In the 2 1/2 years since Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus scored an astonishing victory to become president of the country he fled five decades earlier, the former Hinsdale resident has been both inspired and thwarted. Russia's economic and political shadows continue to cloud Lithuania's efforts to define itself. Recently, Adamkus, 73, has turned his attention to a dark chapter of Lithuanian history, backing a multinational investigation of the Holocaust and Soviet crimes that promises to illuminate the roles of Lithuanian collaborators. Before speaking earlier this month at the invitation of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Adamkus talked with the Tribune about these projects, his relationship with Moscow and the lessons from two years as president.
Q: How has the experience of being president of a country you left five decades ago compared with the expectations you had? Has the pace of integration with the West been slower or faster than you anticipated?
A: I probably did not recognize that I would have to overcome such a big bureaucracy. I didn't recognize enough how difficult it is for the young democracy to use the democratic tools--the parliament. I was successful (as a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) cutting the red tape of the American bureaucracy, but now I recognize it is more difficult--it is maybe 10 times more difficult--here than it was back in the States.
With respect to the West, we still have a long way to go, but we are making progress. Since we have already been invited to begin negotiations to enter the European Union, funds are available from the EU and certain sectors to help with that.
The most traumatic changes, I believe, will be agricultural. Right now, 30 percent of Lithuania's population is still living in the countryside. And as you know, some industrial countries such as Germany have 2 percent of their population involved in agriculture and they are feeding 50-plus million people. Here we have 30 percent, and our population is 3.7 million. Traditionally, Lithuania is an agricultural country and we have to go to 10 percent agricultural. So we have to find jobs for the other 20 percent.
I believe the way is to find production lines, so that whatever we grow, it will be immediately transferred into products and sold. Look at potato chips. This is definitely not a product that originated in Lithuania. But today we have American companies using our potatoes. They are manufacturing, and then 99 percent of it is being sold all over Europe. And that is how we change that traditional dependence on agriculture.
Q: How has the Russia's economic crisis and political transitions affected you?
A: The biggest problem I am really concerned about is the economy. We are trying to pull ourselves from the impact of the Russian chaotic situation, which really affected our economy. We have turned a corner--our gross domestic product has already risen by 2 percent, and that's an indication that we are going to come out of it. But two years ago, before the Russian crisis hit us, the growth in our gross domestic product was anticipated to be up to 7 percent. Really, the best indicator that we are doing better is our exports, which were mostly oriented to the East in the past. Suddenly, in the first quarter, 52 percent of our exports finally went to the West. And that's a good indicator that we don't depend anymore on Russian markets.
I still believe that in the future, Russia has unlimited possibilities for markets, because whatever you produce you can sell over there. Unfortunately, at the present time, [the lack of] accountability in payments restricts us from sending our goods. Also, lately, there are contracts we have signed with Moscow-- 5,000 tons of beef, 20,000 tons of grain--that I would call breakthroughs, good indicators that we are going to pick up in that field.
Q: What do other indicators tell you about Lithuania's economic health?
A: I would say that you could visually see the difference. Foreigners who are coming and going to Lithuania, they are expressing total disbelief. In two years, things have changed--new shops, the goods available to the people, the way the people are dressed on the street. I must admit even myself, there are times when I have been driving through and I have said, "My God, look at this street. It is unrecognizable."
Also, in education, two or three years ago we were concerned about the young generation unwilling to go to university or even high school. Twenty thousand children were, for one reason or another, not in the schools. It was of great concern. But today I have a different problem: The universities are not able to accept all the people who want to go.
Q: In an interview two years ago, you said you hoped Russia and Lithuania would be good neighbors. Is that the case, and what do you predict, given Russia's opposition to your bid to join NATO?
A: So far, so good, let's put it that way. It is very hard to predict what will be Mr. Vladimir Putin's foreign policy. But I have stated it before and I repeat it: Our major objective in foreign policy is to live in peace with our neighbors. However, at the same time, we are not changing our goals to become a member of NATO and of the European Union.
