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Carl Gershman at the Ideas for Lithuania conference
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

What an extraordinary thing Lithuania is doing – the initiation of a process of national awakening and democratic renewal at a time when Lithuania's national consciousness is already awake and your democracy is vibrant, forward-looking, and determined. By taking this initiative, you are affirming the saying - often attributed to Thomas Jefferson - that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. You're showing that you understand that liberty can never be taken for granted, for the simple reason that its enemies never sleep and people have a tendency to forget that freedom must always be defended, Carl Gershman and Ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis write in a joint article on the basis of Gershman's remarks at the Conference on "Ideas for Lithuania's Future" on February 1.

Indeed, it is well known that the world today is the midst of a grave crisis of democracy. The confidence we all had after the wall of the Soviet Union in the inexorable progress of democracy has been replaced by pessimism and apprehension. It was to address this crisis that the National Endowment for Democracy, in cooperation with the Czech organization Forum 2000, convened a meeting last May of several dozen public intellectuals and democracy advocates who adopted a statement called the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which opened with the declaration that "Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defence." We both have co-signed this declaration.

The Appeal described the threat as comprehensive and multi-faceted, having both external and internal dimensions. Democracy is threatened from without, it said, by resurgent despotisms like those in Russia and China, where the regimes are tightening repression internally and expanding their power globally, "filling vacuums left by the fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies."

The Appeal also warned that democracy is threatened from within by a number of troubling developments, including the erosion of support for democratic values in many established democracies, especially among young people who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism. It decried the declining faith in democratic institutions, leading to the rise of populist parties and anti-system movements in advanced democracies where governments seem unable to cope with the difficult challenges of globalization and immigration, and elites managing multi-lateral institutions like the European Union seem remote and over-bearing.

The latest Freedom House survey released last month provides troubling evidence of the retreat of democracy. It reports that political rights and civil liberties in the world have declined for the 12th consecutive year, with new and established democracies dominating the list of countries suffering setbacks in freedom. The Appeal warned that further backsliding could occur as the diverse threats reinforce each other. Anti-democratic forces around the world could gain strength and confidence as a result of the geopolitical retreat of the West and the growing influence of authoritarian regimes. In addition, authoritarian propaganda and disinformation campaigns using social media could succeed in deepening the demoralization of democratic countries, whose internal weaknesses and divisions have made them inviting targets of such manipulation.

Lithuania is obviously gravely affected by these developments because it is caught between assertive Russian power and the eroding geopolitical influence and political will of the West. At the same time, while it is endangered by the external threat, it remains internally strong, clear-headed, pro-active, and determined. It knows what it's up against, and it has the will to defend itself.

Lithuania's political determination grows directly out of its national experience over many centuries. The core of that experience is that Lithuania has always been on the front lines of the political and civilizational clash between Europe and Russia. In the face of this threat, Lithuania has refused to back down. Its resistance is reminiscent of something that Golda Meir once said about Israel's unwavering determination to defend itself. Our secret weapon, she said, is that we have no alternative. Lithuania also has no alternative but to defend itself against Russia, since the threat is existential.

A case in point is Lithuania's political support for Russian democrats, which has been informed by its experience under Soviet occupation. Lithuania took the right lessons from the occupation, meaning that its outlook and policy combine a clear-eyed view of the Russian government's domestic authoritarianism and international aggression with solidarity and sympathy for the Russian people, whom Lithuanians largely recognize as victims of the same kind of oppression they themselves faced under communism.

We should not forget that Lithuania's courageous frontline role has also been a source of inspiration for Russia's democratic movement. When Lithuanian citizens confronted Russian tanks in January 1991, more than 100,000 Russians took part in a solidarity march in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin shouting "Hands off Lithuania!" and "Lithuania today, Russia tomorrow." Such mutual solidarity stands in the noble tradition of the famous slogan "For Our Freedom and Yours," which was first used by democrats of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the rebellion of 1830.

In that tradition, the Democracy Shelter Program, organized in Vilnius by Freedom House, provides emergency assistance to Russian democrats who have been forced into exile. It is the best program to shelter democrats-at-risk that we are aware of anywhere in the world. This is largely due to political support from the Lithuanian government, which regularly takes all necessary steps to assist these brave activists. Russian democrats-at-risk who have had to flee are given visas rapidly, and those who have been the victims of extreme human rights violations are given counselling and relocation and immigration status assistance. Lithuania's government and civil society also make a strong effort to engage with Russian political activists in exile to help them continue their activism by supporting work still being done inside Russia.

