Apartment buildings in downtown Visaginas, Lithuania, November 7, 2019. ALEXANDER WELSCHER/DPA /PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA REUTERS
When the train stops on the grassy single track at Visaginas station, it is impossible to shake off the feeling of having crossed a border, at least linguistically. In this Lithuanian city surrounded by forests and lakes, 10 kilometers from the Belarusian border, the Russian-speaking community represents three quarters of the population, in a country where this figure is on average 5%. Here, we speak Russian, the language necessary to buy a ticket or order a coffee. It happens that non-Russian-speaking local elected representatives are accompanied by a translator. In February 2022, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine posed delicate questions of loyalty to the population and worried the authorities.
A question still relevant a year and a half later when NATO is to organize its annual summit on July 11 and 12 in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, 150 kilometers from Visaginas. On May 9, at the entrance to this city of 20,000 inhabitants, around fifty people had gathered in front of the monument celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union over Germany in 1945. Gathered around Dalia Straupaité, ex- mayor of Visaginas, the small group had defied the ban on this demonstration to show its support for the Kremlin regime.
“Z” tags on the walls
A month later, the wreaths in the colors of Russia are still there, at the foot of a stele amputated in 2022 from the insignia of the former communist regime. Among the Russian speakers present that day were, in particular, former employees of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, including the construction, at the end of the 1970s, had led to the creation ex nihilo of Visaginas where people working at the plant could live. This May 9, Dalia Straupaité wore, with others, the ribbon of Saint-Georges, symbol of Russian nationalism under cover of tribute to the memory of Soviet soldiers. Two days earlier, candidate of the Freedom and Justice party, she had lost the municipal election after legal adventures which led the authorities to order a third ballot against the final winner, the representative of the Union of Peasants and Greens Lithuanians, Erlandas Galaguzas.
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“The invasion of Ukraine was a shock, in Visaginas, which is 75% Russian-speaking,” explains Alexandra Grigienii, deputy mayor. “We brought together the leaders of each community. Only the Russian said that this war was a good thing,” she says. Despite calls for tolerance from the town hall, “Z” tags (in favor of the Russian invasion of Ukraine) appeared on the walls. Ukrainian flags were torn down in the night. “SS” inscriptions have soiled the Ukrainian colors. “The inhabitants, adds the deputy, denounce the fact that the Ukrainian refugees do not have to learn Lithuanian while the Russian-speaking minorities are obliged to do so. They also denounce the blocking of Russian channels. »
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