Baltic minority region scapegoated for separatism fears

Collection with 14 media items created by Benas Gerdziunas

Lithuania 05 Oct 2017 09:15

Salcininkai, Lithuania’s Polish and Russian-speaking city is only five kilometers from Belarus. In the backdrop of ‘Zapad 2017’ military exercises across the border, Lithuanian government government has finger-pointed at the the substantial Russian-speaking minority for being susceptible to separatism, and held multiple military exercises in the region.

In turn, however, they have demonised the vulnerable population, suffering from depopulation and social exclusion.

In April, 2017, unannounced snap drills in the area became the center of controversy. Armed men in military fatigues took over the local police station and institutions with little resistance from the unprepared security forces. Political fallout from these exercises continue to this day.

Additionally, the voting patterns in Salcininkai and Lithuanian peripheries along the 670 kilometer border with Belarus are firmly with the pro-Kremlin, Polish minority party.

I visited the area to speak to the local people, who are mostly ignored in the public discourse, and explore some of the underlying issues in the region.

Lithuania Salcininkai Separatism Ukraine Separatist G... Zapad West Mexico 2017 Belarus Russia Border Fears Fear Separatists Lithuanian Poland

Thumb sm
Title photo for the collection
Salcininkai-12
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Zydre, sipping coffee next to a redeveloped lakeside beach, said: “The problem here is like elsewhere in the provinces - there just isn’t that much to do.”

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-2
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Inside a small Christian Orthodox church on the outskirts of Salcininkai, which draws around 40 people every Sunday, according to Alexander.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-1
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Town square in Salcininkai, a city of roughly 6,300 people. The streets and local infrastructure is visible well kept.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-4
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Jolanta, Zydre, and Beata, all 24 years old. All three come from different language backgrounds, but they mostly speak Lithuanian among themselves.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-3-2
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
12 Sep 2017

Signpost, indicating Salcininkai’ proximity to Belarus - Lyda and Minsk are found nearby.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-3
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Alexander, the church caretaker. He preferred not to give his last name, “we spoke of politics,” he laughed.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-6
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
12 Sep 2017

Vidmantas Zilius, director of the Lithuanian school in Salcininkai. He is also a member of the center-right, The Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat party. After living in the area since 1989, he said; “This region is very detached. It takes years of living here to really understand this place.”

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-5
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Beata finished her university in Poznan, Poland, yet returned home to work in tourism. Jolanta tries to push her young daughter towards Lithuanian education. “But even in the Lithuanian nursery they use Polish,” said Jolanta, moments later speaking to her daughter in Russian.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-9
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
12 Sep 2017

One of the leaders, school’s sports teacher, Kestutis Peleckis said the organisation “also encourages patriotism.” He added: “When we need to organise national holiday celebrations, we find little support with the local government,” he claimed. Lithuania’s coat of arms and a map depicting shifting national borders - parts of it now in Poland - hang on the wall.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-8
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Tomas Saliatyckis wears a Lithuanian Military t-shirt under his barista apron. His cafe serves as a cultural center for meetings and discussions, and also runs a social scheme - you can overpay your coffee, the money going for someone who can’t afford it.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-7
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Sep 2017

Fields and individual gardens around Salcininkai are cultivated for vegetables and fruits. Many elderly can be found along the city lake and river shores, fishing.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-11
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
12 Sep 2017

The music and dance groups in Salcininkai Cultural Center are funded by the regional council, and mostly play Polish folklore. “We also learn Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Gipsy and Jewish dance and music,” said the group’s leader, Barbara Suckel, “our parents had to learn Russian, now everything is going back to normal centered onLithuanian language.”

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-10
Salcinin
By Benas Gerdziunas
07 Nov 2016

Lithuanian-Belarusian border, November, 2016. Patrolling the Schengen border is mostly undertaken by foot and car patrols. The main challenges are cigarettes contraband and illegal migration.

Thumb sm
Salcininkai-9-2
Salcininkai
By Benas Gerdziunas
12 Sep 2017

Lithuanian Scouts Union has its base is the Lithuanian “Tukstantmecio” school. Raimondas Silobritas, 18, is also member of the paramilitary force, the Riflemen Union. “There, we have students from other nationalities, too,” he said. However, a parallel Polish scout group exists in Salcininkai.