Last interview with Ambassador Pavilionis in Washington: ‘We are still in the discovery stage in America’

Lithuanian Ambassador to the USA, Žygimantas Pavilionis Photo Ludo Segers

Washington is the ultimate political capital of the world and therefore the definitive playground for politicians and diplomats alike. The Embassy has seen a lot of history and activity during the last 91 years of continuous operation in the US capital. As we sit down in July, the USA is taking yet a step further in normalising relations with Cuba and the somewhat enigmatic building next door to the Lithuanian Embassy will turn into a fully-fledged embassy. Another relic of the Soviet past is on the way out. However, the European leftovers of that failed imperialistic regime loom large in the background of our conversation. The illegal occupation by Russia of parts of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, as well as recent interventions of Putin’s forces in Georgia, have been the subject that more than anything else has overshadowed the activity during the last year of the often outspoken Ambassador Pavilionis.

Ambassador, you have been in this post in Washington for five years, what are some of your fondest memories?

Well, in terms of diplomatic and political events, the Baltic summit in 2013 with President Obama at the White House as at least in symbolic terms closed the ‘Reset’ with Russia. It effectively started a period of engagement with the Baltic states. 2013 coincided with Lithuania’s the first EU Presidency and the Eastern Partnership summit. It was also the time when the first clashes in Ukraine started in what would eventually lead to the Maidan. It was a turning point in the romantic dreams that the US administration had with regard to Putin. That led more realism and an effective engagement between the US and the Baltic states and eventually the NATO military presence in our part of the world.

In more general terms, what do you consider the main legacy of your tenure here?

I think about three main issues. First, I started a political strategic dialogue, not only the one renewed at the Presidential level, but also the intense interaction at the chief diplomatic level. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Lithuania twice and most recently John Kerry also paid a visit. It is generally accepted in Washington that secretaries of state visit a country once, every five years. We had three visits of the secretary of state, engagement with the Pentagon and with the energy secretary.

Moreover, we developed a dialogue with Congress. Before my term here, exchanges with members of Congress were almost non-existent. The first meeting with (then) speaker Nancy Pelossi happened in 2010 and since then have had almost annual meetings with the speaker. Most importantly, Speaker John Boehner’s visit happened, recently (in June) almost 16 years after the then speaker Hastert’s in 1999. The speaker came in his capacity representing both parties. They (Congress) understand us, they see the Baltics as part and reflection of America’s interest in that corner of the world.

The second most important thing is the military presence following the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago where ‘defence support’ for the Baltics was provided not only in theory but also in practice. We now have American tanks, troops and airplanes. There is an entire company but we probably need something like a battalion. We need permanent presence, not just temporary. Still, the Pandora box of American presence is open, the Rubicon is crossed. It is now up to us to consolidate that presence. We also have added our part in Lithuania by reintroducing conscripts and increasing our military budget.

The third point is there are now real economic and energy developments. During the last five years, American investment has come in a powerful way to Lithuania. Over the last three years, American companies are among the largest job creators in the country. Big investors from Western Union to Thermofisher have created job opportunities and that created a micro climate in Lithuania with American companies inviting other American companies to invest. The American-Lithuanian Business Council was created, unique to Lithuania as it was created by these companies and it does not exist in Latvia or Estonia. The Council lobbies for their interest and brings during their visit new potential companies. These are companies that came on the last mission and that are scouting Lithuania and may potentially invest later. On the energy front, the building and arrival of our LNG terminal (The Independence) allowed us as one of the first countries to lobby Congress to lift the ban on energy exports and we now have the first results. This year is the first year that American LNG will be exported and it is my hope that one of the first shipments will be to Lithuania.

You mentioned Speaker Pelossi, but she has not visited Lithuania yet.

True, but she took some revolutionary steps in that she set up regular meetings with our speaker and for our members of parliament. Nordic Baltic committees, Foreign Affair Chairs came out of that and I like the format that emerged. Then Speaker Boehner took it to another level, the so-called Parliamentary Forum for Democracy, with freedom fighters and parliament members meeting frequently on Capitol Hill.

I am proud that the number of members of the American Congress visiting Lithuania has increased dramatically. We now have almost three times as many members of Congress visiting Lithuania as Lithuanian members of parliament visiting Washington. Last year, we had 17 members of Congress visiting Lithuania, the year before 36 members travelled to our country. This year we already had 14 visiting, and in August four more members are visiting with two more in September. That is already 20 members of Congress visiting, just this year. I once overheard NATO members exchanging these details and they counted about five visits to their countries.

You also mentioned the American troops as part of NATO, but there are also other NATO countries with a presence in Lithuania.

Indeed, but we consider the US as the lead nation. It was not only military and politically important. At the end of July we remembered the 75th anniversary of the Sumner Welles declaration of non-recognition of Baltic occupation. It brings that issue back to the radar screens, but we only enjoy our present status because of this non-recognition. The US non-recognition and policy has been most important for us. We should also keep that in mind with respect to the recent events in Crimea and Ukraine.

If you could go back five years in time, what would you do differently in America?

If I it was up to me, Lithuanian diplomacy should spend much more human and financial resources. We are still in the ‘discovery stage’ in America. We know some States, some cities, some companies but we still do not understand the power and beauty of this country and its importance for our country.

Not all ministries in our administration understand that. It is very well understood by the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Energy and Economy. We now have a cultural attaché that started during my tenure here. I try to lobby other ministries such as education. This is a powerful country for education with influential universities. We have taken some steps, but it is not enough.

But tourism is not present. Americans are big tourism spenders and rich tourists. We are not attracting these. Every ministry should have a representative here. Even at the parliamentary level I have lobbied to have a representative here. They have a representative in the European Parliament in Brussels, but none here, whilst the American Congress is much more powerful than the one in the EU. If you have someone appointed here, at Congress, you can influence the most strategic decisions important globally and regionally. All diplomats here, need to be empowered by all possible means, including financially to conquer this market, but they need to be held accounted for results, particularly for business.

