Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on May 27th, 2008

[Amerikos lietuvis published this op/ed by me last week. Now that it is online, I have translated it into English and posted it here.]

Pagal Lietuvos Respublikos pilietybės įstatymo 1 straipsnį Lietuvos Respublikos piliečiai yra… asmenys, iki 1940 m. birželio 15 d. turėję Lietuvos pilietybę, jų vaikai, vaikaičiai ir provaikaičiai.

Among these descendants I find myself. So there am I, one of those with a right, from birth, to Lithuanian citizenship, a right I have often compared with the Jewish birthright to the citizenship of Israel, which makes for an interesting coincidence, as I’m writing these words during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A century ago, Zionists and Lithuanian nationalists saw their goals in parallel, so maybe it would be useful to see if there are worthwhile similarities today.

The return to Israel is called “aliyah” (ascent), and emigration from Israel is called the “yerida” (descent). So already it’s clear under what frame the migration to and from Israel is seen among Jews and Israelis. The  statistics regarding aliyah are straightforward: within the first four years of the establishment of the State of Israel, almost 700,000 new citizens arrived. Since then, the annual numbers have fluctuated between 15,000 and 35,000. And as we all know, there was a huge flush after the disintegration of the USSR in the 1990s, when during that decade 800,000 new immigrants arrived to Israel from Eastern Europe alone.

One of my (many) childhood fantasies was that there would be a similar ascent to Lithuania once it regained its independence. All of us Lithuanian-Americans would get our Lithuanian passports, and we all—my brothers, my friends—would “return” to a state which, though we had never visited it, we called our homeland.

Unfortunately, it did not really work out that way.

On both hands I can count the number of my Lithuanian-American coevals who have “returned” to Lithuania to live there permanently. Perhaps among the earlier generations, especially among the exiles after WWII, a larger number has returned for good, but I imagine that the standard operation is simply to travel to Lithuania once a year or so to vacation in a de facto summer home: a condo in Vilnius.

I hear many explanations for why people are in no rush to return, but the most present is always economic—it is simply hard to earn a good living in Lithuania. But this forces a question: what kind of patriots are we, if economic comfort is reason enough for us not to return to our “homeland”? Is not, actually, our sacrifice most important now, while the economy of Lithuania is still emerging? We are, after all, Lithuanians, and “Lietuva, tėvynė mūsų,” some patriot once wrote. So are we not obligated to support that homeland with more than our vacation budgets? Would it not be useful to draw inspiration from Nathan Hale’s regret about having only one life to give to his country?

But somehow this patriotism and ethnic feeling [tautiškumas] fails to jostle a Lithuanian-American out of his or her rut in the US. I know far more Lithuanians born in the US who have either a Vytis or a tricolor tattooed on their bodies than live permanently in Lithuania. I am not criticizing these painted patriots, since they are, more than likely, my friends. But I feel it is important to keep this anecdotal image in mind when trying to understand better the issue of dual citizenship.

A tattoo is a permanent mark of something. By getting a tattoo, a person assents to carry a permanent mark on his or her body. That’s how I begin to understand the desire to get ink injected into your skin in the form of a Vytis. Nationalists, after all, have taught us at Lithuanian schools and summer camps that our Lithuanianness is some kind of invariable aspect of our identities from birth. As a result, that Vytis is already branded on our souls. The tattoo, then, becomes an afterthought. It merely signifies to the world what the person already feels inside.

Yet that tattoo is a mark that can also be concealed, say, by a suit worn to a job interview. So the Vytis is a permanent mark on the body, but it can be concealed in order to get a better job. So again, the pursuit of economic gain stands between a subject and his or her patriotic duty to be always a Lithuanian and a patriot.

A subcommittee in the Lithuanian Seimas is currently deciding to whom it will grant the privilege of dual citizenship, even though their new set of criteria will probably be as unconstitutional as the previous set [struck down in 2006 by the Lithuanian Supreme Court]. But among those, to whom the privilege will not be extended, are Lithuanians born in the US as well as Lithuanians who have become naturalized citizens of the US. These Lithuanians in America obviously still have the right to become citizens of Lithuania, but exercising that right now requires a rather serious sacrifice: a blue passport.

But wouldn’t this blue passport, a passport to a patriot’s temporary home, be a mere trifle? Should not the patriot be eager to get rid of that temporary status? Does not the patriot want to flee from that diaspora, from that misleading pseudo-homeland America, to that land of permanence, which was his or her property before birth?

