Pakistan's Controversial Blasphemy Law Creates Unrest

By Leah Cerilli

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law has recently come under international attention after a Pakistani woman was convicted of blasphemy and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have affected scores of citizens. Critics argue that the law is unfairly used to target minority faiths. Since 1987, a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law. Accusations of blasphemy often lead to mob violence by militant Islamists, particularly when the accused are Christian. The vast majority of these cases are for desecrations of the Quran. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been killed in Pakistan after being informally accused.

Aasiya Noreen (commonly referred to as Asia Bibi) is a Catholic and is an example of a life fundamentally altered as a result of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. She was reported to be the only Christian in her village and was arrested in 2010 after allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in front of her neighbors.

    In June 2009, Asia Bibi was harvesting fruit with her neighbors. An argument broke out after she took a drink of water from a bucket. A neighbor argued that Bibi contaminated the water and now the neighbors could no longer use it as Bibi’s faith made it unclean. Both women then exchanged a series of offensive comments about the other’s religion, with Bibi eventually insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi maintains that she did not insult the Prophet, and that she is a victim of false accusations prompted by bigotry and racial hatred.

    Following the dispute, Bibi was allegedly attacked by an angry mob at her house and was later taken away by police. She was held in jail for over a year before being charged with blasphemy. She was then placed in solitary confinement until she was acquitted in October 2018 by the Supreme Court. Bibi currently remains in prison, which has been turned into a safe house run by the Pakistani army and intelligence services. Bibi fears for her life and is unable to leave. Her husband is looking for the family to be granted asylum in the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada.

    Under Pakistan penal code, blasphemy is punishable by life imprisonment or death. Bibi was the first citizen to be sentenced to death for the crime. Public support for the laws are strong, with violent protests breaking out after her acquittal was announced. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamist movement, is a prominent force in the opposition and violent demonstrations. The government struck a deal with the group in order to end the protests, promising not to oppose a review position against the Supreme Court’s decision. The government also pledged to release everyone detained in connection with the protests.

In 2009, a prominent governor Salman Taseer spoke out in favor of Bibi and openly condemned the laws. He was subsequently assassinated by his own bodyguard. This case divided Pakistan, with some deeming him a criminal and others calling him a hero.

    A month later, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot and killed outside his home after speaking out against the laws. Bhatti was the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government.

Nearly all political parties have voiced desires to reform the laws, but little has been accomplished. The subject seems to be too sensitive for most politicians to pursue, with the threat of  violent attacks to those who dare criticize the laws. Politicians are also reluctant to alienate influential religious groups and parties by altering the laws.

Crossing the Gate of Tears Pt. II

By Kavya Verma

    With the recent disappearance and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi-US relations have become tense, leading to a major public outcry and renewed critiques of many of Saudi Arabia’s policies, including the country’s role in the ongoing crisis in Yemen. Adding to the public attention and concern regarding this topic is the UN’s prediction of the worst famine in the last century if the war does not come to an end. Now this fear is edging closer to reality as conflict rages over the key port of Hudaydah, where massive portions of key resources arrive in Yemen. If the port of Hudaydah suffers, so will a large number of Yemenis who are dependent on the supplies that pass through it for their survival.

    Since the crisis erupted in 2015, the UNHCR estimates that out of the 166,658 individuals who have fled Yemen, 75,748 have arrived in countries located in the Horn of Africa. It is a short sea route that separates Yemen from Djibouti, and linguistic, cultural, and historic ties may make Djibouti a viable option for those in desperate need of refuge away from nearby conflict. What greets them in their place of relative refuge, however, is all too disheartening.

    In the years prior to the outbreak of violence in Yemen, many would exit the Horn of Africa through Djibouti and Somalia, and possibly onwards into Yemen, to attempt to seek work in the more prosperous Gulf States. Since 2015, Bab-el-Mandeb, the less than 100km-wide strait that separates Yemen and Djibouti, has seen two-way travel by those seeking prosperity on each side. In recent years, the number of Yemenis crossing the strait has substantially increased.

    Once they are placed in refugee camps at a great distance from the capital and the relatively prosperous regions in which new arrivals from Yemen seek to rebuild their lives, many refugees unsurprisingly become pessimistic regarding their future prospects. This has led to reports of instances of domestic abuse, compounded by a cultural stigma which presses victims not to report abuse. Now, the prolonged economic strife faced by refugees upon arrival in the Horn of Africa is likely to lead to increased - but just as infrequently reported - instances of domestic violence against Yemeni women.

