LITHUANIA: ‘We are passionate believers in the spread of democracy’
When the European Union added 10 new members last year, there was a fear in some West European capitals that hordes of job-seekers from newly joined Central and East European member countries would flood labor markets already burdened by high unemployment. Some provisions were built into the accession process to limit migration, but time has shown that the westward rush never materialized.
In the case of Lithuania, one of the three Baltic states that gained their freedom from the Soviet Union after it imploded at the end of the 1980s, the economic gap to close with West European countries was larger than for some of the European countries that had been relatively prosperous as Soviet satellites, as opposed to Soviet states.
Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas says that while some Lithuanians have headed West seeking decent jobs and a good life, in particular to nearby countries like Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the majority of those leaving have been students seeking an education in the West, especially in countries like Britain and Ireland.
But the main reason EU membership did not have the dreaded impact on migration west was Lithuania’s own economic success, the ambassador says. In 2003, Lithuania’s economy grew by 9.2 percent, and in 2004 by 6.7 percent, while last year unemployment dropped to 8.5 percent from 11 percent in 03.
Ambassador Ušackas says that much of the growth is driven by domestic demand, since Lithuanians are earning and spending more. At the same time, banks are offering low interest loans, spurring a major construction boom.
But there are other factors working in Lithuania’s favor. Russia’s 1998 economic crisis sent shock waves through the CIS economies, and Lithuania, which had traditionally depended on the Russian market for the bulk of its trade, was hit hard. Businessmen were forced to seek out new markets, and a major shift in trade orientation took place as Lithuanian companies began to look west.
Ambassador Usackas says that, in retrospect, the crisis in Russia “was a most fortunate wake-up call for Lithuania’s businessmen, who were too dependent on Russia.” He says the changes in trade patterns had “a very positive, long-term impact.” For one, close ties to the Russian market did not encourage foreign direct investment or a broad-based expansion of trade.
As a result of the crisis, Russia was supplanted by Germany as Lithuania’s main trading partner, and now some 50 percent of Lithuania’s exports go to the European Union, while only 15-20 percent go to Russia. The ambassador notes, too, that exports from his country to the United States have doubled over the last few years.
At the same time, in 1999 a conservative administration in Vilnius embarked on a program of economic “shock therapy,” the ambassador says, introducing strict fiscal discipline.
And in the ’99 to ’01 period, as Lithuania prepared to become an EU member, it implemented a raft of structural changes to become compliant with EU laws and criteria, in the process emerging as “one of the best places in Europe for doing business,” the ambassador says. As a result, it is now the “fastest growing economy in Europe,” he adds, and will be one of the first countries among the new members to qualify for the Euro zone, meaning it will be able to adopt the Euro as its national currency within the next couple of years.
Having joined the EU and NATO last year, Lithuania is now a Western country for Russia and other the CIS nations. In fact Russians are among Lithuania’s main foreign investors and tourists now, as for them it serves as a convenient gateway to the European Union. And for the West, “We are a springboard for the EU to reach Russia and Ukraine,” the ambassador says. At the same time, Vilnius is playing an active role in supporting the democratic opposition in neighboring Belarus, considered by many to be Europe’s last dictatorship.
Ambassador Usackas notes that in June this year the European Humanitarian University, which was shut down by the government in Belarus last year, was reopened in Vilnius and that Belarus students can now study there. In addition to the strong support of Lithuania, the university enjoys support from the German and French governments, as well as foundations. Its purpose is to train a new generation of leaders for Belarus.
There are also broadcasts to Belarus from Lithuania, and Lithuania is a popular destination for tourists and shoppers from Belarus, who can’t find a wide range of products in their own shops.
The ambassador thinks that Belarus has been “rather neglected” by the United States and European Union. “There was no engagement,” he says. But as a neighbor, “can we really be silent?”
Lithuania now brings the EU’s borders right up to the territory of Belarus, and in some respects can lead EU relations with it. “For centuries we lived together as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania,” the ambassador notes, speaking of Lithuania’s glory days when it stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, incorporating much of what is now Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. And “We have pretty good knowledge of Belarus,” he adds.
Lithuania made headlines recently when its president, Valdas Adamkus, declined an invitation to join the Russian and US presidents and a large number of European heads of state at a Moscow celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Lithuanians would like to see Russia recognize its historical role in the Soviet enslavement of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. “The current Russian administration does not really want to recognize what happened in 1939-41,” the ambassador says, referring to the notorious Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939 which handed control of the Baltic states to Soviet Russia, and was followed by Moscow’s brutal suppression of the people in those three small countries.
“We appreciate what Russia did to liberate Europe from the Nazis,” the ambassador says, but it is up to the Russians to have a critical look at what the leaders of their country did that was wrong.” He says his own father and grandparents were among 300,000 Lithuanians sent to the Soviet gulags in Siberia.
But, “We are the best friends of Russia that is free, democratic and at peace with itself,” the ambassador says. “There is no doubt that Russia is not a full-fledged democracy as one would expect of a member of the Council of Europe,” he says. “One cannot compare it with any West European democracy.”
And while relations with Russia are still less than ideal, the same thing cannot be said of US-Lithuanian relations. Washington never recognized the Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic states, and the three countries kept embassies in the American capital, with flags flying proudly, throughout the Soviet period. In fact the fine building that houses the Lithuanian Embassy on 16th Street NW is one of the oldest in continuous use as an embassy in Washington.
And the Baltic states have not been shy about expressing their appreciation for America. Not only do they value the historical ties, but identify strongly with the Bush administration in its promotion of democracy around the world, especially because they suffered so intensely under Nazi and Communist dictatorships.
