Leonidas Donskis

Leonidas Donskis
Photo: Sarunas Mazeika | © DELFI / S. Mazeika

What does the term refugee mean to you?

A displaced and dispossessed person who was stripped of her or his homeland, home, and, in some cases, dignity, due to calamity, disaster, war, human rights abuse, or dire straits.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

I cannot tell this, and nobody can. Who are we to decide if the mother and her starving, ill, and forsaken children are less legitimate as refugees than those who flee from political oppression? Even political oppression is not the same and may vary from one case to another: it can be about human rights abuse, such as female genital mutilation, yet it also can be about a threat to one’s life due to dissent and opposition to one’s government.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

For me, it is quite understandable. What if famine, shortages of drinking water, air pollution, or earthquakes ruin people’s lives? Their flight is as logical and legitimate as a flight from political oppression, assassination, or human rights abuses.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

When a motive or calculation behind migration is purely economic. I do not dismiss or otherwise disregard economic migrants, they have every right to seek better and more dignified life elsewhere, yet they are not refugees. If you are not rescuing your life or the lives of your family, if you are not politically persecuted or abused, if you are primarily driven to seek better life or employment, you cease to be a refugee. Let us call a spade a spade.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

I believe that there is one. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, as we live in the world, which is quite far from utopian, although we celebrate this year the quintcentenary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Incidentally, Sir Thomas More was rather explicit on the hospitality of utopians and on their kindness to strangers. Whereas to leave one’s country is a citizen’s right, to enter another country is a privilege, rather than a natural right. Yet political asylum should be held a norm and a criterion of a democratic and decent state. Having said this, I hasten to add that, much to my regret, migration is becoming a sensitive political issue in European societies. Suffices to say that an anti-immigrant or anti-refugee stance may guarantee a political victory in the local and national elections. This is the reason why the distance between European values and the so-called real politics is growing. Ours is the time of fear and anxiety, and the same happened to politics, which is driven by fear.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

Sadly, this right cannot be unconditional, since if we state and act otherwise, we are at the peril of causing the collapse of the government. We have learned from the reactions of European countries that there is a danger of disruption and discontinuation of the coalition if one member threatens to break it out of disagreement on immigration or asylum policy. Far right-wing political parties that are in power now, like Fidesz in Hungary, or the Right and Justice Party in Poland, or Freedom Party in the Netherlands (where it is a coalition partner), keep blackmailing the EU, thus exposing our political and institutional weakness. It sufficed for Germany to offer a generous, profoundly European and humane policy on refugees, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity and ratings dropped dramatically. This is our cruel political reality, and we cannot escape it.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

We have to do our utmost not to become the hostages of this sort of mind-set – human beings are not the statistics. I cannot tell whether 5 000 or 200 000 refugees pose a threat to the cohesion and solidarity of a given society. I would humbly suggest trying out the possibility of settling the refugees in an even and balanced fashion, not only in big cities but in smaller towns and their communities as well, since there are more chances for them there to be accepted and to avoid marginalization. Much to my regret, I cannot suggest the numbers – personally, I do not fear to accept in my country 100 000 refugees. Yet to state this would mean a political suicide for a MP or an MEP. Probably, it is exactly for this reason that politically active and civically engaged people, like PEN centres and NGOs, should be more vocal on this issue, as we can hardly expect any miracles happen among policy makers. Immigration is becoming a pivotal issue in the West, alas. This is so in France, the Netherlands, not to mention Central European countries, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Even the stronghold of the EU, Germany, is not independent at this point, as the German political class has to study and check the public opinion very carefully. This kind of reality check prevails over our humane concerns when it comes to political calculation. The Brexit was far more xenophobic in intent than we thought it would be. I myself thought that it was primarily about how to blackmail and intimidate Brussels for the sake of some political benefits. On a closer look, it appears that the Tories and the UKIP simply capitalized on local and national resentment against EU immigration policy. It is becoming a pivotal issue even in the USA – just look at the horror story of Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence and global visibility.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

Again, personally, I refuse to draw the line. I am convinced that we can absorb and adopt far more refugees than we did in the past. We are all aging and decreasing societies in the EU, which makes me wonder about the reason behind a fierce opposition to immigrants and refugees. I am afraid that this is not only about fear and anxiety as existential causes, or racist and xenophobic reactions; things are far worse. I am afraid that deep down we are driven by the neoliberal dogma that threatens to break the welfare state the way we knew it in the West. This is a profound crisis of the welfare state, which leaves us equipped with neoliberal arguments about our being able to adopt only those who are physically fit and beautiful. This is to say that the sad and cruel truth behind all this seemingly polite debate in EU countries is that we wish to deal only with those who promise us to become success stories, and who are the workforce that we need the most. All our humanitarian concerns become irrelevant, once we begin to think about our immigration and asylum policies as a sort of global beauty contests among those who flee from wars, calamities, oppression, and dire straits. Where to draw the line? We have to make sure that our governments are functional and operational. If there is a danger that it could be disrupted, we must negotiate. To avoid this mess, the EU and national political classes have to adopt a long-term strategy, both national and pan-European, on our capacity to deal with this issue, which is going to stay. It is not going to disappear.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