    This single issue brings to light the lack of support being provided to the the nations hosting the largest number of Yemeni refugees, as well as the issue of integrating refugees into local society and away from refugee camps. Increased integration and improvements in financial prospects among refugees could reduce domestic violence, and any additional resources going to Djiboutian NGOs aiming to provide care for victims of domestic abuse would assist in countering the cultural stigma against reporting abuse.

    Even with the US currently calling for a ceasefire, if the the port of Hudaydah suffers damage, the rest of Yemen will. Those who are able to flee may be forced to make their final attempt to get out of Yemen, relocating across the Horn of Africa in a desperate bid for relative safety.

Top Afghan Commander Assassinated Amid Election Violence

By Leah Cerilli

Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq was shot dead in a Taliban attack on October 18, following a security meeting. The Taliban released a statement saying that Raziq, “a brutal police chief”, was the primary target. Abdul Mohmin, Kandahar Province’s intelligence chief, was also killed in the same attack that wounded three NATO personnel as well. General Scott Miller, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was present during the attack, drawing his sidearm but ultimately not firing. The attacker was later killed by US forces in a shootout.

At the time of the attack, General Raziq had left a meeting and was heading towards \a helicopter taking US members back to Kabul. Provincial officials such as the governor and the police chief were also accompanying the group when the gunshots suddenly rang out. At least two hand grenade explosions were also reported.

General Raziq was the provincial police commander of Kandahar, being one of the most powerful military and political figures in Afghanistan. He had been previously accused of human rights abuses such as torture and was a key opponent against the Taliban. He was considered by many to be a symbol of the anti-Taliban struggle, previously surviving nearly 20 murder attempts.

This is a significant blow to Afghan and NATO counter-insurgency campaigns, in which nearly the entire leadership of Kandahar Province have been killed. This is particularly difficult for Afghanistan as Kandahar is considered to be one of the more stable provinces in the country, raising concerns over the region’s future stability.

It is also particularly troubling as parliamentary elections are long overdue in the Kandahar region. Elections were previously scheduled for October 20, but they have been delayed again for an additional week after the recent attacks. The parliamentary elections have continuously been delayed for over three years, since the current assembly’s term was supposed to end in 2015. Over these past few years, the government has been reforming the government and election system with the help of the United States.

There is international concern that this attack could result in further delays or reduce voter turnout. Afghan officials previously warned that attacks ahead of the elections were likely. The Taliban has warned potential voters not to take part in the elections, as they claim it is imposed by foreigners. At least ten candidates have been killed across the country leading up to the elections, in addition to several attacks on voting centers.

The election is supposed to serve as an indicator of how Afghanistan can handle organizing free and fair elections ahead of the presidential election in 2019. It will also test the Afghan military and police in preventing Taliban attacks and securing voting areas. This is particularly important since this will be the first election since NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014, leaving election security largely up to Afghans. NATO’s Resolute Support Mission has offered to provide backup if requested. Shortly following the Kandahar attack, the Interior Ministry said forces are now on high alert and put in place measures needed to ensure the elections occur without further incident.

Crossing the Gate of Tears: Pt I

By Kavya Verma

    With 68.5 million people displaced across the world, and right-wing movements in the West capitalizing on the influx of Middle Eastern migrants, there is a stream of overlooked two-way migration occurring across the Red Sea.

    Yemen and Djibouti are separated by the 25 km-wide Bab-el-Mandeb strait, whose name literally translate to ‘the gate of tears’. Djibouti sits right at the Horn of Africa, and its sea boundary with Yemen is part of a historic trade route that now is used by those fleeing conflict, discrimination, and a lack of opportunity to flee to a place perceived to be comparatively safe.

    Since the Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government, and foreign actors began to get involved (in March 2015), 35,000 Yemenis have come to Djibouti in what many had hoped would be a temporary stay. With the conflict becoming an increasingly significant humanitarian crisis, and foreign actors continuing to have a vested interest in its continuation, it is unlikely that the Yemeni migrant population in Djibouti will be able to return to the Yemen they previously knew anytime soon.

    While many relocate to the capital and attempt to rebuild the lives they once knew, thousands remain in the refugee camps of northern Djibouti. The brutal living conditions and limited opportunities encountered in these camps have already driven 500 Yemenis to brave the journey back to their war-torn homeland.

Many of those choosing the conflict-ridden Yemen are migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, one group that has a history of crossing the Strait is male members of the Ethiopian Oromo ethnic group, especially back when Yemen was not an active conflict zone. Many seek employment in the wealthier Gulf states performing tasks the citizens do not wish to.