You have been posted to both Brussels and Washington, which of these two places contribute more to Lithuania?

That is a difficult question. Both are very important and one cannot choose just one. The Trans-Atlantic family is very important for the Baltic nations. The European link is important for our identity and made us fight for that. However, we would never have achieved that without America. Maybe because about one quarter of our nation lives in America. Maybe because we are really related to Americans through values. Our Empire was destroyed in the 18th century because we moved too close to America by copying their constitution. Our Empire was killed because we opted for freedom and that is when so many started to flee to America. Just like General Tadeusz Kościuszko, we stood side by side by the barriers. So we have to do everything possible to glue this Atlantic family.

I also hope that by the end of this Administration, we’ll finish the TTIP, Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. That would glue us not politically and militarily but economically as well. Going one step further, I hope that in the future we also solve the issue of dual citizenship for Lithuanians. In this age, the Lithuanians living in America and those safe-guarded by NATO and soon to be joined in an economic bond should enjoy dual citizenship in this global world. With some crazy autocracies around, we really need to join our efforts in this Trans-Atlantic family.

What do you think are the chances that Lithuania will allow dual citizenship? Do you support that?

I think it is doable. There is a whole generation of young Lithuanians who study and work abroad and take it for granted. However, it should not be an open box. We live in a dangerous world and live with countries that want us to cease to exist. They will use every legal loophole to destroy our independence. It is a sensitive issue, too. I remember well when we discussed selling land to foreigners, as part of joining the EU, we agreed to allow it for member of the Trans-Atlantic family. Likewise, when we started to privatize strategic businesses, we also decided to allow these ‘family members’ to purchase these. I think we will move in the same direction on dual-citizenship. It is important that all political parties agree on that formula. If we agree and have consensus about a formula, then it is doable. If we do not have that and it is pushed for populist reasons into a referendum, then it is bad, if we do not agree about the formula.

How do you define ‘bad’ in this context?

Well if it is not agreed to by all political parties prior to a referendum, the outcome will be negative. But it is important that we had a number of inquiries of Lithuanian Americans offering their military service. And many of these young people do not have Lithuanian citizenship. I think it would be good to have some of these Lithuanian Americans training with us.

In which areas of the Lithuanian-American relations is there room for improvement?

In several areas, political, economic and military relationships are just in the beginning and the relationship could be deeper and wider. We need a better military presence, as well as an economic relationship. We would welcome American LNG exports and oil exports, of which they have an abundance [Secretary Moniz contradicted that very recently by stating the US still imports large amounts of foreign oil. – Note Ludo Segers]. We have now the capacity to accept these two energy sources. There is also the human dimension that I have repeated several times in recent interviews. The quality of democracy is high in the US and we are still learning. The think-tanks, the civil society are some examples that I ask Lithuanian Americans to export to Lithuania. We need strong citizenship that knows how to organise and defend ourselves against government involvement. This strength of community is still underdeveloped in Lithuania.

Can you provide a concrete example of that involvement?

Yes, the education sector is one of these. We do have a strong public school network but in America these schools compete with strong private schools. That competition brings on strength. You have better options in the US and that is why their education is so strong. In our system, the public secondary schools dominate heavily. The state is not running these particularly well, therefore a bit of competition would be welcome. Let’s use some of these structural funds to finance private schools. Same thing for medicine that is of good quality, but it would be good to have a bit more competition.

In US politics, you have powerful local political involvement, which results in only powerful figures succeeding at the top. You have NGOs and individuals that fight for political ideas, such as more open taxation systems. It is a bit my own personal slogan, if we want a strong Lithuania, we need empowered individuals. In that respect we can learn a lot from America, or even the UK where that is clearly in evidence.

What do you think about the involvement and role of these non-political identities such as the Super-PACs in the American political process? There appears a lot of critique.

I agree, we have a more Nordic system in place. We should be weary of large sums of ‘dirty money’ floating around, including those by autocratic governments, whose neighbour we are. I think we have a good system in place in Lithuania that clearly distinguished between money and politics. In the West, we are just starting to understand the role of dirty money in global politics. In that respect we are having an International Conference, supported by NED and Hudson Institute on 14 and 15 September in Lithuania. Karen Dewisha, the author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, will speak there and we will have discussions as to how to defend our democracies against these vast amounts of dirty money, estimated to be a trillion dollars by some. That money is not only political in origin, but also originates with drug lords. These funds need to be targeted as they endanger the democratic process. Putin’s support for extremist parties in Europe reminds me of old Soviet practises. I am shocked by the inability of Western governments to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine. Thousands have been killed and military hardware is used to violate borders, including recently in Georgia again. Nobody in the West reacts, one of the potential sources Russian money and that needs to be stopped.

A large field of contenders are vying for a position in the 2016 US election. How do you see the political campaign in the US evolve?

I cannot really comment directly on that as I am still ambassador here. However, I think that foreign policy is becoming an important element of this election process. There are fifty million refugees at present and that is the largest number since WWII. We see clashes with radicals and the last eight years we have seen a rise in autocratic regimes. They create local and global organisations and employ zombies that attack liberties and freedom in the world. That is a responsibility for the US and it needs to wake up to that. What is required is leadership and I see more and more candidates from right to left addressing that issue. Jeb Bush visited Tallinn where he met with Baltic and regional representatives. Hillary Clinton is always addressing freedom and democracy. She came twice in 2011 and met with what I call ‘freedom tribes’ and freedom fighters defending democracy. Hopefully, the US will unite on returning democracy on the global stage.

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