government deficit-to-GDP ratio in the eurozone stood at 3.6% in 2022 and might increase even further in 2023. 

It is also a matter of relative cost. For smaller countries such as the Baltic States or Slovenia, the size of the subsidy that Germany granted to Intel alone would exceed 10% of their GDP. 

No matter what they choose to do regarding upgrading their infrastructure, a subsidy in the billions would most likely trump that. 

In this scenario, the EU’s cohesion policy might also be jeopardised, as large countries will stronghold their position in tomorrow’s industries.

A paradigm shift could make the EU more competitive

Most importantly, this approach will likely undermine Europe’s green transition, making the process more costly. 


A policy that favours larger countries with greater financial resources raises the risk of significant market distortions, diverting investments from locations in the EU where their lasting competitive advantages would be most viable.

The EU’s industrial policy is more likely to succeed if it utilises the distinct strengths held by its member states. 

This would require a paradigm shift in the EU’s approach, moving beyond merely relaxing state aid rules and towards implementing a shared industrial development strategy and financing at the EU level. 

However, it is a worthwhile step as this shift would make the EU more competitive on the global stage, capitalising on the strengths of its member-states that already have a long track record in attracting foreign direct investment.

Small advanced economies, such as the Baltic States or Nordic countries, hold the potential to propel the growth of green industries in the EU. 


In contrast to the larger economies within the EU, they offer a more enticing business environment, showcase remarkable openness to foreign direct investment, boast ambitious renewable energy targets, and demonstrate a greater ability to adapt to the demands of future industries.

Smaller countries can also have ambitious plans

For instance, since the 1990s, Ireland has emerged as the premier EU destination for foreign direct investment, alluring multinational corporations across various sectors such as semiconductors, life sciences and digital technologies, despite its small size. 

This is attributed to its favourable business environment, skilled workforce, and strategic location.

Furthermore, in recent times, several other nations have joined the league. According to the 2023 Greenfield FDI Performance Index, Portugal and Lithuania have remarkably attracted about six times more investment projects than the size of their economy would predict, positioning them as leading overachievers within the EU.

Notably, small advanced economies that have been focusing on attracting foreign direct investment to fuel their growth also have successfully put all the essential building blocks in place. 

For example, the Baltic States, along with Denmark and Ireland, are ranked highest in the EU for their business environment in the Economic Freedom Ranking. 

Renewable energy could provide another compelling reason why smaller countries in Southern or Northern Europe are strategically positioned to drive the growth of green industries. Nordic countries are already global leaders in renewable energy production, and the surplus of clean energy was crucial to the success of Northvolt’s first battery factory in Sweden. 

The Baltic States also have ambitious plans; for instance, Lithuania aims to meet 90% of its energy demand through local production of renewable energy by the end of this decade. 

As the issue of energy independence is vital for countries on the eastern border of the EU, we are likely to see an acceleration of their green transition.

It’s not about the size — it’s about what you can bring to the table

The success of the EU’s industrial policy and green transformation could hinge on the smaller countries within the EU. Some of these countries have already mastered the fundamentals of future economy — adaptability and flexibility. 

This makes them ideal hubs for sandboxes or emerging industries with rapidly evolving technology. 

And while financial incentives will retain strong appeal, they will not be able to replace the agility of the smaller European states, crucial for securing Europe’s competitiveness. 

In other words, it is not just about the money, it is about what each country — no matter its size — can bring to the table.

Marius Stasiukaitis is the Head of Strategy at Invest Lithuania, a non-profit investment promotion agency founded in 2010 by the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Lithuania.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Left in limbo: The struggle to lay loved ones to rest

When a migrant dies trying to enter Europe, their family and friends often face an agonising struggle to bring their remains back home for burial.

Their last contact was a late-night phone call.


Sanooja Saleem’s husband was in tears. He was lost, alone somewhere in the dark, dank border area between Lithuania and Belarus. His phone was running out of battery. He didn’t have food or water.

And then nothing.

For four and a half months, she tirelessly tried to find out what happened to Samrin, her only clue a fleeting WhatsApp live location shared in the early hours of 17 August 2022.

“Words can’t express how I felt during this time. We had no clue about my husband. Every day my son was asking for his father,” the 32-year-old told Euronews. “We couldn’t sleep.”

As her then four-year-old son Haashim grew increasingly distressed with each passing day, “crying all the time” and refusing to go to school, she contacted the Lithuanian and Belarusian police, who seldom spoke a word of English, and as many institutions, authorities and organisations as possible.

Then her worst fears were confirmed. She received a call the following January that Samrin had passed away, his body recovered from a river months before.

“My husband made a mistake. I accept that. Entering a country without a proper visa is illegal and wrong. I did not support him in this matter.” 

“I lost my husband. He was very healthy, young. He’s not a criminal. He wanted to survive, he was suffering. He wanted to keep our family happy. That’s why he came.” 

Yet the saga didn’t stop there. As if the news of losing her loved one was not hard enough, the working mum faced the struggle of getting his body back to their home in Sri Lanka.

With Samrin taking on debt to pay for his journey to Europe, Sanooja couldn’t afford to come and identify his body, let alone cover the cost of repatriating his remains.

