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President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus: “Ukraine is a European country”
Valdas Adamkus, President of Lithuania, visited Ukraine two times within the first ten days of the Orange Revolution. He was invited by the then President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma to participate as an intermediary in the negotiations between the two contending presidential candidates, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych.
President Adamkus was one of the four high-ranking mediators (Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Boris Gryzlov, Chairman of the Russian Duma) who made an effort to salvage negotiations between the two candidates, who both claimed victory after the presidential runoff election on November 21. The political crisis developed after Yushchenko charged that the runoff was fraudulent and that he, not Yanukovych, was the winner. International election monitors agreed the vote had been tainted.
“These negotiations were the toughest I’ve ever had to participate in my life,” said Mr Adamkus later.
Mr Adamkus repeated many times, before, during and after the presidential elections in Ukraine that Lithuania was a reliable partner of Ukraine and his country advocated Ukraine’s participation in transatlantic and European structures.
The history of close relations of Ukraine and Lithuania spans for several centuries, and after Ukraine’s independence, these relations have begun to acquire the features of a strategic partnership.
Valdas Adamkus was interviewed by Valeriya BONDARENKO.
Mr President, in one of the halls of the building of your administration there hangs a painting, Prince Gedeminas on the Black Sea Shore. Does the picture have any particular significance for you?
The picture reminds me of a very long history of relations between our two countries, Lithuania and Ukraine. They go back to the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Principality, and despite the fact that our states went different ways later, the links between Lithuania and Ukraine continued to exist. After gaining independence, our countries entered a new qualitative phase in their relations. These relations intensified, which became particularly evident after 2002. A new fund named after Shevchenko was created; new partnership in the sphere of science and culture was established. Lithuania and Ukraine have been taking part in business forums. Even now, after Lithuania’s entry into the European Union, my country continues to actively support Ukraine. In general, the Lithuanian policy is directed at getting a membership for Ukraine in European alliances and at integrating it into the economic and cultural union of Europe.
At the time when Ukraine was a soviet “republic” within the Soviet Union did you still think of Ukraine as an entity separate from Russia?
I met some Ukrainians when I was still in immigration, and I never had any illusions about Ukraine being united with Russia in the Soviet Union — the Lithuanians have always known that the Ukrainians and Russian were two separate peoples, with different mentalities, languages and cultures. The fact that Ukrainians had a different view on the political situation in the collapsing Soviet Union was confirmed during the events that took place in Vilnius in January 1991 when some Ukrainians joined Lithuanians on the barricades defending the television centre against the attacking soviet troops. I always knew that Ukrainians had a high level of national awareness.
I understand there were many twists and turns in your life…
There were several stages that I lived through, and each stage was radically different from the rest, but I managed to preserve my own personal integrity in all of them.
The world of my childhood and adolescence was balanced, and I could easily foresee what would happen in my life until I was seventeen. Everything was well understood and familiar — the house my family lived in; the smell of candles; my grandmother’s fairy tales she told me before I went to sleep. I expected I would study in school, then in college, then my first love would come to me… When I became a student of a gimnasium, school of advanced studies in Kaunas, I dreamed of an exciting future and interesting life. And then, in a day my secure world collapsed — the Second World War broke out. I was thrown out of my world by the war’s explosive force and I found myself in a world in which most of my relatives had been exiled to Siberia or put into concentration camps, or killed. My parents and I managed to make our way into a German refugee camp but life there was a daily trial and survival was possible only if you used all your human resources — and if luck was on your side.
I survived and even managed to get on a ship that was to take me to America. All I had with me was a small backpack which contained a change of underwear and a book — and five dollars in my pocket. I earned my passage doing odd jobs on board the ship, and as I was leaving the ship upon arrival in the States, the captain said that he thought I “would make it real big” in life… It was very encouraging to hear him say it, the first such encouragement in several years of moving from place to place. America turned out to be a world which took a lot of adjustment to feel comfortably in — and also it turned out to be a launch pad for my future career.
You are the only Lithuanian who rose very high in a US government body (Administrator of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency). Did you get promoted thanks to somebody’s recommendations?
Soon after arrival in the United States, I found a blue-collar job with a manufacturer of spare car parts in Chicago. It was a hard job, and every day by the end of the working hours, not only I was very tired but my hands were all in bruises and cuts. On the way home, I kept my hands thrust deep into my pockets so that nobody would see them. At home I applied disinfectant to the cuts and by morning they would begin to heal but during the working day I got more cuts and the old ones would reopen. I walked through the streets after work, my hands in the pockets of my old, patched-up jacket looking at the beautiful cars and luxurious mansions, thinking to myself, I don’t want to be poor and I will achieve a better station in life. I knew that in order to live better I had to get good education and at the first opportunity I went to study. I had determination and perseverance and intellect and I drove myself very hard.
But was there anybody who helped you in some way then?
