Old website version during the first term of office of President Valdas Adamkus (1998 02 26-2003 02 25)

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Zilvinas Norkunas "A Destiny Called Lithuania", Lithuania in the World


While the wave of interest at how the American, Valdas Adamkus, "re-became" a Lithuanian and was elected president of Lithuania has not yet subsided in the world media, Lithuanians themselves are already attempting to evaluate the first six months of his presidency.
To those who voted for him, his "American character" or "otherness" have never caused any problem. Adamkus has always featured among the top three in ratings of politicians in recent years.
Constantly stressing his non-aligned position, President Adamkus emphasised at the beginning of our conversation that a change in the public mood towards greater optimism is already being felt.
"The desire for more active participation in community life is returning. People's confidence in the state and one another is also becoming stronger," the president said.
One of your duties is the coordination of foreign policy. Your first visits abroad were to Warsaw and Brussels. Can this be considered a priority in foreign policy?
My first working visit to Poland was very significant. It assured politicians there that Lithuania is determined to maintain good relations with Poland, which will shortly become a member of NATO and the EU. The stops on my way to Warsaw at Seinai and Suvalkai, where the majority of Poland's Lithuanians live, were also important, because I view the issue of ethnic minorities as very important and stress the observance of minority rights on both sides of the border.
The meetings in Brussels focused on the problems of EU enlargement. Lithuania's fundamental position - orientation towards the EU - and its commitment to speeding up the integration process were stressed.
Perhaps the most important were my meetings with members of the North Atlantic Council and discussions on NATO expansion. In Brussels, I heard reassurances from all NATO countries supporting Lithuania as a future member. I believe that the positive attitude of these countries will facilitate our admission. I also had a meeting with the Belgian prime minister, at which we discussed bilateral relations.
My visit to Sweden dealt mainly with security and economic issues. The Baltic Sea region has a huge economic potential, and I believe it will play an important role in the future economic and security architecture of Europe. Nearly all our main trade partners are located around the Baltic Sea, including Sweden whose investment in Lithuania went up by 27 per cent last year. During the visit, I also had private meetings with the leaders of two of Sweden's largest enterprises, Volvo and Ericsson, at which I stressed Lithuania's desire to cooperate in the fields of investment and production development.
I recall with particular warmth my visit to the Vatican. The Lithuanian delegation was shown an exclusive honour because the visit took place on the Pope's birthday (May 18), when normally no official delegations are received. This fact will help us to develop a constructive and fruitful relationship between the state and the church in Lithuania.
At the same time I also had meetings with the Italian president and prime minister. Italy is important in our integration towards the EU and NATO and it is in our interest to consolidate and promote support in southern Europe for our principal goals.
I have talked over the phone with Russian president Boris Yeltsin. The conversation touched on the affairs of the Baltic states and particularly on the crisis in Russian-Latvian relations. I believe that the conversation had a certain impact on Russia's position. The Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who paid a visit to Vilnius later, made clear Russia's agreement with Lithuania's goal to join the EU.
Border issues were discussed and resolved in talks with Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. We are convinced it is important for us to maintain a constructive dialogue with our neighbours.
I must mention the traditional meeting of the three Baltic presidents in Riga, too. We have become aware of our countries' determination to broaden the scope of our relations. It was also a good opportunity to look at the problems still existing that block our aspiration to develop a common Baltic economic area. Border permeability, organised crime and illegal migration are the most salient ones.
Thus there has been much action and a number of foreign contacts forged. I should add that over the first four months of my term of office there has hardly been a single day without talks on foreign policy issues or direct participation in international meetings.
How would, you characterise Lithuanian-US relations? Is Lithuania visible from -Washington, not only as part of the Baltic region in the context of Russia's problems? Can we talk of bilateral relations between Lithuania and America?