“I was with my husband side by side through everything. But at that point, I was so helpless. My relatives tried to get me to the funeral but I was not ready. I was not okay with leaving my son.”


As a Muslim, “when a person passes away, we have to bury them very soon,” she told Euronews. “We believe dead bodies feel the pain. It was very difficult for me.”

She eventually decided to lay him to rest in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, but even without her money problems, Sanooja doubted she could get the visa to visit his grave.

It can be difficult for third-country nationals to obtain visas to enter the EU. Visas are often unaffordable, subject to lengthy delays and liable to be refused.  

“One day I would like to come and visit him,” she said. 

Identifying the dead after shipwrecks

But Sanooja is far from alone. 


After a rickety fishing trawler overflowing with people heading to Italy over the Mediterranean sank in June, relatives are still frantically searching for loved ones among the missing and dead. 

An estimated 500-750 people – mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan – are thought to have drowned when the ship capsized, making it one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Med. 

Only 82 bodies have been recovered. The rest, including women and children, sank to one of the deepest parts of the sea estimated at 4,000 m. Here recovery is all but impossible.

For some, the lack of a body to bury means they hold out hope, however improbable, that their wife, brother, friend, sister, husband, lover or son is out there somewhere, still alive. They may never get closure. 

Yet, some may be able to close this door. 


Greek authorities have begun a slow, meticulous, heart-wrenching process to identify the dead. 

Complicating their task is a dearth of information about who was on board, as relatives from war-torn and impoverished countries struggle to provide DNA samples, but the Disaster Victim Identification Team have set up a hotline and is still receiving genetic samples.

Their painstaking work continues. 

Tragedy is also common in the English Channel, which has seen several devastating shipwrecks in recent years. 

Six Afghan men were the latest people to drown when their inflatable dinghy sank in August, according to a UK official. 

Many Afghans are running because they served with British armed forces during their military operation in Afghanistan. They are now persecuted, amid reports of vicious reprisals by the Taliban. 

When asked by Euronews if it had any formal processes in place to help recover migrant bodies, the UK Home Office did not respond. If their remains end up with the authorities, they also did not say if they would help repatriate them. 

What happens when a migrant body is found in Lithuania?

In Lithuania around 30 migrants have been reported missing, while several have died in Poland and Belarus.

One volunteer at Sienos Grupe, a Lithuanian humanitarian organisation, told Euronews how the body of one failed asylum seeker – someone whose application was rejected but still remains in a country – was repatriated from Lithuania.

From the beginning, they said it was chaotic, wishing to stay anonymous.

“We didn’t know who exactly we were talking to when people reached. There was a boyfriend. There was a family back home in Africa. It was very messy,” they explained.

Friends of the deceased eventually stepped in as translators and organisers, while other humanitarian organisations got involved. Their body was eventually repatriated, but only after a lengthy process that cost massive amounts of money and effort.

Though support was out there, the aid worker worried for families who faced language barriers lacked the resources or did know which institutions to contact to find out about deceased loved ones.

“The situation is weird, to say the least,” they said, claiming it was unclear how authorities helped repatriate migrant bodies or if a formal system existed. 

Citing the case of a dead man from India, who was found on the Lithuania-Belarus border in April, they explained: “We have no idea how he is represented, how his case is being handled, we don’t know if the family receives any kind of aid to repatriate his body.”

“Maybe they are doing stuff behind our backs. But I feel like a lot of the time when the state is doing something good they want people to know.”

Sanooja praised the Lithuanian authorities, Sienos Grupe and the Lithuanian Red Cross who “gave their full support” and were “very kind”, as she tried to lay her husband to rest. 

Several dead migrants – including children – have been buried in Lithuania at the expense of the state because relatives could neither come nor collect their bodies, a Lithuanian Red Cross Restoring Family Links coordinator said in a statement sent to Euronews.

However, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry did not answer Euronews’ request for information about whether it helps send migrants’s bodies home or covers the cost. 

They also did not disclose how people can check if a body has been recovered or if officials attempt to find a person’s relatives if their remains are unclaimed.

“If state border guards discover human remains at the border, regardless of gender, age or other circumstances, they shall immediately secure the scene and call the police,” Lithuania’s border guard told Euronews.

For the Sienos Grupe volunteer, this ambiguity about what happens to migrants in death reflects a wider issue about how they are viewed in life.

“There’s a lack of care and dehumanisation of these people,” they told Euronews, suggesting caring about their bodies could fix this. 

“Death is universal for all of us as people, it is something we all experience, we all bury our dead. It’s holy… If we care about their bodies, then we should care about migrants and should start preventing their deaths at the border.”

“If we keep this situation low key and act like it is just a body and not a human with a world inside of themselves, a past, future, maybe children, someone who was loved, then it’s easy to brush everything under the rug.”

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From allies to uncertainty: Lithuania’s Belarusian exile dilemma

“Putin and Lukashenko want the old Iron Curtain between Belarus and Europe,” one politician told Euronews, warning against imposing restrictions on Belarusian citizens.

Belarusian friends could be turning to foes in Lithuania.


Like neighbouring Poland, the small Baltic country has welcomed tens of thousands of Belarusian exiles since Minsk viciously cracked down on a 2020 protest movement. 

But Russia’s war in Ukraine changed everything.