Q: Your experience puts you in a unique position to assess, critically, the environmental successes and challenges facing developing countries. How is Lithuania doing and what are the challenges?
A: Environment is a very difficult issue because it depends on the quality of life and it requires lots of money. When you have a manufacturing slump like we are experiencing right now, the environment is placed on a second or third level. We figured out that to attack and solve all of the environmental problems in Lithuania, we should spend $1,100 per person. In fact, we are spending only $40 per person. Unfortunately, when the people are directly hit by the shortcomings in daily necessities, even the non-government organizations are not as effective, and they are losing the interest of people.
Something to remember, though, is that the environmental movement triggered the national liberation movement throughout Europe. I remember in Lithuania they went from one river to another, and on their backs they were carrying the Lithuanian flag. That's the way it all began. And there is no question that spirit still exists. But the intensity has changed.
Q: Lithuania was subdued by Soviet forces in 1939, then later invaded by Nazis during World War II. By the end of the war, with help from Lithuanian units, 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were dead--90 percent of the nation's Jewish population. How do you hope to clarify this history?
A: After 50 years, and everyone accusing each other, I decided to finally make an end to it. I created by my decree the international investigation committee to look into the Holocaust crimes and at the same time the Soviet crimes conducted during their occupation. That international commission is composed of Russians, scientists from the United States, Jewish organizations from Israel, Germany's representatives, and many others.
I created this with the goal that in 24 months I would like to have a final report with the all the facts in it, no matter how painful and awkward it could be. I want to open this report to the rest of the world and put an end to the speculations and manipulations of some of the facts. Let's establish the facts and I believe everybody will be happier with it.
Q: By including Soviet crimes, that complicates it politically. How do you expect that will be received?
A: Some people will welcome it. Some people will say, "No that does not belong in a report like this." Especially I have heard comments from the Jewish community that we should not include the Russians in the report. But my answer to that is that we have statistical information that good, valuable citizens of Lithuania were exterminated by the Russians. And that was a loss to the Lithuanian state just as there was a loss at the hands of the Nazis.
Q: The Kursk disaster has underscored how hobbled Russia's security forces are. Some analysts predict that this insecurity and defensiveness could make Russia more volatile.
A: Right now, I see no reason for any changes in our relationship with Russia. Watch Putin's movement right now. He is traveling more than any other leader, even Western leaders. He is covering territory all over Europe, he is in Japan, he is in Africa. And he is promoting the idea that Russia is very active and wants to stay active in international politics. I don't see this as a kind of imperialist attempt. I personally believe it is good because the more Russians are involved in the world, this will lessen the tension from Russia.
There is still reluctance to accept Russia into the European alliance or any other alliance. I believe Putin is trying to break that barrier. Of course for him it is very difficult because he is faced not only with the difficulties in Russia itself--economically and otherwise--but the situation in Chechnya is not helping.
And look at what happened with the submarine. If they had only just asked for international assistance, maybe it would be different. Maybe those people were killed instantly, but I was talking with the king of Norway and he said, "Look, it only took us three hours to get there and open it up." But the Russians delayed it for a week. In that respect, there is a long way for the Russians to change their attitude, their philosophy, their outlook toward other people.
There is another factor coming into the picture, which for other people might be meaningless, but for us is not: The Scandinavian countries have started cooperating with the three Baltic countries. This is a very solid region. Probably for the outsider, it does not mean much, but for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, it is an important recognition.
Q: Have the challenges of the last three years made the Lithuanian people more or less committed to a free-market, democratic society?
A: There is no doubt in anybody's mind that democracy works. The latest example is that parliament passed a law on the side of controlled supervision (of the press). I don't want to say censorship, but it was expressed that there had been misuse of press freedoms, especially on disclosure of the source and protection of the journalist. Parliament passed the law but I vetoed it. The law came back, there was a very heated discussion, but finally I prevailed. The younger generation is coming up and all my hopes are pinned to those young people coming out of the schools, traveling outside the country, widening their horizons and knowledge. That is the future.