Yes, and I’m very grateful to my parents and some people from the Lithuanian community in Chicago. Without their support I would not have made it. We knew very little about the life of the country we found ourselves in, we had no money, but the Lithuanian Diaspora numbered at that time over 200,000 people. Mostly they were emigres who came to America in the early twentieth century, who were blue-colour workers, spoke English poorly but they managed to preserve a wonderful unity. They were always ready to help each other. They published a newspaper in Lithuanian, they ran a Lithuanian programme on the radio, and they gave us, young people, their heart and soul. They were trail-blazers, they made it possible for us to move forward to a better life. My parents never learnt to speak English well, but my mother was saving money — cent by cent — so that I would be able to study. And she never reproached me for anything.
Did you feel nostalgia for your native land?
Of course I did! It was a deep feeling, but at the same time it was an uplifting and patriotic feeling. I longed for the world which I had left in Lithuania, thousands of miles away, and the more I lived away from it, the more my memories of my native land acquired bright colours and warmth. I always thought that I’d use the first chance to go back, if not for good, but at least for a visit. The first time such a chance presented itself was in 1972.
In fact, it was Moscow that I went to in the first place to attend a conference that dealt with problems of ecology. When in Moscow, I was under a constant KGB surveillance. I wanted to go to Vilnius so much but I could not do it without first getting an official permission to do so. I went to the US ambassador in Moscow for help. At first he was reluctant to interfere but I insisted saying I had an official invitation to come over to Vilnius from my wife’s relatives. I even threatened to start an international scandal if I was not allowed to go. Finally, the soviet authorities issued a permission for me to go to Vilnius for five days. The capital of Lithuania shocked me — buildings in bad need of repair; poverty, stores with an extremely poor choice of goods and foods — and the Russian language spoken everywhere rather than Lithuanian. Instead of flowers and other little cozy things that Lithuanians like so much all I could see were those grim soviet monuments and depressing slogans. My relatives invited me to go to Trokan, the ancient capital of Vilnius which is situated 25 kilometers away from Vilnius. On my way back, I was stopped by police — militsiya, it was called — and taken to a police station. I was accused of breaking some soviet regulations which forbade such trip without a special permission — I was not supposed to wander from “the place of my temporary residence” for more than a few kilometers and they told me I had transgressed. I spent in that police station several hours but luckily I had documents on me which impressed the militsiya enough to let me go. After I returned to America, I realized I just had to visit my native land as soon as I could. Unfortunately, it was a very difficult thing to do — the soviet authorities put many obstacles in the way of such emigres as I was, and it was only in the 1980s, with the advent of the perestroika, that things began to change and I could come on visits to my country more often. In the early 1990s, I was spending most of my time in Lithuania. I was so happy to see my country change fast. My country was reviving, new civic society was being formed, the whole psychological and mental setup was changing. I watched Lithuania acquire more and more features of the place I remembered from my childhood — the magic world of my mother’s lullabies and my grandmother’s fairy tales. Being in Vilnius charged me with new energy and optimism, I felt myself younger! When I walked the streets, some people recognized me and greeted me. Gradually I became part of the political scene in Lithuania so much that I was promoted to run for presidency. I felt it was the most important event in my life and when in 1998 I was elected president I was the happiest man on earth!
You devoted much of your working life to ecological problems — what’s the ecological state, if I may say so, of the Lithuanian soul?
Ecology is a very wide concept indeed. Ecology is cleansing. In the foundation of the Lithuanian mentality there has always been the most essential, age-old and time-tested values — love and respect for the native land, for its history, for the people of our land. The communist regime “sullied” many of these values and it took Lithuania fourteen years to cleanse the hearts and the land.
How the globalization processes have been affecting you?
Globalization is a process that no country can avoid being affected by, to a greater or smaller extent. Lithuania has become part of that process too and I do not see any tragedy in it. We should orient our society in such a way so that we would be able to take the best things that the world can offer us. The worst effects of total globalization can be prevented if the people of a nation have the national identity and awareness inculcated in them from childhood. We do our best to build the whole system of education and national upbringing with this in mind. A very considerable part of our budget is given to the programs of national revival.
In 2004 you were elected president for the second term. Is President Adamkus of the second term different from President Adamkus of the first term?
Yes, he is. He has become more reserved, more withdrawn into himself, with a more philosophical attitude to things. With the passage of time, one begins to have a strange feeling as though one is looking at things as an impartial observer. One stops being affected in any way by intrigues or gossips, one has left behind most of the temptations… I am not worried about retirement and old age — I have earned enough to live a decent life. All of these things allow me to see my country in a wider perspective, deeper. I can work without interference from annoying petty things. It’s close to serenity of spirit and I wish this serenity could be passed on to the succeeding generations.
Is there anything you wish you could pass on to Ukraine?
Our experience that has been accumulated in many spheres of life. Ukraine’s integration in the EU can be made easier if you study our experience. I would like to help the Ukrainian people who seem to be genetically programmed to be peaceful, to achieve the goals it sets for itself in a peaceful, legal way. It is very important these days.
Welcome to Ukraine magazine thanks the Embassy of Lithuania in Ukraine and personally His Excellency Ambassador of Lithuania in Ukraine Viktoras Baublys for assistance in organizing this interview.