Georgia crisis adds an edge to Lithuania music festival

Rock and techno fans have flocked to this frontier town for a politically-charged music festival this weekend that's acquired an edge due to the conflict in Georgia.

For the second year running, the southeast Lithuanian hamlet of Norviliskes is the deeply-symbolic venue for Be2gether, where the bill this year features Britain's Tricky and Groove Armada, and France's Etienne de Crecy.

The three-day festival, which ends Sunday, is -- literally -- on the eastern rim of the European Union.

Only a few dozen metres (yards) from the five stages is the border fence with Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko is branded "Europe's last dictator" by detractors in the West.

"We wanted to have a festival that would bring people together, and try to break down the borders that people have inside their heads," said Egle Remeikaite, one of the organisers of the event, which gets around a fifth of its 20-million-euro (29.5-million-dollar) budget from the Lithuanian government.

This year, the conflict in Georgia has boosted the political flavour of the festival which otherwise aims to spotlight the situation over the border in Belarus.

The Georgian flag flutters above the stages, and from many of the tents at the campsite that is home away from home for the 10,000 festival goers.

The Lithuanian government and the vast majority of its people are staunch supporters of Georgia in its conflict with Russia. Both nations won independence from Moscow as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

Lithuania is now firmly anchored in the West, having joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and it supports Georgia's goal of doing likewise.

Belarus, meanwhile, still leans towards Moscow, notably since Lukashenko came to power in 1994.

Lithuanians have strong ties with Belarussians, notably in this region, where villages on both sides of the border were part of the same rural community in Soviet times, split only by a local government border.

Norviliskes purportedly found itself in Lithuania by accident, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was redrawing the region's borders after annexing the Baltic nation during World War II.

Stalin is said to have left his pipe lying on the map and, because no-one dared move it, the border was drawn round it.

Lithuanians and Belarussians have needed visas to visit each other's country since 1993.

Last year, Lithuania joined the Schengen zone, a 24-nation grouping of West European states where frontier checks are abolished among members in exchange for tougher external controls.

The price of a Lithuanian visa has jumped from five to 60 euros (eight to 93 dollars) because of Schengen rules. That is a huge slice of an average Belarussian's monthly wage, which is worth around 260 euros.

Belarussian visas, meanwhile, cost Lithuanians 25 euros, a lighter burden in a country where the average salary is 623 euros.

Lithuania grants free visas to Belarussian festival-goers, but they still have to stump up 60 euros for a ticket.

In the crowd, young Belarussians were draped in the red and white flag which their country adopted after independence, and which has become a standard for the opposition since Lukashenko swapped it for a Soviet-style banner.

"In wearing it because I can't do it in Belarus, and to show that I want my country to be finally free," said Katya, a 25-year-old Belarussian who did not give her last name.

Another Belarussian, Alexei, came to see NRM, a Belarussian group with a cult following among Lukashenko's opponents. "Their lyrics are so anti-Lukashenko that it's almost impossible to hear them in Belarus," he said.



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