Before switching on the dictophone, Gintas Jasiulionis, elder of Rukla, a town in central Lithuania that is hosting the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battalion, asks BNS journalists to produce their press cards – he explains he wants to make sure he is not targeted by the Russian propaganda.
“There are persons who claim to be journalists but are indeed propaganda tools. They say they are journalists from Lithuanian channels, while indeed they represent Russian channels,” says the elder. The plans to station a battalion near of Rukla, a town with population of about 2,000, have put the town in focus of international media and what is believed to be slander campaigns. In the evening of February 14, Lithuania’s parliamentary speaker received an email from Daina Adamkutė who claimed to be a volunteer but does not exist in reality who told about an alleged rape of a girl from a local foster institution by German troops stationed in Rukla.
According to the Lithuanian-language letter with mistakes, a group of drunk soldiers surrounded the girl and raped her. The email account was soon erased. Lithuanian politicians immediately pointed to Russia over the report, however, the law-enforcement has only said that the letter originally came from outside the European Union (EU). In spite of intelligence warnings about repeated provocations in Rukla in the future, the local administration and businessmen strongly support the arrival of NATO troops – they are convinced that the possible risks will be outweighed by the benefits to be brought by attention of the central administration and wallets of the foreign soldiers.
Guarantee of Independence
Eugenijus Sabutis, mayor of the Jonava district that includes Rukla, says the German troops are the guarantee of Lithuania’s independence. “It would be fantastic if the military base could be expanded to the size of Ramstein in Germany with some 30,000 Allied troops,” said the acting mayor. However, some of the Rukla residents raised back in the Soviet era believe that presence of thousands of troops only increases the risk of a conflict with Russia. “I’m afraid of war, I very often think about what I would have to do. However, I think that the more troops we have here, the more we tease the Russians,” said Asta Paulauskienė, 45-year-old employee of the local company Achema. Over just over a month, more than 400 German troops, 100 Belgian troops and 20 Dutch troops arrived in Rukla, with the number expected to exceed 1,000 in the next months. The units are stationed in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland in an effort to deter Russia. This is NATO’s response to the annexation of Crimea, Moscow’s support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine and the increased Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea region.
Unemployment and Crime Rates
Nevertheless, the majority of local residents care about deep-rooted social problems far more than geopolitics. The surroundings of the Rukla administration are beautiful, it is located next to the town’s central street and close to a renovated school and kindergarten. However, a number of derelict buildings can be found deeper into yards. Rukla’s unemployment rate of 20 percent is double the Jonava municipality’s average, and two hundred of 1,000 apartments are social housing. In addition to the foreign troops, the local population often faces refugees from the Middle East, as Rukla has been home to the Refugee Reception Centre for the past 20 years – after mainly hosting individuals from Chechnya, other parts of Russia and Ukraine, the center now accommodates refugees from Iraq and Syria in past years under the European Union (EU) program. Regardless of the decline in crime rates and the police stationed opened last year, the security situation in Rukla is the most complex among the eight administrative units of the Jonava district, says police chief Vigintas Lukošius.
At the end of 2016, yet unidentified young men attacked two female residents of the refugee center. Two weeks later, Syrian teenagers were attacked on their way back from school, however, the investigation was dropped. “Socially disadvantaged like consuming alcohol, young people are also not very disciplined,” said Lukosius.
For local businessmen, the foreign troops are the biggest hope of boosting sales. During lunchtime, the kitchen staff are the only people at a local restaurant Bene Pica without military uniforms. Some businessmen expect their turnover to soar by up to 40 percent, after the battalion of 1,200 troops is stationed in the town. A supermarket of the Norfa chain located across the street from the military territory is increasing its range of goods. The troops are the main clients and, furthermore, tend to buy more expensive items than the local buyers. “We have increased the number of chocolate bars by 50 percent, energy drinks, Coca-Cola and sausages by 30 percent. We’ll see what comes next and what they need, as merely a small portion has arrived by now,” says Ingrida Imbrasienė, the store manager.
In her words, when US troops first arrived in Rukla in 2014, the store did not know what they usually bought, consequently, there was a shortage of some goods – potato chips, Coca-Cola and energy drinks. Furthermore, the newly-arriving troops used to empty shelves of hygiene items. Imbrasiene said that the store had posted 1.3 million euros in turnover in 2016 and expected to boost sales by 30-40 percent this year. A store intended for the incoming troops should be opened in Rukla in the next six months, offering souvenirs and military items. The Rukla elder expressed hope that the bigger attention from the central administration due to NATO troops and refugees would result in bigger investments. “Rukla is the business card. We need to invest in everything starting with free-time activities, recreational zones, sports and culture objects, and ending with sidewalks and streets,” said Jasiulionis.