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Maverick in America, outcast in Lithuania.

Today, 64 year-old Kestutis K. Girnius could bask surrounded by lavish American University professor's privileges, but the professor of philosophy has been linked all his life with his ancestral homeland, Lithuania. The German-born and American-raised man established himself overseas as a successful journalist, publicist, political analyst and historian, but Lithuania's affairs have always been his true devotion. Prior to arrival in Lithuania in 2006, for over twenty years he had been a Radio Liberty correspondent and news service director in Prague. During the Soviet years, while still living in the U.S., he was the first to publish the analytical book "Guerrilla warriors in Lithuania," which researched Lithuania's post war Resistance movement. Since 2007, Girnius has been lecturing in Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science. His subjects focus on nationalism and its manifestations in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the Holocaust. He frequents Lithuania's TV and Radio programs giving his insight on the political developments in the country. The Baltic Times sat down with Girnius for this interview.

You have been closely monitoring Lithuania's politics all your life. It might have looked different from the Radio Liberty news desk than if actually being in the country. What is your biggest surprise when it comes to national politics?

Well, I have been closely eying the political process in Lithuania for quite long. I had done it way before I started my work in Radio Liberty, in Prague, in 1979. When I assumed my work in the radio station, I would come to Lithuania every six weeks. I am particularly interested in Lithuania's politics since the country's restoration of Independence in 1990. I cannot talk about any particular surprises in the politics. Nothing surprises me.

Can you compare Lithuania to its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, from the political point of view?

What caused the particularities in Lithuania, in comparison with the other countries, was the fact that the Communist party of Lithuania was largely Lithuanian. I mean that it consisted of members who mostly were Lithuanians, born here. In that sense, considering the demographical point, the Communist Parties of Latvia and Estonia mostly relied on its members of Russian origin. Thus, with the restoration of Independence in the Baltic States, the communists in Latvia and, particularly, in Estonia lost their positions. Many of them returned to Russia, the others were laid off, which, in general, created possibilities for young Estonians to take over their positions, even on a high level. Thus, differently from Lithuania, where the old nomenclature continued its reign in the renewed Communist party, Estonians started establishing their state from a blank page. I do attribute their economic and political success to that fact. Unfortunately, in Latvia and Estonia, old style communists keep clinging on to the political stage. It is the main reason why we still trample on the same spot.

Can we talk about the unity of the three Baltic States, which was cherished so vividly back in the '90s?

The unity of the Baltic States has always been declarative. Obviously, there is no unity among the countries. The idea of unity was encouraged and promoted by Western countries. The three Baltic countries have never been very close, even after the restoration of their Independence. The countries dealt as much as they needed, however, not a bit more than that. I want to remind you that Estonian President Tomas Hendrik Ilves declared clearly in the beginning of his presidency, that Estonia belonged to the family of the Northern countries. According to him, the three Baltic countries had in common only their Soviet occupation and the simultaneous liberation. Unfortunately, there are no politicians in any of the countries who would raise the idea of unity.

Lithuania's former president, Valdas Adamkus, earnestly propagated the so-called Euro Atlantic political direction, which included Lithuania's particularly close relations with the United States. It is an open secret that Adamkus himself shared a very personal relationship with his American counterpart, George Bush, calling him by name even in summits. Many viewed Lithuania as America's European satellite, exporting the pro-American democracy to politically struggling Georgia and Ukraine, and hindering the EU's and Russia's negotiations. Was it wise for us to be engaged in that kind of policy?

I want to rephrase the question a bit. Did Lithuania lose anything giving up the policy? No, it did not. Generally speaking, I would not call Adamkus' foreign policy as EuroAtlantic. I want to remind everyone that President George Bush and, particularly, his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were the first ones trying to split up NATO a bit. We all need to remember the remarkable Rumsfeld's dividing of Europe into two parts: "Old Europe" and "New Europe." He spoke of "Old Europe," referring to the European countries that did not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, specifically France and Germany. Since then, the term has been used by pundits and media personalities to describe various combinations of the first-world countries of Europe. By referring to the countries as "Old Europe," he meant that they were tired and lacking ideals. On the other hand, the term "New Europe" referred to the new NATO countries that were politically energized and preaching their ideals loudly. Such artificial dividing of Europe was not in favor of Lithuania. Speaking in the light about President Adamkus, he strived by all means to show Lithuania's oneness and exceptional stance. However, it often went against Lithuania's interests. Let's remember Lithuania's stubborn and unwise character in vetoing the different EU projects, first of all, the beginning of the EU's and Russia's negotiations. However, Lithuania did propose nothing of its own in those cases.

With Dalia Grybauskaite's presidency, the policy has been changed to an attempt to thawing the ties with Russia and Belarus and abandoning the proAmerican stance. Is this the right way for Lithuania to go? Is Grybauskaite's foreign policy clear to you?

Obviously, Grybauskaite has already shown that she does not favor idealistic, declarative policy, but stands for the practical benefit of relations with Lithuania's closest neighbors. I disagree with those who claim that her foreign policy is obscure. She has said on different occasions that her priority in her policy is relations with the EU. She has stressed the need for a more active approach in tackling the Eastern problems, but it will be pursued in accordance with the EU's policies.

Recently, Grybauskaite maintained that Lithuania would be more known, and benefit more, if it identified itself more with the Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Denmark. Would it work well for Lithuania? How realistic is this?

