“The idea of my nation has always been: ‘what was stolen should be returned’…
The re-building of an independent state, the restoration of property, privatisation, the creation of a new economy and defence is not an easy task. Still, our achievements are impressive, indeed.”
GDL: Lithuania re-emerged on the map of Europe just 25 years ago, during which time you have achieved membership into the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Schengen Agreement and NATO. Did you fulfil all your expectations so far?
A.E: Yes, we did it and one more thing – from the 1st of January 2015, Lithuania joined the Eurozone, and our currency litas has already been replaced by the euro. Many changes have taken place during the 25 years of our independence. The Lithuanian national liberation movement in the form of the “singing revolution”, won a victory in a peaceful way. We fought against historical injustice when the USSR, after signing a shameful secret pact with Nazi Germany, occupied and annexed, since 1918, the existing independent Republic of Lithuania in 1940. The idea of my nation has always been: ‘what was stolen should be returned’.
On the 11th of March 1990, a freely elected Lithuanian Parliament declared the Act of the Re-establishment of the State of Lithuania. The act proclaimed that “the execution of the sovereign powers of the State of Lithuania abolished by foreign forces in 1940 is re-established and henceforth Lithuania is again an Independent State”.
Estonia and Latvia joined Lithuania and, after some time, other former Soviet republics (including Russia, neighbouring Belarus, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc.) regained their freedom which led to the next biggest and happiest moment – the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The re-building of an independent state, the restoration of property, privatisation, the creation of a new economy and defence is not an easy task. Still, our achievements are impressive, indeed. Let me use some statistics instead of a pure “diplomatic propaganda”. First of all, we had a difficult but successful transformation from a command economy to a free market, we achieved labour, fiscal and monetary freedom and now Lithuania ranks 24th on the ease of doing business (World Bank 2015); the 15st freest economy in the world and 6th in Europe (Heritage Foundation 2015); more than 80% of GDP is generated by the private sector.
Following accession to the WTO in 2001, Lithuania joined the single market of the European Union in 2004. A smooth recovery from the global economic crisis in 2009 and the Russian financial crisis of 1998 was followed by a vital and stable economy. Lithuania’s economic and business environment is generally characterised as sound and is still improving.
Lithuania‘s economic growth rate is amongst the highest in the European Union. We reached stability in growth of our economy after joining the EU: export value grew more than three times, as well as the foreign direct investment. Take a look into some important indicators:
In 2013-14 Lithuanian economy growth was stable, and despite new problems, we think that the economy will develop in 2015 m., because of intensive internal consumption:
“…having problems as an EU club member – is not so dangerous – no one is left all alone like an orphan. We do believe that our strength is our ability to solve problems and reach decisions collectively. On the other hand, our common aim is to ensure financial stability of the euro zone. Therefore responsibility, as well as solidarity, lies at the heart of the European values we share.”
GDL: Lithuania joined the Eurozone as its 19th member in January 2015. The Eurozone is in a terrible state: growth has been anaemic for years; it is on the verge of deflation, where prices fall, thereby pushing up the value of debt; unemployment is high, like in Greece and Spain; do these facts worry you?
A.E: As a new euro zone member, Lithuania is closely monitoring the situation and is ready to cooperate and support our partners that face problems. But having problems as an EU club member – is not so dangerous – no one is left all alone like an orphan. We do believe that our strength is our ability to solve problems and reach decisions collectively. On the other hand, our common aim is to ensure financial stability of the euro zone. Therefore responsibility, as well as solidarity, lies at the heart of the European values we share. The current economic situation requires difficult decisions to be made and results sometimes are not as quick as we would like them to be.
Let me use some facts so you can understand why Lithuanians are so optimistic about the future of their country and the EU as a whole with not so many euros in our pockets yet:
For five years in a row, Lithuania is a leader in the EU in optical internet penetration (FTTH Council Europe) and 7th in the world. By the end of 2013 about 34% of all households in Lithuania used optical internet.
