|Lithuania News Review - Henrikas Mickevičius
||5 September 2011
Text: Ray Vysniauskas
As the first in a series of interviews with political and social commentators we talk to Henrikas Mickevičius about a number of issues concerning his work and views on current affairs in Lithuania.
Henrikas Mickevičius (above) is the overworked Director of the under-funded Human Rights Monitoring Institute (Žmogaus teisių stebėjimo institutas) in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lithuania raised an international scandal a few weeks ago when Austria released a suspect from the 13 January 1991 TV tower murders in Vilnius. Then they go and supply Belarus with the banking details of Ales Belyatsky, a leading human rights activist in Belarus through which he was detained and faces up to seven years in jail. Is this a breakdown in Lithuanian foreign policy?
These are two different issues. With Austria it is a more complicated situation. There is a strictly legal and then a political side to the episode and you need to separate them.
From a legal point of view it is difficult to criticise Austria, but the one thing is that they only gave Lithuania a very short amount of time to supply additional information, some four hours. Usually it is up to 48 hours, but otherwise, in strictly legal terms, we don't have a case against Austria.
In more political terms Austria as an EU member and Western country had to think about showing some solidarity. One cannot get away from the impression that what they did is to formally look at the warrant and do all they could not to fill it. More solidarity and dialogue would have been expected.
With Belarus it is a shameful act by the Lithuanian authorities. It shows me that law enforcement here, as well as some officials in the executive branch of government, are apolitical. They have no idea of the political context of the law within which they are functioning. They purely see the text of the law and they don't take any regard of the political or social context that it operates in.
A number of public officials are not aware that the law in Lithuania functions within a democratic system of values and that is how it should be interpreted. Many here apply it very formally and just read the words and nothing more. There is no law without a broader society and this context creates political and social conditions, and in order to apply the law properly you have to keep that in mind.
This is a good example of where law is applied purely legalistically without evaluating whether the request from the Belarus government would comply with the Lithuanian idea of statehood. It is a shame and a mistake and they didn't need to supply that information.
Ales Belyatsky is an outstanding human rights defender and we betrayed him and his whole cause. I don't know what we can do to wash away this shame.
President Grybauskaitė recently celebrated two years in office. Her ratings have dropped since the incredibly high approval she enjoyed when she was first elected, but she is still by far the most popular politician in the country. How do you rate her first two years?
From my point of view in general they were two good years and overall we should evaluate her positively. She brought fresh air into many areas of government and was especially active in bringing new people to important key positions, especially in the law and regulatory and supervisory institutions like the competition commission. And they are, at least until now, performing pretty well.
She also came up with a number of legal initiatives, especially against corruption, which are very good.
President Grybauskaitė always emphasises the importance of the human dimension in national politics. Before her politics was largely seen from the perspective of national interest, but now more emphasis is placed on the people as individuals.
Policies don't make sense unless they help the individual citizen, and she is the first high profile Lithuanian politician to fully understand that.
Less clear is her stance on foreign policy. There has been criticism of her in that she does not show clear direction. The President tries to be friends with everyone, but with Belarus for example she has become probably too friendly. Then with the US, first we were on very good terms but now less so.
But overall I would say she has had a good two years. In the future the President’s office needs to be more defined. It is still sometimes not clear where her presidential powers start and finish. Her standing on certain policies and her actions should be more defined and explained in greater detail. This is more of a personal issue with her.
Sometimes she doesn’t explain her actions enough. She just says she is doing this or that but doesn’t explain why.
The Government has had a tough time during an economic crisis. They have had to make unpopular decisions, but lately they seem to be stagnating. But then the opposition has done very little from their side. For me they seem to be just waiting for the economy to get better and thus avoid having to make any hard decisions.
I would agree. I would criticize the opposition as much as government. The opposition is extremely weak. They occasionally criticize the government but they offer no alternatives, just stating that the current policies are too tough. They keep saying the government should promote business and make less cuts, but there is no suggestion of how.
Overall I would evaluate the government positively, especially Prime Minister Kubilius. I could not imagine anyone else in this position during these tough times. He's open to ideas and innovation and attracted a good team of progressive and dynamic people, and I would say that the fact we came out of this crisis the way we did is essentially thanks to the Prime Minister.
More critically I think some cuts went too far. I don't think it would change much if pensions were not cut as much and in the process we created more poverty.
We had to look to cut more from those with high incomes because the gap between the wealthy and poor increased in this time and so he didn't look for savings in the right places. The poor suffered the most.
Things are slowly improving but the government is totally fixed on finances, there is no human dimension on the government agenda. The PM and cabinet are focused totally on the economy. The thinking is that if we come out of the recession well and improve the economy we will all be better off and the social problems will solve themselves. This in not true.
We need to show solidarity to the less fortunate and protect human rights because it is important for individuals to feel respected and safe and to have equal opportunity. This creates a context where people really contribute to society, much more than when they are not empowered, safe or not equal. Lack of rights also leads to increased migration.
There was a survey conducted by Vytautas Magnus University. They surveyed Lithuanian immigrants in Norway, Spain, Ireland and the UK. Most said they stayed away because they feel more respected, free and safe than in Lithuania. These are basic human rights. It is not better economic conditions that keep them away but the government and society’s attitude to the individual.
The PM is getting better in this respect and turning more towards broader social issues lately, but there is still a long way to go.
You said that human rights have generally been declining since Lithuania joined the EU and a lot of the focus was lifted off us. Do we see any light at the end of the tunnel or has the economic downturn allowed economic concerns to overshadow personal rights?
The situation will probably deteriorate more, but not in economic terms. Economists say the worst is over, but in more broader terms it is a worry that there has been a long-term lack of attention to the basics of Lithuanian statehood: democracy, the rule of law and protection of human rights. Now we are seeing the consequences.
Now the standard of human rights is still declining and more recently you can see rising extremism in Lithuania in the form of exaggerated ethnic patriotism which if not checked could lead to fascism, that is where it usually starts.
Lately we see objection on the grounds of race, religion, colour or sexual orientation. There is growing criticism of the EU, which is also partly justified because EU structures are very bureaucratic and slow. Political correctness dominates the culture of the bloc. But there is no alternative for Lithuania.
We should concentrate on improving the mechanism of the EU and not rejecting the idea of a united Europe.
Two odd bits of news about the army. First saying it has been infiltrated by skinheads and Nazis and then by gays. I would guess that our army is the same as any other in the world and has a cross-section of the community in general. Are there any specific problems with our armed forces in particular?
It is obvious lately that some of the professional soldiers and volunteers represent a way of thinking that conflicts with the basic premise of modern Lithuanian statehood - democracy, human rights, pluralism and tolerance of otherness.
The fact that a person is in the uniform of the Lithuanian military and entrusted with a weapon and had a swastika on his arm is a worry. Even if it is just a single person it shows that a person like that has a different idea of the Lithuanian state and how it should look. This is not respecting tolerance, pluralism and human rights.
How can such a soldier defend a state he disagrees with? That is the most basic question. The swastika is a statement that I'm a Nazi and serving the Lithuanian state. And how do we know that such a person won't one day turn his weapon against a person who in his mind represents the wrong version of Lithuanian statehood?
And some soldiers took part in the 11 March demonstration and some other public events which show they disagree with the fundamentals of current Lithuanian statehood and it raises questions of whether something is wrong with the so-called patriotic education in the military. They see themselves as super-patriots and within the army this is only understood in narrow, ethnic but not civic, terms.
It is a dangerous situation.
It was a first time this year that the PM took a stand against extremism and came out with a strong statement after the 11 March demonstration which had Nazi undertones.
Lithuania has recently been shown to have the highest rates of telephone bugging by the government on its people. Is this something we should be concerned with?
This was misunderstood by the media. This was not bugging as such, but requesting information about connections and not content; the fact that calls were made and not what they said.
But indeed the numbers are unexpectedly high. We have been speaking for many years about the protection of privacy and it is not news to us. This control over electronic communications like phone and internet is pretty widespread and law enforcement relies on data from this as evidence which is not correct.
The European Court of Human Rights says that you cannot rely on such evidence because they are not very reliable. This data can be forged and there are plenty of facts showing that they can be manipulated.
The law enforcement agencies and courts should turn back and work more traditionally instead of just relying on who called or wrote to whom. This way you can end up punishing people for crimes they did not commit.
There is one clear example when someone created an email address with the name of a prominent public prosecutor, sent emails to various people and tried to compromise him. This is a clear example of how unreliable it is to make certain conclusions on electronic communication.
During the Paksas scandal we invited an IT expert to send an sms message from one person to another in the same room. He intercepted that sms, changed it and then sent it on. It is easy for experts to manipulate this information.
This is one more example of where law enforcement has to rethink its way of collecting evidence in criminal cases.
As most of the world shies away from Nuclear Power Lithuania signs a new deal to build a new one. Turns out this might be a bonus as Lithuania's plant is due to come online in 2022 and Germany plans to scrap all their reactors by 2020.
This is far from my area of expertise, but there are a few broader issues.
We are living without a power station now and we must ask ourselves if we really need this new nuclear station. It raises the question of whether it's a political rather than a economic project to emphasise our independence. Perhaps it would be better to seek alternative sources, perhaps wind, solar or hydro, and still buy from Russia using a combination of energy resources.
Some experts say that having nuclear plant would not make us independent anyway as we would still be dependent on Russian nuclear fuels.
|Margučiai - decorating Easter
||23 April 2011
This is an interview done back in 2006, but is a nice reminder of Easter tradition in Lithuania
See full photos
One of the real delights of my job is meeting people who are only motivated solely by their passion, and although sadly this is quite rare in politics and business, I did get the opportunity to meet one such person recently, Marija Banikonienė.
With Easter just around the corner, it seemed the perfect time to visit Marija, a renowned traditional egg decorator who has maintained her craft since before World War II. In Lithuanian the decorated Easter eggs are known as Margučiai, and are a feature of every traditional Lithuanian Easter table.
It is a smiling and welcoming Marija that greets us at the door to her modest apartment in Karoliniškės, and she invites us into her kitchen to show us where the process begins – seated on a stool beside her stove - where a metal container of wax sits perched above a gas burner.
Marija shows us how she delicately places each drop of paraffin, candle or bees wax on the shell of an egg, and the designs that emerge easily under her sure and expert hand.
“My husband made these tools for me,” she smiles as she continues forming patterns and shapes on the white egg shell. “They look a bit primitive, but they are perfect for this kind of work,” and she shows me various sizes of pins and needles with blunted ends that have been set into wooden handles that sit beside her in a line.
“The trick is to keep the wax very hot. It cools very quickly, and for every stroke and every dot you need a fresh dip of wax. You have to work fast because it cools so quickly,” she says rubbing her finger over the petals she has just drawn to show me that they are already hardened.
Along with her home-made tools she shows me various eggcups that have a variety of different markings. She shows me how she puts the egg in the cup and can then align markings on the cup that equally mark the eggs into quarters, fifths, or sixths. “It is important to be symmetrical,” she says of her craft.
“Generally I just go with the flow, and when I am finished with one egg I am ready to go on with the next. I might take up certain themes, but I have to be careful to be varied because one year I made a lot of dark eggs and some people complained that there were no lighter or happier designs. I often tell myself I am sick of sitting around for seven hours a day working like this, but then I always return and find the enjoyment again.”
I was surprised to learn that Marija is decorating plain eggs, that have not been dyed yet, but she tells me the dyeing is done later. In fact sometimes she dyes the eggs two, three or four times, and between each different coloured dye she adds more wax adornment making the colour below the wax different, so creating intricate patterns of both wax and colour.
She cold dyes her eggs so that the wax is not disturbed, though sometimes she removes the wax after dyeing to reveal the colour below. (If you think this sounds complicated, let me assure you it took her quite a few tries to explain it to me).
“I used to live in Dzukija and I learned my craft before the war. I was one of many children and used to watch my mother and sisters decorating eggs. At Easter time it was a tradition to give margučiai to your God-children, and because my father was a respected person in the community, he had many God-children, so we had to prepare about 25 eggs for him to give away as gifts.
“We fled our home when the Soviets returned after the war. My father owned a large farm and two shops and he knew he would be sent away to Siberia if we stayed there, so we moved to the city.
