“I have visited Lithuania over 100 times” – Honorary consul Netherlands

This is part of new series by the Lithuania Tribune which is talking to honorary consuls scattered all over the globe about their role promoting the country, about their links with Lithuania, how they build connections between their own country and Lithuania, and how they view the country from abroad.

Tell us little bit about yourself.

My name is Gert Zandsteeg and I am Honorary Consul of the Republic of Lithuania to the Netherlands since 23 May 2002. I am 66 years old, married with two children and six grandchildren and living in the village of Bleiswijk in the lake district “De Rottemeren”, near Rotterdam. I graduated from Utrecht University with a degree in Economic Geography.

For some years I have been retired but I have a long career as a Managing Director of several Chambers of Commerce in Delft and The Hague and in later years, after a merger, also of Leiden. I have had, and still have various side-jobs as a board member of companies and organizations related to financial accounting, horticultural trade fairs and suppliers to horticulture.

I was chairman of an organization of quality control of potting soils and substrates/growing media, board member of WestHolland Investment Agency (comparable to Invest Lithuania), board member of the Hague World Trade Center, organizations related to education, such as scholarships in International Law at Leiden University and vocational training in the metals sector , chairman or board member of several Business Councils, such as for Baltic States, Surinam, the Caribbean, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the NCH, for the Netherlands Council for Trade Promotion.

How did you become an Honorary Consul of Lithuania?

I have always been interested in the Central and Eastern European countries and during my job at the Chamber of Commerce I have initiated the Central and Eastern Europe Trade Club in The Hague. I was and I am convinced that Central European countries are geographically and culturally very nearby and good candidates for trade and investment promotion to and from the Netherlands. In my opinion better than most faraway countries. International trade and investment always is an affair of two-way traffic.

It is my personal opinion that the real hearth of Europe is in Central Europe, with old cities like Vilnius, Vienna, Kiev or Budapest, to mention only some. I have always regarded, and still do, these countries as very promising; however these countries may differ from each other and all have their own identity. I am using Central Europa or Eastern Europa just a a name.

However I have visited Lithuania now more than 100 times and have seen almost all parts of the country, the first time I visited Lithuania was in 1993. The originally German company FESTO, which has a branch office in Kaunas, and their managing director in Delft, Mr. Jan Berendse, invited me to accompany him and to explain to Lithuanian Chambers of Commerce and several other business associations and local authorities how Chambers of Commerce and business associations etc. in the Netherlands are organized.

As a result of my tour of one week in Lithuania, I invited my colleagues of the then six regional Lithuanian Chambers of Commerce, and the National Chamber, to the Netherlands to meet and see Dutch organizations etc. During their visit in 1993 we established a so called “Lithuania Desk” at the Delft Chamber of Commerce and shortly afterwards a “Holland House” in Vilnius. The Holland House in Vilnius was managed by Mrs. Nijole Galiniene.

You must consider that the Netherlands didn’t have yet an Embassy in Vilnius. In the beginning the Baltics were diplomatically covered by Stockholm and Lithuania later on by Riga. So the Holland House did a great job in trade and investment promotion between the Netherlands and Lithuania in those years. Later on we integrated the Holland House into the Dutch Embassy in Vilnius with Mrs. Nijole Galiniene as its international trade counsellor. This is how I became a Honorary Consul.

Of course, this is not your full time occupation, but still, could you describe an Honorary Consul of Lithuania schedule? Is it a hard work of being an Honorary Consul of Lithuania in your country?

To be a Honorary Consul is not a fulltime job. But almost every day there is something to pay attention to. That can be a question from the Lithuania Ambassador in the Hague, a company from Lithuania or the Netherlands to find some contacts or to introduce them to the business community, a question of a Lithuanian student etc. It is a very wide variety of matters I am working on and that is what I like so much.

The main difference between an Honorary Consul and a career consul is that the Honorary Consul hasn’t a salary. In case there isn’t an Embassy, Honorary Consuls issue visa’s and perform all duties of a Consulate or Embassy. Consuls are active in what is called “economic diplomacy” (can also be social or cultural matters) and do not have the diplomatic responsibilities of an Embassy. Honorary Consuls are appointed by the Foreign Minister of the country they serve. Some questions are easily answered, but some take a lot of time.

What is your next big project in the capacity of being an Honorary Consul of Lithuania?

I will mention one topic, which is not only of interest for Lithuania but also interests me personally. It has to do with cycling. I and some Dutch friends with a company in Kaunas love cycling and 2 years ago while visiting the country, we got the idea to make adventurous cycle routes in Lithuania. Until now there are some standard routes.

At about the same time I was contacted by travel agency Baltic Idea Generator in Vilnius to help them to find a Dutch partner to promote their tour program in the Netherlands. At the moment we have made 2 cycle tours, one from Vilnius to the Aukstatija region and back and one from Vilnius via the Dzukija region to Kaunas.

Both are now in the program of Baltic Idea. And I managed to find a Dutch travel agency, Blini Reizen in Utrecht, as a partner for Baltic Idea. They have in their program now our cycle route, a walking tour and the ancient beekeeping tour.

I am preparing now the third cycle tour from Kaunas to Nida and Palanga which we will test in May 2016. (On the website of Baltic Idea you will find the Dzukija route and the photobook I made).

Almost every month I am visiting Lithuania, for the consulate, for business or holidays. I have visited almost all areas. Sometimes I think that I know Lithuania better than some officials from ministries. I love the country from first sight in 1993, in whatever a bad shape Lithuania was in then. A big difference with nowadays.

What is your favourite thing about Lithuania?

What I like most of Lithuania? Of course in Vilnius you never have a dull moment, but I like most the countryside; rolling hills, lakes and woods, nice villages and rest. And I like it most in September, during what you call “ladies summer”. Nice weather and beautiful colours.

What is the biggest challenge you face when promoting the Lithuania brand in your country? What should we do better?

The biggest challenge for a Dutch Honorary Consul is to teach the Dutch people that Lithuania is a modern country and a member of the EU and NATO. Lithuania is mostly unheard of in the Netherlands and people have the wrong ideas. That is a problem when promoting the Lithuanian brand in the Netherlands. For me Lithuania is in the first place a country with a well educated population, especially in technology or engineering, and therefore has an interesting manufacturing capacity. In my opinion Lithuania must focus more on manufacturing industries (life sciences included). The Dutch have a long and strong history in world trade and sometimes think “the farther away the better” (which isn’t) and therefor have forgotten among others Lithuania which they regard as too small a market. The economic ties between out two countries can be better and I try to contribute a little bit.

What are some of your favourite hobbies?

My hobbies are cycling; ATB as well as speed cycling, and walking in the UK. Besides I am interested in literature, not just from the Netherlands, but also from foreign countries.

How do you keep informed about the main events in Lithuania?

Every day we as a HC get a news bulletin from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and every week a MFA newsletter with more diversified news about politics, economy and cultural events.

Besides Invest Lithuania, an organization I hold in high esteem, publishes a newsletter on a regular basis. And they report regularly on economic topics.

Once in three years there is a HC Convention in Vilnius, during which we are briefed. There is a lot of digital information (papers, magazines and so on) and for me Twitter is an important source of information; I am following many journalists (many also abroad, like Anna Applebaum, and politicians and government officials.

My visits to Lithuania are also very helpful, I know a lot of people.

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