Yet, again, for some reason it does not tend to work out that way.

So why do the words “O beautiful, for spacious skies” make an impression on a Lithuanian in America? The answer now is rather clear: these aforementioned people are not, simply, only, Lithuanians. They are also Americans. By their actions and gestures, then, they betray their [Lithuanian] nationalism.

Still, the obligation of nationalism, like that of Zionism, is an obligation of returning. But this attraction of nationalism is interrupted by the pursuit of capital accumulation (among other things): scattered in the space of globalism, we try to go there, where the wages are best or the life is the most comfortable. So for the very same (and completely legitimate) reasons why Lithuanians are leaving Lithuania (or Israelis are leaving Israel), US-born Lithuanians and Jews do not “return” to their “homelands” in greater numbers.

So what, exactly, is the point of dual citizenship? I have yet to hear a good (that is to say, nonselfish [non-economic]) reason, why, to an adult born in the US, dual citizenship is a crucial necessity. Every reason I hear drifts into the subjunctive [in Lithuanian]: “I would retire in Lithuania,” “I would move there, if the living standard would improve.” My own reason is no more semantically firm: “I would teach in Lithuania or the EU if I were to get a position.” In other words, we have no idea what the future may bring, so it is good idea to keep our options open. But having a plethora of options is also nice and convenient. Though in my childhood I was a childish nationalist, for these selfish reasons of convenience I am a full supporter of dual citizenship.

Patriotism, however, is not supposed to be convenient. So why do we, calling ourselves Lithuanians, choose the soft option? Would it be so hard to transfer those subjunctive reasons into the indicative? “I am retiring to Lithuania.” Great. Do it! “I am going to move there, and living standards will improve.” Great. Do it! “I am going to teach in Lithuania…” well… the point is clear: for patriots, nationalists, national heros, professional Lithuanians, and the like, there remains a way to take this path to Lithuanian citizenship. But it requires a sacrifice. They have to juridically demonstrate precisely how important Lithuania is to them.

So if that Lithuanian feeling is such an essential part of a person’s identity, that we feel it from our birth, why on earth are we so hesitant to forfeit US citizenship?

Back to my childhood fantasy, where I’m sitting with a passport of the Lithuanian Republic in my hands. There’s my name; there’s my photo. But is this theoretical passport a guide to one possible future, which lands me in Lithuania? Or is it merely a souvenir, a reminder of those bygone days when I was still an idealist, caught up in the childish daydreams where the Lithuanian nation [tauta] and the Lithuanian Republic would share a 1:1 relationship?

On the other hand, if I were to get that passport now, then every time I open it, my very eyes would look at me and remind me that I did not choose the soft option. I chose which was my “homeland,” even if in so doing I risked my economic comfort. So that is my challenge to those, who would use patriotic and nationalist organizations (like LBs) to seek not national ends, but simply ends of comfort. Prove to me why in order for me to live a complete patriotic life as a Lithuanian I need more than just US or Lithuanian citizenship—that I need both.

It is standard for Lithuanians to argue that it is an ethnic obligation for a Lithuanian to take on the burden of learning the (impossibly difficult) Lithuanian language—a serious burden to anyone who did not have the dumb luck of being born in a household where Lithuanian was spoken. But when it comes to citizenship, they demand the least burdensome path. Why?

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10 Responses to “My passport, my souvenir”

  1. An amazing article (I read both Lithuanian and English versions). I have mixed emotions on the matter. I know that dual citizenship would hopefully establish stronger ties between LT and iseivija. But I am idealistically opposed to the fact that someone living in iseivija, not in LT, being able to participate in elections without having to deal with the “consequences” of the elections themselves. This is insulting to the residents of LT.

  2. also, there are different situations that make this problem more complex. i do not have a problem if someone is temporarily living in iseivija to make some cash and will return to LT in 5-10 years. then, fine, keep both citizenships. but that is impossible to enforce.

    also, one argument i hear from dypukai is that they do not want to leave their families behind.

    i don’t know…i’m confused about this matter!

  3. Viktorai,

    From my understanding, citizenship carries certain obligations in addition to rights–the right to vote could be offset, for example, by the obligation to participate in the tax economy, though I don’t know the details in Lithuania.

    Regarding the temporary migration for the purposes of capital accumulation–that’s perfectly fine. I have absolutely no problem with people who say that they want dual citizenship because of economic advantages (for example, being able to earn social security when back in LT). My own desires are based in such temporal matters, after all, and I don’t hate myself.