“The art of egg decorating wasn’t allowed in the Soviet years because they looked on it as a Christian tradition, but it is actually a pagan ritual associated with re-birth and spring and was adapted to Christianity with the conversion of Lithuania.
“I didn’t work with eggs so much during the Soviet years because it was discouraged. I used to decorate eggs for myself, and I worked as a historian and tried to initiate a few exhibitions in those times, but I was always strongly discouraged by my superiors.
"I have been retired for 20 years now and with independence there was a lot of renewed interest in traditional Easter eggs and I took the opportunity to work very hard in making my own eggs as well as teaching others how it is done, because if we don’t teach them, then no-one will have the skills passed down to them.”
Each egg takes between one and one and a half hours and Marija can only sit for a maximum of seven hours each day, in which time she will finish five eggs.
Your husband must be very patient with you being pre-occupied all day I tell her. Marija laughs. “He has become an expert in vacuuming the eggs out of their shells,” she answers, handing me one of the adorned shells which I am surprised to learn is hollow.
“At Easter we use hard boiled eggs, but for exhibitions and eggs that will be displayed for long periods of time it is better to vacuum the contents through two little holes, one at the top and the other at the bottom. We are very popular with the neighbours when we go around offering glasses of fresh eggs when a lot of shells are needed for an upcoming exhibition.
"Last year I had an exhibition of 900 different eggs, so you can imagine there are only so many cakes, pancakes and omelettes that you can eat.”
Easter is of course a busy time for Marija, and when we spoke to her she was busy preparing for an exhibition at Mokytojų Namai that was to start on 7 April and continue for a week after Easter. “I get calls from schools and businesses that want me to come and talk about egg decoration and to sell them, but it is hard at the moment because I want to make about another 150 eggs by Easter this year.
"Still, this exhibition will be with another egg decorator who is a Žemaitė, so you will see our different styles. And this is easier for me because I only have to make half as many eggs myself.
“I used to use natural dyes and use all natural ingredients, but this is very time consuming. I used special barks and then put them in with onion, salt and rusted iron to get jet black eggs, but you had to leave them there for up to a couple of weeks, and birch leaves are good for turning eggs green.
"I use the modern food and chemical dyes these days though because I can do it all in a matter of hours, but you still need to experiment.”
For all her labour of love she sells her eggs for Lt6 each wholesale. “It might not sound like much to you, but it is a lot for Lithuanians,” she tells me.
Marija says that she is always amused by people who come to her exhibitions and say they want to buy one egg, and then they look around for hours before finally deciding which one they want. “You are not choosing a wife or a husband,” she tells them. “You see I am sick of each egg as soon as I am finished with it and just want to get on with the next one.”
As Marija starts putting away the large collection of eggs she has already prepared for her upcoming exhibition she continues to smile, looking around her apartment. “We live simply, but I have everything I want.”
|Kleiza, Raptors and Valančiūnas - Gherardini
||21 February 2011
By Erildas Budraitis and Ray Vyšniauskas
Maurizio Gherardini, Vice President and Assistant GM, Toronto Raptors, was in Alytus recently to hone his other skill - as a talent scout. Although he wouldn't say exactly the reason for his trip to Lithuania, apart from touring Europe and having a look around various competitions, it was widely reported that Jonas Valančiūnas was attracting quite a bit of his attention.
• Maurizio Gherardini
Bearing in mind that the Raptors are going through a major rebuilding season after the loss of Chris Bosh and now the added woes of losing Kleiza for the rest of the season, matched with extended injuries to Ed Davis, Reggie Evans and Leandro Barbosa; three wins from their last 20 games still makes grim reading. But he remains surprisingly upbeat.
We buttonholed Maurizio between games and he kindly agreed to answer some questions from Erildas Budraitis, who writes for Balsas.lt and RealGM.com and myself.
What is the situation with Kleiza?
Gherardini: He underwent surgery and was operated on by one of the top doctors in the world (Dr J. Richard Steadman). Nobody was expecting how delicate the situation was. The surgery was very successful. Like I said, this doctor is number one in the world and we have to be confident with what happened. Now we’ll see how the rehabilitation process will go.
Do you expect Kleiza to play next season?
The prognosis is that it takes a very long time. Linas is still young and we made a long-term commitment with him. A player's health is the most important thing. Linas is too young to not do the right things. We will just be witnessing what is happening with his rehabilitation. We hope that he will be ready before the season, but right now it’s too early to say.
How about EuroBasket and letting Linas play there? Usually NBA teams are careful about letting their players compete in international competitions.
We have always favoured people who want to participate with their national teams in the past. It’s the nature of our success in the community of Toronto. But the thing which comes first is always the player's health. If a player is not ready to play psychically, there’s no sense (in doing so).
All of our players play for their national teams and we are happy that they do. You can see the good relationship that we have with the Lithuanian basketball federation. It’s a pleasure and honour to be here, but if the player can’t play, he can’t play. It’s very simple.
How could evaluate Kleiza’s game during his time with the club?
We like him a lot. That’s the reason why we signed a long-term contract with him. He came back from Europe to start the season probably not in 100% shape.
He was tired after the long summer. Actually we had a young team which was just forming. Let's say he was inconsistent, there were a lot of ups and downs, but he was supposed to play a major role. He can play inside and outside, but he has never been 100% healthy since came to Toronto.
In your opinion, what kind of role will Kleiza have when he comes back? Do you see him as a role player or do you think he could be a starter?
You don’t give long-term deals to players who get minor roles. For us it didn't matter if he started or not, he was important to give us outside shooting. He’s also one of the most athletic players on the team and he has the talent that has made him special through his career. He knows how to score and he scores in different ways.
I’m also working for the Canadian national team and we played against Lithuania in the Worlds in Turkey. I’ve seen Linas since he was very young; I’ve seen him playing in college for Missouri. I know what he can do.
What is your vision for the Raptors?
It is a rebuilding year for us. During our rebuilding year, we have had a lot of injuries, whether it is Linas Kleiza or Reggie Evans, who was the leading rebounder in the league, or Leandro Barbosa. It’s not easy to rebuild with only young players. I think we have some young quality players who can grow, and we have some resources, which we can use before the trade deadline. \
We have exceptions, first round picks and expiring contracts which can be worth something. We have money and some flexibility. Even today with many players missing, we’re very close to playing everybody (in each game). We just don’t have enough players.
Are you excited to be a part of history when the Raptors will play regular season games in Europe?
We’re very excited. Our goal is to win at least one of the two (laughing). We’re happy to be a part of history, but for us it’s a real game. We really want to try to win because that counts. We’re very excited to make history, but if you make history by losing both games it’s not good. We have a lot of European players so it would be nice to win the games. It’s something good for growing the game of basketball. In general I don’t think that it’s something we could do all the time in an 82 game schedule. But it’s good for the fans and for the game and to promote basketball.
There’s a lot of speculation about having a permanent NBA team in Europe. What is your opinion about that?
I’m not the right person to talk about that. I think whatever the NBA is doing today, it’s important for the growth of the game. And there’s no doubt that basketball is becoming the most popular global sport.
Do you still think that Andrea Bargnani can be a franchise player?
Andrea is improving every year. Sometimes we forget that he’s only 25 years old. Big men always develop slowly. He can be a great scorer. He can easily score 20 or 25 points per game, there’s no doubt about that. I think he needs to improve some other areas and then he could become what we’re expecting.
We know you can't talk about specifics such as Valančiūnas, but as an NBA scout how do you go about evaluating a player? Watching one game is not always a good indication as the player might be having an off day or be nervous because of your presence?
We never look at one game. We always try to follow players all season long. We always try to get DVDs, try to see a player in different situations. We always try to stay away from making judgments from one game.
It’s also important to get as much information about what kind of player he is, what kind of working habits he has, mental approaches to the game. You have to go through that process because the draft is too important to make a mistake or risk passing on a good player.
How do you make the final decision as to whether the player is the correct choice for your team?
I think we have a nice little structure. Everything starts from general manager Bryan Colangelo. It’s a group of us and all of us are going in the same direction. All of us are collecting information and going to see college games or European games.
At the end we all share information and discuss. You want to be ready for that day in June when your team will choose your future. That’s how it works.
When you enter an arena as a high ranking NBA executive, are you aware that much of the focus is on you? How do you deal with that and try to maintain a discreet presence?
That’s why you sometimes try to stay away from being seen. Still, now it’s a such an “under the lights” process. We were at the Spanish Cup and other countries and you always try to find a section where all the scouts sit. Plus, players in Europe have already developed a professional approach because most of them already have agents and already have gone from one team to another.
Most of them already know the things that high school or college players have to go though.
|Cuts To EU's Long-Term Budget May Be Necessary - Ažubalis
||16 December 2010
Some cuts to the EU's long-term budget for the period 2014-2020 may be necessary given current financial realities, but severe cuts would reduce the European Union's capacity to act as a global player, Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Audronius Ažubalis told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
• Audronius Ažubalis (pictured above) was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EurActiv's senior editor
Audronius Ažubalis received a degree in journalism in 1989. He later studied politics and economics in the USA. In 2004 he was elected to the Lithuanian parliament, where he chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee. He became foreign minister in February 2010.
Mr. Minister: It appears that the EU budget for 2011 will be approved. Now the next battle is over the long-term EU budget, for the period 2014-2020. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear his intention to ask for big cuts to this budget, the logic being that since the country is making sacrifices at home, the same should apply to the EU budget. What is your country's position in this respect?
The main issues for us are the following: financing of the cohesion policy and the Common Agricultural Policy [and] financing of cross-border energy infrastructure, which is vital for us. And of course, reforming the EU budget. We are a little bit cautious on introducing new 'own resources'. We need time to discuss this.
When we talk about the EU energy security instrument, we also have some hesitations. We want this instrument, but we don't want the resources for it to be taken from the cohesion funds.
It's the same for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). On one hand, we all understand that this policy should be reformed, but we are also aware that this is a centrepiece of the European economy. We believe that the CAP should be reformed by introducing the most modern technologies to agriculture.
It is understandable that your country has preferences for certain sectors. But would you agree to substantial cuts to the long-term EU budget?
I would say that if the EU wants to remain a more or less united entity, acting in a more or less coordinated way, the budget should not be cut dramatically.
But you're not ruling out cuts of some kind, due to the crisis and the internal situation in some member states?
Yes, some cuts may be necessary, as we did in our budget, because it's a financial reality. But I will repeat: if the budget undergoes severe cuts, I would say it reduces the possibilities for the EU to act as a global player. Without the means, without the common programmes, without the common coordinated resources, who are you?
Is the EU now stronger with the Lisbon Treaty?
I'm not going to speculate. If we take the example of setting up the European External Action Service, we can see it is not an easy task. Also, some critics say that the new EU presidency is not efficient. At least for myself, I am not going to criticise immediately. Just have a look back, see how much time was needed to take the decisions. Now it takes time to implement.
You mentioned critics. The British press is the most critical, and as a former journalist, you know that British Euroscepticism is nothing new. Seen from a Central European perspective, does the picture perhaps look better?
Indeed. And it's good that there is a process, that the ministers are in the process. There was an initial period when ministers of foreign affairs were afraid that they would lose their job. But what we see now, from our daily practice, is that national ministers are involved, that member countries make their voices heard. This is good, and thanks to the fact that we have now a High Representative, we can react quicker in many situations.
Does your country have difficulties with the treaty change required to put in place a permanent mechanism to deal with crisis situations?
We have parliamentary reservations at present. This reservation means that the government should discuss the issue in more depth with our parliament. And this is normal, I think the parliament and society should know more about the possible impact of such a treaty change.
What will be, for example, the role of non-eurozone members in this financial mechanism? What kind of new obstacles could be created for those who are to join the eurozone? Those are the questions raised by our parliament and that's why they have this parliament reservation.
What's the next step?
I think we will need to take a decision and I hope this will be a positive decision, before the EU Council [16-17 December]. Because we need to have our mandate confirmed before any Council meeting.
So you will have to speak in parliament before that?
Indeed, it's a procedure which we borrowed from Finland, and it's more or less the same in Denmark and some other countries, mostly in Scandinavia.
I presume those are the countries with which you coordinate more closely.