It amplified fears in some quarters that citizens of Belarus, a staunch ally of Russia, could pose a security risk to Lithuania, leading the country’s lawmakers to consider banning visa and residency permits for Belarusians. 

Throw into the mix the arrival of thousands of Russian Wagner mercenaries into Belarus in July and some worriers have gone into overdrive.

“We understand the security risks posed by [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko’s regime of a possible infiltration with agents to Poland and Lithuania and there is no simple solution here. But we also know the policy of blanket bans doesn’t work,” Franak Viačorka, a Belarusian opposition politician, told Euronews. 

“The secret services of Russia and Lukashenko will just find any other way.”

Viačorka was also afraid of the “symbolic consequences” any clampdown could have, potentially aiding those in power in Moscow and Minsk.

“Putin and Lukashenko want the old Iron Curtin between Belarus and Europe… because it will help fix Russian control over Belarus. They want to isolate Belarusians, leaving them with no connections to the outside world.”

“Then the regime can commit atrocities with impunity. People will stand alone against its terror.”

He claimed “propaganda” TV channels in Belarus have already jumped upon Lithuania’s possible restrictions on Belarusian nationals, calling it “exactly” what the regime wants. 

Between 2020 and 2021, Belarusian security forces crushed massive anti-government protests, sparked by Lukashenko’s re-election, which was considered rigged by the international community, including the EU


More than 35,000 people were arbitrarily detained during that period, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many experienced violence, threats, ill-treatment and inhumane detention conditions. 

Belarusian authorities have since escalated smear campaigns and prosecutions against political and civic activists, journalists and human rights defenders on trumped-up charges, as per a Human Rights Watch report

Yet, Belarusian exiles – numbering around 58,000 inside Lithuania, according to data cited by AP – have become an increasingly thorny issue, as relations between Vilnius and Belarus have soured. 

Not only has Minsk funnelled irregular migrants into both Lithuania and Poland, which have been called a form of hybrid war, but Vilnius also holds Russia and Belarus equally responsible for the invasion of Ukraine.

Security concerns have inevitably risen. Bordering the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Lithuania was once part of the USSR and now feels threatened by a revisionist Russia, backed by Belarus.


In March, Lithuania’s parliament put forward a bill banning Belarusian and Russian nationals from obtaining Lithuanian citizenship, owning property, applying for visas or extending their residence permits. 

It was eventually watered down, with more controversial provisions dropped, but now lawmakers may again consider imposing visa and residence permit bans for Belarusians. A vote is expected in September.

“We will be grateful to Lithuania no matter what,” said opposition politician Viačorka.

“We see Lithuania as one of the closest countries to us. [More restrictive policies] could harm all the good things the country has done over the years for Belarusians. It is important not to spoil all that relationship capital we have built with fast decisions.”

‘Prisoners in Belarus’

While he recognised “some threat”, Lithuanian Labour MP Andrius Mazuronis said slapping restrictions on Belarusians would “make huge problems”.


Many exiles are young, highly educated individuals, “who share our values and see the situation in Ukraine in exactly the same way as we do,” he said. “The regime in Belarus will change…  and people with a Western mind will be able come back and recreate their country as a normal, European-orientated state.”

“That’s why we need to host these people in the medium to long term.”

And it’s not only the Belarusian opposition that benefits.

Lithuania has felt a “positive” impact, with Belarusian professionals playing an important role in the country’s burgeoning tech and IT sectors, plus many companies have relocated from Belarus, according to Mazuronis.

“Belarusians have settled down here and integrated into our society,” he told Euronews. “If we would close the border, I think our economy would face some serious challenges.”

Careful background checks by Lithuania’s migration and intelligence services could mitigate many security issues, Mazuronis said, suggesting lawmakers should make them stronger and deeper. 

He noted nearly 1,000 Belarusian citizens had been refused entry on security grounds, showing the Migration Department was doing an “important and impressive” job.

Still, Mazuronis aired a note of caution, amid fears Wagner mercenaries in Belarus may stage a provocation on NATO’s borders.

“Society feels threatened because they still remember how fast things can develop. We saw it with Ukraine. Lithuanian officials had talked about it [the threat of Russia] for many years – unfortunately, no one in Western capitals was listening,” he said. 

Authorities have recently sent questionnaires to Russians and Belarusians living in Lithuania aimed at proving their loyalty, asking questions about who rightfully owns Crimea and their views towards the war.

For Viačorka, such policies mistakenly equated the two. 

“Belarusians are not Russian,” he told Euronews. “It is helping Lukashenko’s propaganda: They want to make Belarusians perceived the same as Russia.”

“It is simply not true”.

Polling by independent Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky found only 11% of his compatriots were in favour of Belarus participating in the fighting in Ukraine, whereas in Russia attitudes towards the war are more unclear. 

Meanwhile, two-thirds of those surveyed are against Russia’s use of Belarus as a staging point for attacking Ukraine. 

“The most important thing in my point of view is the purpose of closing up the border?”, asked Mazuronis.

While he accepted it might send a political message to the Belarusian and Russian regimes, the Labour MP doubted if it would improve Lithuania’s security situation or decrease the possible threat coming from Moscow.