Lithuania is also the 1st in the World Competitiveness Rankings in communication technology (IMD, The Word competitiveness yearbook, 2011-2012. Commun. techn. rank evaluates how communications technology (voice and data) meets business requirements).
Lithuania is also the 1st in the EU for Internet download and upload speed and 2nd worldwide (Top 10 fastest (Mb/s) Internet upload speed countries, Cisco), also 1st in Europe for density of network of public Internet access points. Finally, 92% of financial operations are performed via e-banking.
When we are talking about strategic business development location, we are proud that Lithuania’s 10 science and technology parks provide an ideal infrastructure for setting up new ventures and for expanding existing businesses. Our sophistication and efficiency, as a proven transport corridor and logistics hub, are excellent. And Lithuania’s unique business links with eastern markets are especially helpful for companies looking to expand there.
GDL: Lithuania in 2014 was among the EU’s five fastest-growing nations. Large industrial companies and the expanding construction sector proved to be the most powerful locomotives to move the economy forward. What lessons can Greece learn from your country?
A.E: Lithuania went through a very painful economic crisis in 2009 (its GDP dropped by almost 15% in 2009). Lithuanian people walked a stony path to overcome the economic crisis:
1) Strong austerity policy;
2) Significantly enlarged export of our main products (especially mineral fuel and mineral oil, machinery and mechanisms, parts, electrical machinery, furniture, plastics and various by-products, transport, vehicles, wood and wooden products, fertilizers, dairy and dairy products, eggs, grain, pharmaceuticals, optics, textiles, etc.,) and as a result: the internal consumption started to steadily grow, and then the crisis was over.
All these steps look simple at first sight, but these decisions were very difficult for our people. However, Lithuanians understood that there was no easy way to overcome the crisis and that today sacrifices had to be made for a better tomorrow.
Today bears witness that a prudent macroeconomic policy and sustainable public finances are the right way forward. We made drastic financial cuts at that time, but we have returned back to economic growth – GDP growth stood at 2.9% in 2014.
Our example shows that strict fiscal discipline, together with economic growth measures, is the right approach.
“When we are talking about strategic business development location, we are proud that Lithuania’s 10 science and technology parks provide an ideal infrastructure for setting up new ventures and for expanding existing businesses.
Our sophistication and efficiency, as a proven transport corridor and logistics hub, are excellent. And Lithuania’s unique business links with eastern markets are especially helpful for companies looking to expand there.”
GDL: Lithuania’s unemployment among young people fell to 5.6% in 2014. To what do you owe the fact that youth employment reduction in Lithuania is one of the fastest in Europe?
A.E: A new era for young people has arrived, and along with it all the opportunities to study and work in all EU countries. It is also noteworthy to mention, that very important companies came and settled in Lithuania – Barclays, Western Union, Teva, SCS, Ernst and Young, Kraft, Mars and many others.
Our young people are well educated – Lithuania is the 1st in the World Competitiveness Rankings in literacy (IMD, World Competitiveness Rankings, 2012), 4th in the EU for share of graduates of total population (Eurostat, 2012) and 5th in the EU for foreign language knowledge (European Commission, “Europeans and their Languages”, 2012).
The Lithuanian laser industry also accounts for more than half of the global market of picosecond laser spectrometers and our laser industry is a leader in global production of ultra-fast parametric light generators (80%).
Today, the IT sector is very important for young specialists. Our universities are busy preparing more and more IT specialists and about 25,000 of our young women and men are now working in the IT sector.
GDL: The Lithuanian Government has suggested creating a single natural gas exchange which would facilitate in attracting regional partners into Lithuania’s natural gas market. Can you tell us more about this proposal?
A.E: The creation of an Energy Union is identified as one of the key priorities by the EC President Juncker, and it is also a task for Member States and the Commission to ensure that the EU Energy Union is shaped in such a way as to guarantee clear added value to the current energy policies.
We are looking forward to a more integrated, secure, competitive and sustainable European energy system – European energy space.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when addressing security issues, therefore the EU must continue to invest in energy infrastructure, even if sometimes it does not look economically viable. Mechanisms to support investments should be made available.