Lithuania is a newcomer to this brave new world with all its charms and challenges, which means that it is a long way to go for us to become truly hospitable to the refugees. I guess that Ukrainians are more welcome than others, since they flee from the warzone, which is close to us. We cannot pretend that the Russian aggression in Ukraine and war there have nothing to do with us – it is too close and too dangerous for us. For this reason, Lithuanians can stand in their shoes and be more open empathizing with Ukrainians or Georgians. At the same time, Lithuanians can be very kind to the Russian refugees. People of my generation may share the same culture, and they speak Russian. Yet I am not entirely convinced that this is a general tendency, since young people in Vilnius or Kaunas, who do not speak Russian anymore and who are closer to their friends from India or China than to Eastern Europeans, may think and feel otherwise.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Much remains to be done. Things were awful some years ago, but now they are increasingly getting better. Lithuanian greatly benefitted from the EU – not only in terms of investment and financial programs, but, first and foremost, in terms of higher human rights standards and democratic sensibilities.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

They would not be acceptable, since our social security system is already profoundly problematic. It causes public and individual discontents. Paradoxically, Lithuanians themselves often choose emigration out of their insecurity at home. Over the past twenty-five years, more than half a million people left Lithuania. In terms of statistics, dynamics and intensity, Lithuania is second to none among the EU countries that are losing their population. When Lithuania became independent in 1990, the size of the population was 3,5 million people. Now we have less than 2 million people who live in Lithuania. There is a new diaspora in Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Norway, and Spain, not to mention the USA. Who chose emigration? In most cases, it was our precariat – the most insecure and vulnerable people who decided to build their own future or the future of their children elsewhere. In case of cuts in the social security system, we would be on the losing side as a country. I believe that the opposite direction is badly needed – we have to become home for Lithuanians and our fellow EU citizens remaining open for the refugees as well.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

The refugees are expected to embrace the culture of their receiving or host country being able to practice their own culture as well. I do not believe in assimilation, which was the pattern of the 19th and 20th centuries. It simply will not work in the 21st. Instead, I believe in successful integration, which would result in multiple identities of modern people, European citizens, who would be able to keep their cultural identity remaining sympathetically open to other identities. A law-abiding and loyal citizen with her or his culture, which would doubtlessly enrich the national culture of their new country – what else do we need? The citizens of the host country do not have to be selective. It is easy to be multicultural when we practice “boutique multiculturalism,” as Stanley Fish described it, that is, celebrating exotic cuisine, restaurants, groceries, market places, or celebrity athletes recruited by European soccer and basketball teams; yet it is far more difficult to be fair, just, warm, and attentive to ordinary people. We have to view the refugees just in the way we would view our classmates and neighbours, instead of approaching them as the beauty contest participants or exotic strangers who, by definition, have to be nice, silent, or apologetic about every single aspect of their culture and conduct. I know that it is very difficult to apply and practice such an attitude, yet I would not give up on it – it is quite possible to achieve it in terms of education and our European horizon.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Yes, sure. Especially Russian human rights activists and the political opponents of the regime in Russia.

Do you actively support any refugees?

I do.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

I am optimistic. Lithuania will be a successful, prosperous, and hospitable country. There will be little change in the coming two years, yet I expect a major change in two decades. We should and will be deeply influenced by our Nordic neighbours who are more open and hospitable to the refugees than we are.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

No, this will remain a strong tendency if not a new pattern of global existence. We can only diminish the numbers of refugees if we are successful enough in our unified and strong efforts to develop some countries.

If yes: what does it take?

It requires coordinated action and consolidated policies trying to avert wars, violent politics, genocidal conflicts, and the resulting failed states. We cannot avoid those things, I am afraid, but we can diminish the number of tragedies and casualties if we act jointly, and if we have a strategy.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

My father was a Holocaust survivor, just as his elderly brother and their parents. They were among 11 survivors in a Lithuanian shtetl where 2 000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their local perpetrators in two days. Hence, my sympathy to all minorities as well as to all underrepresented, abused, and dispossessed people all over the world. My grandfather’s brother and sister went to the USA before the Second World War; they married and had their families there, yet they were economic migrants, rather than refugees. As far as I am concerned, I have never been a refugee.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

No, I do not think I will ever be one. I am a public figure in Lithuania. Therefore, if my country, God forbid, were in trouble, I would act in a decent way. In case of war, I would not flee. I would never abandon my country, should war or a similar social calamity break out. If my country slides into a tyranny, which would be as awful as being invaded, then I would have to remain a dissenting voice.

How much “home” do you need?*

As a wandering scholar, I have spent much of my time abroad. I lived and worked in the USA, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland, and Hungary. I am teaching in Italy every year, and occasionally in Iceland. Therefore, I had enough of life and work elsewhere, and now I want to enjoy my country to the full. I need much of home, since it is an existential need for me. Lithuania is a small country, and I would be unable to fulfil myself as a scholar without travel, lecturing and publishing abroad. Yet I need a place where I can collect myself as a human being. Lithuania is therefore a country of my roots and existential choice. I cannot exist without my memories of Klaipeda, which is my hometown, and, at the same time, I cannot exist without two more places in Lithuania – Kaunas, where I live and work now, and Šeteniai, the birthplace of Czeslaw Milosz, where I spend my time reading and writing. I do not wish to be misunderstood, though. I am a passionate European and a patriot of Europe, whose European commitments will never clash with a strong attachment to Lithuania. My sense of “Heimat” will never exhaust my need to be a citizen of Europe.

*שאלה זו לקוחה מן השאלון "מולדת" מאת מקס פריש.