    My article’s point is simply that it is incoherent to use the language of patriotism, nationalism, and tautiškumas when arguing for dual citizenship. I will fully support any constitutional amendment that lets me get dual citizenship. But I will not coopt the language of human rights abuses or of patriotic obligation to do so.

  4. Moacir,

    Great article, and timely. However, I disagree that Lithuanians born abroad should be moving to the homeland for good in great numbers. To imply that it is our moral obligation to do so smacks of fascism. Economic well-being and not wanting to leave families behind are pretty strong reasons for staying put. And what kind of Lithuanians would we be if we all permanently abandoned our aging Mamytes and Mociutes?!?. There are other ways to maintain one’s “Lithuanianess” and give back to the cultural community(ies) that formed us, and the homeland from which we (or our forefathers) came. The fact is, Lithuanians have been emigrating for decades (even prior to the Soviet Occupation) and it is our right to do so. To move freely across borders. To leave, and return, and leave again, or never return at all. At the same time, Lithuanians have been pretty good at maintaining strong ties to their homeland (for example, I’m a third generation Lithuanian-Canadian and I speak, read, and write Lithuanian fairly well, which is pretty amazing given how long my family has lived in North America). The institution of dual citizenship serves to strengthen this very important relationship between the “tevyne” and the “iseivija,” which I think Lithuanians who have never lived outside of Lithuania take for granted. Lithuanian citizenship should be granted to (or preserved for) those in the “iseivija” not because it is our birthright, not because it is a matter of convenience to hold two passports, but because it benefits both Lithuania and the “iseivija” to do so. For a country so small, so young (as a modern nation-state), and so precariously perched on the edge of Europe, maintaining ties with the hundreds of thousands of emigrants and their descendants through the institution of dual citizenship should be nothing less than a national imperative. I am not suggesting that Lithuania as a nation and a country cannot survive without the “iseivija,” that would be preposterous. I am merely saying that she would be a richer, stronger, healthier, and more secure country in the long-term if she reaches out, in a profound gesture of goodwill, to those of us who want to be counted as citizens of a country to which we profess abiding devotion and loyalty through such actions as preservation of language and culture, ongoing financial support of relatives in Lithuania, economic investment and development, or even political involvement. The majority of Western democracies allow dual citizenship with little afterthought or debate. Why can’t LT?

    Vancouver, Canada

  5. Kristina,

    I agree with nearly everything you say. I see large benefits to granting dual citizenship–and I don’t even think that economic/convenience reasons for doing so are bad ones. My article was in response to the comments made by the PLB chairperson, arguing that the lack of dual citizenship was somehow a robbing of a birthright. That citizenship is there to be grabbed by whoever wants it–it just has a cost, a cost which forces an analysis of whether or not the cost is worth it.

    As for why LT doesn’t allow dual citizenship, I encourage you to read the Court’s decision (you can find links to it from other posts on this site). The reason is simple: They didn’t want to in 1918, in part, iirc, to limit the possibilities of having their state undermined by dual passport holding Russians/Poles. This problem of course returned during the Paksas era, as we all remember well.

    In any case, the precedent was established not to permit dual citizenship, and then it was coded into the Constitution in the 90s. I fully agree that permitting dual citizenship is the smarter option, but the LRK kind of forces that door shut.

    As always, my opinions are about tactics and process, not end goals. I support the same ends. Where I argue is in how we get there.

  6. Kristina,

    I reread the precise post you were writing to (these all sort of fit together in one conceptual pile for me), and I think I missed some of what you were saying.

    If you’re not moving (back) to Lithuania, what, precisely, is the point of acquiring Lithuanian citizenship? This is what I was railing against in part, though it’s a different argument than the tactical one I addressed in the previous comment. What’s the point of a green passport? Citizenship has a certain set of obligations and privileges that seem disconnected (to me) from what iseivija needs or wants, which is usually more culturally oriented. Citizenship is entirely divorced from saying “I’m Lithuanian.”

    And yes, Lithuania would benefit from having more Westerners trying to help it out (I imagine), but we’ve had FIFTEEN YEARS of de facto dual citizenship, and the waves have not been that big, honestly (which is why I brought up the aliyah). So for the past 15 years, while dual citizenship was available, few people were using it, it seems to me, for purposes that were not sentimental. And sentimentality isn’t exactly the best foundation for building a body politic (though part of any such foundation).