It's the Nordic-Baltic format. We have such a format today [13 December] ahead of the Foreign Affairs Council. We hold such meetings before each Council and we discuss the agenda, our positions, and so on. This is our club.
Is this also a format in which you raise your country's concerns over energy security? We hear that Belarus is building a nuclear power plant next to your country's border…
Absolutely. Any country would do so, if it were unable to find the proper answers to its concerns according to the Espoo convention [the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context] and according to IAEA requirements. You would worry as well if someone announced that the nuclear power plant would be built 50 kilometres from your state capital.
We are not against, we are not denying the right of any country, but as we are developing our nuclear project [to replace Ignalina, closed under EU pressure in 2009] in a very open, very transparent way, we expect the same from our neighbours. That's why we have strong objections on that.
The paradox is that your country was closed Ignalina, but a similar power plant could be built just next to your border.
Yes, but I hope that the international community and our partners will act in a rational way and will convince our neighbours to follow international good practice.
Russia is planning to develop nuclear power plants in areas close to the EU, so it can supply more electricity to EU member states. One such plant is planned in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, bordering Lithuania and Poland. There are even Russian plans to build floating nuclear power plants.
I haven't heard about that. Not flying, but floating? Not bad, not bad [laughs].
How do you feel about Russian plans to increase your country's energy dependence on Russia?
I think that those are purely political projects. For the time being, we hear slogans, 'we are going to build' and 'we are building'. But until this time, we don't have the environmental impact assessments. The same as in Belarus.
You say it's politicised, but wasn't your country's position vis-à-vis the Nord Stream project also politicised? You opposed that project, which got Germany's blessing and is now being built.
No, because we were based on the scientific data, which were presented to all sides concerned, including Russia and Germany. Are you aware that this pipeline goes trough Natura 2000-protected areas in Germany? Where the Green movement is so strong? But now the Greens didn't oppose that.
And there is another aspect. We still have to see what price German customers will pay for this gas.
Does your country take energy security very seriously?
Our strategic goal is normal. We are members of the EU and we should belong to the Union's electricity network. By using Russian electricity we could never become members of the club. If we want real integration into European energy networks, we should have our own nuclear energy. I'm not talking only about Lithuania, but regionally, and to become one day members of ENTSO [the European Network of Transmission System Operators]. All this is vital for us.
Public opinion in your country is in favour of nuclear energy. Is this an asset for you?
Yes, this is an asset. Of course there are some sceptics who advocate green energy, which we are not excluding, by the way. But we understand that green energy cannot replace nuclear energy.
Your country was part of the Soviet Union from WWII until the early nineties. Does the EU listen the voice of Vilnius regarding Russia?
It's difficult to say. When we insisted that the mandate for the post-PCA agreement with Russia [Moscow and Brussels are negotiating a new EU-Russia basic treaty, replacing an antiquated Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1994] should include some additional articles and annexes, like energy security, like condemnation of crimes based on ideology, it showed that we were able to convince our partners.
But it's not a secret that some countries have a different experience in Russia and a different attitude. It's normal that Luxembourg, for example, should have a different attitude. That's why we are working very hard, pushing for the evaluation at EU level of crimes under totalitarian regimes. And we are moving quite well, we expect a Commission report on this, and we'll see if we need a legal instrument for dealing with those who deny the crimes of totalitarian regimes.
This is the policy of the European People's Party group, of which you are a member - I mean to which your party, Homeland Union, is affiliated. But I don't think the Socialists & Democrats group want to go in that direction. Their political group has another initiative on a firmer reaction to any racist, nationalist and xenophobic statements. This is party politics, isn't it?
No. I think that unfortunately, the Western part of Europe doesn't know well our history, the history of the nations who were until recently under totalitarian regimes. Through education, we should move towards better understanding that the EU should have legal instruments on the same level as there are now against Nazi ideology and totalitarian regimes of a Stalinist type.
You are probably aware of the fact that in some Eastern countries former communist leaders have to some extent been rehabilitated…
In some countries maybe, not in our country!
But this happens even if those countries are governed by centre-right governments. Recently the Bulgarian prime minister, who is EPP-affiliated, made statements seen as a tribute to communist dictator Todod Zhivkov.
It's difficult for me to judge every country. Some politicians tend to say: leave history to historians. But the result is that by doing this, sooner or later we have echoes. I would also add that Nazism and Communism are brother ideologies.
Perhaps the European political families should simply be more selective when taking on board new members.
I agree absolutely on that. Because sometimes political groups seem to be more interested in quantity than in quality. But the competition between the centre-right and the centre-left makes each one of them take on board sometimes some strange collaborators.
By the way, you have just returned from the OSCE summit in Astana. What's new with this organisation, which was so vital from 1975 when it was established as the Helsinki Process and the three 'baskets', including human rights?
The EU in general passed the exam in Astana, by re-stating very strongly the main principles of democracy, human rights and territorial integrity. It was a big clash, but we confirmed our positions, and summit or no summit, we are not going to sacrifice any of the pillars of our values and existence.
So the OSCE should not be discarded as an organisation?
One should look at the way as democrats in some of the countries to our East look to ODIHR [the OSCE Office for Democratic institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw]. Because ODIHR is the only organisation with a real name as a honest broker in observing the elections. This is a big asset to the OSCE.
But if you will allow me, Mr. Minister, the OSCE was successful until the fall of the Berlin Wall thanks to US leadership. And the US was motivated by the fight against communism. Now, with respect to the Central Asian countries to which you refer, there are other types of relations. It's not ideology, it's about business ruining smoothly…
I could agree. But let me say that there are always ups and downs and we have to prepare the next phase of the human phase development block. We cannot be selfish and say: we are already in, we may have problems, but we are handling them somehow, and what happens on the other side of the fence is not our business. The people in Central Asia have exactly the same inspirations as we did not so long ago.
|President Grybauskaitė promises fewer dismissals
||11 August 2010
(lithuaniatribune.com) President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who marked first year in office on 12 July, had a press conference and said she would remain active and resolute, but hinted that less high-ranking officials would be dismissed in the future.
Lietuvos rytas published this press conference in its 13 July issue.
Grybauskaite mentioned how many officials she had dismissed, how many bills she had vetoed, and reported how she had successfully solved nearly all the problems.
Moreover, the president thanked the people of Lithuania for their patience and understanding, saying that the year was “full of various events".
It seemed that the president was of the opinion that her only fault was her naïveté: She did not expect that the state organism was so weak and rotten.
You have been actively participating in domestic policy, did this not consume too much of the attention that you should have dedicated to foreign policy? What are your priorities for the future?
Foreign policy is a reflection and an instrument of domestic policy. And this is why I have been dedicating most of my attention to domestic policy. Moreover, there have not been any serious problems in our foreign policy, except for the geopolitical changes that have been taking place in Lithuania’s neighbourhood.
We were trying to adequately react to these changes and to participate in them. For the first time in the past six years Lithuania has achieved that its interests count in the international arena. It is not enough to just enjoy the fact that we are members of NATO and the EU.
What does Lithuania have to do to make Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visit Lithuania?
Why do you think this is so important?
This is an impression we get from some of your statements.
Perhaps some do find it important. However, I think that now that we have modern communications; when we can communicate directly through various forums and have other possibilities of discussing things, visits are actually a thing of the past. They are not necessary to maintain relations or to improve them.
Do not you think that you made a mistake by signing the 2010 budget, which had a record-high deficit?
There is always the question of whether we should allow budget deficit to be high or not. In time of crisis, the question whether we should balance the finances or stimulate the economy is especially topical. Lithuania has chosen the balanced option, it reduced budget deficit, but it left some breathing space for society and the economy.
With the work of which ministries and ministers are you most dissatisfied?
It is difficult to evaluate everything, but the Environment Ministry and the Social Security and Labour Ministry have room for improvement and the quality of their work could be higher.
What is your opinion about the work of the State Tax Inspectorate?
The situation with the compulsory health insurance has shown that the State Tax Inspectorate is passive and its work is formal. The institution did not help the government the way it should have helped it.
Of course, State Tax Inspectorate Director Modestas Kaseliauskas is partially responsible for that.
This institution has the power to act and controls plenty of information, and I would very like this institution to be able to analyse this information.
For example, it has information about people’s income. Moreover, any person can obtain information from the Registry Centre about a person’s property. However, the State Tax Inspectorate does not analyse this kind of information.
Therefore, I will seek that the property acquired illegally is confiscated. The State Tax Inspectorate could have conducted such an analysis long time ago, but it did not do that. I do not know whether it did not do that on purpose or not, but in any case the result is bad. This is my opinion about the work of the State Tax Inspectorate management.
What is your opinion about the 2011 budget plans and the government’s strategy how to fill budget gaps? Perhaps you see some reserves the government could use, for example state property?
We certainly have many reserves. The economic situation is improving slowly, and the situation with the 2011 budget will be difficult. I welcome the government’s plans to continue to control public finances also in the future.
However, as I have already said, raising taxes should not be the first option. It was simply a shame that the government was so surprised and demonstrated such impotence when it learned the results of the audit that showed how much assets the government controls and what revenue these assets have generated. We do not know how to manage these things, or perhaps we do not want to do that?
Another reserve is shadow economy and smuggling.
It is easy to raise taxes, but the government should look for other ways.
What is your understanding of the term dignified old age, and what should we do to ensure that when a person retires, he is not pushed into social exclusion?
There are various ways to help people. For example, through price regulation.
But first and foremost, we should talk to people and explain them why we need to cut their pensions. And later on, if possible, we should compensate them for that.
It is not enough for the government to say that it is right to cut the expenses.
Yes, it is doing the right thing, but it should talk to the people. The people should believe that what the government is doing is right. This is why it is not enough that the government believes it is right, there should be public support as well.
Perhaps you already see in what direction Lithuania’s economy is moving?
I hope that the economic perspective will be better than we could expect it to be at the beginning of the year. The signals are very positive.
Of course, we do not know whether a second wave of the economic crisis does not come from other European regions. I hope not, and I hope that we and the rest of the regions manage to improve the economic situation.
What is your opinion about the decision of the Court of First Instance that Akropolis, controlled by Vilniaus Prekyba, is not obliged to pay the state half of the price for a plot of land in Vilnius?
I am surprised and shocked. The same methods are being used, and the law enforcement system has come to certain conclusions.
I know the situation, and we have helped to prepare an address to a higher court. We cannot tolerate such behaviour.
You have mentioned that you will change your working methods. Perhaps fewer officials will be dismissed next year?
It is normal that fewer officials will be dismissed, because the tenure of the majority of the officials that have been appointed this year is five years.
This is why the most important thing now is for them to start working. There should not be any big waves of dismissals, at least not in the institutions that are controlled by the Presidential Office.
What is your opinion about the work of the police and its head Vizgirdas Telycenas?
The police have the same problems as other institutions. But it has the reserve that it is not using right now.
For example, the police are complaining that they lack funds for one purposeor another, and then it turns out that the majority of policemen are engaged in purely commercial activities, for example protection of private objects.
If we compare the number of policemen per 1,000 inhabitants, we will see that we have much more policemen than the other Baltic countries, but the work of our policemen is less effective.
Speaking of Telycenas personally, I do not see any big problems in his work.
What is your opinion about the 12 operational reports that the State Security Department (VSD) has still not submitted to the Parliament?
The recent amendment to the law will allow the officials who control the law enforcement to read these reports, but there will be additional measures to prevent the risk. These reports will be submitted.
Honestly speaking, there is nothing interesting in these reports.
Have there been any failures or was there something that you have not managed to do during this year?
I thought that I could do everything much faster. I did not think that I would have to deal with such inertia. The state apparatus is very inert; there are many legal and procedural loopholes.
Moreover, I did not expect such a wave of criminalization and corruption. I also did not think there would be such a fragmentation of state institutions. These were unpleasant discoveries.
You were criticizing the Church when it did not allow the body of the late President Algirdas Brazauskas inside the Cathedral. What is your personal relationship with the Church? How strongly do you believe in God?
You have asked about my personal relationship, and my answer to your question is that it is indeed a personal question. No comment. It is my personal issue how deeply or less deeply I believe or what is the percentage of the deepness of my belief.
||12 April 2010
This is the first in a series of articles looking behind the scenes in Lithuania. Over the coming issues we will talk to a number of people to get their views of the major events shaping Lithuania through their particular perspective.
