Geographically, Lithuania is located at the crossroads of Eastern, Central and Northern Europe. Economically the country wants to be a gateway. Politically it is stubbornly leaning towards the West.
STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS
A year ago Lithuania elected as its president Valdas Adamkus, a Lithuanian-American who has strong possibilities for molding the biggest Baltic country into a real European state. At the same time, Adamkus will introduce a fresh wind of American optimism into Lithuanian politics.
Adamkus recently turned 72, but in Baltic politics he represents the young, non-communist generation. President Adamkus lived in the United States for more than four decades before immigrating back to his native country last year. However, he denies being alienated from Lithuanian politics and daily life.
"I have always felt the pulse of my home country, even in soviet times when I was able to visit Lithuania quite often as an American administrator. It was not a cultural shock for me to return to live here again. The real shock was in 1972, when I visited Lithuania for the first time in more than 20 years."
"Of course there are some things that we are still missing here. I would like to see more individual initiative and entepreneurship. Also, Lithuanians have not yet grasped the importance of a clean, healthy environment."
Valdas Adamkus made his career in the United States as an environmentalist, in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was established in the beginning of 1970s. Adamkus was appointed deputy administrator of the Midwest branch of the EPA, covering five states. He was later promoted as an administrator of the same agency. Adamkus was also active in American-Lithuanian organizations, such as Santara-Sviesa and the American Lithuanian Council (ALC), becoming chairman of both organizations.
BURDENS OF HISTORY
Our interview with President Adamkus takes place in the grand presidential palace. Originally built for bishops in the 14th century, the palace is a reflection of Lithuanian's history. Napoleon stayed here on his ill-fortuned way to Moscow.
In spite of all the historical burdens with Russia, Germany and Poland, President Adamkus considers the future bright. "We have never had as good relations with Poland. About 7 percent of the Lithuanian population are ethnic Poles, and there are Lithuanians in Poland. All rights for these minorities are secured. Besides, I believe that Poland, which will become a member of NATO, can help Lithuania enter the security organization as well. The Nordic countries, for their part, have said they will support Lithuania's EU aspirations."
In spite of the president's optimism, it turned out soon after our interview that the European Commission did not recommend starting negotiations with Lithuania at this stage. Although the country's evaluation itself was not bad, the decision caused frustration in Lithuania, especially as Latvia was considered by the European Commission to be a stronger candidate. Adamkus believes, however, that Lithuania will make a breakthrough during Finland's EU chairmanship during the second half of 1999.
"I think the Northern Dimension that Finland has promoted will have an important effect on this region, particularly regarding policy towards Russia as well as energy and logistics solutions. The Northern Dimension will also strengthen the EU's Baltic Sea strategy."
TIES TO RUSSIA
How are Lithuania's relations with Russia today? "I believe that the young Russians want to join the democratic community, but there is also a certain stratum of people who never change." According to President Adamkus, the main problem with the Russians is that they do not understand the new role of North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Many people still think in terms of Cold War era. Truth is, however that NATO today is, first of all, a security organization."
Recent statistics have shown that about 51 percent of Lithuanians are in favor of NATO membership. Adamkus himself believes the actual support could be even higher. Nevertheless, despite the different opinions concerning the NATO question, Adamkus considers relations with Russia to be good. "Recently Lithuania chaired the Council of the Baltic Sea Countries. In this forum we have urged more active participation of Russia. Specifically the regions of Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg should be more active in order to fill the gray areas in Baltic Sea cooperation."
During his eight months in office. President Adamkus has stressed the importance of moral authority. "By this I mean, first and foremost, the moral authority of the nation. It also means working with all political parties to find the best decisions in implementing programs that serve the people. Thirdly, I believe that moral authority includes more freedom of expression, even in personal relations. For this reason I like to travel a lot in Lithuania. Of course, practical decisions are also needed to strengthen the moral code. These have been started and include the restructuring of the penal system, making the police force more efficient, and tightening customs control."
Lithuania was recently granted money by the EU for its anti-corruption program. This is in fact the first and so far only such program to have been started in the former Soviet Union or Central-Eastern European country. "I believe the problem in the former Soviet Union has been that people do not believe in state institutions or the government. I have seen a very big development in Lithuania in this sense within just the last two or three years. Previously, people used to say that nothing would ever change. It is totally different now, and this I am proud of. The alienation of young people from politics is not a good thing. We have avoided this."
Lithuania has economically progressed well during the last two years. The GDP growth in the first half of 1998 was about 7 percent. This will slow down because of the Russian crisis, but the pace of change is good. How does the Lithuanian president view Lithuania's role in economic terms?
"The Baltic Sea area has huge economic potential. The Nordic countries have contributed much to the Lithuanian economy through investments, and Nordic-Lithuanian cooperation is likely to deepen. In my state visits I like to visit big companies. Recently in Finland I visited Son-era, Nokia and energy company Fortum; in Sweden I visited Ericsson and Volvo. Naturally it is the companies themselves that decide about the forms of foreign trade. The Lithuanian state can only create frameworks for the rule-of-law, tax policies, foreign investments and export promotion."
Lithuania does face considerable economic threats, particularly should from the Asian-Russian crisis become global. "This would affect Lithuania badly. The Russian crisis has already had some impact. Excluding the effects of the global crisis this year, however, there should be no major problems, but we'll have to find new branches of production, more individual initiatives and so on."
Adamkus is keen to establish Lithuania's role as a.kind of gateway between Eastern, Central and Northern Europe. To its benefit, Lithuania already has the best roads in the region and knowledge of the Polish, Belarus and Ukrainian markets. "What we still lack is money and expertise in export promotion. We have to attract more foreign investments. At the same we must be more active in our promotions."
MR. LITHUANIA AND THE BALTIC DIMENSION
Lithuania was left out of the first phase of the EU accession negotiations in Luxembourg last year. This caused frustration among the Lithuanians, although the delay may have done good by reinforcing the^ need for continued change and development within the country. Lithuania now has good chances to begin accession negotiations in the near future.
President Adamkus believes that relations with Russia at the moment are good. For example, cooperation with Kaliningrad is proceeding well, and trade is getting increasing now that the area is being given more autonomy. Between the lines one could read that Adamkus is unsatisfied with the relations with Belarus. Lukashenko is not very popular among Western investors, which diminishes Lithuania's possibilities to act as a true gateway in the area.