    Furthermore, professing an “abiding devotion and loyalty” to the Lithuanian Republic by preserving “language and culture” makes, to me, little sense. Citizenship is for people who want to vote, who want to be political actors, not folk dancers. Ethnic heritage can be kept completely alive with no worries without citizenship–and the Republic’s government willingly pays to help support the culture abroad–even for non-citizens. It’s that move you make in the comment that is, coincidentally, the move that this article is almost entirely a response to. The Sokiu svente that just ended in LA was not at all open to citizens only. Nor do I think that citizens of the LR had an especially grand time or anything like that because of the fact that they were citizens. Nothing, as a non-citizen, is keeping you from sending money to Lithuanian charities or buying Lithuanian music from visata.

    So what, then, is the point of citizenship? Is the LR passport just a sort of badge? A symbol of proof of your being Lithuanian? What of the Russians, Poles, Latvians, etc. who have LR passports? Are they as Lithuanian? More? Less? What does that little booklet actually prove as far as your own internal feeling of ethnic attachment?

  7. Moacir,

    If you read my sentence to the end, you will see that I agree citizenship should be for those who want to be political actors, in addition to other factors. But is that the only marker of a citizen? How many Lithuanians born and bred and residing “tevyneje” are political actors? How many of them follow politics and turn out in large numbers to vote? Should those who don’t fulfill their civic duties be stripped of their citizenship? The answer, of course, is no. There are myriad grounds for holding citizenship, and while there are certain civic ideals we should profess to and act on, the fact is that we don’t all of the time. Why? Because we are human. There are many reasons to grant or preserve one’s citizenship, political involvement being one of them.

    And while Lithuanians living abroad are certainly capable of preserving their language and culture, contributing financial support, or professing “Lithuanianness” without the institution of citizenship, a move like this makes many people reconsider their previous instincts to do so. The natural human response, for many, is to say, “if I’m not good enough to be a Lithuanian citizen, then I will focus my energies elsewhere.” This may not hold true for all nations, but I think that for a “tauta” like ours, with its painful history of war, dislocation, occupation, and exile, alienating the diaspora will come at a great cost. Is it worth it, when the benefits of dual citizenshp far outweigh the drawbacks?


  8. Moacir,

    I read the Lithchat “apie” page and a few of your other articles, and now have a better idea of where you are coming from, idealogically speaking, regarding the topic of Lithuanian identity. I have no doubt I would agree with many of your positions, however, I also believe that sentimentality, nostalgia, and cultural identity (whether constructed, real or imagined, aren’t they all the same?) should not be so easily dismissed as quaint old-fashioned notions. They are powerful motivators of human behaviour, whether noble or nefarious, and therefore worthy of thoughful consideration, as opposed to a certain kind of knee-jerk criticism fashionable in recent decades.

    It is from this standpoint that I see the importance of preserving the institution of dual citizenship for the diaspora, whether or not its members choose to return to Lithuania for good. Granting the right to preserve citizenship to the “iseivija” will have a ripple effect that will influence individuals, families, and communities in ways that I believe will be overwhelmingly positive for those players, and Lithuania herself, in the long-term (though they may not be so easy to qualify or quantify). Such a move communicates “you are wanted, your return, whenever or if ever it should happen, is anticipated, you are a part of this community.” And that in turn will influence those players to act in different ways then they might otherwise.

    I don’t deny there is a strong element of ethnic/national chauvinsim in both the old citizenship law and the new one, vetoed by Adamkus, that upholds not only an ethnic basis for obtaining citizenship (by excluding those who repatriated to Isreal, Poland, etc.), but also divides Lithuanians into those who left of their own accord, and those who fled the Soviet Occupation. And we are right to be critical of the ideologies informing these laws. It is my fear that any subsequent amendments to the citizenship law will only serve to further divide the Lithuanian nation along a very painful fault line: “tikri Lietuviai,” as one obnoxious poster to nearly every Lithuanian-language online publication likes to call himself, and “isdavikai,” those who chose (or did not choose) to make a life for themselves beyond Lithuania’s borders. And that is the real tragedy in all this.


  9. Kristina,

    You are, I imagine, “good enough” to be a Lithuanian citizen. The Lithuanian constitution merely forbids you to be a Lithuanian citizen without (also) forfeiting your (Canadian?) citizenship. But if you meet the citizenship tests that the Republic has established (descended from interwar citizens, say), then you have a birthright to citizenship.