In this issue we speak to Sergejus Muravjovas, Director, Transparency International, Lithuanian Chapter.
One of the major recurring theme of this year in Lithuanian politics is the roundabout of ministers coming and going seemingly at the will of the President. Some have fallen to allegations of corruption, some to vaguer charges of show-boating and yet others have claimed to have left their posts on their own volition.
Why the greater turnover in ministers? Is this the result of the war on corruption, greater transparency, higher standards, or is their a lower quality ministers to choose from?
There is a changing political climate. The changing of ministers is not so much a case of less corruption and more transparency. We know Lithuanians have a low trust of politicians and now people are more accountable than before, but whether that can be perceived as greater accountability I’m not sure.
Ministers have come and gone before. What I think has happened is that the profile of anti-corruption has risen with this president, and especially with the STT (Special Investigation Service) which has become more active, presenting the public with a greater amount of cases, which gives a clear signal to the public that enforcement has become stronger.
But that is where I’d stop and be a bit more cautious. It is one thing to have those cases, but we have not seen the results yet. I would like to see the statistics on cases which have concluded with resolutions that are understandable and acceptable to the public.
You see the same people accused of corruption walking the streets and smiling six months later with apparently no damage to their reputation.
The STT needs to make clear that corruption is a punishable offence. We see from our research that the public think that people who are corrupt manage to avoid conviction and punishment, which diminishes trust in state institutions and the power of the state.
If you look at the numbers of what Lithuanians think about corruption, they are very alarming. The public still thinks that giving a bribe can still solve a lot of your problems. And the majority of people are prepared to give a bribe.
Enforcement is not a long term solution, of course you need to enforce these laws, but you need to spend time on education and that is still not being done to the extent needed to be serious about it.
There is still not enough transparency, accountability of public funds and justifying and explaining decisions made by the government and municipal authorities in affairs of the state.
Ultimately you have to ask where do you start? You have to start from the top because they are the leaders of the state and set the example. If they are accountable and understand what is demanded of them, then I think that step by step we will all have a stronger place in justice.
But then again just an example is not enough, you need to provide them with the means of doing so through education, legislation and trust. This is no easy fix, it requires time and strategic vision.
Corruption is also something a lot of foreign investors look at, it is perceived as a significant sovereign risk and we lag behind many countries, even Estonia in this regard – in 2009 they had three times more FDI per capita than Lithuania.
The case of Drasius Kedys has captured the attention of all Lithuania, and many have branded him a national hero, even after his body was found recently. His funeral in Kaunas attracted thousands of people, all for a man who had admitted to the murder of two people.
Kedys shot and killed a judge and another woman who he had implicated in the prostitution of his estranged under-aged daughter. Kedys, an ex-policeman, had written a number of complaints to various authorities about his suspicions about a paedophile ring operating in Kaunas.
After the shootings last year Kedys remained on the run, and even LiTnews reported that he might have been sighted in Spain recently, until his body was discovered not far from Kaunas recently.
The police have come to the conclusion that Kedys choked to death, and while there is no reason to suggest this is not so, at least to the casual observer this appears to be a very convenient conclusion.
In such a high-profile case both sides have refused to bring in an independent international expert. Surely this is a case of having to be seen to be above suspicion rather than just remain steadfast in declaring that their investigation is as good as anywhere else.
In a country where police can routinely be bribed in traffic incidents, surely this case needs to be seen to be dealt with ‘above and beyond’ a routine enquiry. What do we expect will be the outcome of the Kedys saga?
Now and then you have these cases that bring public attention to the work of the judiciary and enforcement institutions. Such cases bring to the fore what the public think of the work of the police, the courts and the decisions of the courts.
We have seen over the years there has been a lingering suspicion about the quality of work the courts have produced. This does not mean the courts don’t work well, but it’s not clear why some decisions are made and how they are reached, and they need to be explained better.
Ultimately it’s how we understand decisions - and we are entitled to that as citizens. The best way to avoid suspicion is to have a very straightforward line of accountability; explaining to the public exactly what has happened.
Such cases are a very good opportunity for the judiciary and enforcement institutions to understand what they can do better. How they can improve their work.
Ultimately any change is possible only when people within the institution realise they need to improve their work and take the opinion of the public seriously.
What we see now is that the courts are perceived as the second most corrupt institution in Lithuania. The thing is that most people who think this way have had no experience with courts, so these numbers indicate that it is not clear to them what happens behind closed doors. People think of corruption when they don’t know what is going on – it is a trust issue.
What about the current coalition government? There are signs that the coalition is struggling, if not at breaking point, but at the end of the day, is there an alternative? Are there any parties that can form a functional government that won’t in all likelihood be even weaker than what we have at the moment?
There are a lot of people that can talk about the viability of this government. What interests me is how they worked towards creating greater accountability and transparency. They made a lot of promises in the early days and now more than ever they have to be accountable for those promises.
They had the most comprehensive anti-corruption agenda of any government. What happens when you make promises is you have to fulfil them, and the onus is on the coalition to achieve that. They will also have to explain the reasons why they did not.
For that you need political will and the capacity to do that.
A lot of people would use the excuse of the crisis as the reason why all the anti-corruption issues have not been completed, and a lot of people would buy that, but not me.
Anti-corruption had to be on the agenda from day one to help tackle the crisis. For example last year the government decided to increase taxes, and I’m not an economist but that usually leads to a growing black economy unless you increase monitoring and compliance, and with layoffs, that was instead probably reduced.
What I hear is that a lot of people complain that the corruption situation has worsened because of that.
There are draft laws and some good initiatives, and sections of bureaucracy say that there is a greater level of understanding on procurement measures already in place. You see the increased tempo of the STT, but whether this is connected to the government is not clear.
The real test for the government is still ahead. Now they have run out of excuses, now they have to do the work they promised.
I see that the public aren’t accepting promises as easily as they used to, and people now expect the government to deliver on their strong promises and not to blame others.
And if the government is somehow trying to say that they can’t do it - then who can?
The Ministry of Economy has done a lot of work, it is better in its accountability, but in getting more information, you see many more questions you would like to ask.
What other events do you feel are important to Lithuania and Transparency International right now?
It’s high time we decide what we want. Two weeks ago in the UK the parliament passed a bribery act which in the minds of many is the most progressive piece of legislation in combating bribery abroad. UK companies can no longer justify facilitation payments abroad, either directly or via third parties and agents.
Moreover those companies will be required to have clear anti-corruption provisions in place otherwise in the case of an employee of that company being caught, the company will be liable for the offence committed by that employee.
This is an act which is even more advanced than that in the USA, which we do much more business with, and confirms a current trend that anti-corruption rhetoric is coming into the private sector as well, and we need them included so that changes in good governance standards can become universal.
In Russia last week a group of Western owned businesses joined in an anti-corruption initiative declaring that they will refuse to pay any bribes in Russia and will set up a regulatory body.
What this tells me is that the anti-corruption climate throughout the world is really changing.
Just 10 or 15 years ago a company could come to Lithuania and bribe their way through business, saying that is the way business is done here. They can no longer do that, and they will be liable back home as well.
This means that foreign companies will start judging a country by its risk management perspective, and being liable for breaking those laws in your own court.
I’m no prophet, but if we are serious about attracting FDI and being competitive on a global scale, we need to take these developments in anti-corruption seriously.
|Émigrés, Refugees and Seimas = Western Mindset
Last week, from 19 - 22 April, the Lithuanian Seimas hosted a joint sitting with the World Lithuanian Community. This is a twice yearly meeting of the Lithuanian Seimas with representatives from the World Lithuanian Community, so we thought we’d find out what they were up to locked up in the Constitutional Hall for all that time.
We managed to catch up with Vytas Maciūnas (pictured above right), President of the Lithuanian American Community and Chairman of Lithuanian Parliament and World Lithuanian Community Commission, and he filled us in on the purpose and some of the results of these sittings.
“It was originally a meeting with Lithuanian Americans, and only in 2007 was it changed to include all the world communities, but still half are from the US and the other half is made up of representatives from the rest of the world. There is one from Russia, one from Canada, and three from Europe. We are looking to include Australia and South America in the future,” Vytas said.
These meetings are separate to the three yearly PLB Seimas sittings. There they elect representatives and decide on broad objectives, while these meetings are smaller and more organised, working on the details.
“These sittings were originally designed to help get a Western mindset into Seimas. We told them how to get into NATO, by allocating 2% of GPD into the defence budget, and armed with this information Brazauskas was able research and make promises appropriate for the country.
“We’re able to give guidance on those sort of issues because our members have had many years experience working with the US Congress on behalf of Lithuania. It was good for Lithuanians to tap in and have the support of the US community, that was when the commission was most meaningful.
“And sometimes to be the best support you have to be critical,” Vytas added with a smile.
The first task of these sittings is to review resolutions that were agreed upon in previous commissions and evaluate responses from government groups which were established to work on those resolutions.
“The single overriding issue for the World Lithuanian Community at the moment is dual citizenship. Now we are looking at it from a different point of view – not as an issue of having two citizenships, but of losing your right to Lithuanian citizenship.
“We asked for a review by the Seimas Teisės Komitetas, and Stasys Šedberas reported on progress. He is the Committee Chairman that will finalise the statute that will be voted upon by Seimas, and suggesting how to proceed further. This was followed by a question and answer session from both sides.
“We were also addressed by Rimantas Žilius, vice-minister of Commerce. He presented the Lithuanian government’s vision of economic development which was probably the best we’ve heard in 15 years. Not only a presentation, but the concept was novel focussing on the strengths of a country the size of Lithuania and understanding their niche.
“He explained that they have to do three things. First to stabilise the current situation and not lose market share to others. Small countries tend to be service oriented, so we need to look to become an innovative service provider and develop, especially in IT and logistics as examples.
“If you bring in one strong company that acts as a magnet to attract others.
“Then we looked at what Lithuania can do in its current situation to stabilise and improve. Everyone wants lower taxes, but under the current economic restraint the government feels it can’t do much in that area right now. The point was made that Lithuania, from a tax point of view, is not uncompetitive. Taxes aren’t the problem, bureaucracy and contract rates are low by international rankings. And property registration is easy here.
“The investment friendliness of a country is what needs attention. It is an index that has been ranked in various different categories over the years, and you can compare what has improved and regressed, and there is an acceptance that these markers matter, and if you improve them, you improve the total situation.
“Land use is one area where Lithuania scores badly – changing zoning is almost impossible, or running power lines require so many agreements that make it so hard for business here. These are areas where Lithuania can do something, and don’t really cost much to implement. You can make yourself more competitive by these simple changes. It is a base improvement for everyone.
“Now they seem to have a good economic strategy of what industries they want to approach. The vision is more focussed on appropriate investment, not just any money they can get their hands on,” Vytas said.
“Another important aspect we looked at was energy, and the energy vice minister painted a picture of where Lithuania currently is, where it was before closing Ignalina, and what they hope to achieve in the future. He presented their plan which is to become independent because now they are almost totally dependent on Russian energy.
“They have sent out tenders for building a nuclear plant, are looking at a liquefied gas terminal in Klaipėda, a gas pipeline through Poland and electrical bridges through Poland and Sweden.
“They want to expand and consolidate over the next five years, then link up with Nordic countries to make one common market.
“There is a very strategic kind of thinking now, looking to put policies and strategies in place.”
This years sittings were disrupted by the Icelandic volcano and flight restrictions and seven of the delegates and speakers were unable to make the trip to Vilnius, but thanks to technology, this was not as big a problem as it might seem.
Vytas said that in the business meeting Jonas Prunskis in particular was able to hook up from Chicago and provide valuable assistance to the committee. Even a number of US newspapers wrote about his involvement.
“We also had simultaneous translator which was always good and provided good communication for all. And it was all broadcast on the internet. This allowed the participation of very specific interest groups to various discussions.
“Occupation and reparation from the Soviet Union was also on the agenda. We had a speaker from the Foreign Ministry who told us what they are up to. There is still the problem of putting a value on the damages of Soviet occupation, some go as high as US$20 billion. Then you have to consider harm to individual citizens. Everyone is always scared of raising this issue, but it has been the same problem for the last 15 years.