Lithuania is already investing in this sector – the LNG terminal in Klaipeda is currently the first and only gas diversification option in the region. Gas interconnection with Poland is also being implemented.
The opening of the LNG terminal is good and big news for the region. (The LNG storage vessel “Independence” was built for Lithuania in South Korea by the Norwegian company Hoegh LNG in association with the local company Hyundai Heavy Industries.)
In so far, all operational LNG import terminals have been located in Western and Southern Europe. There is a rising demand and potential for a LNG regasification capacity in Central and Eastern European countries.
The Klaipeda LNG terminal is the first in the Baltic-Nordic region and it is an opportunity to use LNG gas for regional purposes and to satisfy the growing transport sector global demand for LNG. The LNG distribution station near the Klaipeda LNG terminal will make it possible to provide services to customers in Latvia, Estonia and Poland. According to preliminary estimates, the initial storage capacity of the LNG distribution station would be up to 10,000 cubic metres, with up to two tanker trucks being filled at the same time.
In February 2015, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland launched a common initiative – the so-called Regional Gas Market Coordination Group – aimed at creating a fully functional common market for gas in the Baltic States and Finland.
“A new era for young people has arrived, and along with it all the opportunities to study and work in all EU countries… Our young people are well educated – Lithuania is the 1st in the World Competitiveness Rankings in literacy…”
GDL: Lithuanian politicians, the army and some media are creating an atmosphere resembling a besieged castle with ‘the enemy at the gates’. Is Lithuania in real danger, or is it a populous desire to feel that Lithuania is an important player in a global struggle against Moscow and is this why your country has increased its defence spending by around one third compared to 2014?
A.E: Lithuania’s objective at a global level is to preserve peace. This can only be done if we maintain the international system, where International Law and institutions continue playing a central role.
The same policy is also pursued at regional level. Lithuania is aiming at having good neighbourly relations with all its neighbours. We also support other Eastern European countries that follow this path in their rapprochement with the Euro-Atlantic community. If a different direction is chosen by a particular nation and its government, we have to respect and support it. That is why Lithuania is among the strongest supporters of the Eastern Partnership policy.
We construct our foreign policy on the objective information we have, but also on our historical experience. Lithuania has been occupied for more than half of the last century by the Soviet Union. Thousands of young Lithuanian men and women joined the resistance movement and were killed, tortured to death or sent to Gulags. All intelligentsia was deported to Siberia. All their private property was nationalised. These painful memories of the nation are very much still alive and, it is no secret at all, the dramatic developments in Ukraine are seen as a painful reminder.
It is no big news for us; we remember our history, the many hard lessons and the aggression against us. But there is no panic; we are members of NATO, we are now able to allocate more and more finances for defence purposes. We just need a keen eye and observe what some neighbours are doing with other neighbours and, having a good memory, we simply follow a famous Latin expression: “Si vis pacem, para bellum…” (“If you want a peace, prepare for war”).
GDL: Lithuania and its neighbours are suffering due to the sanction war between Russia and the west over Ukraine. Usually in economic standoffs, the most vulnerable suffer the most. How can Lithuanian producers overcome this economic setback?
A.E: Every country trades more with its neighbours. Lithuania’s trade with Russia is no exception at all. Therefore, it is very natural that our producers and exporters felt a rather strong impact of the current confrontation between the West and Russia and the devaluation of the Russian rouble.
Our business community is already searching for other markets, trying to re-orientate their businesses. And they have already got the first results: the exportation of oil products grew by 9%, furniture by 15%, fertilisers 48%, tobacco products 54% and grain 26%.
“We are looking forward to a more integrated, secure, competitive and sustainable European energy system – European energy space. There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when addressing security issues, therefore the EU must continue to invest in energy infrastructure, even if sometimes it does not look economically viable…
In February 2015, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland launched a common initiative – the so-called Regional Gas Market Coordination Group – aimed at creating a fully functional common market for gas in the Baltic States and Finland.”