He also invoked history: “We should not forget that after the Second World War, thousands of Lithuanians ran from the Soviet regime. People went desperately. But they were able to eventually come back and build our country from scratch.”

“I am sure that many Belarusians are willing to do exactly the same,” he added.

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NATO Summit: How the Alliance is strengthening its eastern flank

Along with seeking a compromise for Ukraine’s entry into NATO, leaders at the Vilnius summit are on a quest to bolster the Alliance’s eastern front.

World leaders gathering in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius on Tuesday for a two-day NATO summit will seek to formulate a united message on Ukraine’s eventual membership within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization amid efforts to  reinforce the Alliance’s eastern front in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.   

NATO began increasing its military presence on its eastern flank (Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria) following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Four months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the Alliance would boost the number of troops on high alert by more than sevenfold to more than 300,000.  

NATO has been conducting the biggest transformation of its defence plans since the Cold War to deter Moscow from encroaching on its neighbours. At the NATO summit in Vilnius, member states are expected to announce increased investment on defence and elaborate long-term security plans.   

“No country is immune to all threats; they all have vulnerabilities. For NATO, the eastern flank is important,” said Vaidotas Urbelis, defence policy director of Lithuania’s ministry of defence.

Lithuania has reasons to be concerned. It shares a border with Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave located to the west on the Baltic Sea, and Belarus, which many analysts consider to be a de-facto military extension of Russia.

“This is why we are saying geography matters, control over the Baltic Sea matters,” Urbelis said. 

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Poland also has security concerns. After having experienced successive Russian invasions and occupations throughout its history, Warsaw’s leaders aren’t taking any chances. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced in January that Poland would increase defence spending from 3% to 4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), putting it on track to become the NATO member that spends more on defence than any other relative to its GDP.


Greece, the United States and Lithuania are among the NATO countries with the highest defence expenditure as a share of their GDP (%) in 2022. © FRANCE24 screen grab

‘We need to close the gap’

NAT0 has seen several of its members fall short of defence financing pledges over the past several years. NATO allies agreed in 2014 that member states should spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence within a decade. But many have still failed to reach this target. In 2022, France’s defence spending was 1.89% of its GDP, Italy was at 1.51% and Spain was at 1.09%. Only the three Baltic states, Poland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Greece met or exceeded the 2% threshold.

“We need to close the gap,” said Urbelis.

The Ukraine war has reawakened fears of an expansionist Russia.

“In order to defend ourselves, we need as many forces on the ground as possible, with speed being key. With Russian capacities just across the border; our forces must be ready to react to any incursion on NATO territory,” Urbelis added.

Zygimantas Pavilionis, a member of Lithuania’s parliament, sees the NATO summit as the right occasion to rally members on their defence budgets.

“I hope the Vilnius summit will be the moment when all member states commit to NATO defence spending,” he said.

Lithuania wants to press allies to spend more money on bolstering their military industries. This means persuading members of NATO to spend like the Baltic states, which have pledged to raise their defence spending to 3% of their GDP.

Integrating Ukraine into NATO is also an important piece of the puzzle for the Baltic states.

“Clearing Ukraine’s path to NATO membership by the time of the Washington NATO summit in 2024 will show Ukrainians and Russians we have a clear end-game strategy and all other attempts to destroy Ukraine will fail,” said Pavilionis.

Keeping the big picture in mind

The threats to NATO’s eastern flank can vary, and some military experts say the Alliance needs to keep the big picture in mind.

“Whether it’s an infantry attack on Poland or an intervention in Moldova, these are completely different scenarios,” said Yohann Michel, a research analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

To prepare for some of the possible scenarios, allied air forces began the largest deployment exercise in NATO’s history last June. Hosted and led by Germany, the two-week-long  Air Defender exercise had been planned for months, with training missions that took place over the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and southern Germany. The drills were aimed at boosting the Allies’ preparedness against aircraft, drones and missile attacks on cities and infrastructure.

But in modern warfare, an adversary doesn’t need to cross NATO’s borders to be a threat. Michel cited the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which delivered Russian oil and gas to Europe, as one example of Russian influence that could be wielded aggressively. “These are the kinds of scenarios we would like to plan for in the future,” he added.

As for Stoltenberg’s 2022 objective to have a rapid-reaction force of more than 300,000 troops ready to move to its eastern flank within 30 days, officials and experts admit NATO forces are nowhere near meeting that objective. “To reach this goal, European armed forces need to improve their readiness capacity. This means improving artillery in some areas and air defence in other areas,” said Michel.

Decades of underspending on military capacities among NATO countries also means that many have out-of-date military equipment, including parts that need to be replaced.

“Readiness implies what can you move at ‘time t’ (right away) in terms of equipment and troops,” said Michel.


A member of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) takes part in the Spring Storm exercises of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) force in Kadrina, Estonia on May 19, 2023.
A member of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) takes part in the Spring Storm exercises of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) force in Kadrina, Estonia on May 19, 2023. © Jaap Arriens, AFP


NATO’s forward presence

NATO countries have been adapting to the new security reality by moving increasing numbers of troops to the eastern part of the Alliance. NATO’s forward presence is made up of eight multinational battlegroups provided by Allies on a voluntary and rotational basis.