Lithuania is the most frequent venue for international events focused on questions of democracy in Russia, and its embassies around the world are also active in organizing similar discussions. Lithuanian politicians have a reputation for being important voices for democracy and human rights in European political bodies. An example is the work of Emanuelis Zingeris as the Special Rapporteur of the Council of Europe on the Boris Nemtsov assassination. Finally, Lithuania has promoted a strong and unified international response to Russian aggression. Since the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Lithuania has been a leading voice in favour of a firm response from the European Union and the transatlantic community. It has consistently and strongly spoken in favour of maintaining sanctions on Russia and providing military support to Ukraine.

Lithuania has also been a leader in developing and implementing strategies for countering Russia's foreign propaganda efforts and supporting independent Russian-language media covering the Baltics. It also hosts the annual Snow Meeting, an important security conference promoting transatlantic unity in dealing with Russia. Not least, in November Lithuania became just the fifth country to pass a Magnitsky Act, and it has implemented the law robustly.

In addition to all of this, Lithuania also serves as an important hub for Belarusian democrats forced into exile (including the Belarus Human Rights House) and foreign organizations expelled from Belarus. NED's two party institutes, IRI and NDI, run their Belarus programs from Vilnius, as do Freedom House and many other international organizations. IRI also runs a regional program funded by NED that brings parliamentarians from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to Vilnius to learn from Lithuania's experience in the E.U. accession and integration process. The Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre also runs a strategic InfoSpace project backed by NED that counters Russian disinformation throughout the Baltics. Not least, Lithuania aids civil-society groups working to strengthen democracy in Eastern Partnership countries, especially in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus.

In sum, therefore, Lithuania more than lives up to the praise extended by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called it "a stalwart champion of democracy, free markets, and human rights."

We want to conclude by offering a few thoughts on what Lithuania might do in the years ahead to advance democratic values and security. First, we think that Lithuania should build upon its strategic relationship with Ukraine, which remains, as Carl Bildt once said, "the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy." Last November, the Lithuanian Parliament initiated a "Marshall Plan for Ukraine," a long-term support package that would funnel more investment into Ukraine and strengthen its ties with the West. Lithuania should also continue to push for the integration of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova into European structures. Nothing is more important for Lithuania's security than NATO, and as the largest and most strategically located Baltic state, Lithuania needs to continue playing a leading "front line" role in the alliance. Lithuania has been the main advocate for NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics.

In addition to Lithuania taking the lead as a frontline state on issues of European integration and strategic defence, there are two additional ways in which we think it can aid democracy, not just in the region but in the world. One idea is to replicate the Democracy Shelter Program model of providing comprehensive support to democracy activists forced into exile, a problem that is growing as a result of increasing repression in many countries. NED is already looking into the establishment of such a program in Georgia for the Caucasus and Eurasia regions, and possibly in the Middle East and Asia as well. Given the importance of the Lithuanian government's political support for this model's success, we hope that we can use the World Movement for Democracy and other networks to explore the possibility of future collaboration between NED, Lithuania, and other potential host countries to make this idea a reality.

The second idea is to use the newly-established International Coalition for Democratic Renewal to build a support base in public opinion for strengthening the transatlantic alliance. Forum 2000 in Prague, which manages the Coalition, has created a Transatlantic Working Group consisting of leading intellectuals and policy advocates in Europe and the United States. Ambassador Žygis Pavilionis is a charter member of this working group, and we hope Lithuania becomes an international hub for policy dialogue and planning to rejuvenate the transatlantic idea, which is a precondition for renewing democracy in these troubled times. In 2011 Lithuania has already proved its ability by reviving the Community of Democracies. Lithuania may be a small country compared with the US, but it has a large role to play, and it has never been more important that its voice be heard.

The cover story of The Economist this week about the growing threat of great-power conflict notes that "the best guarantee of world peace is a strong America." America remains strong, but today divided and uncertain about its purpose. The still voice of a country like Lithuania won't change America overnight, but it might help remind it of why it's so needed by people around the world who share its commitment to freedom. Nothing would help democracy more than for America to heed this call for democratic renewal.