Lithuania has always stood out in America's relations with the Baltic states because of the influence of many Lithuanians living in America, in terms of practical politics and the decisions of American politicians. The influence of Lithuanians will continue to be great, as we have a number of representatives in Congress who devote much attention to Lithuania. I believe that after my election to the presidency this attention has become even stronger. Most political events in America are for one day, and if someone holds out in the press for two days this implies something extraordinary. According to the Americans themselves, this time, however, the election of an "American president of Lithuania" attracted the attention of the media, which has not yet faded away. Such exceptional press attention can also be beneficial to the development not only of political but also of economic relations.
Is there any indication of American capital moving to Lithuania?
According to the latest news, my election was very favourably seen in American business circles, and this is reflected in the intention to allocate half a billion dollars for investment in the immediate future. If this proves to be correct, I will be very glad and I believe that this 500 million dollars will not be the end and that more will come. I would like to speak of dozens of billions of dollars that would boost Lithuania's economy. In addition, I pin great hopes on my visits to the US, scheduled for the end of the year. These visits will also serve to attract American capital to Lithuania.
You mentioned the increased attention of the American press after you became president. It does not seem to be clear to the Americans how an American "suddenly" becomes a Lithuanian, and not just an ordinary Lithuanian but the Lithuanian president? Has your life really been "double"?
This is an intriguing puzzle to them. However, the "double life" situation itself is not important for me. It has never caused me any problems, because spiritually I have always belonged to Lithuania. At the same time, I was a totally loyal member of the American community. I gave it much of my physical and intellectual strength. I am very grateful to that country and society which accepted and educated me, and I worked for them in a very loyal and rational manner.
However, this did not in the least prevent me from being a Lithuanian. My Lithuanian background has never been a secret to anyone. In the period of our national rebirth, and especially after 11 March 1990, when Lithuania declared the restoration of its independence and when America followed the developments here and in the former Soviet Union, I was in Washington. My colleagues and acquaintances would address me as "Mr. Lithuania".
Let us return to this side of the Atlantic. Traditionally, a pro-Western politician working in these parts is doomed to a difficult and complicated dialogue with Russia. How do you intend to deal with this? Lithuanian-Russian relations are one of the key and, I think, most difficult tasks in our foreign policy.
A certain suspicion on Russia's part exists. They say there that "he is from the West". Some Russian newspapers called me "an American in Lithuania," and this is understandable: I come from an entirely different world. Little is known about me there, only that I have always been a "nationalist" who never reconciled himself to the Soviet regime in Lithuania and hid his "bourgeois" views on Lithuania's occupation. If I were a Russian politician, I too would be concerned about what the election of such a person means in the new political order.
However, speaking to Russian journalists in the first days of my presidency, I said that I would seek normal and friendly relations and that the two neighbouring states must get on and work in a spirit of mutual respect. This is one of my key foreign policy objectives, and I will pursue it. All doubts about my possible anti-Russian politics must be dispersed un-equivocally. I see myself as a practical politician with pro-Western thinking, and this requires particularly good relations with all our neighbours.
I think you can consider yourself a politician who knows Russia quite well and not from books or articles. You started travelling there in 1972 as a member of American environmental delegations, and later as leader of these delegations.
Over 25 years I had a chance to meet and talk with many politicians and scientists. I travelled a great deal, from the northern regions to the Black Sea, to say nothing of Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities. I believe that I knew the hard life of Russia's people of that time quite well.
Has Russia changed?
Yes and no. There is a certain stratum of people who will never change. They miss the "good old days", the social system which was their ideal. This is also reflected in the current Duma, in the words and deeds of its representatives. However, Russia is changing. The new generation is different. It is becoming more democratic and it clearly realises the advantages of the Western mentality. It is trying to combine democratic principles with Russia's real economic and social life. I think that this generation will eventually have a decisive impact on the cultural, economic, social and political life of Russia, which will be much closer to Western rather than Eastern-Socialist life.
Do you think that the unity of the three Baltic states might only be political rhetoric rather than a viable and effective reality?