“We are passionate believers in the spread of democracy,” Ambassador Ušackas says. Furthermore, his country is proud of its alliance with Washington in the war on terror. “We are standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “I can proudly say to my sons and daughters, when Iraq is stable and free, I am proud that Lithuania stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in getting rid of Saddam Hussein.”
At the same time, Lithuania has some other strong affinities for things American. “Basketball is our second religion,” the ambassador says. And jazz is “another passion.” “We are the only place in the world where you can find a monument to Frank Zappa.”
Biography of Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas
Ambassador of Lithuania to the United States and Mexico
V.Ušackas is a graduate from the Law Faculty at Vilnius University (VU). His thesis dealt with the legal aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy. Inspired by the American democracy and T. Jefferson’s works, V.Ušackas along with other students challenged then existing Komsomol and its dominated trade unions by forming VU Students Union in 1989. While being the President of VU Students Union, V.Ušackas co-founded the Lithuanian Student Union, and later became its vice-president.
In 1990-91 he studied political science in Oslo, Norway, and Aarhus, Denmark. During that period he was actively involved in public political debates on the developments in Lithuania and its aspiration for freedom.
In November 1991 he joined Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). His entire career has been devoted to the threefold objectives of the foreign policy of Lithuania: membership in the EU and NATO, and cooperative relationships with the neighbors.
November 1991-February 1992 Ušackas was a desk officer in MFA in charge of EU and NATO affairs. In 1992-1996 he was a Counselor of Lithuania’s Mission to the European Union and NATO.
1996 Ušackas returned to Vilnius and until 1999 served as a Political director in the Ministry before becoming a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1999-2001).
While serving in the Ministry V.Ušackas was among the architects of Lithuania’s outreach policy to Kaliningrad region in the context of EU Enlargement, as well as Vilnius process which brought together 10 countries of Central Europe with an aspiration to enlarge NATO. These initiatives firmly established Lithuania’s leadership role in the region.
From January 2000 until January 2001 V.Ušackas was the first Chief negotiator for Lithuania’s accession to the European Union. Though Lithuania was invited to start negotiations with the second group of candidate countries in January 2000, but thanks to his and other officials’ efforts in short time Lithuania was able to catch other countries that had started negotiations 2 years earlier.
In 2001 President V.Adamkus appointed V.Ušackas as Lithuanian ambassador to the U.S. and Mexico. His major mission was to secure the U.S. support for Lithuania’s membership in NATO. During his term as ambassador, two Summits of the Heads of States took place: in January of 2002 when President G.W.Bush welcomed President V.Adamkus in the Oval Office of the White House; and in November 2003 when President G.W.Bush visited Vilnius- it was the first visit by the incumbent U.S. President to Lithuania.
Ambassador Ušackas’ work was instrumental in steering an unprecedented cooperation among the Vilnius-10 group countries which resulted in the recognition and support for NATO enlargement in the U.S. Congress and Administration.
He has been very active in traveling beyond the Beltway of D.C. to promote awareness about Lithuania. During the 3 years of “campaign for NATO enlargement” he visited over 40 states of U.S. where he met governors, local state representatives, and representatives of mass media and business.
As ambassador V.Ušackas attached the greatest importance towards promotion of trade, investment and tourism between Lithuania and the U.S. Numerous visits, trade and investment conferences were held and attended by the embassy staff during the last 3 years.
Good economic performance of Lithuania and greater emphasis on economic diplomacy resulted in doubling Lithuania’s exports to the U.S. from USD 164 mln. in 2001 to USD 346 mln. in 2003.
Aiming to ease travel restrictions for Lithuanians to the U.S. in May 2004 he initiated consultations with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security on the inclusion of Lithuania into the Visa Waiver Program.
Apart from a wide range of responsibilities as an ambassador to the U.S. and Mexico, V.Ušackas and Mrs. Loreta Ušackienė are also active in a charity work to give children in rural areas of Lithuania more educational opportunities.
Under the leadership of Mrs. and Mr.Ušackai The “Daugailių Fund” and The Lithuanian Kaimas (“Countryside”) Fund of USBF were established to carry out programs for youth of computer training and organized athletics in Lithuanian villages. Launched in 2000 the program covered only a single village in Daugailiai, Utena district, where Loreta and Vygaudas inherited the Bajoriskiai farm from Ušackas grandfather near a small town of Daugailiai.
In 2004 The Lithuanian Kaimas (“Countryside”) Fund programs conducted with the support of U.S.-Baltic Fund in 5 regions of Lithuania- Akmenė, Anykščiai, Molėtai, Utena, Zarasai districts- reached more than 2000 children in 62 villages across the country.
At the recent annual conference of teachers Lithuanian Minister of Education Mr.Algirdas Monkevičius said: “<…> the children camp “Summer With a Computer” initiated by ambassador V.Ušackas left a very positive impression. Children with a genuine interest were learning how to use new technologies: they made presentations, digital photos, edited them. The balance was found between the useful and the interesting…”
In the Lithuanian and international press V.Ušackas published numerous articles on EU and NATO Enlargements, Lithuanian-U.S. relations, Kaliningrad region and Ukraine.
Ambassador Ušackas was born on Dec. 16, 1964 in Skuodas, Žemaitija. He is married to Loreta Ušackiene and has two children- Raimundas and Paula. The ambassador speaks English, Russian and French. Vygaudas Ušackas is a passionate basketball player and admires adventurous tourism, as demonstrated by his recent trip to Kamchatka, Russia, where he along with other Lithuanians rescued a Russian citizen who got lost in the forest of Kamchatka peninsula.