“In the last 3 – 4 months they learnt that a number of East European country citizens and firms have filed claims in countries where there are Russian assets. Gazprom in the US is being taken to court for example.
“An individual Lithuanian might have a good chance because Lithuanian occupation was never recognised by the US. International law doesn’t allow occupying powers to conscript citizens into their armies.
“The Lithuanian government is looking at a fund where citizens will be able to request support to follow these types of claims that they would not have resources to do so themselves.
“We talked about the licensing of professionals from the US, so doctors and others can work over here. We are trying to establish a procedure for this. We found that here the law is written, and then the bureaucracy decides how it will be implemented – there is no direct implementing procedure on how it needs to be done.
“We advised that the mechanism of going from law to implementation needs to be better. And this has become an issue in many areas, including the citizenship issue.
“Basically a border guard could take away your passport and never give it back to you. You still need to have the court involved in these types of cases, there is too much responsibility on the individual. The court needs to be ultimately accountable and these issues need to be adjudicated under a court system,” Vytas said.
One of the programs the World Lithuanian Community has been heavily involved in is an internship program which needed some clarification. With internships is it something done on a free basis? They feel there should be the possibility of the interns earning a wage, however small it might be.
And working in Lithuania raises other issues. A person of Lithuanian descent who has retained their right to Lithuanian citizenship can live and work in Lithuania for up to five years. But again this is not so easy – how do you prove it? Blood test? So you still need to provide proof, a piece of paper of some sort as American passports don’t list heritage. So you need a birth certificate, which comes back to similar citizenship problems.
Vytas also pointed out that the committee deals with other, more abstract issues, like how does being a member of the EU affect the development of the Lithuania language and vitality?
“With so many different cultures and languages in the EU, laws are coming in and only one person is doing the translation and needing to have an understanding of terms used in business, technology and art for example. Linguistically these translations lose their full meaning and become watered down, and even dumbed-down, tending to use international terms rather than Lithuanian ones that evolve from use.
“The head of the Lithuanian language commission said that Lithuania is not unique in having a committee for the correct use of language and why it is so necessary for them to continue their work.
“We also touched on public information - what restrictions should be placed on TV and media? Censorship versus anonymity, where does free speech end and slander start?
“We suggested registering comments and that all portals need to be liable for what is in their space. Accountability is the direction to go. Adding a personal touch greatly increases accountability.
“The LTV World Channel was going to be discontinued. This is Lithuanian programming which reaches from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, but the LTV board decided to cut it because of government budget cuts.
“For many Lithuanians living abroad this is the only link they have to good cultural content, and the service is appreciated worldwide. We hope to at least have an internet service, but hope we can work on retaining the full TV transmission,” Vytas concluded.
In all Vytas said it was a successful sitting, notwithstanding the problems caused by the Icelandic volcano, and both sides look forward to continuing this tradition of cooperation.
|Lithuanian women now more trendy, less stylish
||14 April 2010
Story: Deimantė Dokšaitė
I was raised in the suburbs of Michigan, and, like my heritage, owe a lot of my fashion influence to my immediate family. My father is a fiercely modern architect and closet history buff. He knows a little about everything, and although lovingly curmudgeonly, I’m only recently understanding and appreciating the fact that he forced so much (non-fashion) reading and culture into my life at a young age. All the more reason for me to ponder the origins of the Lithuanian language to Sanskrit as I sew on a button to a new creation.
My mother, never without a wink and a gimmicky idea, had always been a Jane-of-All-Trades and taught me to be tremendously resourceful. She’s also contributed her wardrobe (willingly and sometimes not) to my growing fashion archive.
My sister, Lina, really the sweetest and funniest girl ever, has a heart made of solid platinum and has supported me since I was making clothing for her Barbie dolls. She still buys my full-size human clothes today.
My grandmothers were really always supportive of my art and in fact I just had a piece of my Grandma Stases’ furniture sent to me the other day. It’s a plain coffee table on the outside, but on the inside back of the table top is where I used to do my first fashion sketches in crayon when my grandma wasn’t looking. She pretended to be stern when she saw what I had done, but always laughed it off and encouraged me to draw more.
American Lithuanian Milda Bublys is currently working as a teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which is also where she studied for four years.
Milda says she loves working with students as this is where it all begins - the excitement, the energy and fresh ideas - not jaded by the negativity of the fashion world. It can be very energizing for her. “The remainder of my time is split.” – adds Milda. One half of her time is spent crafting one of a kind pieces for discerning clients with her clothing line at: www.mildabublys.com and also working on a new collection of wearable art/jewellery with the painter and her partner, Sarah Schrift: www.sarahandmilda.com
“Everything I do is very special, handmade and using resources that are repurposed, vintage or donated. Not only do I feel better about what I am doing for the earth, but it removes a lot of clutter from my studio and my life when scraps of fabric become embellished appliqués on a new necklace,” explains Milda.
Recently Milda spent a couple weeks in Lithuania. LiTnews asked her to share her impressions about Lithuanian clothes, to compare them with New Yorkers’ style and to give us some tips about original style and what to wear during the spring season. We also wanted to know how her Lithuanian background influences Milda’s work.
You visited Lithuania recently. What could you say about Lithuanian clothes? Can you compare Vilnius and New York?
I grew up in Michigan, going to Lithuanian school and hearing all about my heritage via history books and drawings of the old Lithuanian farm life. So I had a very different picture in my head - I seriously thought that every girl in Lithuania dressed like the olden days - in long skirts with aprons, heavy linen blouses and vests, all from rough-woven cloth. Not so as it turned out!
I’ve visited over a dozen times over the years, what I’ve noticed is that Lithuanian women have a wonderful knack for bringing specialty and craft into their everyday wardrobe. Whether it’s a special hand-sewn stitch, some embroidery, or a pin and scarf that changes up their every day look, it looks like it has a handmade touch.
New Yorkers are a special lot - as our city is really and truly a melting pot, the average fashionista here dresses like a UN representative - with a little influence of two cultures or more in her everyday look. Take for instance my choice today - I’m wearing an H&M top from NYC, amber necklaces from Lithuania, jeans from Italy, and a scarf I picked up in Bali!
It was quite a long time between this and your last trip to Lithuania - do you see any changes in the Lithuanian look?
Yes, but sadly, I think it’s due to mass consumerism. Though Lithuanian women are more trendy and fashion-forward than I remember previously, what I find more of here is disposable fashion. I feel like there used to be more of a market for carefully crafted clothes. Girls couldn’t afford much, but the one piece they bought sustained them for a long time and they invested in it, just accessorizing it differently everyday. Now I feel like places like Zara have invaded individual tastes and made them look more like everyone else.
Maybe you got some inspiration from your visit here?
I’m a huge fan of the Baroque churches in the Old Town. Particularly Sv. Onos, which looks like a big pink Barbie cake with white icing to me. The other thing I found amazing was the graffiti everywhere - so colourful and decorating the bleak winter landscape like little coloured gems tossed into the snow.
What are your impressions of the Lithuanian fashion industry?
Some years ago, I attended some fashion shows and it seemed that there was a small, burgeoning industry. The designers are most certainly very creative, but I think it’s difficult to prevail here as it’s geographically quite isolated. I had some relatives in Kaunas who were furriers for some years, so I came to know it, and I think Lithuanians really do this best.
As a country that is shrouded in ice for the better part of the year, I believe the inclination to create great outerwear that keeps you warm, but can still look amazing, is key. On my recent trip to Vilnius I kept chasing down women on the street to take pictures of their furs - from herringbone designs to coloured collars, it’s been the most interesting I’ve seen.
Who are some Lithuanian fashion designers who in your opinion could compete in the world’s fashion market?
I’ve heard quite a bit about Juozas Statkevičius, and it seems he’s quite the favourite. My sister told me that he is a neighbour of ours in Vilnius! I’m a fan of his clothing and a big, big fan of his fragrance. I also love Ramunė Piekautaitė - she really understands the drape of cloth and creating beautifully constructed clothing.
New York is one of world’s fashion capitals. I guess that means that there are plenty of opportunities for fashion designers, but on the other hand does this also mean that there is a lot of competition?
New York, by definition, is extremely competitive. Even when you ride the subway you are competing with people for a seat, in the café to be served first, at the grocery to get the freshest produce. You’re always fighting for something. The fashion industry here is quite the same way - which gets tiring over the years. I think it’s important to find your voice as a designer and keep at it. What I’ve been trying to do is carve out my own niche and make specialty items that please me, and hopefully appeal to a small group of women as well.
You were born in the USA, but grew up in a Lithuanian family. Are there any links to Lithuania in your creations?
As much as I have tried, my culture is always a part of me. There’s a beautiful storytelling in Lithuanian, particularly its pagan fairytale past and the legends of Archduke warriors that dot history. Also the crafts like the egg-painting (margučiai) and things made of straw and pottery have always intrigued me. Things that I am working on now involve the beautiful patterns of my grandmother’s margučiai on clothing and jewellery.
Spring is already here. What would you recommend for those who want to follow the latest fashion trends?
I’m not a trend person at all! But what I do recommend is that you wear colourful clothing, something that brings out your inner sparkle and makes you confident and happy. If you want to follow what the magazines are telling you, take those ideas and make them your own. There’s much more pride in being able to love and be yourself!
Am I right in thinking that for you personal style is more important than fashion?
Certainly personal style! Fashion is ever-changing and is wonderful as you can put a new ‘hat’ on everyday. There’s so much visceral beauty in these items that we wear, but you have to be careful not to take anything too seriously or we end up looking like a cookie-cutter stamp with an expiration date.
This can be expensive and exhausting - what is a better devotion of energy is to pick things that look flattering on you, with colours and details that speak of your personality. Sometimes it’s even better when you get it all wrong - accidents make the best inspiration to try again and get it right the next time.
|Žydrūnas Savickas - World’s Strongest Man
Story: Ray Vyšniauskas
On first meeting Žydrūnas Savickas you are simply astounded by his size. Though he stands at 191 cm (6’3”) it is not his height that impresses, it is his girth. At 175 kilograms he is a giant of a man with forearms the size of logs and a chest that belittles a barrel of any kind.
The softly spoken Žydrūnas also surprises with his almost baby-face looks and defied all my attempts at branding. The Beast from Biržai or the Behemoth from Birštonas were considered, but the only title that really sticks is: World’s Strongest Man.
With a list of world records wider than even his arms or 26 victories in international competition, the master of the log lift and true Lithuanian Ambassador spoke to us about his career.
Žydrūnai, were you strong as a boy, and what took you into strongman competition?
At first I wanted to be a bodybuilder, I wanted to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger and so I took up bodybuilding. Strongman competitions were not very popular back then, and they only started competitions in Lithuania when I was 16, and that’s when I competed for the first time, and I liked it. Then for a while I tried to do both, but there came a time where I had to choose between the two, and I made the decision to concentrate on strongest man competitions and took it from there.
I started working out when I was 13. I was lucky that I was tall and strong. My father and grandfather were very strong; my grandfather was blacksmith, and I think all his hard work rubbed off on me. My father was very strong and my mother was also a tall and strong woman, so I had good genetics.
I remember my first competition in 1992, it was in Joniškis and I was 16. I was nervous for the whole month before and hardly slept. I didn’t do that well overall, but I took second place in one event. That is a great memory, and from then I understood that I could achieve something in this sport.
How did Lithuania become a world power in strongest man competitions?
At first in Lithuania there was just a small group of us, and we didn’t know what was happening elsewhere in the world back in 1988, there was just not much information available to us. From 1993 international competitions started, and we saw that we were at a comparatively low level. We looked upon the international competitors as giants, and didn’t believe that Lithuania could ever even compete with them, let alone dominate the sport. We didn’t even think about it back then.
After 10 years everything has changed of course, and now Lithuania is the champion country and I am the individual world champion.
Why are Lithuanians so good in this sport?
Lithuanians are well suited to the sport, we are tall and strong, which is a great start, and second we grew up at a time when we were lucky there were so many good strong competitors here. It helped that we competed against each other, and so the level grew. And now our success is attracting more youth to the sport so it continues.
Are there any young Lithuanian champions on the horizon?
