Eva Brenner in conversation with the Lithuanian scientists and activists Andrius Bielskis and Jolanta Bilskiene, co-founders of DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought.
At the end of last year I had an opportunity to visit Vilnius at the invitation of transfrom! europe, organized by DEMOS Institute, to hold a lecture on our experimental political theater work on Bertolt Brecht in Vienna (FLEISCHEREI_mobil 2018), held at the National Youth Theater of Vilnius, followed by a lecture at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater. At this occasion I took the following Interview with two co-founders of the NGO DEMOS, Institute of Critical Thought, Andrius Bielskis, a professor of political philosophy at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, and Jolanta Bilskiene, a politcial scientist and activist.
Eva Brenner: How did the organization DEMOS come about?
Andrius Bielskis (A.B.): I came back from my studies in Great Britain in 2006 and took note that in my native Lithuania there was no Left intelligentsia to speak of. We began with the foundation of the „New Left 95“ and I wrote a manifesto in 45 theses. The main idea was that we, the Left intelligentsia, had become tired of the liberal status-quo and needed an organized structure for meetings, events, and discussion. From the onset there was no intention to create a Party, it was to be a social-political movement. We set out inviting people of Lithuania’s Leftists, artists, and intellectuals, most of them were highly educated people who studied abroad, mostly in Western Europe. We met in different Vilnius cafe´s for about half a year, and edited the manifesto together. For May Day 2006, we publically announced the formation of „95“ in reference to Luther’s 95 theses, and the cineastic DOGMA 95 movement.
Did you ever ponder or consider founding a new left party in Lithuania?
Jolanta Bielskiene (J.B.): It soon became fashionable to join the movement; we held meetings, organized reading groups and conferences, published books. One very contested emotional issue arose around the question: „Do we need to start a party?“ I think, on the one hand, this might have been successful, there was motion behind it - and politically we moved more and more to the left. But the majority thought it was better to remain being a functioning Think Tank able to create discourse and influence public opinion.
A.B.: This is who we are, that’s what we know how to do! One hope was to establish an alternative university to train and bring up young political leaders from the grass roots. But we never had enough money for such a project. Luckily we obtained occasional support from the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, but only for singular events.
J.B.: Almost all our activities were done on a voluntary basis. Some of our publications were co-funded by the Lithuanian Council of Culture. We also published our essays and commentaries in mainstream media. Our events and research circles centered on social and political issues such as poverty.
How did existing forces and government react to you?
A.B.: DEMOS presented a sharp critique of the entire political spectrum, from the right wing to SP (Social Democrats) which today constitutes most elements of the old CP (Communist Party). The reaction to us was ambivalent, we upset the system. But some even welcomed us as we were invited into TV shows and onto radio.
J.B.: This development stopped, however, around 2014 when the political climate changed to the right.
J.B.: Since 2010, Nationalism moved to the fore and instrumentalized peoples‘ fear, but a decisive change happened after the Crimean war. Anti-European attitudes decreased while historically determined fears of aggression from Russia grew. Don‘t forget, that most Lithuania’s population suffered greatly under Russian occupation at different times throughout history.
A.B.: We stood against the Neo-Nazi marches with huge „stop fascism“ signs. 2009 and 2010 was the peak of our Neo-Nazi movement. At the same time, a Holocaust discussion set in, for the first time since 1945 in Lithuania. In reaction to right-wing propaganda such as „Lithuania for Lithuanians!“ Neo-Nazis made the case, that the Swastika was a pagan symbol and should therefore be allowed.
J.B.: Another move was that members of the New Left were accused of being Russian agents while we were at the same time criticizing Putin as right-wing.
A.B.: For example, it is quite possible (although we cannot be sure about it, of course) that DEMOS’ website was hacked by a state secrete service agency; it is still not functioning to this day.
What is DEMOS doing today? Second question: Are you also active in the rest of the country, or primarily in Vilnius?
A.B.: We have members and followers in Klaipėda and Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, and some other smaller places. Many of us are teaching at universities, and spreading news there. There are educational events, film showings, reading groups, and diffusion of our publications across the country. Yet, activities have become more irregular and more difficult to uphold.
Would you say that you are reaching the „working class“?
A.B.: Yes, but not enough! We reach the class by public events and books, we are present in all larger and small libraries, newspaper articles, co-operations with trade unions, the lending of educational support. All in all the spreading of radical critical thought.
J.B.: We experienced the limits of such a movement, this is only reasonable, we are all humans. I am active in our feminist movement, I have started a Lithuanian social forum, we have done lots of street actions in the past few years nd far beyond, we even went into politics, tried to change the Social Democratic party from inside. I became a candidate for a while and worked as public advisor on educational and scientific issues to the SP-Prime Minister. We believed we could insert an influence with critical thinking, move them to the left. At some point I had to recognize that I could do very little. It was almost a „mission impossible!“
What did you conclude? Are you going to continue DEMOS-organizing?
J.B.: Since I stepped down from all SP-positions and left the active politics in the Social Democratic Party, I became very critical. Politics is power, and power in the end takes money, and money corrupts people. I realized that I have other values in life. I believe that DEMOS must become more vocal again!
A.B.: Over the past 10-15 years, activists within DEMOS lost their jobs, many suffered career losses. There is great fluctuation at the moment. Under our influence, some SP-members moved to center left, some new young SP-leaders are coming directly out of the Left. Others who want to continue with DEMOS, are now calling for a new Left Party.
J.B.: I would claim that something - a new force - is still lacking. Many are now leaving the Social Democratic party because it is not left enough. They feel politically abandoned, don’t know where to go.
A.B.: DEMOS and the New Left are very much needed, perhaps more than ever. The important question is how to revitalized our movement. I feel something new is emerging with the younger generation which is largely in favor of a new left party. They will carry necessary next steps. And yes, we will continue our work!
DEMOS was established in 2008 aiming to be an influential voice in the formation of alternative politics and social-economic policies in Lithuania. In order to realize this mission DEMOS worked for 10 years on research in alternative social and economic politics and policy with especial focus on labour movement and its importance for the policy formation. DEMOS organised various activities (like “Slave market” in front of Presidential Palace or promotion of the creation of progressive employee associations while organising training for its members) to strengthen and consolidate activities of trade unions in Lithuania. Every year DEMOS institute organizes educational events, seminars, and lectures for political, trade union activists to disseminate its expertise, it also is a small alternative publisher.