There is some rhetoric. The kindred closeness of the Baltic states is overstressed. However, there are grounds for this. I am sceptical about claims that we have disagreements with Estonia, that the Estonians dislike the Lithuanians, and vice versa. I do not think that ordinary people feel there is any conflict between our people. Our political goals are the same. Only now a certain competition has emerged, and there are attempts to prove that some are better than others. Therefore, I view all this only as political manoeuvring arising from that competition, but pursuing the same goals. That is why I believe that, regardless of everything, we are together and must stay together.
In your book My Destiny is Called Lithuania you stressed that in the US, even when holding very high positions, you were always politically independent, i.e. even though you favoured the Republicans, you were never a member of their party. In Lithuania, your position, both before the presidential election and after it, was similar: although you have a liking for the liberal centre cause, you are nevertheless completely unbiased in party terms. Is this your position?
I think that this is a position of principle which has grown from my whole life and my experience in the US. My work required total objectivity and honesty in word and deed, without trying to ingratiate myself with someone or bow to someone's opinion. My professional decisions were often of paramount importance for the economic development of a large region, because the job involved billions of dollars. Any outside, especially political and party, influence could have been disastrous both to me and to the success of the efforts of many people. If, after 27 years, I was able to leave my job with a raised head after achieving positive results, this, probably, was the outcome of my observation of those principles. This experience only strengthens my determination to continue along this path while I am obliged and committed to working for my country and my people.
Do you agree that from this point of view your case is exceptional? I think that for most people it is difficult to imagine how one can be elected president without the support of any political party or its membership?
Yes; if in America I managed to avoid any party engagement (mine were appointed rather than elected duties), it was much more difficult in Lithuania, since political life is practically in the hands of the parties, and one has to take this into consideration.
However, in discussions with the party leaders, I expressed my position: to always seek concord and to look for a dialogue that would satisfy everyone; to represent the entire population of my country and not to evade criticism if someone believes that I violate these principles.
Do you think that your case could set a precedent?
If it sets a precedent, I will be very happy. I believe that this is the most effective way of representing one's country under difficult transition conditions. This might be unnecessary under normal circumstances. Then it would be possible to "play" with the programmes and ideologies of political parties by relying on the parties' maturity and ability to represent the largest possible number of people,
This is a luxury that only states with a strong economic foundation can afford. Lithuania does not have it yet. This is the main reason for which, seeking compromises and accord, I am attempting to set an example in non-party representation. At least until the time when Lithuania's economy and society become equal to those of the old European democracies.
What is, and what does it mean to be, a president?
First, it means moral authority for the nation. Second, to work with all political parties by finding the most practical and the best decisions in implementing programmes that will serve the people.
Who makes up the team at the President's Office and how are advisors chosen? Do you intend to invite more Lithuanians from America to your team?
Since the very first days I have said that Lithuanian Americans should by no means make up a majority at the President's Office. My sole American advisor is a man who has been close to me since my youth, a companion who himself took care of Lithuanian affairs in America for 50 years and whose advice is very important to me. I mean Raimundas Miezelis. I will continue to look for talented people here regardless of party arithmetics.
One is a president 24 hours a day. What else is there apart from duties: a hobby, music, literature, sports?
Little time remains and much of it is spent scanning the press. I do not imagine a single day without this. Almost no time is left for books, as for friends. I read book reviews and I find a lot of spiritual strength in poetry. If there is time, we go the opera and concerts.
My wife has an extremely large collection of classical music. Every time she flies to the United States to see her mother she keeps saying that she will bring it here, but it looks as if the shipment of the entire collection will take several months.
What does home mean to you? What is your home 'spirit'?
My wife Alma is my greatest inspiration, my best advisor and my harshest critic. This makes me very happy and helps me a lot. She has a strong but charming personality and has a lively interest in social issues. Her advice has helped me more than once to make decisions. I see such harmony in the family as an important value.
How would you characterise yourself before and after the election?
The same: caring and wishing to remain accessible to people. I believe the only thing which has changed in me is that I have become more sensitive to people's needs.

Maintained by the Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania. Please specify source when quoting.