The battlegroups operate in tandem with national armies, with Canada currently leading a battlegroup in Latvia and Britain leading one in Estonia. French foreign legionnaires have also been assigned to the UK-led battlegroup in Estonia as part of what France calls Mission Lynx.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries have been stationing their battlegroups in host countries for longer periods of time and with increased numbers of troops. Germany’s Defence Minister Boris Pistorius recently promised to upgrade Germany’s military presence in Lithuania to the size of a brigade (4,000-5,000 troops).

Berlin already leads NATO’s multinational battlegroup in Lithuania with a reinforced battalion of approximately 1,000 troops. “We agree that the brigade will grow step-by-step as the infrastructure is established,” Pistorius said, adding that such a deployment could not be completed within “a few months”.

“It could take years before the infrastructure for the brigade is in place”, said Michel. Yet by constructing the necessary infrastructure, including schools and housing areas for families, Germany is turning around the logistical problem of maintaining troops in one place over long periods of time, he added.

A plurality of voices

While NATO has remained mostly united in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, member states can have different – even competing – interests. A recent example is Turkey’s resistance to Swedish membership over what Ankara saw as Sweden’s lack of action on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, before a last-minute reversal on the eve of the summit.

The NATO summit in Vilnius will focus largely on regional plans and resources, along with efforts to find a consensus on Ukraine’s future membership in the Alliance.

“We (the member countries) each have our political line and interests,” Urbelis said. “Our ambitions are not always the same. That’s why we talk with our partners from other countries.”

Urbelis said the Russian system is under stress due to the highly centralised nature of power in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, particularly now. Putin is spending exorbitantly on defence while human lives and social programmes are put on the back burner, he said.  

“Democracies are actually better equipped to take care of their own because of transparency,” said Michel. “We are not bad at restoring our armed forces – when we want to – because of our flexibility and adaptability.”

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Turkey’s political rivalries play out in unexpected places

With overseas voting taking place for the first time this year in the three Baltic States, Turkey’s political tensions are playing out along starkly familiar lines.

“In an ideal world, we would be able to trust the Turkish government,” said Onur Can Varoğlu. “But we need to make sure the votes being counted in Lithuania end up in Ankara.”

“Anything can happen if we don’t watch.”

The 27-year-old is part of a team of independent volunteers monitoring the vote of Turkish nationals in Lithuania, ahead of Turkey’s nationwide elections on 14 May.

He has volunteered in nearly eight elections, but these in the small Baltic state are special as it is the first time ballots have been set up here. Before, they had to travel to the Turkish border to cast their vote.

Arrested during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, Varoğlu said it was vital to protect the integrity of Turkey’s election, believing democratic freedoms had been eroded back home.

“We are pretty protective of our vote,” he told Euronews. “In Turkey, it is very difficult to protest and we saw how the Middle East went down after the Arab Spring movements.”

“We don’t have hope for a big social movement. Our only chance for change is at the ballot box.”

Turks have been given the opportunity to vote in Lithuania for the first time as their number has risen significantly in recent years, with nearly 2,000 now in the country.

But with the arrival of more Turkish people to the Baltic nation, came the arrival of their political rivalries too.

In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, there are reportedly dedicated mosques and cultural centres for supporters of Erdoğan and those of the various opposition forces, such as Kurds and Gülenists, a political group once allied with the Turkish president. 

“These political tensions actually play out more abroad because people are freer to express their opinions and do activism,” says Varoğlu. “In Turkey, if you say or do anything too political you can end up in prison.”

Erdoğan has increasingly clamped down on dissent, bringing in controversial laws that criminalise “insulting the president” and “disinformation” on social media. 

These political rivalries could be traced back to the family, Varoğlu continued. “It doesn’t matter if you come to Europe. If you are from a nationalist, Islamist background or a more pro-European immigrant one, you bring these values with you.”

“Turkish politics is like football, you are born with your team and will support it no matter what.”

Why are Turkish people in Lithuania?

Over the past decade, Turkey’s economy has hit the rocks, with millions of Turks pushed to the brink by skyrocketing inflation and a collapsing currency.

In September 2021, one US dollar was worth 8 Turkish lira. Today it is 19.5.

These economic headwinds have profoundly impacted which Turks emigrate and where they go.

“The only people who stay in Turkey are those benefiting from the regime. If you are willing to sign up for their agenda and support the party, you will have a bright future. If you don’t want to sacrifice your values to get a good job, then you must leave,” said Varoğlu.

“It’s a given that this is the only way to have a bright future.”

Turkish immigrants in Lithuania tend to be younger, university educated and more supportive of the opposition, compared to the more established Turkish communities in other parts of mainland Europe. However, many still do back Erdoğan.

“Most Turks in hotspots Germany went as guest workers after World War Two. There was no plan to integrate them, so they built their own communities and are stuck in a Turkish fantasy,” said Varoğlu, suggesting this was one reason why diaspora there tended to support Erdoğan.

“But newer generations of immigrants in places like Lithuania are not like that. They’re more open and European.”

In the 2018 elections, 87% (2.63 million) of the Turkish voters registered abroad were residents of 19 EU Member States, the UK, Norway or Switzerland. Almost half of all expat voters in 2018 (47%) were living in Germany, which strongly supported Erdoğan in the last presidential election

One of these younger Turks who will play a pivotal role in the election is Merve Yılmaz.