GDL: Lithuania and Greece are two partner countries in the EU and allies in NATO, maintaining active political relations and enjoying a good level of cooperation in international organisations. At two opposing ends of Europe, what steps can be taken for our people to better understand each other’s peculiarities and explore mutual advantages?
A.E: Better mobility and connection between our peoples is essential. People-to-people and business-to-business contacts are of primary importance. The right way to better understand each other is to directly explore our cultures, history and daily lives. Launching a direct flight ‘Athens – Vilnius’ would immediately change many things for the better. I am currently working on this issue and anticipate that this subject will be raised high on our bilateral agenda.
GDL: Sometimes referred to as one of Europe’s undiscovered gems, tourism is a vital industry for Lithuania, recording two million foreign tourists in 2014, which for a nation of just over three million, is quite impressive. Can you tell us briefly about the major tourist attractions in your country and do Lithuanians find Greece an attractive destination?
A.E: Yes, Lithuanians love Greece and spend many days on the islands, as there are direct charter flights from Lithuania to Crete, Rhodes and Kos.
In short, the main Lithuanian tourism attractions are: medieval castles and old towns, historical and modern museums, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Grūtas Park – a sculpture garden that exhibits communist regime sculptures (the monuments of Lenin and Stalin for example, collected from all around Lithuania), the KGB museum in Vilnius or the Devils’ museum in Kaunas, many resorts and spas such as in Druskininkai, a perfect climate in summer, 22,000 rivers and 3,000 lakes, winter snow activities and sports, cultural and health tourism, invigorating Baltic sea water, refreshing cold beer, delicious traditional foods such as black bread, smoked pork, sausages smothered in baked sauerkraut, traditional honey drink/mead (midus), and a little sip of exceptional Lithuanian vodka too… Come and see; Come and taste.
GDL: Lithuania and Greece share a keen love of sport, especially basketball. Both countries have a great respect for each other in this field. How can we build upon this, and in what other areas do you feel that we could boost cooperation?
A.E. Basketball is, as we jokingly say, “a second religion” in Lithuania (more than 93% of Lithuanians are Roman Catholics). Our achievements in the arena of basketball are tremendous for a small three million nation – according to FIBA, Lithuania ranks 4th in the world of men’s basketball!
This game became very popular after the 1920s thanks to American Lithuanians (there are more than a million Lithuanian compatriots in the USA). Let’s just take a look at the records of the men’s national team: Lithuania – three times European champion in 1937, 1939 and 2003 .
The Lithuanian national team is also a winner of European silver medals in 1995 (with Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis tandem on top) and 2013 (a new generation of athletes – Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Arvydas Macijauskas, Ramūnas Šiškauskas, Jonas Mačiulis, Saulius Štombergas, etc.).
In 2007 at the European Championship, the Lithuanian team defeated Greece 78-69 and won a bronze medal (sorry, but that is what sport is all about, competition and respect for a fine athlete, which both of our countries can appreciate).
The best achievement in the World championship was in 2010 when Lithuania took the bronze medal.
At the Olympics in Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Sidney (2007) the Lithuanian men’s basketball team won third place and very proudly became the recipient of Olympic bronze medals!
All those victories were achieved by Lithuanians who were trained and primed locally – we do not naturalise good sportsmen from other countries – because of our competitive nature we desperately want to win medals for ourselves! To play for the national team is a great pride and honour for our basketball players, and therefore we are thoroughly looking forward to further championships…
However, basketball is not the only thing that unites our two countries. I sincerely believe that we still have a lot of potential to intensify our bilateral cooperation in the fields of bilateral trade, investment, and especially, in culture, tourism and student exchange.
1.It is necessary to admit, that since the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940, many Lithuanians were members of the USSR team until the restoration of Independence in 1990 – e.g., M. Paulauskas, A. Sabonis, S. Jovaiša, Š. Marčiulionis, R. Kurtinaitis, V. Chomičius and many others who were the key players of the USSR national team.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life
Published in March 2015