Ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis: We stood alone and were laughed at because of Putin(1)
Lithuania’s friends in Washington, D.C., believe that we are living as if it were 1939 when the threat of occupation loomed over Lithuania. So says Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States, Žygimantas Pavilionis.
Žygimantas Pavilionis states that six months ago he was right about Russia: Georgia wasn’t enough and then came Ukraine’s turn. So now the question is – who is next?
Mr. Pavilionis, who is taking part in the World Lithuanian Youth meeting in in Prienai, said in an interview with DELFI that Vladimir Putin’s actions have to end because shots are being heard right at our borders.
Some months ago in an interview with LRT you said that “Our world is disappearing.” What did you mean by that?
If you look at the latest report issued by Freedom House, for the eighth year in a row the overall number of democracies is steadily decreasing - disappearing. Even when the dramatic “Arab Spring” uprising took place, taken together over a year, more democracies have vanished. It seems that the world economic crises is playing its part and various radicals and tensions have surfaced. Totalitarian states are attempting to prove that their model is the best and that democracy is not surviving. And it is with various ways and means that they are starting to bring to a halt world freedom.
Nevertheless, I think that what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine is weakness: he understands that what happened on the Maidan is in essence a continuation of what happened with us on the 13th of January. We defended ourselves in the same way. He realizes that freedom, however weak it may appear to be, is really stronger than any kind of slavery. The fact that freedom can start knocking on the Kremlin’s door is something that Vladimir Putin fears the most it seems.
President Dalia Grybauskaitė has compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler and Stalin. You’ve compared Russia to North Korea. Isn’t that a little bit bold? There are those who would say that there’s no need to antagonise and accuse Russia.
I can be even bolder: in recent months I’ve heard things from our friends in Washington, who know us, and our history, that we’re living as if it were 1939. 1939 wasn’t such a bad year in Lithuania; it was a year of both an intellectual and economic rebellion and of the illusion that Vilnius would be returned. Yet, that same year the threat was close.
It’s interesting that in 1939 at a meeting in Paris diplomats warned of catastrophe and suggested that measures be taken. But no one listened to them. Diplomats remained the only state institution that didn’t give in to the Soviets and that kept its dignity. They saw what was happening.
When Russia invaded Georgia I think everyone realized that whoever was called paranoid of Russia, or who attempted to stop Russia’s aggression, both inside and outside the country, was right. It is better we use bold language and save our people from possible disaster. It is better that we heed those predictions than laugh at them. Let’s remember that even in the Russo-Georgian war when Russia occupied a significant piece of Georgian territory, Lithuanian diplomats were the only ones in Europe and, I dare say, in Lithuania who constantly tried to defend a free Georgia to the end. We were laughed at and ridiculed but in actual fact simply because we love our country and resist Putin’s aggression a bit too much.
I still remember my words in Brussels when I was the lone and last: it is the Munich complicity only in the 21st century and if you do that, it will be a signal and license for Vladimir Putin to do it again. Mr. Putin invaded. The question is, who is next? Just as Minister Linas Linkevičius said today- the events in Georgia and Ukraine are not only about Georgia and Ukraine. It is a symptom peculiar to the West, its inability to defend itself, to expand freedom, democracy and human rights. We are under attack, we are isolated from territory taken from us. We absorbed and controlled and we do not react. It is as if we are surrendering, asking a darker force to come in and rule over us. That is not the way it should be.
You say that it took six years for your prediction to come true. However, it seems some of our EU partners even now do not understand us. They think that we are overreacting. France, for example, is selling Russia more “Mistral” ships while other countries are against sanctions. Maybe they are still laughing at us?
When I compare six years ago to today I am still pleased. I think Mr. Putin by the same token disgruntled. However slow Europe was to react, it is nevertheless reacting. Recently a new sanctions list was announced and I think that that is what is most unexpected. There are now well over 60 people on the list who cannot come to the West. And that is very painful for people who have done evil deeds. They hope that the West will allow them everything. I sincerely hope that the reaction will be stronger, but we must remember that after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, we actually saw it as nothing other than that. There were no sanctions declared against Russia. We – NATO and the EU – expressed in the strongest of terms. It took two months for us to forget our own resolve. So what is there left for Mr. Putin to do after a reaction like this? He will still test a bit more to see how far he can go. That must come to an end because shoots are being heard right at our borders.
Events in Ukraine have captured the attention of Europe and the entire world. In your opinion, how have these events impacted the United States and Barack Obama’s relations with Europe?
I think that Ukraine has returned America to Europe and it has done this in various ways, not only politically. Vice-president Joe Biden visited us and shortly thereafter a delegation of four congressmen. They are very powerful people and their votes carry a lot of weight; that means both militarily and even in decisions on the liberalisation of liquefied gas exports. That shows that America is reacting strategically, granted not as we would like them to and maybe they are not reacting as they could. For example, the NATO summit is getting closer and we are hoping to come to a decision on Georgian membership in NATO and a membership action plan. We hope that America will show, as we have seen, that America and other Western countries defend values not just in words but also in deeds.
If a free country is being attacked we defend it. That is part of our culture and life. All the same, I remain optimistic that this crisis can turn into a victory. And that is the way it is. The success of the Maidan is that Ukraine has signed an Association Agreement with the EU. That is a huge triumph for democracy. It must however be consolidated. The EU and NATO must assist them in all possible ways. You will remember how difficult it was after the 13th of January when the West helped us, financially, with advice and with people and finally morally. I hope that this crisis will become a plus. It is not in vain that Mr. Putin is scared.