The 20-something, who cast her vote at the Turkish embassy on Sunday, is studying a master’s at one of Lithuania’s most prestigious universities.

For Yılmaz, the vote couldn’t be more important. Not only was it her first time voting, she has also only ever known Erdoğan, and his AKP party, ruling over Turkey since 2001.

And she is not alone. Five million young people will vote in Turkish elections for the first time this time around, with their support seen as crucial for deciding who will win.

With his stripped-down social media videos, Erdoğan’s rival and leader of an opposition bloc, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has attracted many young voters eager for change. But Erdoğan retains strong support, especially among conservative religious voters.

“To me, it is very clear who should be the next leader,” said Yılmaz. “He [Kılıçdaroğlu] is the only person who we can trust to help lift our country from the horrible situation it is in now.”

“We want change for a better future.”

‘Dictators don’t retire’

Erdoğan is facing the biggest threat to his two-decade rule yet. 

His support has taken a battering, with critics accusing him of steering the country towards authoritarianism, ruining the economy and mishandling the response to a devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people.

In his defence, the 69-year-old has called the earthquake an act of god, maintaining it is impossible to prepare for such a catastrophic natural disaster on this scale.

Polls predict a neck-and-neck race between Erdoğan and his opponent, with the upcoming vote pitched as a seismic battle over Turkey’s destiny.

There have been widespread fears Erdoğan could not play fairly, while his supporters have threatened to reject the vote if he loses.

“We have a lot of insecurity towards elections being rigged,” said Varoğlu. “We had some bad experiences in the past, but we weren’t as well organised back then.”

After a 2017 referendum on whether to overhaul Turkey’s democracy and establish an executive presidency for Erdoğan – which he won – the opposition cried foul after rules were changed at the last minute to allow 2.5 million unstamped ballots to be included in the vote.

However, Varoğlu was more sure about what was at stake.

“Each candidate is promising two very different futures for Turkey. One of them is promising more restrictions on human rights, more wild nationalism and capitalism. The other is promising improved human rights and a return to European norms.”

“It’s Turkey, anything can happen.”

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View Q&A: Lithuania led the way in struggle for freedom from Moscow

Amidst Russia’s continued full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many might have forgotten that the small Baltic country of Lithuania was the first to pay in blood for its independence from Moscow more than three decades ago.

In fact, Lithuania was the first former republic to break away from the Soviet Union, proclaiming the restoration of its pre-World War II independence in March 1990 and sparking a tumultuous period culminating in the January Events of 1991.

Following threats of violence by Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, a three-day Soviet Army invasion ended with 14 Lithuanian civilians dead and some 140 injured. 

Yet they did not relent, and their resistance sparked a chain reaction across the Soviet bloc that saw the rest of the Baltics, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, as well as states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, follow suit until the USSR’s final demise in late December 1991.

Since then, Lithuania has grown into a full-fledged democracy, becoming a member of the EU and NATO in the process. 

Together with the other Baltic states, it is now one of the most fervent supporters of Ukraine as it continues to endure a bloody war and the Kremlin’s aggression.

Euronews View spoke to Saulius Saul Anuzis, a Lithuanian-American political expert and former Michigan Republican Party chairman, and a witness to the struggle for Lithuanian independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s about what it took for the former Soviet states to distance themselves from Moscow and what can be learnt from their experience as Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on.

Euronews View: When did you first go to Lithuania, and what was the situation in the then-Soviet state like at the time?

Saul Anuzis: My parents immigrated from Lithuania. My sister was born there. My other sister was born in Germany during the war, and then my brother and I were born here in the US, but we were basically raised in a kind of immigrant neighbourhood in metro Detroit.

I didn’t learn to speak English until I was seven years old. Our neighbours were Lithuanian. We went to Lithuanian church, Lithuanian preschool and all that kind of stuff. So, we were culturally pretty engaged in Lithuanian activities, and that’s really how I got involved in politics.

My first trip would have been in ’89. I went 32 times between 1989 and 1991. Obviously, it was at the end of the Soviet era, and it was still under Soviet control. 

The last General Secretary of the Communist Party was still in charge, the Lithuanian Communist Party was still the dominant party, and Sajudis had just started kind of brewing. 

It was a very tenuous time for people there. They were all afraid, not sure exactly what was going to happen, how things were gonna work.

This was a unique situation. But it was kind of coming to a boiling point. People wanted to see change. And I think they just had a couple of good leaders that combined with others around the old Soviet block that kind of engaged and helped start the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Euronews View: How did this group of people come together? What was the profile of the people who were leading this change, and what is it that motivated them at the time?

Saul Anuzis: The guy who gave the first speech was a guy named Arvydas Juozaitis, the Olympic swimmer who won a bronze medal for the Soviets in the breaststroke. They brought him to the border expecting to get him out because he started this whole thing calling for Lithuania’s Independence.

Juozaitis, Vytautas Landsbergis — he became the first president of Lithuania — and Romualdas Ozolas, the three of them were kind of the start of Sąjūdis, or at least the leaders of Sąjūdis, who organised a lot of the initial activities. 