Vilmanatas Bliujus is one young champion from Alytus, he was seventh in an open championship competition and close to the leaders in some events, so I think he’s someone with a good future.
Then there are two brothers from Mažeikiai, Vytautas and Marius Lalas. They are very strong. These three are the best prospects at the moment. Marius Lalas took 3rd in an up to 105 kg class event. At 25 he is very young in this sport.
What is the optimum age for strongman competition, and what are your own future ambitions?
A strongman usually peaks between 30 – 35. You can build strength up to the age of 40, but you can lose some speed. I’m 34 and see that I am still improving.
Next year I will compete less, only in the most important events, probably five or six at most. With age you need more time to recover.
I plan to compete three or four more years, and even then just selected events like the Schwarzenegger Classic and some other major competitions, all so I won’t be working out all year, it’s just too hard on the body.
My most active years were from 2005 – 2008 when I was taking part in up to 20 competitions a year. It is hard on the body and you get tired. This year I relaxed for six month, then trained hard, I reached peak form and was looking forward to competing. This year I took part in 11 competitions and won them all.
What about your training and diet?
Training needs a lot of energy, I need to eat a lot, and eat well, but you also need supplements because it’s just too hard to get all you need out of just food. I try to eat healthy and often.
I train two to four hours per day depending on whether I am close to competition or not. When I am training for competition, then I spend up to four hours on each discipline.
For the most important competitions there are about five events which are most popular, and you need to train for them. There are other events that don’t appear so often so you don’t need to train for them every session. You always know in advance what events will be staged at your next competition, so you train accordingly.
Log lift, the farmers walk, stone lift and super yoke are disciplines that are held most often, so you concentrate on those.
This year you won the combined strongest man competition. You noted elsewhere that this was a special moment for you.
Yes, from 2005 – 2007 World Strongest Man competition wasn’t recognised as the official world championship as the sport was split into two groups. In the other camp was the IFSA.
The World Strongest Man had the best name in the sport, but not the best sportsmen. I wanted to test and prove myself against the best, and that’s why I went with the IFSA, but there was always the uneasiness about the split, probably more in the eyes of the public.
None of us really thought that the two camps would ever join again, but in 2009 the international strongman title was re-united. Of course some were not so happy about having to face such tough competition again, but there was once more just the one international title. I won and put all the doubt behind me, and so I was then properly recognised as three time world champion.
You have a long and distinguished history at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, how did that come about?
The Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic started in 2001 and I really wanted to take part, but I had an injury in the first year and didn’t get past the qualifying tournament. That made me more determined to work hard to make the next one.
Then I came second in 2002, and I was fully fit in 2003 and prepared the best in my career and determined to do my best, probably not really thinking about winning.
I met Arnold Schwarzenegger during the warm-ups in 2003 and he watched the whole competition. He was not the governor then, so he had more time on his hands. I won and he presented the award and congratulated me and that is one of the best memories I have.
I won six times in a row and we met up this year again when I was invited as a guest and judge because I was injured, and we spent more time together. And next year I hope we will meet for an eighth time to accept the winning prize.
What are your interests away from the sport?
I am engaged and getting ready to marry soon. I do a lot of travelling so when I get the chance I like to spend time at home. I read a lot.
I have lived in Vilnius for five years now. My mother lives in Biržai and I go there often.
I trained in Birtonas in my early years, and even now I go down there to train once a week and during the season I will be there twice a week.
Through your actions and ability have become a great ambassador for Lithuania. Are there any official duties you perform?
No, I’m not officially anything, but I am one of the best known Lithuanians around the world. Often I have the role of having to tell people about Lithuania, where it is, its history.
All around the world Lithuanians come to see me and I see Lithuanian flags in the crowd, and it makes it easier to compete and win. You feel you can’t lose when you see so many people there to support you, you can’t let them down and ruin their day.
What are your favourite moments in sport?
It’s hard to pick a best moment. All competitions are memorable, always in different places, all with their own intrigues, always interesting.
I was in Australia for the first time recently, and it’s one of the best countries I have visited and would like to visit again. We competed in Brisbane and the zoo left a very good impression. Next time I’ll try to stay a bit longer and have a look around, and visit New Zealand as well.
It was their first international competition and organisers hope to do it every year.
We spent three days competing at Dreamworld (Australia’s largest theme park) and after competition all the strongmen went on all the rides and everyone enjoyed it. We pretended not to be scared, but we only managed to relax when we were taking rides for the third time, but it was a lot of fun.
|Affordable Lithuanian linen luxury
Story: Deimantė Dokšaitė
Photo: Jurga Galvanauskaitė
Inga Lukauskienė (pictured) is the founder and owner of the online linen store - LinenMe. Originally from Plungė, and a graduate of KLC School of Design, she now lives in the UK. Inga started selling Lithuanian linen products to British customers, but now LinenMe sells their products throughout the world.
Inga, who is a textile and professional interior designer tells us about her inspiration, and her ABC of business which she learnt back in Plungė working for her parents as a young girl. She also talks about her thoughts on the new trends in linen fashion and the varying tastes of customers from different countries.
Let’s start from the beginning - how did linen come into your life? How did you start making money from it?
Linen production was not the first business area I got involved in. Firstly, my family had a florist business and as a little girl I used to help them sell flowers at a local market. Another task for me as a little helper was to assist with the gardening at the rose greenhouse, and at one point there were nearly a 1000 rose shrubs! I loved arranging flowers into bouquets, so I suppose that was the first time I had to do colour arrangement and design!
Once Lithuania gained independence, my mother who has worked for over 35 years in the linen industry, established her own linen production company in Plungė. For many years this company has been manufacturing luxurious hand-made linen tablecloths, towels, bedding and other home accessories, but all this production was for foreign clients.
How did you start LinenMe? How did the idea of selling linen to the British come about?
I have been involved in this process since the very beginning, and it always struck me that no matter how high the quality is of our Lithuanian linen, it will still bear the name of some foreign brand, sold on a famous high street shop or department store with just a tiny mention on the tag of Made in Lithuania.
We decided that it would be excellent to develop our own Lithuanian linen brand and try to establish it on a European, or perhaps even global level. This is how LinenMe was born in 2007. In November 2007 the online shop was officially opened and LinenMe products became widely available to the UK market.
What makes your linen production unique?
At LinenMe we have remained focused on producing hand-made linen items such as hemstitched tablecloths, linen napkins, towels, cushion covers and luxurious bedding. Old traditional Lithuanian crafting skills are highly appreciated worldwide, for instance stunning embroidery, intricate hemstitching, crocheting and so on. For many years linen in Lithuania was just ‘something you would see at your grandmother’s place’, old-fashioned, un-cool and dated, however, linen is going through a revival. Pure linen is getting more popular, vintage weaving and designs are fashionable again, and linen shops are not just for tourists!
I would say the main difference is that our high quality linen reaches the customer without going through all the unnecessary designing/branding/marketing circles that inflate the cost of linen. We are the designers and manufacturers in one, offering affordable luxury.
Please tell us about taste in different countries.
Tastes and preferences differ depending on local traditions, popular styles and standards. Shoppers from certain regions adore coloured linen products, while others go solely for the natural unbleached/un-dyed linen look. Shoppers from the US prefer natural, earthy colours – browns, greens, oranges, while the British love blue. At the same time, blue-dyed linen is not to the European taste. Scandinavians absolutely adore natural and white linen, but from our perspective we try to cater for all styles and tastes.
Home improvement is extremely popular in the UK, and updating your home with soft furnishings, a set of new curtains, a couple of colourful cushions or new upholstery fabrics for your sofas can be financially rewarding and much easier to achieve than to repaint and refit the whole living space.
Could Lithuanian linen be something like tulips for Holland, vodka for Russia, or Guinness for Ireland?
Absolutely! Even though Lithuania, as a small country in the Baltic region, it is better known for its basketball achievements and amber jewellery, I am a strong believer that Lithuanian linen also represents the country in a global context very well. I think flax growing and linen weaving as an industry has withstood many difficult periods in its history, but without doubt Lithuanian linen is well-known for its quality, traditional methods of processing, weaving, embroidery, hemstitching and so on.
Baltic linen is highly appreciated by textile experts all over the world, and many globally-known brands produce their linen in Lithuania. The Lithuanian climate has always been perfect for growing high quality flax. Baltic linen is unique for its naturally darker shade; the darker the fabric the better. It is unfortunate that Lithuanian flax industry is struggling at the moment and is not being treated as an important industry that deserves to be cherished. Traditional flax growing and linen production techniques are a significant part of the Lithuanian heritage.
How popular is linen back in Lithuania?
I would say that linen wouldn’t be as popular in Lithuania if it wasn’t for the global trend – people all over the world are tending to switch back to using natural textiles, investing in good quality affordable linen products. Perhaps we haven’t learnt to properly appreciate what we’ve had for centuries right under our noses?
Linen bedding, soft furnishings and accessories are coming back into fashion, and Lithuania is no exception. The home design specialists started offering wider ranges of linen products, in many cases labelled with foreign brands, but most likely manufactured and produced in Lithuania.
The partnership of linen and amber is already well appreciated – do you think this Lithuanian ‘couple’ have a good perspective in the international market?
Traditional Lithuanian folk outfits always included linen garments and amber jewellery. Lithuanian amber is valued for both its looks and healing qualities, while Lithuanian linen is unique for its dark natural shade and durability.
The look of a linen dress paired with an amber necklace is one thing, but using pure linen and amber in interior design is a completely different story. Linen napkins look great with silver napkin rings, but they also can be decorated with amber-bead rings. We have added some table accessories made from Lithuanian amber to our assortment this summer, but it’s a matter of preference really.
While exhibiting at The Spirit of Christmas Fair in London last November we had some amber bead napkin rings displayed in our stand. Surprisingly, hardly anyone assumed the accessory was made with real amber. They thought it was plastic!
Tell us how everything is organized. I mean, creating collections, making them in Lithuania, ordering goods in your e-shop, paying, shipping, advertising etc?
As Lithuanian fashion designer Aleksandras Pogrebnojus once joked: “The reason why each year new colours are announced fashionable is to allow the designers to sell exactly the same garment over and over again.” But on a more serious note, we attend textile fairs and industry shows (such as Heimtextil in Germany) where new trends for the next season are announced. Knowing and understanding the forthcoming trends is essential when creating new linen collections.
We do not hire any external designers at LinenMe products. As a recent graduate of London’s KLC School of Design, I am the main designer behind each and every product.
Inspiration comes from everywhere, any time of a day. We also offer linen design services, and are encouraging our customers to become home interior designers themselves. DIY is extremely popular nowadays, and if someone is looking for a specific soft furnishing, we are glad to produce it.
Once items are designed, they are produced in Lithuania and sold exclusively online. The process of running an e-shop is not that different from any other online business, but what is really convenient is that whatever the design, we can produce it and deliver it within the shortest possible period of time.
|Jovaiša: Lithuania – Heart of the Baltics
Marius Jovaiša became quite well known after releasing his photo album “Unseen Lithuania” a couple of years ago.
It became one of the most sought after gifts for anyone who was already in love with Lithuania, or for those who had never seen the beauty of the country.
Now Jovaiša has come up with a new project – a trademark for Lithuania as the heart of the Baltics.
Jovaiša hopes that his idea will get public attention and they will start using this trademark in their email signatures, power point presentations, business cards and any other communication.
We asked Jovaiša a few questions about his project and intentions.
You were known for criticizing Lithuanian brands, for example the trademark of Lithuania as a brave country. Why you think your trademark is better?
I am not an outspoken critic of commercial Lithuanian brands, I just happen to take interest in country branding and so I was very disappointed with Lithuanian government’s decision to brand our country as brave.
I think it does not produce any value for the country, and does not increase its attractiveness. My proposal is to use something which is much more broadly recognized worldwide and based on that to build our communication. This ‘something’ is the Baltic Sea.
Why heart? Because we are much more emotional than other Baltic nations? Or for some other reasons?
Heart is a very powerful symbol with multiple layers of meanings. On one hand, we are the biggest of the three Baltic countries, we have the widest heritage of history, culture, architecture and archaeology. We were the only ones to have a national state back in thirteenth century.
On the other hand, we were the center of Baltic tribes named after the Baltic Sea. Lithuania serves as a bridge from east to west, from north to south.
