LITHUANIA: The Role of Lithuania in the "New Baltic" Region
Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas
When American tourists or businessmen/women go to Lithuania, they find a country that is rich in its history, architectural heritage and nature; they find friendly people, most vibrant, dynamic and outward looking region in Europe, with the fastest growing economy on the continent.
Lithuanians are proud of their statehood dating back to the early 13th century, when our King Mindaugas was crowned. For a couple of decades in the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea and was, thus, Europe`s biggest country in terms of territory. After several centuries of a union state with Poland, we lost independence for the first time as a result of the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian State in 1795. Our ancestors fought hard to restore it in 1918. Before the Soviet occupation in 1940, we enjoyed the same standard of living and economic development as that of Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands. At the end of 1980s Lithuania led the independence movement in the former USSR with the so-called `singing revolution.` After regaining the independence in 1991 Lithuania with the help of U.S., and our European allies started a difficult transition process with an aim to build a democratic, free market society based on freedom, individual liberties and broad opportunities for all its citizens. 13 years ago Lithuania started this difficult journey back to Europe- the place where we belonged throughout our 750-years-old history.
That is why Lithuania is so determined to catch up with the time lost. Thanks to the consistent and hard work of our people and the support of U.S. and European partners we were able to accomplish the profound changes in my country and be on the threshold of EU and NATO memberships.
As a symbol of the final integration to Europe, on May 1, this year, the 12-star blue and yellow flag of the EU will be proudly raised over the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, DC, which for 50 years thanks to the US non-recognition policy remained the official location of the Lithuanian legation.
At the beginning of April, this year, we anticipate to join the most successful military alliance in history- Lithuania alongside with other 6 Central European countries will become full-fledged member of NATO.
We were very successful in reforming the economy, which is the fastest growing economy in Europe, and one of the fastest growing in the world- with an 8.9% GDP growth last year. Western FDI (Foreign direct investment) and the know-how alongside with a well-educated and comparatively not expensive labor force enabled Lithuania to become a competitive economy in Europe and beyond. An increasing number of American firms - from Mars/Masterfoods to Coca-Cola, from Kraft Foods and Altria (former Philip Morris) to Motorola - are establishing themselves in Lithuania as the springboard to the opening markets of the European Union and recovering Russia.
Last year, in its July 19th issue, The Economist named Lithuania as Europe`s top-performing economy, even a conundrum with remarkable indicators across all the sectors of the economy.
If 15 years ago Lithuanian people stood in long lines for basic groceries, today they shop at `super` and other kind of `hyper` markets and are tempted with something that they never heard of in the Soviet Union - discounts and sales. What we have seen over the last decade is the extraordinary desire of the peoples of Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries to transform their societies and to regain their rightful place in the so called `West`, where the rule of law, individual freedom and democracy replaced coercion, a totalitarian regime and one party monopoly. If you come to Lithuania today, you will find a country that is pro-Western, open and tolerant.
Of course, there are still many things to improve and too many people who have deserved a better life. However, the trend is clear and I am confident that sooner rather than later our people will enjoy the same standards of living as Western democracies.
Today let me briefly share with you a few thoughts on how we got where we are today; what else is needed to ensure the creation of a Europe whole and free; and what is the role of Lithuania in the new Europe.
Hence, the goals we had declared upon regaining our independence have been almost accomplished.
What might be Lithuania`s role in the new Europe and in the context of our relationships with the United States? How can we contribute to promoting Euro-Atlantic security?
Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries have a great story of promotion and defense of our shared values. We cherish them. Separated from the West in 1945 by the Iron Curtain, the Lithuanian people have nevertheless retained their commitment and belief in the common values of free nations- democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Our experience shows that the course of nations` history does not only depend on the might of armies, but on the character of men and women. As U.S. President George W. Bush put it during his visit to Vilnius, `Lithuania have known cruel oppression and withstood it. You were held captive by an empire and you outlived it. And because you have paid its cost you know the value of human freedom.`
Terrorist attacks of September 11th of 2001 made us all reassess the criticality of shared values. As the attack was not only against the United States, but also against our shared values of democracy and liberty, so the response to them required multifaceted and multilateral efforts.
Therefore, Lithuania along with more than 50 nations assumed the burden of responsibility for international peace and security in the greater Middle East. Today, about 120 Lithuanian soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder with American, British, Polish, and Danish soldiers in the operations in Iraq. Our special forces in Afghanistan are often cited as examples of the best integrated unit of any allied country within the US contingent.
Another way in which Lithuania contributes to promotion of Euro-Atlantic security is by helping to stabilize her immediate neighborhood. We share our experience in political and economic transition to democracy and functioning free-market economy with interested partners in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and in such regions as the Trans-Caucasus, Central Asia or the Adriatic Sea.
Entry of Lithuania and other Baltic states into the EU and NATO creates new opportunities for Baltic-Russian relationships. We remain convinced that a Russia that is democratic and at peace with itself and with its neighbors is an essential interest of Lithuania. We continue to share our experience of reforms and continue to support free enterprise and development projects in the Kaliningrad region of Russia.
In pursuit of a critical dialogue with Belarus, Lithuania is interested in maturing the seeds of democracy over there as it will contribute to the democratization of that country and to stability and security in Europe and the region. Lithuania often provides a forum for meetings of the Belarusian democratic political opposition. We are proud to have hosted in Vilnius a recent round-table on the role of parliament in a democracy, on the margins of which the major Belarusian opposition parties and factions concluded a memorandum, pledging to come up with a single platform and a single list of candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Lithuania, working in cooperation with other countries in the region, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and others, are well positioned to assist and facilitate Ukraine`s pro-Western choice and European vocation in time of turbulent developments of a country in transition. We are eager to share with Ukraine our lessons learned and experience gained thanks to the integration process into the EU and NATO.
With respect to Georgia, Lithuanian delegation was the second to U.S. to visit Tbilisi after the `Revolution of roses` at the end of the last year. We have offered our experience of transformation and democracy building to Georgia. Lithuania finances the training of Georgian officers in the Baltic Defense College, and in the Military Academy of Lithuania. We have to make our best to help people of Georgia to fulfill their hopes for better life and better opportunities, and the aspiration towards democracy.
As my country enters EU and NATO this spring, new window of opportunities for Lithuanian-U.S. cooperation, investment, trade and tourism will open. I invite and encourage you to go to Lithuania, to invest, make business and take advantage of still not-discovered, but full of potential for growth country, which courageously looks into the future. So, go to Lithuania, and you will be surprised by the tremendous accomplishments of the country during the last 13 years of independence, and instead of a gloomy and gray post-soviet picture, you will find the whole palette of colors, dynamic cultural life, unique architecture, most outgoing people, cities full of energy and potential. Be among the first ones to discover the best kept secret in Europe or as Boston Herald put it in its September 21, 2003 issue `this beautiful and fascinating place in Eastern Europe is about to become as touristy and expensive as the rest of Europe. But it`s not yet. Go now, before everyone else discovers it!`
Excerpt of remarks by Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas at the Smithsonian Associates Seminar, January 31, 2004. Courtesy of the Embassy of Lithuania.