And there were a couple of Lithuanian Americans who had gone over there to help, and obviously, the immigrant community of Lithuanians all over the world were engaged in helping in any way they could, which was primarily through getting information out.

At the time, I was the chief of staff to the Senate majority leader in Michigan, and we were politically engaged. We try to help them in any way we could with various introductions and conferences. 

Actually, the first two governments that were there came over and met at Hillsdale College to hear what Western values are and how you run a democracy.

I gave a speech at the medical society there, and one of the doctors asked you what the most important thing they could do, and I said it was figuring out how to kind of cleanse that Soviet mindset over a freedom-based mindset where you were no longer stealing from the government, stealing from Moscow.

That was now taking from your own people. Not only did they have to do the logistical stuff of figuring out how to run their own country. 

They had to change the way they thought where the government now was of the people, and they were trying to create a new free independent country. And I think that was just as much of a challenge as anything else.

Euronews View: Lithuania is a small country, especially compared to the rest of the Soviet Union and Russia. How do you feel about the fact that the people outside of Lithuania and even in its immediate neighbourhood have somewhat forgotten how much courage and energy it took for Lithuania and the rest of the three Baltic states to be where they are today?

Saul Anuzis: It’s just part of history, and people just moved on. I mean, there are other crises at hand. 

But I do think that a lot of people, especially those who are involved in the kind of captive nations mindset of understanding those who are trying to break away from the Soviet bloc, know that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia still led the way. They were the early ones who walked out on the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.

You had the Baltic Way, when the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood up and down that highway and held hands to show the citizens’ interest in having their own independence. It became a mass movement.

You’re seeing a different scenario happening in Ukraine, but at the same time, you’ve got countries like Poland who are very supportive and reacting because they also lived under the yoke of the Soviets dominating their country, and they don’t want to see that happen again. 

I think those are some of the reasons you see the Baltics being supportive of Ukraine, you see Poland being supportive of Ukraine and others. 

Because they’ve experienced both living under Soviet rule and influence and the benefits and values of freedom and the Eastern European countries, especially those former Soviet satellite states, have had a very positive impact both on NATO and the world as a whole.

Euronews View: Do you think that the rest of Europe, and the West in particular, have listened to Lithuanians enough when they, together with others, warned us of Moscow’s malign intentions?

Saul Anuzis: I would say people listened to them; I just don’t know necessarily how they reacted. I mean, there was a tremendous amount of interest in finding out how things worked. 

Very quickly, NATO, as well as other intelligence services, were in Lithuania and the Baltics, learning from their experiences of how the process was set up, what people did, and what people didn’t do. 

Obviously, early on, there were a lot of people in leadership that were part of the Communist Party part of the security infrastructure of the Soviets. And so there was some very valuable intelligence and information that was shared with regards to process, tactics, strategy and what they did in Moscow. 

I think that helped the West prepare for the continuing barrage of propaganda — how they manipulated governments or tried to manipulate governments and how they engaged in different types of activities.

There were institutes and foundations that were set up to share what happened during the Soviet occupation, and all that stuff was very valuable because it was like the first-hand experience of all the things that we suspected were going on in the Soviet Union and didn’t quite have all the best information and necessarily the full information of it.

Also, the KGB archives opened up. It was a very interesting time because a lot of people pulled all kinds of documents and records. 

They knew who was talking to who and what they were talking about. I used to go and stay at the hotel down at Vilnius Park, and later they showed us the listening rooms where every room had recording devices. 

They found the office where somebody sat there, you know and reported to the intelligence service. You had somebody sitting on every floor watching who walked in the rooms and kept track of who people were and all that kind of stuff.

It was very real and something that I think most people in the West had no idea how restrictive and how invasive it was in people’s lives.

Euronews View: As you said, Lithuania, the Baltics and other neighbouring countries are extremely supportive of Ukraine, another country that liberated itself of the Soviet Union. Is there something from your experience in Lithuania and in general that could maybe help shed more light on the interest Vladimir Putin and his associates have in waging a war against Ukraine?

Saul Anuzis: One of the big lessons is the fact that states like the Baltics, Ukraine, and Poland threaten the Russian system. 

Because people realise that there’s an alternative to having a strong dictator leader and a system that basically “takes care of you” because you can’t somehow take care of yourself. There’s an alternative that’s the danger for the Russians.

Just walk through the Soviet republics and take a look at these people experiencing free markets, free minds, education, western values coming in, westerners coming in, finding out they’re not all enemies.

They’re not all enemies of the state. They’re not trying to take you over from a different way, but they’re actually trying to institute a degree of democracy and freedom and freedom of choice.

That then translates and kind of spreads into Russia, which is a big danger to their ruling system. The oligarchs and their clique of intelligence services and former party members still run much of the infrastructure throughout Russia. 

It’s a cleptocracy that operates knowingly, acceptingly, even amongst the people. There’s almost an acceptance of the way Russia works, and what’s going to change that is the experiences of Ukraine, Poland, and other former Soviet bloc states that have moved forward and created systems of education and universities and freedom of the press. 

And they’re not all perfect, and they’re not all there yet. 

But they’re all working towards that, and eventually, as democracy takes place, as people engage in this, they realise that that is a better system than what the Soviets had and what the Russians currently use. I think that’s the danger.