    A particularly grim opinion piece in the EU edition of Politico pointed out how many of these individuals who continue to go to war torn Yemen in hopes of a better future lack access to information on the condition in Yemen.

    While traumatized Yemenis cross the strait in hopes of finding relative peace only to deal with what some find to be an even greater disappointment, many long-persecuted and impoverished migrants from sub-Saharan Africa continue to make the risky trip not even aware that on the way lies war and misery.

    As conflict persists in Djibouti and its neighbor Eritrea over their shared border, citizens of each nation look eastward to the comparative wealth of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has been criticized over its Nitaqat scheme, which aims to reduce the number of foreign workers significantly and lower the domestic unemployment rate. Many of those who cross, and are aware of the scheme, risk their lives and pay sizable sums to traffickers for what ends up being nothing.

    While people on both sides of the ‘gate of tears’ risk their lives to find only varying degrees of misery, the only group that profits are human traffickers, those who prey on the final hopes of society’s weakest.

Saudi Journalist Disappears After Criticizing Monarchy

By Leah Cerilli

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was last seen on October 2 at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi is a Saudi national known for publishing critical pieces on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Istanbul is now accusing Saudi Arabia of murdering Khashoggi, claiming Turkish police have “concrete information” to prove this and have requested a search of the consulate.

On October 2, Khashoggi visited the consulate to receive a certification needed to marry his fiance. He was not seen leaving the consulate, but Saudi officials insist he left on his own. In an attempt to verify these claims, Turkish police officers guarding the consulate checked their security cameras and did not see Khashoggi leave the consulate on foot.

Turkish authorities have examined camera footage from outside the consulate, but the footage has not been released to the public. Authorities also examined airport departures and arrivals, searching for any clue of Khashoggi. In an attempt to find possible suspects, 15 Saudi nationals who arrived in Istanbul the same day are currently being investigated. The group arrived from Riyadh in two private airplanes, one landing before Khashoggi entered the consulate and the other landing afterward.

Sabah, a pro-government Turkish newspaper with connections to President Tayyip Erdogan, reported details from the flight manifests. It claims a group of nine individuals arrived on the first plane and checked in at two separate hotels near the Saudi Consulate. The second group of six individuals allegedly went directly to the consulate and then back to the airport a few hours later. Sabah also reported that a convoy of six vehicles left the consulate two and a half hours after Khashoggi’s visit.

Khashoggi is a prominent newspaper editor. He frequently appears on Arab political talk shows and is a columnist for the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section. Although still a Saudi citizen, Khashoggi has been living in self-imposed exile from Saudi Arabia in Washington due to his outspoken views. He is also a former advisor of Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom.

If compelling evidence is presented proving Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabia will likely face a further deteriorating relationship with Turkey. Turkish President Erdogan has criticized Saudi Arabia for its embargo and isolation of Qatar. Turkey sent troops to Qatar in 2017 to show its support in the face of the regional embargo. The United States also has a particular stake in Khashoggi’s whereabouts since he is a US resident. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on Saudi Arabia to support a thorough, transparent investigation.

It is interesting to note that both Erdogan and Bin Salman have faced international condemnation over their treatment of journalists. There have been hundreds of arrests of outspoken journalists, activists, and clerics since Bin Salman rose to power in June 2017. Critics have previously been captured in foreign countries and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, making this behavior characteristic of Bin Salman’s past actions. At the same time, Bin Salman has focused on building a modern, freer image of Saudi Arabia by passing reforms allowing women to drive and reducing the powers of religious police. Evidence that Khashoggi was murdered by the government would severely hamper the progress made thus far  while portraying Bin Salman in the same repressive and authoritarian light as his predecessors.

Rising Concerns Over Islamic State Presence in Greek Refugee Camp

By Kavya Verma

    In the wake of the migrant crisis, a growing concern among humanitarian observers has been health and safety standards in refugee camps set up across Europe. One of the premier examples of a camp stretched far beyond its mean is Camp Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

    A 2016 deal reached between Turkey and the European Union hoped to deter refugees and migrants from reaching Europe. A component of this non-binding statement entails the Greek government hosting migrants and refugees on five Greek islands for the duration of their asylum process. One of these islands is Lesbos, located just off the coast of Turkey. Lesbos, which is a part of the EU, is close to the coast of Turkey, making it tauntingly close to those fleeing conflict.  Labelled in a New York Times article as ‘Greece’s Island of Despair’, the largest camp on Lesbos is Camp Moria, a former military base now hosting 8,000+ asylum seekers in highly inhospitable conditions. The camp recently made headlines when a BBC programme interviewed residents stuck on the camp, who noted the perpetual fear they live in, with tense race relations leading to outbreaks of extreme violence between groups such as Kurds and Arabs, as well as reports of rape, deplorable health conditions, and little judicial procedure. While it was already clear that the situation in Moria is grave and unlikely to improve in the immediate future, the predicament of the camp has now now taken a previously unforeseen turn for the worse.

