“Freedom to Rock ‘n’ Roll”: The Assault on Vilnius’s Urban Life

 

“Here’s to freedom!” A man leans towards to me while screaming over the loud techno music, clinging his cocktail glass against my can. “To freedom that doesn’t exist”, he continues. I make a shy attempt to discuss the concept of freedom with him, but he decides to not continue the conversation and dissolves into the raving crowd just as quickly as he appeared. Once he left, I reflected on how this drunk man might actually be right. Freedom seems to be on the wane in Lithuania.

The parliamentary elections in 2016 brought about a massive surprise with the rise of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS). This party, hailing from rural areas with almost zero support in Vilnius, managed to go from one seat in the parliament to becoming the dominant party with 22 percent of the votes. And all this thanks to anger over the exodus of Lithuanians to richer European Union countries, and stagnating wages. Much like Poland and Hungary, this represents yet another post-socialist country with a populist party coming into power, as a result of alienation caused by the rapid shifts in society since joining the EU.

The party is led by a agrochemical multimillionaire named Ramūnas Karbauskis, who is a renowned prude. He is famous for having a summer festival that bans all alcohol, and for creating a crap TV programme centered around his home village. He is a noted homophobe with his opposing views on gay marriage, and is rumoured to have a pleasant relationship with the Russian government. Karbauskis has never had a drop of booze in his life, and apparently doesn’t even drink coffee either – which certainly raises a number of questions. Much like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, he is just another cartoon leader looking to inflame the anxieties of a population dealing with a great deal of uncertainty.

Under the guise of the former police chief and current Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union has introduced the strictest and most absurd alcohol laws, to be adopted in early 2018. The legal drinking age will be raised from 18 to 20, and the sale of liquor will be made illegal after 8pm (3pm on Sundays!). There will be a complete ban on advertisement of liquor. The state will hold the ability to remove any advertisement of liquor, even on the internet. What’s more, they are already talking about completely banning the sale of liquor at music festivals and in cafes. Clearly, they are not up for a good time.

The justification of this law is postulated upon the claim that Lithuanians are the biggest drinkers in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Lithuanians consume approximately 19 litres of pure alcohol per head in a year (I personally enjoyed the statistics with 910 pints per person annually slightly more). That is more than twice the amount that people in Sweden or Spain drink. While the intake of alcohol continues to decline in the rest of Europe, according to the WHO, Lithuania’s intake of liquor is rising. Drinking has been deemed to be a public health issue, and the LVŽS has decided to go down the much-failed road of attempting to force people to live one lifestyle.

As said, this claim that Lithuania is the largest consumer of liquor has been the main rhetorical argument used by supporters of the law. However, the statistical data produced by the WHO have come under great scrutiny. According to even Lithuania’s own governmental department of statistics, the intake of liquor has been on a marginal decline since 2012. Furthermore, the argument that Lithuania consumes the most amount of liquor in the world remains up for debate, owing to the differing statistical reporting methods used in different countries. The data collected about Lithuania, for example, includes a broad analysis of the amount of liquor consumed by Lithuanians both at home and while abroad. Many countries ignore the liquor consumed while abroad, which obviously comparatively inflates Lithuania’s numbers.

For all the superficial positive intent in dealing with Lithuania’s large amount of liquor consumption, there has been no plan to introduce greater support for those suffering from alcoholism, nor has a plan been introduced to improve health and education services. Likewise, no distinction has been made between the urban and rural areas of Lithuania. As homemade liquor is cheaper and more accessible to young people there, alcoholism continues to be a much larger issue in the countryside.

Equally problematic are the laws banning liquor companies from advertising, which greatly impact Vilnius’ quickly growing cultural scene. Without the advertisement funds generated by liquor companies that support festivals, many of the music, film, and other cultural events will either have to downsize or will be forced to go out of business. As liquor companies are one of the few sectors interested in investing in counter-cultural events in the country, this new law would certainly place all the cultural progress made by Lithuanians in precarious circumstances.

The government has increasingly used the enforcement of these laws as a new justification for raiding clubs across Vilnius. So far, there have been four raids that have comically failed to lead to any significant arrests other than finding a couple of guys with some joints in their pockets. The government seems to be under the presumption that anyone drinking in a club clearly is a societal deadbeat intending to destroy the social fabric of the country. This represents the state’s amazing ignorance of Vilnius’ culture, and their contempt towards youth looking to simply enjoy themselves.

These laws are a fundamental assault on urban living. The parochial values propagated by Karbauskis and the LVŽS does not remotely reflect the cosmopolitan nature of Vilnius. This is a city that has always embraced diversity, and where people of differing religions and beliefs could co-exist side by side. This diversity helped cement the city’s reputation as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. Such heavy-handed laws that look to control personal conduct are completely countering the liberal values the city has upheld. Woven through the history of the state from its very inception, freedom has been the driving force and the greatest motivator for the Lithuanian nation. It only took a bunch of revolutions and hundreds of innocent lives to finally break free from the Soviet Union in 1991. There is a reason why there are two national independence holidays, but 26 years later, is the party over?

With the government bringing in these draconian laws, many people in Vilnius are showcasing their opposition. Concert promoters, musicians, and activists have joined forces to organize a protest concert to show their disagreement. The organizers stated that the government had ignored their complaints, so they decided to go directly to the parliament’s lawn. Under the slightly tacky but direct slogan “Freedom to Rock ‘n’ Roll”, toddlers, teenagers, and the elderly alike protested against these laws with purple wristbands sporting the slogan in Lithuanian: #laisvėrokenrolui.

Cynics noted that this event had nothing to do with rock music, and by using the same lame arguments like “it is too late now and you won’t change anything, so just get over it”, it greatly reminded me of many people in my ex-country of Belarus, which continues to be controlled by a dictator. The slogan might be a cliché, but I still wear the wristband today. We just cannot remain apathetic and lethargic, like so many of my Belarusian countrymen. Rock music might not save the world, but it has shown in the past that the fight isn’t over just yet. For inspiration, we don’t need to look further than Algirdas ‘Pablo’ Kaušpėdas’ amazing band Antis, which challenged the repressive Soviet regime to show these things can actually lead to changes.

Being an immigrant in Lithuania who has learned the language, falls in love with Vilnius on a daily basis, and has spent the last 9 years in the country, these laws are amazingly dismaying. This attempt to stigmatize the cultural scene and urban culture is a popular technique of the Lukashenko regime, which has attempted to dismiss democratic protesters as nothing but drug addicts and homosexuals. It is a familiar technique of making people feel alienated towards those living in urban centers, while distracting them from their real concerns, such as the continuing population decline of rural areas due to lack of economic progress.

What this is about is not just liquor. Like the ‘War on Drugs’ or Prohibition, time has shown over and over again that attempting to control people’s behaviour has never resulted in people changing. What this is about, is antagonizing one sector of society against another. It is about placing blame on young people and curtailing their freedom in order to create the society they want. It is an attempt to distract a population that has yet to feel the success of European Union integration. However, I feel forever optimistic because the past has shown that Lithuanians won’t embrace such profoundly stupid governing. While the graffiti depicting Karbauskis and two of his other cohorts as terrorists might say The Party Is Over, I’m actually thinking it is only about to start.