I do not believe in this kind identity for Lithuania. Though the Scandinavian countries collaborate closely with the Baltic States, however, they rather prefer retaining the existing differences among them and us. In all summits, they keep stressing their inclination to maintain the mutual relationships within the formula 5 plus 3, not 8 all together. I do not see any way as to why it should change any time soon, regardless of how much we wish it. I have no doubts that it would be very useful for Lithuania to have close ties with the Scandinavian countries; however, our cultural, social, economical and political differences are too big, and we have to deal with that.

A few weeks ago, when Lithuania's Premier Andrius Kubilius went to Prague, instead of President Grybauskaite, to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, he repeatedly asked Obama to bring more guarantees for the safety of Lithuania, in order not to give Russia (quote) "temptation" towards Lithuania. Is this kind of fear reasonable?

I do believe that this kind of fear and unease is a bit exaggerated. Russia dared to react to Georgia's attacks because it was well aware that Georgia's defensive abilities were quite limited, as it is not a NATO member. Russia responded militarily, because it knew that Western countries would perceive its desire to keep its influence in the region, even with military means. Russia is well aware that Lithuania is a member of the NATO alliance and it cannot risk attacking Lithuania, as, most likely, NATO's military response would follow. There are no guarantees whatsoever that Russia could win the military standoff with the alliance. Let's see some facts from recent military history: during the Serbian war, back in the '90s, only one NATO jet-fighter was shot down in 90 days, however, during the five day Georgian war, four Russian aircraft were brought down.

What else, besides fear, deriving from Lithuania's historical legacy, hinders Lithuania's relations with Russia?

Let's remember that the relations were not always bad, even after the restoration of Lithuania's Independence. They were quite good till 1992. Even Russia accentuated that it has no problems in the ways Lithuania dealt with the Russian ethnic minority here. In that sense, the treatment of Russians in Latvia and Estonia raised many mutual tensions. Lithuania's relations with Russia have considerably deteriorated only over the last four or five years. The aforementioned things did not help to make them better.

Do you share my opinion that Lithuania emphasizes its past sufferings too often, thus, making us often look too regrettable?

Yes, I agree with you on that point. All nations mention their sufferings on various occasions; however, Lithuania focuses on them too much. I can imagine a young Lithuanian going to all those commemorative services and hearing whimpering all the time about our past, full of sufferings. No one is going to deny the past. Nevertheless, that young man may get bored with these kinds of commemorations. He or she will either stop attending those kinds of events, or will start whining himself or herself. We do have to remember it, but it cannot penetrate through all our events or, at worst, daily life.

How can you describe the mentality of Lithuanians? Are we more like Western Europeans, residents of the former Soviet Union or peasants, where our national roots come from?

It is somewhere between. Obviously, we do not yet have the Western mentality, because, simply speaking, it takes time to comprehend it. We do gradually get rid of the Russian culture; however, it happens very uneasily, as I see a big deal of provincialism in our mentality, consisting of a significant portion of xenophobia, homophobia and mistrust. Lithuania looks askew too much at its neighbors and ethnic minorities. Besides traditionally mistrusting Russia, Roma, Jews, to some extent, Poland, we recently came up with our new "enemies," Lithuanian emigrants, who supposedly betrayed their motherland. Intolerance is a big issue in Lithuania, however, many people do not want to admit it.

We all speak about the country's euro integration, but many Lithuanian politicians see it rather narrowly, in the way of the EU's financial assistance. When it comes to allowing Poles to spell their names and surnames in Lithuanian passports in their mother tongue, the Polish language, or letting a gay march proceed, many top politicians cry that the European Union is trying to strip off our national identity and heritage. Can integration be done only partly, or conveniently?

Lithuania may want to go along the way of its oneness and exceptionality, but I am convinced it will not enforce this kind of policy to the entire European Union. Furthermore, such unwillingness to solve the issue of Polish names in Lithuanian passports, and disrespect to sexual minorities' rights, will not go unnoticed in the EU and, ultimately, will result abroad in the image of Lithuania as of an intolerant country. If Lithuania strives to be in closer ties with Scandinavia, it will not happen just because of dodging the issues.

Do you not see a certain threat to the Lithuanian political establishment, or even statehood, deriving from Lithuanians' universal mistrust of state authorities and a gradual declining trust in democracy?

Yes, there is a certain threat that the general mistrust in political parties, parliament, government and local authorities will eventually overgrow in mistrust in the state itself. I think that the process is shaping up already. The new emigration wave supports my notion. Unfortunately, many young people asked what links them with Lithuania, [and] reply that nothing does. It is sad.

Can the aforementioned circumstances lead to the nationalist or autocratic parties' success in future elections?

I do not think so. Nationalist parties gather 1--3 percent of the general vote usually. It means Lithuanians have a good deal of common sense. However, so far, I do see a bright future for populist parties in Lithuania. I believe they will keep collecting 15--20 percent of all votes in elections to come.

Do you consider going back to the United States, where there is more stability, at least in the political system?

I am not going to do that in the near future. Though the Lithuanian political system is "jerking" a bit, no doubt, it is rather stable.

Being a free-thinker, you sometimes quite unwillingly evoke stark controversy, even among your counterparts. How do you yourself feel in Lithuania--like an outcast or maverick?

I don't know. However, other people often remind me that I am an outcast.
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Author:Jegelevicius, Linas
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 21, 2010
Words:2181
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