Rural Puritans Are Trying to Ruin This Urban Party Scene
Lithuania's new government is strongly anti-alcohol, and has sent armed police to raid clubs in the hope they'll find a spliff's worth of weed.
A man being searched by armed police at a club in Vilnius. Photo: Vidmantas Balkūnas
It's not every day you wake up and realise you've elected a pagan man to run your government. The world is full of shocks in elections these days, but in the beautiful Baltic state of Lithuania, they really picked an oddball.
In last year's parliamentary elections, the country's agrarian party – the Farmers and Greens Union – came out of nowhere to form the new government. Their leader, Ramunas Karbauskis, is an agrochemical multi-millionaire land baron. But he's not your average agrochemical multi-millionaire land baron. He's a kind of pseudo-pagan 18th century Donald Trump. Born into a rich farming family, Karbauskis is said to be infantile, with a strong sense of entitlement and a distrust of anything he sees as "un-Lithuanian", such as being gay or having a weird haircut.
Karbauskis has an instinctive distrust of modern urban life, because he's a puritan with a great fondness for Lithuania's pastoral past: an age of basket weaving, sheaves of wheat and braided blonde hair. One of the first things he wanted to do when he came to power was to give free Lithuanian folk costumes to every child. As he once noted: "Have you ever seen a child in national dress, dancing in clogs, singing folk songs with his friends, celebrating traditional holidays, who is drunk or high on drugs? No!"
A teetotaller and coffee abstainer, he thinks any intoxicant is linked to dark forces, according to Aušra Maldeikienė, an independent Lithuanian MP. "In his world, everything is black and white," she says. "He lives in a world like Lord of the Rings, where he's fighting for the force of light against the forces of darkness. Lithuanians pay huge amounts of tax and he is a multi-millionaire who lives virtually tax-free. But for him, problems like poverty are solved by just being harmonious and by some sort of strange magic."
Although his government has largely been busying itself with some fairly weird stuff – for example, erecting statues of brave Lithuanians, or a new law ensuring all embryos stored during fertility treatment must remain frozen "for eternity" – it's not all whimsy and make-believe. This archaic idealism has a hard edge. The party has already proposed a ban on abortion and blocked plans for civil partnerships.
And unsurprisingly, given its boss' own tastes, the Lithuanian government has just passed some of the strictest anti-alcohol laws in Europe. Come January, 2018, even in Vilnius – the country's young, artistic, cosmopolitan capital – it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol after 8PM. Everyone under the age of 20 will not just be banned from drinking alcohol, but from even touching it. The plans mention nothing of expanding alcohol treatment services or any improved help for problem drinkers.
Unfortunately it's not just the muddled alcohol clampdown that young Lithuanians who like a party have to contend with. It's a crack troupe of anti-drug cops who are under the impression they are battling a drug peddling alien horde.
Back in March, Lukas, a shop assistant in his mid-twenties, was having a beer with his brother and a friend at the Peleda nightclub in Vilnius, a place known for its alternative scene. At about 1AM there was a commotion. "Suddenly these masked men burst in carrying machine guns and flashlights. I thought, 'What the hell?'," Lukas told me when we met for a chat outside the club three weeks ago. "They grabbed me, handcuffed me, elbowed me in the back and told me to spread my legs and face the wall. They searched everyone in the room. I had a few spliffs – under a gram of weed – in my pocket, and so I showed them."
Lukas was taken to the police station, drug tested for cannabis and opiates, put in a cell, strip searched and told to squat on the floor before being interviewed by a detective. He was released 16 hours after being arrested, only to find pictures of him and masked police posing with assault rifles splashed on the front page of one of the country's largest online newspapers under the headline "DEATH DEALERS".
"They blurred my face but it was obviously me," he said. "They even had pictures of my brother and our friend, who had no drugs on them, being searched and handcuffed. I only had a couple of spliffs. I couldn't sleep for two weeks is was so stressful. It would be funny if it weren't so sad."
The armed raids, accompanied by a "look at these junkie scumbags" school of media exposure, kept coming. Police targeted three more clubs over the next month, as well as Peleda again, using the same heavy-handed tactics – guns, strip searches and police cells.