    One of the factors pushing migrants towards the EU is the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in their home countries, but recent evidence suggests IS may have established a presence in Camp Moria. On September 29, German news agency Deutsche Welle published a report claiming the presence of IS-led gang violence taking place in the camp. The video footage goes as far as to show the face of an alleged henchman of the gang with ties to IS. When violence occurs by alleged members of the gang, the perpetrators justify it by citing Sharia law.

    Providing validity to these claims is the recent influx in arrivals from Deir ez-Zor, one of the final IS strongholds in Syria. Besides the evident security issues that a potential IS presence in a camp in the EU presents, it is also uncertain whether these individuals are truly members of IS or are simply perpetrators of organized crime who hide behind the organization’s guise of religious moral superiority to further spread fear among victims of the violence and residents of the camp. Greek authorities have yet to investigate these rumors.

    Part of what makes these allegations difficult to investigate is that crime and violence have been rampant in Moria, and it is entirely possible that the perpetrators of these crimes could be using the label of the Islamic State and violence in the name of religion to scare residents away from reporting the perpetrators to Greek authorities. Furthermore, even if judicial proceedings are initiated on Lesbos, they have moved at a very slow place in the past. A New York Times piece detailing conditions in the camp told the story of a woman who was raped in the camp, reported the rape to the police, and was returned to Moria after her complaint had been filed.

Regardless of whether these individuals are truly ex-members or current envoys of the Islamic State, even the rumor of their presence in the EU further complicates the already onerous process of seeking asylum in the EU. The associated security concerns will likely raise anti-immigrant sentiment within Europe - especially in countries which serve as entry points for migrants - and play into the racist narrative often used by far-right movements on the continent. Furthermore, thousands of society’s most vulnerable must now live in even greater fear that the very reason they fled has now followed them and found them while they are in an even more fragile state with little room for escape. As this story develops, it will be critical to watch for how Greek and EU authorities handle this news, how far-right political movements on the continent utilize this report ahead of upcoming elections in Europe, and in the long term, how this potentially severe security threat affects EU policy towards screening asylum seekers and new arrivals.

Senegal—The Rapidly Dwindling Sea Resource  

By Sabine Tessono

            Senegal, like much of West Africa, has both an intriguing historical and economic standpoint on both the African and Western continents. Senegal’s fortuitous geographic position means that it  has several natural resources that break up its dry land, including iron ore, phosphates, and, perhaps the most important, fish.

Fish is not only one of Senegal’s most important exports, but also a staple in the Senegalese diet, with fisheries supplying 75% of the country’s animal protein intake. Even the national dish, thiéboudienne, a mixture of French, African, and Portuguese influences, comes from the fish caught by the Senegalese. Concerningly however, Senegal’s once seemingly endless fish reserves are rapidly dwindling, resulting in a slew of adverse consequences for the country’s economy. Many fisherman can no longer rely on fishing for a sustainable source of income or sustenance. To make matters worse, grocers can barely sell the small portions of fish they do have due to skyrocketing prices, while fish processors face increasing job insecurity. So, what happened? What exactly caused Senegal’s fishing economy to take a turn for the worse?

            The root of the problem seems to be Senegal’s growing relationship with China. According to Reuters, China does more close trade with Africa than any of the other countries (despite the EU’s efforts to form closer ties with African countries and a history of colonization by the West),. China has invested $100 million dollars in Senegal and other West African nations through the “One Belt Initiative,” a project intended to strengthen the region’s transportation infrastructure. While such a large investment has resulted in a meaningful diplomatic and economic relationship between Senegal and China, it has also led to the rise of illegal fishing by Chinese boats, a practice that has cost Senegal and neighboring countries about $2.3 billion per year.