And yes, we are emotional and so every Lithuanian can easily come up with more explanations as to why it is us and not the Latvians or Estonians who are heart of the Baltics.
Don’t you think that only we believe that the Baltic Sea is well known, but other people, especially those who don’t live in this area have no idea where it is? So is saying the Baltic Sea is even more meaningless than saying Lithuania?
Absolutely not. I have developed this approach during my numerous worldwide travels. It as a fact that the Baltic sea is much more well known than Lithuania. If you happen to be among people who don’t know the name Baltic Sea, you can easily tell them that it’s a see in northern Europe around which there is Sweden, Finland and Germany, and then you’ll be OK.
How can you explain your generosity? People find it hard to believe that somebody is doing something for free - just because it is good. What are your intentions?
It is not the first time I am doing something for free. Some people will still never believe that, and will keep looking for hidden reasons, but I honestly just want to solve this problem for once and for all. I feel like I have a strong proposal and I hope it will work.
Any plans to develop this idea of Lithuania – Heart of Baltics? Any future ideas to work with the Lithuanian image?
I have established a public enterprise – a not for profit organization “Lithuania – heart of the Baltics”. It will develop the brand and spread it both in Lithuania and abroad. So far I am its sole financier but I hope more sponsors will be attracted and maybe the government will begin to participate in this process eventually.
|Actions Speak Louder Than Words
We were grateful to Kęstutis Kemzūra (pictured) for sparing some time to talk to us about his appointment as Head Coach of the Lithuanian Men’s National Basketball team.
What are your first impressions of your new job as Head Coach of the Lithuanian Men’s National Basketball team?
What can you say? Like all jobs it has its pressure. It has a big responsibility and like everyone I will work as hard as I can, but hopefully with more energy and enthusiasm. I know there will be more pressure later on, but that is something you have to deal with when the time comes.
What about the team itself – what are you first thoughts on its formation?
There has been a lot of talk about bringing more youth into the team. For me I just want the best and the most motivated players, and then of course a lot depends on whether we will be playing in the world championships.
If not, then I think it’s worth giving players an off-season to relax and recuperate.
Age is not the criteria from which you choose your team. All of them could play well in 2011, but no-one knows what might happen in that time in terms of form, injury or retirement.
What is Lithuania’s chance of getting a wildcard invitation to the world championships?
December 13 is when the final decision will be made and only then will we know for sure whether we have to prepare for the World Championships, but I don’t know what will happen. I do know that the Lithuanian Basketball Federation is doing all it can to find a way for us to compete. I haven’t heard about the latest developments, but someone made a suggestion that the final places should be decided by a qualifying tournament, and I like that idea.
In the end is it a matter of paying for the ticket?
No, it is not totally a matter of money, but it seems an important consideration. The sum of 500,000 euro was mentioned.
Have you spoken to the players?
I haven’t spoken to the players as yet, and that will be one of my first jobs. I will try to meet them when I can, others I will have to talk to over the phone.
It’s not just a matter of talking about them playing or not, and not just about basketball, I want to learn about their life plans. It’s more a question of where they are and what they want to achieve. Every team has different problems and concerns which have to be dealt with. I want to know how they look at their role and to see what they want for themselves.
I have worked with many of the players, some less so, but I have good relations with them all. I think that in the future it will stay that way. I have no worries with any players, and I can’t say that they would have any towards me.
How would you describe the job – diplomatic, psychological or just physical training?
The psychological aspect is present in every club. Any team is like an organism and every organism is different, you have to pay more or less attention to differing aspects. You have to see and feel the processes that are taking place. There are different players, and groups of players that create different dynamics, which all has to be taken into account.
You pick players not just for their basketball ability. You want to know about their off-court life as well. The national team is a bit different, but you still have to gather the best players available. That is one step, but then they have to become the best team, and that all has to be done in a very short space of time.
The job is to sell your ideas and vision to the team and for them to accept it and move forward together as a unit. They need to know that the coach knows what he’s talking about.
On the one hand it’s easier than coaching at a club from the view that players arrive and are committed and want to play for their country and not just money. In the national team you come for sporting principles.
In a club you play for money. There can be monetary problems with players, late wages, and this creates a whole new set of problems. This isn’t a factor in the national team.
When do you start the serious work of coaching?
The job is already taking place. Planning, staff, and looking to the future. What’s happening now is unseen, it is the creation stage. It is like an artistic composition, it looks like nothing is happening but much of the future is being planned and idealised.
Will you also coach at club level?
I am a hired coach on contract with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, but my requirement was that I have the right to work with club teams, and that was approved, and my agent is looking for clubs for me to coach.
What is your agreement with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation regards the aim and strategy of the team?
With the Lithuanian Basketball Federation I have the final say on what happens with the team. Of course we have discussed strategy, aims and goals. Mostly I talk with Mindaugas Balčiūnas, he has become my liaison there, and it is usual that most communication goes through a particular person, and we have had many discussions. There are always many technical questions as well as game plans to decide. We have talked about everything.
I am open about my work and what I do, but at the end of the day the responsibility is mine. I am ultimately answerable for the success or otherwise of the national team.
You have a quiet and reserved character for such a high profile position.
I don’t like to boast and it is not necessary for me to seek attention for its own sake, and I understand that attention only usually gets in the way. At the moment I haven’t won or lost a game, but there is a lot ahead.
The most important thing is that we don’t take short cuts and work solely for the win. In this business you are judged by your results. Even though it doesn’t always fully reflect the effort you put in. In previous championships teams have played well but not achieved results, and vice versa.
What is your coaching style? Do you demand discipline to stick to a system, or do you give players more freedom?
You always start with a plan and it changes over time. Basketball is a game and you’ll find very few teams with such a tight system that players can’t move out of.
I work more on establishing principles that the players can then use as a basic structure, my strategy is based more on principles than a rigid structure.
What is a good shot, what is a bad shot? - it’s often not easy to make that judgement. The players are on the court, you can’t expect them to be robots. But a lot depends on the player. One might have more ability which gives them more freedom to move away from the rigidity of the structure.
So what have you been doing while waiting for the decision on the world championships?
I’m still picking my support team. We have no time pressure so I can look at it properly and give it full consideration. You have to talk to people, find a time to meet, then they have to have time to think about their answer. It’s not a process that can be rushed, and if it’s done properly it will be much better in the long run. The full team should be in place before too long.
In regards to the championships, it’s not just me waiting for the decision, all Lithuania is waiting. I am keeping an eye on the form of players.
As I don’t have a club I have more time to see how all our players are performing, and now I have the time to look deeper into each of them. It is as much a hobby as a job and it is lucky I have the extra time to do that at the moment.
How do you plan to deal with the pressure when it does arrive?
Expectations are always high. In Lithuania I know this.
I don’t know what happened in the last championship, why some players didn’t go and why we still expected a medal. The chances to achieve good results are rare enough already, and to put extra pressure on everyone concerned just makes the task harder.
There are a lot of components you need to put together and you also have to have realistic expectations. There are not many teams that can put pressure on themselves and still perform, Spain was one and they stated before the games that they came to win, and then achieved that despite a slow start. They were good enough to recover. And the USA can state at the start of a tournament that they are there to win, but those teams are rare.
You have to set your maximum goals and they need to be achievable. The Serbs went there with much lower expectations and they came home with the silver.
Have you noticed a change in your life since taking the job?
No. There has been no reason for it to change yet.
Do you get advice from strangers?
Not so far. Maybe I’m not as easily recognised as yet, and I believe a lot will depend on when we start playing and how we will go. So far I can walk calmly down the streets.
Can I ask if you are a Žalgiris or Rytas fan?
I’ll be diplomatic. When either team plays in the European championships
I support both teams. But generally I look at games more professionally - what they do and how they do it. I know people in both of the teams so there is a personal aspect as well.
While we teach our children that competing is more important than winning, as a coach your only option is to win. How does that manifest itself in the real world?
Wining is number one, no discussion, but with the kids it’s more about competition, but I see that even they want to win. There is a sporting instinct that is needed to be an elite sportsman, and all elite sportspeople have that desire to win.
But it still requires passion. If you come home from a win or a loss and don’t care then it’s time to give up the game. The passion has to be there.
I forget who said it, but I agree with the quote that after each loss a small part of you dies.
|English Life is about Indviduality
His articles in Lietuvos Rytas are very sharp and drive most of his readers insane; they go mad and flood the newspaper’s website with angry comments.
His programs on Lithuanian Radio (Lietuvos radijas) are totally different – in a calm, gentle voice he talks about the UK, where he has lived for the past 15 years, and impressions from his travels around the world.
On 17 December Andrius Užkalnis (pictured), a journalist, is going to launch his first book England: About those people and their country (Anglija: Apie tuos žmones ir jų šalį). Andrius agreed to share with us his thoughts about the similarities and differences between Lithuanian and British people and to tell us a little of what the book will be about.
Your book ‘England: About those people and their country’ will be published soon. How did the inspiration to write it come about? Is it from the your love of the country?
I am not a great believer in inspiration. It is overrated. Except where one is so depressed and tired that they can hardly physically get out of bed, I do not think mood should stop someone from writing. If one has something to say, that is. I love writing and never had to wait for inspiration.
I spent 15 years in England and often noticed how people of my country (of whom there are tens of thousands here) viewed it in a simplistic and critical way, and most of this criticism came out of ignorance. I wanted to help them. I hope it does not sound too arrogant or pretentious, but God is my witness, many of them could do with some help on the understanding front. Why are houses in England so small? Why there are two separate cold and hot water taps? Why is an Indian meal not a foreign meal but part of the national diet? Why do many single malts reek of peat? All these things need explaining. I hope to have done it in a sympathetic and engaging way.
We Lithuanians are not the most open-minded of nations, and travelling does not sit well with us, generally. We have some brilliant travellers but they are not the norm. And the first reaction of a Lithuanian abroad is ridicule and derision. It is not just about being impolite. The bone-headed peasant approach is, first and foremost, hurting the Lithuanians themselves. Instead of seeing another country and learning from it, they forever search for proof of how inferior and nonsensical it is.
I particularly wanted to be helpful to people of the older generation: those who now travel to UK to see their grandchildren as their children moved to this country, and often it is one of their first opportunities to travel abroad. They hold a lot of stereotypes and myths about England, fostered by Russian textbooks and TV decades ago. I wanted them to be better informed than that.
In this way, I am both cruel and kind in my writing. I debunk myths mercilessly but at the same time I hope that the information and understanding that people are left with in the end is helpful.
I would never say that I fell in love with England. I came to know it quite well, and many of the things here I admire. There are things that I like less - like the encroaching childishness, political correctness, the peculiar fascination of the educated classes with the wackiest left-wing ideas. But I tend to try and understand the reasons behind them even when I know full well I could not accept them.
As I said on one occasion, when people like Polly Toynbee or George Monbiot of the Guardian can write what they like, it is called freedom of speech. However, when their lunatic rants are seen as the mainstream thought of the educated class, it is creepy.
Still, I think the country is great: the layers of history, the openness to the world and the sheer taste for travel and exploration of the world is astounding. Coming from a small country with very insular, peasant-like mentality and parochial approach to almost everything, the scale of the best in British ambition and aspiration is awesome. I tried to communicate this in my book.
What will the book be about? Is it some kind of travel guide? Or intended for those who want to move to England?
It is not a travel guide as such. Not that it would not be useful for someone who travels to the UK (indeed, in the last chapter I included some practical tips and suggestions about enjoying the best that the country can offer).
I would not like to be part of anyone’s decision to relocate to another country, and not because “incitement to emigration” has only been recently decriminalised in Lithuania (this legal provision did exist although I never heard of anyone prosecuted on these charges - call it a bizarre anomaly). A decision to move has to be one’s own; however, the more you know about the country, the better.
I think this applies to all travel - whether it is for ten days or ten years. Many disappointments stem from ignorance and lack of homework. The same happens when half-baked myths and stereotypes take the place of some old-school preparation. I have nothing against stereotypes and generalizations - I think it is part of human nature to draw conclusions, that’s what analysis process is about - but the trouble with lazy stereotypes is that they are unhelpful. I believe that the best aspect of travel is catching glimpses and reflections of our own memories and bits of knowledge. If you are working on shoddy knowledge, it is very difficult to do.