But every raid was a flop. Police found little in the way of illegal drugs. Only one person was found with an amount of drugs – 39 ecstasy pills – that could be considered dealing in the UK. Bizarrely, some had the photos and videos on their phones deleted not by police, but by the photographer working for the newspaper. Since then, videos have emerged of people getting stopped and dragged out of their cars by aggressive cops for small amounts of drugs.
At Cechas, the third club raided, guests were strip-searched and the sound engineer was handcuffed on the floor for two hours. One clubber at Cechas was arrested, strip searched and detained for 12 hours after police found green tea in his backpack. "I told them it was green tea, but they just replied, 'It must be drugs,'" the 22-year-old artist told me. "When they took me back to the station they said, 'Take your clothes off or we will do it for you.' It was like a punishment for going to a club. It's never happened before. I'd like to believe in the police being good, but now I don't understand them."
Another victim with no drugs at Cechas was Matis, a DJ in his twenties. He was filming the raid on his GoPro when police instructed the newspaper photographer to delete everything. "I think the police got the press guy to do it because they didn't know how to. Is that his job? My cousin's wedding, all the filming I had done for an art project, all gone," he said. Like other innocent guests, Matis was detained – under orders to keep deadly quiet – for three hours, before being released at 6AM.
These are no mafia-style drug dens teeming with Kalashnikovs and kilos of freshly imported cocaine and heroin. They are clubs full of young people dancing and having fun, armed only with pints of lager. In fact, the biggest drug raid in recent times in Lithuania was a bust involving corrupt police officers who were selling drugs themselves.
Few people in this progressive, fully paid up member of the EU can remember anything like this. You have to go back to a previous generation – when Lithuania was a virtual police state under Soviet control, before independence in 1991 – for similar stories. Is this country creeping back to darker days and, if so, what's going on?
Some observers believe the raids are linked to the backward-looking, puritanical ideology of the new government – a battle, alongside the alcohol laws, to expose and stamp out undesirable behaviour. Perhaps police decided, after an inspired move by Liberal MP Ausrine Armonaite to decriminalise drug possession was rejected by parliament, that it was time to boost clear-up statistics. Maybe they were emboldened by the rubber-stamping in January of draconian new drug laws ensuring that all drug possession, however small, is deemed a criminal offence rather than punishable by a fine.
"The attitude of most politicians here is that drug users in clubs or people caught with a bit of cannabis are drug addicts, so police should do their job and it doesn't matter how," Armonaite told me in her office in Lithuania's parliament. "People are afraid of things they don't understand. There are some good MPs from the Farmers and Greens Union, but most of them come from backgrounds that don't understand city culture. To them, taking drugs is completely another dimension."
It's noticeable that most of the raided clubs were part of Vilnius' alternative dance music scene. Jonas Adomaitis, who runs the first club raided, Peleda, reckons it's all "a crazy show, a public display" aimed at Lithuanians who are not mainstream, who are part of the DIY music scene. "The police think that anyone who is dancing is a junkie and anyone who runs a club is a drug dealer," he said. "They said to me, 'We know what you are trying to say with your music and your visuals – it's drug music.' But they are not killing drugs or alcohol; they are killing culture."
The last venue to be raided, in April, was Peronas, a bar situated next to an old railway track by Vilnius' train station. There is a video of the raid – which someone has sped up and added a comedy Benny Hill tune to – of police marching into the bar, searching a few people and swiftly coming out again with no seized drugs. Peronas stands out from the other venues because it's a trendy bar, rather than an alternative club. It also happens to be run by the head of the Lithuanian Bar and Café Association. The raid is seen by some as a shot across the bows, that even mainstream venues are vulnerable to police heat.
"We've not been raided before, and we had good communication with the police," says Peronas' owner Raimondas Pranka. "But since the new government came in, our line of communication has stopped." Following the raid Pranka called up his police contact, but was told, "We can't talk to you."
"I think because of the new alcohol laws they want to prove that every place you can buy alcohol is somehow bad for humanity," says Pranka.
While targeting social drinkers is a controversial issue for Lithuanians – a protest against the new alcohol laws was held outside parliament last month – going after illicit drug users, however forcefully, is widely seen as a good thing.
