- Wednesday, 18 September 2013 14:45
- By: Etienne Bauvir, European Voice
Most outsiders told the Lithuanians that they were rash, unrealistic and even outright dangerous, especially after 11 March 1990, when the parliament issued a declaration restoring pre-war independence: how could a country of 3.7 million take on a nuclear superpower?
Almost the only world figure who backed the Lithuanians in those dark and scary days was the Dalai Lama: he sent a supportive telegram on 4 April 1990. Now it has been the Lithuanians’ turn to repay the favour, hosting the Tibetan spiritual leader in Vilnius. President Dalia Grybauskaite, in a commendable display of political courage, invited him for a one-on-one meeting (nominally private, but publicised). Lithuanian parliamentarians and public figures met him too, including my friend (full disclosure) Leonidas Donskis, who said his country had a “moral debt” to the Tibetan guest.
Cool geopolitical calculation suggests the Baltic states should be best friends with China. As American power in Europe wanes (now at an accelerating rate in the disastrous second presidential term of Barack Obama) and as Russian power looms (with big military manoeuvres on the Baltic border, and what looks like a trade war against Lithuania), this is no time for small countries to make grand gestures. It is a time to be quiet and cautious, to spread your bets and to make no unnecessary enemies.
But some things count for more than cool geopolitical calculation. The Baltic states know what it is like to be wiped from the map by a foreign occupier who denies that you ever existed as a proper country. They know what it is like to experience forced inward migration and other tactics aimed at destroying your language and culture. Just 30 years ago, resisting the occupation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meant exile or even death. What was true there then is true of Tibet now. That is why the Dalai Lama is an honoured guest.
Still, only just. The Chinese tactic is to squeeze the Dalai Lama out of public life: to make Tibet a taboo. The Baltic states are one of the few places in Europe where the Tibetan leader gets any meetings at all (the Czech Republic, where he addressed the Forum 2000 conference this week, is another). Although he explicitly accepts that Tibet should be part of the People’s Republic, China maintains a ludicrous campaign of denigration and exaggeration against him.
The arm-twisting of the authorities in Latvia (which the Dalai Lama also visited) was strikingly mean-minded. Chinese officials, with some Latvian help, tried to persuade venues to cancel public events, and pushed to have posters of the Tibetan leader removed from the airport VIP lounge. I wish that more Latvian politicians had been willing to meet him.
The big question now is how China will react. So far I have not heard even a squeak. That may be because a storm is brewing. But if China does try to punish Lithuania, I hope that other European Union members will have the courage to support the country that currently holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers.
Would it be so hard for EU members simply to agree to state jointly that they regard the Dalai Lama as a religious leader of world importance, worthy of public recognition in every civilised country? For Tibetans, it would mean a lot. It would help Europe’s self-respect too.
Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist.
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