US military aircraft were recently on Lithuanian soil. Does that mean that 1939 will not repeat itself and maybe the situation has already changed?
I think that it is still not enough. We have to focus on making sure it does not repeat itself. And I like very much what is happening at this gathering of world Lithuanian youth. There are representatives here from different generations, not just representatives from different countries. We must all combine our efforts to ensure that it does not repeat itself. We must all unite around a specific survival mission and strategy and agree in some way without looking back at past challenges. We can come out the strongest in the region. For the time we still do not have enough of an understanding and political will. It is as if each of us is acting on our own. We need to act as one united body. I believe that this will happen. The Presidential Inauguration is drawing closer and I see signs of a specific political will to act as one. Still, it is not enough.
I am urging the youth to return to politics. Thirty-year olds are in power in the countries around us. They were born in free countries and grew up as free people who have absolutely no idea of what totalitarian regimes are. They are from another planet, they defend and value their freedom. Fighting for it is hard.
There is a lot more we can do. We are different now, we are global Lithuanians and we’ve been educated in the West. Our ideas and values are now Western. I have four children and they are no different from children in Chicago. I would even say that they are more global because in a certain sense we are a nomadic nation. We have a lot of culture in our heads, we speak different languages, we are an educated people, innovative and very creative. One more important thing is that we are like a post-war nation. We know already why freedom is precious. We are capable of a lot, we just have to return to Lithuania.
As a Yale University professor once put it, this is a nation of martyrs. Pope John Paul II’s biographer said that too. Compared to all the centuries of Christianity, in which other nation have so many perished for their values?
NATO has stated that it will abide by the 1997 agreement with Russia in which it undertook not to deploy any military bases in the countries of Eastern Europe. What do you think? Should we seek to have such bases in Eastern Europe? What will make us more secure and perhaps it is better not to antagonize Russia?
I think that bases must be set up and the West must strengthen its footprint in Lithuania. And regarding the question on abiding by an agreement with an aggressor that has violated not only that agreement but all other essential agreements that followed in the 70 years since the Second World War: abiding by agreements with a country that rules by an ideology popular from 1930 to 1940 is absolutely absurd.
In recent years, there have been increasing cases of leaks of secret conversations of diplomats. Lithuanian diplomats and high EU officials have gone through that too. And very recently Poland’s minister of foreign affairs Radoslaw Sikorski got caught. What do you think of all of this?
We are targets of the KGB, each one personally who wants to do good for Lithuania. We were, are and will be targets. We have to understand that. As some thinkers have said – if you are attacked that means you are doing something right. Others however say that light pierces the darkness. Yes, they will attack us because we are changing millions of lives. We have already changed Lithuanian life. I am grateful to providence that I was given the opportunity to be a part of Lithuania’s integration into the EU. I headed the negotiations from Brussels with which we cordially closed the negotiation phases when we saw in each packet agreement a reform plan on how to make a European life. It is what Mindaugas, Vytautas and all of our grand dukes tried to achieve through blood and tears. We achieved it in a very short time. They will attack us because our example inspires, but we are not afraid of that. I am sure that we will win.
You mentioned being European, however, maybe even your mother, Marija Aušrinė Pavilionienė, who fought for human rights, would not agree that we have become European when it comes to human rights. And Europe at times looks at us in horror - for example, the pressure on the gay march during which a huge police presence was required.
My mother and I often talk about that. I will say this much: we have gained our freedom and we are entrenching it but we still do not know how to use it to the full. Freedom means responsibility and there is a specific skill in using it as there is a vision and a knowledge as to what to do with it. In that specific sense we integrated very easily with the West because the recipe was already written out: we had to implement and adapt them directly. Now we are suddenly free. What then do we do with freedom and how do we behave responsibly?
We are glad to be free and we are taking it all in. We are like children set free from prison but freedom means responsibility. How do we bring up our children, where is it we are going to and how can we inspire those around us – in Lithuania these are all questions that as yet have no answers.
When can we expect President Grybauskaitė to visit the US for a bilateral meeting with President Obama?
The president communicates with him annually. Last year a trilateral meeting of state presidents took place, one which lasted for three hours directly involving four presidents. I do not know if it was noticed in Lithuania but when President Obama came to Warsaw, it was Dalia Grybauskaitė who was sitting to his right during dinner and she had a perfect opportunity to interact with him for more than an hour.
I undoubtedly want high-level meetings to take place regularly in the future and this year we are consulting with America on the possibility of continuing such meetings. I am convinced that this will be because America realizes that we are the litmus paper for change in the region. We tell the truth about what is happening even if it seems radical at times. We speak the truth and we know how to change the world because we have changed our environment successfully. That is why they listen to us, that is why our voice is heard very well in Washington. That is why I therefore believe that such meetings will truly take place in future.
And so Edward Lucas’s prediction that President Grybauskaitė will be stepping into the White House as a tourist holds no ground?
That was discounted already in 2013. I remember clearly: I had the pleasure of walking down the red carpet with President Grybauskaitė into the White House. It was extended with genuine sincerity and in my personal opinion, during the meeting President Grybauskaitė came over perhaps as the best. It was not for nothing that Vice-president Joe Biden visited us when he wanted to consult with the leaders of all three Baltic States.