            Many efforts have been made to stop this rampant and harmful practice on Senegalese waters. Chinese officials, realizing that the illegal fishing practice is destroying the Senegalese economy and threatening their relationship with the country, has attempted to halt illegal fishing by cancelling subsidies for private fishing businesses and establishing more stringent laws to control private fisheries. In fact, in 2016, the Chinese government cancelled more than $111.6 million for 264 fishing vessels and revoked licenses for countless other businesses. Senegal, in response to growing fear of impending economic and social doom, even cancelled licensing agreements with factory and fishing ships in both China and from the EU, but to no avail. Private fishing industries tend to find new licenses or new ways to circumvent laws and continue to deplete the country’s fish supply.

                                                                              The ubiquity of private fisheries in Senegal makes it difficult to determine if this problem can truly be solved.  If the Senegalese government does not find a feasible solution soon, the country will have to deal with serious economic, political, and environmental consequences in the years to come.


How the EU May Start Outsourcing Migrants and Its Values

By Kavya Verma

The European Union’s values are stated as being respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law. It was likely on the basis of these fundamental values that when the conflict in Syria arose in 2011 the EU and its member states were at first welcoming to refugees and migrants. Seven years on, a swarm of individuals and parties who ran almost entirely on the basis of being anti-immigrant now run the government of numerous member states, and show no sign of losing power in coming European elections. Much of this can be traced to the growing perception in European society that the European way of life is under threat due to the influx of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in the past seven years. The originally welcoming EU and the governments of individual member states have now switched from the path of accepting migrants to finding alternate means to deal with new arrivals.

One of these means is to outsource the problem to third-world countries, through the development of processing centers in third-world countries where migrants will stay during this transition. These centers would allow for individuals who are intercepted at sea to be taken to extraterritorial processing centers, where they will be kept until their asylum claims are processed. This option has been floating around increasingly seriously in since internal tensions began to escalate in Germany, when one of the key parties in the government coalition threatened to leave the coalition if the Dublin Regulation was not more strictly enforced.

With this domestic predicament at hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to the June EU Summit where a majority of the time was spent with heads of member states discussing potential solutions to the migrant crisis. Processing centers were floated as an idea that is believed to not be entirely inhumane, while also keeping potential new arrivals from reaching the EU.

Aside from the moral implications of placing processing centers in third-world countries, some of which have concerning human rights records, there is the issue of practicality. As French President Emmanuel Macron pointed out, this plan cannot go ahead without the cooperation of  African countries, who thus far have yet to reach any concrete agreement with the EU on opening these centers where asylum seekers will stay until their asylum applications have been reviewed.

In August 2017, the EU began a program where the Libyan coastguard was being trained by the EU on how to better intercept boats. Upon intercepting these boats, the people onboard are taken to Libyan detention centers, a practice condemned by the UNHCR as Libya remains human rights conditions in Libya remain turbulent. By November, the number of boats and migrants intercepted had already dramatically risen from 7,000 people in detention centers in September, to nearly 20,000 in November.

As elections across Europe continue and the far right and anti-immigrant parties do increasingly better, it is likely that calls for processing center like areas will only grow. While it is yet to be determined whether transit countries in Africa and even the Middle East will agree to host such centers, their very existence is unconducive to the EU’s fundamental values of human rights. If these processing centers do ever come into existence, then given that detention centers for migrants and asylum seekers in member state countries such as Greece have been denounced for deplorable hygiene conditions and chronic occurrences of sexual assault, it is likely that those in third-world countries with far more volatile internal politics will contain even greater instances of human rights violations that are the exact opposite of the EU’s supposed fundamental values of respect for human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law.

Hong Kong: The Fear of Crumbling Autonomy

By Sabine Tessono

    Hong Kong has always held a unique position in both Asian and European history. Originally conquered and assimilated into Imperial China’s territory thousands of years ago, the region’s primary purpose was to establish governmental power and further various Chinese dynasties’ influence. By the 16th century however, many European countries saw Hong Kong as a region filled with potential trading posts to gain Chinese resources such as silks, tea, spices, and porcelain. British traders in particular wanted to overcome the lopsided economic deals with China by transporting opium through Hong Kong, but ultimately ended up straining relations between the two nations, culminating in the Opium Wars and British occupation of the region.

Yet, through years of negotiations and treaties, the colony was eventually transferred back to China in 1997 after 156 years of rule by Great Britain--the main stipulation being that Hong Kong would retain autonomy and separate legal, economic, and governmental systems. And so, the Chinese concept of “one country, two systems” was implemented in the territory now known as a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”. But in the last couple of decades, Chinese interference in Hong Kong has raised the question of whether this principle has ever been honored since its creation.