    That has not been taken away by the LRKT’s decision.

    So the court, the government of the LR has not taken anything from you–you can exercise your right to citizenship at any time. It just now has a higher (opportunity) price than before. I don’t mean to sound patronizing in repeating this, but this is the fundamental point here that throws into doubt the discussion of sentimental attachments and the like.

    One can feel nostalgic as one wants to for certain cultural institutions, traditions, etc., as one wants. It is however, very strange for nth-generation children of Lithuanians to feel nostalgic for a country that did not exist until 1991. What are my, actual, ties to the LR? I was not born within its borders, nor was anyone in my family (as, again, it did not exist). I do not own property or pay taxes there. I speak its official language decently, but I speak the official language of New Zealand even better, yet I have no desire to get New Zealand citizenship.

    If the LR were in some way an actual, direct, descendant of the first LR, then the nostalgic connection might make more sense–but it is not. It has a different constitution, different borders, different government, money, stamps, etc. Legislatively, a connection has been made (descendants of citizens of the earlier are eligible to be citizens of the later, plus whatever property transfer/reclaiming laws might exist), but as we can already see, the connection is legalistic, not sentimental, and it strikes me as dangerous to get sentimentally attached to the state.

    I simply do not understand why I should be at all obligated because of “cultural identity” to, say, take a bullet for Adamkus (instead of Bush, let’s say). And when that kind of argument is made, for me it usually boils down to a conflation on behalf of the arguer between the Lithuanian nation (tauta) and the LR (valstybė). And that kind of conflation I disagree with vehemently, because it sets in motion an entire set of anti-human/exclusionist/exceptionalist mentalities.

    There is simply no way to say “Republika lietuviams” without it being chauvinist. There simply isn’t. And Article 29 of the LRK guts the efforts of people to try to argue that the LR is precisely that.

    But I think you get all this, and that you even agree with most of it. And, again, I’m entirely in favor of dual citizenship–I think it’s a perfectly great (albeit most likely unconstitutional) idea. I just don’t think that nostalgia, sentimentality, etc., are either convincing or tactically wise reasons for establishing it. So I’m sorry if I’m going around in circles here.

  10. Tikras lietuvis puts into stark relief the fact that people make choices in their lives, and that, ultimately, some things are more important than others. For a theoretical number of people, staying in Lithuania, no matter the cost, is the priority. For others, its giving the best life possible to their family. For others, it’s realizing the dream of playing for Manchester United. People move around in space for all different reasons, and their priorities line up and can be deciphered based on that.

    If someone truly puts the LR “first” in their lives, then it does not (to TL or to me) make sense why that person would want to live elsewhere (or hesitate about forfeiting citizenship in order to get LR citizenship). But that’s fine. I suspect that there is not actually a single person in the world who always puts the LR in the top spot in his or her life. Perhaps there would be such a person if Lithuania had a strong tradition of comic book heroes.

    But TL denounces and judges based on the mere fact of the decision (leaving == treason), and then he flattens all other nuance to fit into this equation. I, on the other hand, only denounce and judge when the decision starts coming into conflict with later espoused beliefs. That’s why I would never criticize a person for emigrating–everyone has their reasons, and I respect those. But when PLB starts adopting the rhetoric of human rights abuse to give cover for those reasons (which are almost always pinned to self-interest), then I get offended very, very quickly.

    Yet in closing, you know what? Hard-liners will always split the tauta into two groups: those that fled and those that stayed. Then they’ll change the binary to something different to serve a different purpose. And your being a dual citizen of the LR does not change the fact that your ancestors “fled.” You could have the nicest passport and nicest accent in the world, but to someone who cares about your family history, you will always be fleer.

    The twist is that I honestly don’t think many people care about that distinction–and certainly the LRV does not, as it stokes unrest at home just so it could spend millions of litai via TMID on the Lithuanians who did, actually, “flee.” So unless you feel guilty about not living in the LR (and a maroon passport I don’t think will help with that…), who cares that your family left? Or that you chose to live outside of the LR?

    So let Tikras lietuvis spread his anti-Semitic bile–its anti-Semitic nature proves that he’ll find something else to cling to and try to cleave (whatever) community in two should this issue fade away. If it’s not who stayed and left, then it’s who says “duona” and who says “douna”–which might, actually, be more culturally relevant than citizenship!

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