"Lithuania did not have a 1960s like the UK did," says Rokas Rudzinskas, a lawyer who has been monitoring the drug raids. "Most people see drugs as a monster, and all drugs are put in the same box. Cannabis and ecstasy are no different to heroin. This is how raids like this are justified." Despite having a friendly relationship with beer and wine, most Lithuanians see illegal drug use as a one-way ticket to the dark side. So it follows that those who use them should get what's coming to them.
Except that not everyone in the city is content to see these raids go unchallenged. Vilnius councillor Mark Adam Harold, a Londoner who relocated to the city more than ten years ago, has decided to fight back against what he sees as the thin end of a puritanical wedge. Harold organised a packed talk at Peronas in which I was asked, as a writer specialising in drugs, to give my opinion on whether the raids were effective ways of preventing harm from drugs. The talk was reported by the media and backed by the chairman of Vilnius' drugs committee.
When Harold put out a call last month to those affected by the raids to contact him, the appeal went viral. More than 70 clubbers have so far given evidence to the lawyer Rudzinskas, detailing forced strip searches, rough treatment, humiliation, fake fines, data-wiped phones and of young women being ejected from police stations in the middle of the night. Almost all of them had no drugs on them. It is likely their testimonies will form part of a class action against the police, an attempt to head this emerging police tactic off at the pass.
"The new government is a weird utopian cult which believes that all Lithuania's problems are caused by the evils of intoxication," says Harold. "They start preaching abstinence and calling everyone alcoholics, and suddenly a series of armed raids starts in nightclubs. I can't believe it's just an accidental coincidence. Raiding 'dens of iniquity' fits their profile perfectly. They are targeting people who don't know their rights and don't know how to fight back. It's simple bullying. There is a prevailing feeling since Soviet times that 'hippies' are the degradation of the nation, and that if you have strange hair and listen to strange music, you are a threat."
Rudzinskas says there is evidence from the raids to show unlawful police brutality and disproportional violations of constitutional rights. He told me that far from protecting young people – the reason police said they conducted the raids – they are exposing young people to trauma. "Only a small number of those during the raids were caught with drugs," he explained, "while a lot of innocent people were exposed to quite extreme measures, like being searched fully naked and handcuffed on the ground for hours.
"In a democratic society, no one should be treated as a criminal merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No place should be considered as being wrong, just because it is linked with a specific culture. The police should not be used as a PR agency for the manifestation of governmental views. They have no right to intimidate people just to prove someone's point."
There is a feeling among those whose job it is to represent Vilnius that using nightlife as the battleground in a war between young and old, rural and urban, is bad news. Darius Udrys, a Lithuanian-American who is director of Go Vilnius, the City Development Agency, despairs: "How can we enjoy going to bars and clubs if we have to worry about this sort of thing, where police are creating a large-scale scene, it's not much fun to be around."
The Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, is not happy either. He can't understand why the big driver of alcoholism in the country, the drinking of cheap alcohol in rural areas, has been used as a stick to beat everyone who likes a drink. "There are signs of this government having an antagonistic relationship with the more metropolitan parts of the country," says Šimašius. "We are an open, friendly city, and in a way the new government is threatening this. It is against freedom. In my view these raids are a disproportional demonstration of power and they misrepresent everything that is urban and future-looking about this city."
Maybe the truth here is less spiteful than it seems: these clumsy alcohol laws and drug raids are not being done out of spite, but out of good intentions, out of the belief that by clamping down and seizing tiny amounts of drugs the relatively small problem of drug use in Lithuania will be solved by public shows of force. Maybe this is why there haven't been any high profile raids since April: drugs found, kids taught a lesson, job done.
"I don't think this is an evil government fascistically cracking down on longhairs," says Harold. "Most likely it's a new political entity full of people who don't know shit about harm reduction, who are just doing their honest best to combat a problem they don't understand. They seem to be very bemused that not everybody is congratulating them about their upgraded war on drugs."
It's the classic anti-drugs booby trap, where the enforcement of drug laws ends up doing more damage than the drugs themselves. But if Lithuania's pseudo-Pagan party leader sincerely wants to get back to basics, why criminalise and traumatise his treasured citizens for wanting to have a good time?