In your opinion, what are the main similarities and the biggest differences between Lithuanians and English people?
English life is all about individuality. It is not about collective. Being a naturally private person and not a great fan of ideas of communal work, play and amusement, I took to England very well. I enjoy privacy and people minding their own business. I appreciate the understatement and hints rather than theatrical, Baroque display of emotion that most Lithuanians are so fond of.
This does not make me a very good and typical Lithuanian, but I guess it takes all sorts.
I also enjoy the concept of a personality-centered world. I like it when people refer to “I” and “my” when talking about their job, their role and their authority. When I came to England, it surprised me to hear a middle-level manager of a company say “on MY payroll, I have 20 people”, “people whom I pay” - it was unusual but I thought it was brilliant. A Lithuanian manager would never say that. He would refer to the company, the organization, any large entity, or any entity, for that matter. He would never use “I”.
I like it when a judge, a policemen, even a tax inspector says “I”, and does not believe he must hide behind an organization or a body. This is the single biggest difference that I can admire.
Next to it, the natural mistrust that an Englishman feels toward people who take themselves too seriously. Someone who is not able to laugh at themselves is seen as seriously socially deficient, or at best pompous and humourless. In Lithuania, pompousness comes with social status and often needs to be engaged so that a person is respected as a figure of authority. I always disliked that and England was a breath of fresh air for me in this respect.
The English are famous for their peculiar humour. Do you have a favourite English joke and would share it with our readers?
My main observation - and I note this in my book - is that the principal aspect of English humour is that it is not separate from serious activities and thoughts.
We in Lithuania think that joking is an activity which has to know its time and place. A normal Englishman would not imagine a presentation without a joke, a bit of self-mockery, a tongue-in-cheek reference. The only person in UK who can go on for an hour with a sombre expression on his face and be an absolute killjoy, Lithuanian-style, is Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but he is not English anyway and I am not really sure if he is truly a person. He would also qualify for the best English joke, albeit a macabre one. He is also a proof that not only Lithuanians can have scandalously inept and socially maladjusted people in high offices.
Sorry to have brought politics into this, but I was intentionally keeping these topics off the pages of my book, so I guess they had to surface somewhere.
|Vygaudas Ušackas - First six months in the ministry
You recently marked 100 days in office as the Foreign Minister, what have been the most pressing issues you have needed to deal with as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs?
You know the key topic in the world today economic crisis. Those currently in the government (be it in Lithuania, Germany or Singapore) are to certain extent runners on the track of growing hurdles. The faster and smarter the governments sprint, the bigger the chances for their countries not to fall over one of these hurdles. So, the diplomatic service of Lithuania has also been seriously engaged in fighting the economic crisis.
We are searching for potential investors all over the world and we are working actively with the Lithuanian business community in helping them to export. I have already participated in two trips with the foreign ambassadors residing in Lithuania to iauliai and Alytus in order to promote the investment environment of the two towns. We are also working very actively inside the EU stressing the European principle of solidarity and seeking that the EU would stand united in the light of today s challenges and the member-states outside the EU zone were not left alone to struggle severe economic problems they are currently facing.
One thing is clear - foreign policy is an extension of internal policy. So, if a country wants to conduct efficient diplomacy, it must do its homework properly. We are trying to do the same now. We are working with the Ministry of Economy in order to form concrete proposals ready for significant investment. Moreover, we are working in close cooperation with the Ministry of Energy in order to prepare the energy sector for European electricity and gas links. Not only we are in constant contact with the Ministry of Culture on issues of Lithuania s image and our Diaspora abroad but also we work with the Ministry of the Interior in order to improve our consular services.
Believe me, no minister in the current Government of change has a privilege of resting or relaxing. However, this active and hopefully efficient way of life suits us just fine.
You have traveled to the UK, America, Brussels and Latvia, among other countries, what have been your impressions of how the rest of the world sees Lithuania?
I would like to point out that I have not only met officials of foreign countries during my visits. I have also met business people, the academic community and others. The thing that delights me most is that Lithuanians are known in the world. Somebody has friends from Lithuania, business people from the East and the West do business in our country, some people have enjoyed our wonderful lakes and calm farmsteads as tourists, some artists cannot forget our marvellous sand dunes in the Curonian spit. This proves that Lithuania exists in everyday life of Europe and the world.
Regarding the foreign officials I have met, I got the impression they all treat Lithuanians like trustworthy partners, placing confidence in words, commitments and responsibilities.
During your recent trip to America Hilary Clinton paid you some nice personal compliments, and you signed some significant agreements during your visit. Can you tell us more about it?
During my working visit to the US, on 9 March I had a warm and friendly meeting with the Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. We had a good and open exchange of views on a broad range of subjects: transatlantic agenda, policy towards Russia and EU Eastern Neighbourhood countries, energy security, Afghanistan, Guantanamo. I personally underlined the necessity for closer EU-US co-operation and that one with NATO allies. Specifically, I pleaded for the need to develop a joint transatlantic policy towards Russia and Eastern European countries, namely Ukraine and Georgia, in particular in the light of the economic crisis.
We agreed on the importance of engagement in the dialogue with Russia. However, the renewal of the dialogue should be not only constructive but also principled. We need to be as firm and clear as we can in this case. It is not easy to engage with Russia, when this country fails to comply with its commitments. At the same time, we need to strengthen our engagement with Eastern Neighbourhood countries, especially Ukraine and Georgia. We also highlighted the importance of energy security issues, the necessity to work on diversification of energy supplies and independence from single energy source. We also agreed that Afghanistan is a major priority for NATO at the time being.
After the meeting, Secretary Clinton and I signed the Protocol of Exchange of Ratification on the Treaties of Bilateral Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance. These twin agreements between the United States and Lithuania will allow police and prosecutors in both countries to employ state-of-the-art tools to cooperate more effectively to bring criminals to justice on both sides of the Atlantic. The agreements will form part of an important network of similar agreements that the United States has reached with all the countries of the European Union. This exchange is the first of 27 that the United States will undertake in coming months with all EU member countries.
Lithuania is a small country, but we play an important role in mediation between the EU and Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, among others. Is Lithuania a major player in the EU family, or are our efforts just a sideshow to decisions beyond our control?
I don’t think the distinction between the major players and the “sideshows” is really valid here. I believe that our task should not be gaining the status of a major player, or a regional power, or the centre of the region. Our task and vital interest, instead, is a stable, democratic and prosperous neighbourhood. I’m convinced that this interest is rather universal; it unites us with the people of our partners in the Eastern neighbourhood. That is why we are engaged in assisting the people of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus to reach this task.
Our efforts of mediation between the EU and Eastern Neighbourhood countries are also aimed at this very task, as we often feel that we grasp the situation in the region better than some older members of the EU, that we have a deeper knowledge of internal processes and inherent mentalities. This expertise is an important asset for the EU as a whole, and not merely a “sideshow”. Not all our efforts have immediate tangible results; nevertheless, we gain experience ourselves, and we earn sincere appreciation by our partner countries.
There is always opposing schools of thought in Lithuania, those that seek better relations with Russia, and those that want to hold them to task over the crimes of the Soviet era. How do you see the future with our largest neighbour?
There are questions over which Lithuania and Russia don t have a common ground, but that doesn t stop Lithuania from continuing to pursue its goals and seeking closer contacts with Russia that could lead us to a constructive dialogue. We have noticed signs of more constructive attitude from Russia on our bilateral agenda. We welcome this sign towards more dialogue.
Over the past 18 years Lithuania succeeded in establishing a solid legal basis for bilateral cooperation in the areas of economy, culture, trade, etc. Russia is main Lithuania s trade partner. Trade turnover is gradually rising and in 2008 it amounted to more than 7 billion euros. I am convinced that mutual efforts of both countries will contribute to the successful development of our relations in the future and will generate positive results on our bilateral agenda.
Let me remind you that Lithuania seeks to pursue principled and constructive cooperation with Russia, expand mutually beneficial economic and cultural ties, as well as pursue dialogue with Russia based on democratic values, truth and justice. Lithuania dedicates specific attention to the Kaliningrad region of Russian Federation, with a perspective to promote openness of the region and its cooperation with the EU, particularly in the context of the Lithuanian Presidency in the Council of Baltic Sea States in 2009.
There is a lot of controversy over restructuring of the Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad, and the closing of the Lithuanians Returning to the Homeland Information Centre. What will be the eventual outcome of these changes?
Having in mind the large and permanently growing Lithuanian Diaspora, the 15th Government of Lithuania has obligated to strengthen ties between Lithuania and Diaspora. Among the measures of strengthening ties it envisaged preservation of the Lithuanian language, traditions and culture within the Diaspora, consolidation of the Lithuanian identity, implementation of the concept of Global Lithuania - wider involvement of Lithuanians living abroad into social, cultural, economic and political life of Lithuania - adaptation of Lithuania to live in the Global World.
The Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad has administered two unrelated tasks, both of which are important in the life of a democratic society. Disconnection of these tasks will give more prominence both to the issues related to the national minorities and Diaspora.
The issues of national minorities will be coordinated by the Ministry of Culture and the issues of Lithuanians living abroad by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Department of Lithuanians living abroad will be established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will participate in shaping of the policy of the state towards Lithuanians living abroad and administer financial support of the state to the Lithuanian Diaspora. This Department will also take over information functions, which currently are performed by the Lithuanians Returning to the Homeland Information Centre.
On the level of Government, Board of Diaspora issues will be established. It will be a forum of the Ministers and representatives of Diaspora for discussing and articulating the main strategic trends of relations between Diaspora and the state (homeland). The Board will be chaired by the Prime Minister. Governmental institutions will be obliged to implement decisions and recommendations of the Board.
A new structure of administration of issues related to Lithuanians living abroad will not only improve coordination of activities among state institutions on this issue, but will also help to administrate the state s finances allotted to the issues of Diaspora.
An issue of some controversy has been the allocation of two prisoners from The Guant namo Bay Detention Camp to be held in Lithuania. What is the latest on this?
After receiving the official request from the US administration to help to solve the Guantanamo problem and to accept two detainees, the State Defence Council of Lithuania instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start consultations with the US administration on this issue and to explore all the aspects needed to make a decision.
Currently, we are in the process of consultations between relevant institutions inside Lithuania, we are also consulting with the US administration. At the same time, we are engaged in the process of discussions and consultations within the European Union with a view to find a common EU platform on the issue. Lithuania will make a final decision only after considering all political, legal, economic, humanitarian and other aspects of possible acceptance of detainees from Guantanamo. This process can take up to several months.
There has been talk about the closure of some Lithuanian embassies, what are the priorities in Lithuania’s diplomatic presence around the world in the current economic and political climate?
Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already notably cut its expenses: representation expenses were reduced by half, almost by half were reduced expenses for business trips and telecommunications. There have also been cuts in other administration expenses, including allowances for diplomats working abroad. In 2009, the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already been reduced by 45 million Litas or 16 %. According to the assignations to the Ministry, currently we are at the level of year 2006.
When it comes to the closure of our embassies, I don t deny that there is a possibility of closing some of them. Although I still believe it can be avoided, since a closure of an embassy has both, financial and political costs. Therefore we have to consider this option properly together with the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Seimas and the Government. Now we are making some calculations on whether it is better to close the embassy utterly or leave one or two representatives in a particular country. We will present these calculations by the end of April.
Although the expenses are being reduced, the tasks for our Diplomatic service and challenges are increasing. We are committed to improve our consular services; we aim to put even more effort into search of new export markets for the Lithuanian business and to attract investments. The energy security and Eastern Partnership, as well as an effective Lithuanian European policy and links with the USA and NATO are among top priorities of our foreign policy.
Even in current economic climate embassies have the same long-lasting objective to represent Lithuania duly, assert citizens rights, take part in propagating democratic values and human rights, create safe and stable international environment.
And finally, is it true that you are a tough but fair boss, and often call your various departments at 8.00am to make sure that they start work on time?
I am convinced that the most important thing is to accomplish work and to perform given tasks on time. It is less important whether it is before or after eight o clock.
But as a matter of fact, the time that we have to perform our tasks is limited, so the departments of the Ministry, as well as me, do start work early there is no time to lose.