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The West still doesn’t know what winning looks like in Ukraine

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

More than anything else, the Munich Security Conference was founded to foster dialogue between adversaries. Yet, this year’s three-day gabfest was focused on exchanges between allies and friends rather than foes, and in formal sessions, there were earnest colloquies about Russia’s war on Ukraine and what next steps should be taken to help Kyiv.

Ahead of the gathering, some had warned that Munich would thus likely turn into an echo chamber of the like-minded this year. But it didn’t — certainly not in the margins or informal meetings. And it still remains unclear whether Ukraine’s partners are, in fact, singing the same song of unity.

Munich gave us the “chance to sense the mood, especially on the most important questions like how the war is going, and how our support is going, and how long support is going to last,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told POLITICO in an exclusive interview.

But, at the same time, the conference reinforced rather than eased some of his anxieties — as well as those of his Baltic compatriots — about the staying power of all Ukraine’s Western partners. And this is because ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion — despite unprecedented Western sanctions and massive arms supplies — the allies haven’t really agreed on any clear war aims.

Ukraine, of course, has been consistent about theirs — namely, the restoration of all sovereign territory including Crimea, Russian war reparations and security guarantees. But in April and May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi all floated ceasefire balloons.

Macron and Scholz have since hardened their talk. Last week in Munich, Macron said the time isn’t right for dialogue, and he hasn’t spoken with Putin since September. Meanwhile, Germany’s chancellor quipped in his speech on Friday about how laggardly the allies have been in supplying Leopard tanks. “Those who can send such battle tanks should really do so now,” Scholz said, relishing the cheeky role reversal.

Yet peace balloons still continue to be floated, even more surreptitiously than China’s spy blimps.

Did CIA Director William Burns waft one up at the Ankara meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Naryshkin in November? Two Ukrainian officials say he did. Asking not to be identified for this article, as they haven’t been authorized to discuss the issue with the media, the officials also confirmed a report that in January, Burns had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make as much battlefield headway as quickly as he could, because the scale of military support could start falling off.

Burns’ warning came after predictions that the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Congress would soon set out to reduce support. And a Zelenskyy adviser told POLITICO, Kyiv is worried that some in President Joe Biden’s administration would be happy to use Congress as an excuse to wind down military aid and encourage Ukraine to agree to pare down its war aims.

“I think both on Capitol Hill and in the administration, there are people who are looking to calibrate security assistance to incentivize the Ukrainians to cut some sort of deal, I’m afraid,” the adviser said.

Of course, that may go against Biden’s promise during his surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday that the U.S. will continue to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes” — but without defined war aims, even that presidential pledge could be blown off course, the adviser confided.

Meanwhile, for Landsbergis, the failure to not just clearly define Western partners’ war aims but even debate them in earnest has been a crucial omission. And this failure to discuss outcomes and objectives is leaving room for those who waver to waver even more.

“My main question is why haven’t we ever had a conversation about the end goal? The only discussions or ideas that get floated around are about negotiations and peace processes — and all that makes a lot of people in my part of Europe quite nervous. Okay, so we talk about victory, and we talk about standing with Ukraine to the very end — but let’s also talk about this.”

According to Landsbergis, military experts know exactly what’s needed to finish the job. “It’s mathematics,” he said.

But without having agreed on objectives, everything is ad hoc — without a real attempt to match equipment and munitions, missiles and armor — and it’s left to Ukraine to push for whatever it can secure. “So, we ambiguously commit to Ukrainian victory, but do not go into detail,” he added.

Interestingly, during a similarly fateful February in 1941, Britain’s Winston Churchill gave a take-stock speech to the House of Commons, noting that “In wartime, there is a lot to be said for the motto: ‘Deeds, not words.’ All the same, it is a good thing to look around from time to time and take stock, and certainly our affairs have prospered in several directions during these last four or five months, far better than most of us would have ventured to hope.”

Britain had been receiving some military aid from the U.S. at the time, and much like Ukraine today, it was on a just-in-time basis at best.

Landsbergis sees the current situation as similar.

“We’re approaching a very important period,” he said. Without defined war aims, he and other Baltic and Central European leaders are eager to at least secure defined arms and resupply commitments for the months ahead. “Let’s commit for the summer. Let’s commit for the next wave. Let’s commit for ammunition, let’s commit for additional tanks, let’s commit for additional howitzers,” he called.

The foreign minister also said that there are “people saying, look, ‘Russia has already lost, has lost strategically,’ and on this, I would completely disagree.” For him, a strategic loss means Russia undergoing a historic change and being “unable to continue the way that it has been for decades,” even if that means it creates the conditions for the breakup of the Russian Federation — although Landsbergis isn’t advocating for that as a war aim.

Rather, his point is that back when the Soviet Union broke up, there were leaders in the West urging the Baltic states and Ukraine not to declare independence, as they were fearful of all the instability and repercussions it might trigger. “People were so afraid, they couldn’t imagine a world without the Soviet Union,” he said.

And likewise, some now worry about the repercussions of the war leading to turbulence inside Russia and even its breakup. “So, should we stop? Should we ask the Ukrainians to put a moratorium on the regaining of their territory?” Landsbergis asked.

“That’s impossible.”

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