    One of the most recent examples of this questionable behavior occurred just over a week ago, when officials announced plans to put a section of a future train station in Hong Kong under mainland Chinese law. According to Hong Kong representatives, the billion dollar project’s main goal is to “link the city to 44 destinations across China and connect it to the world’s largest high-speed railway network”, which will enable thousands of passengers to travel across Chinese soil with relative ease, while incorporating more territory into China’s modernized infrastructure. The justification behind this annexation of the station lies in the belief that the deal will cut down on unnecessary border procedures and help ease the process of immigration and customs.

    Unsurprisingly, this decision has caused fear, worry, and anger amongst those who fight to maintain Hong Kong’s uniquely autonomic system. The Civic Party, a pro-democratic party in the territory, described the implementation of mainland laws signifying a lack of “protection from any of the two human rights conventions” and a hit on the city’s constitution.  Others, like Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, claim that because of the unequal power dynamic between the two sides, Hong Kong will have to work harder to keep back the ever increasing threat of Chinese influence, and potentially, annexation. With events such as two Hong Kong lawmakers being deprived of their elected seats due to derogatory language towards the mainland, or even taboo topics such as pro-democracy supporters calling out China’s ignoring of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it is difficult to deny the existence of some sort of suppression being carried out within the territory of Hong Kong.

    The main problem for both mainland China and Hong Kong is to bridge the gap between their political and economic systems in order to reach the agreed understanding that was promised decades ago. If China continues to attempt to influence and change the unique nature of Hong Kong’s infrastructure and society, heavier conflict could arise down the road, causing the two sides to lose the mutual benefits they gain from their connection. But the true burden lies with Hong Kong’s desire for a more secure democratic state, while balancing its tense, but necessary connection with China.

Lithuania: Preserving Individuality in the Face of Russia (Pt. 2)

by Sabine Tessono

As discovered in the previous article, Lithuania’s top priority is to remain a state under the watchful eye of Russia while further incorporating itself into the Western sphere. The desire to protect its independence is understandable due to several run-ins with Russian propaganda and even near invasions onto Lithuanian soil. Yet, through all its tumultuous history, and the aftermath of shifting power structures of World War II and the Cold War, the real significance of Lithuania’s assimilation into the West are still hard to understand in the modern era. In this post, we will attempt to discover what Lithuania stands to gain from integrating itself into the European Union and NATO.

    As mentioned before, the Soviet Army occupied Lithuania during World War II, which led to a stifling of statehood and cultural independence. However, the Soviets were not the only force on Lithuanian soil during that time period. From June 22, 1941, to January 28, 1945, forces from Nazi Germany managed to overpower the Soviet Union and occupy Lithuania. Originally, the arrival of Germans was welcomed by Lithuania, due to the projecting of a “liberator” image onto Nazi Germany and its potential to beat back Soviet authority. While this feat was originally seen as a chance to break free from Russian control and finally establish its independence, the actual results proved the contrary. Under German control, the country’s Jewish population was “all but annihilated”, and its provisional government was little more than a figurehead without any real power, causing many to wonder if Lithuania could reemerge from its war-torn state and establish an identity and a fully formed world image. But despite the negative impact of an oppressive regime worsening matters within the country, perhaps Germany’s influence within WWII helped to weaken the Soviet grip on the nation and potentially set the stage for its eventual collapse, and to cause a shift from a reliance on Russian values to a desire to implement itself in the West.

    This desire became especially evident on May 1st, 2004, when after a Parliament referendum Lithuania voted and became an official member of the European Union. Just approximately two months earlier, on March 29th, 2004, Lithuania made its way into NATO as well. By integrating itself into Western European culture, politics, and economics, Lithuania gained a new system to rely on and further relinquished its ties to Russia. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, joining the EU has brought about positive changes such as rising foreign investment (about 80 percent of its foreign direct investment in Lithuania came from its relationship with the other EU states), freedom of trade and travel, and investment in local industries and innovation within the country. Even with the simple act of changing its currency from the litas to the euro helped boost growth and consumer confidence, important qualities in stabilizing a nation. And with the additional bonus of NATO membership, Lithuania has a potential network of allied nations that can aid it in the political and military protection of Western values of independence and democracy if the threat of Russian annexation were to occur.

    The Western world’s impact on Lithuanian society and independence may have started as another oppressive system used to control its population and fight a self-interested war, but it ultimately gave Lithuania a chance to break free of complete Soviet control and influence and establish a freer, more independent state. While the European Union and NATO (like many other systems) are not perfect, perhaps they provide a faster and an easier way for Lithuania and similar countries, to evolve.