During the eight years that Linas Linkevičius was directing Lithuania’s foreign policy, the country had to chair the EU Council, respond to crises in Ukraine and Belarus, deal with both Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the White House and repatriate thousands of Lithuanians stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic.
During this time, Lithuania has matured as a state and gained more confidence, which changed its stance on the international arena, Linkevčius said in an interview with LRT.lt
On the last day before handing over the office to his successor Gabrielius Landsbergis, Linkevičius spoke with LRT.lt about the crisis in Belarus, relations with Russia, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The hard work performed by the ministry’s staff, Linkevičius said, would sometimes go unnoticed, while Lithuania’s diplomatic service still lacks sufficient funding.
How has Lithuania’s image in the world changed during your term? Are we being mentioned for positive things, or more often because of unpleasant issues, such as the Holocaust?
There are negative things related to the Holocaust, human rights, women’s empowerment, including the Istanbul Convention [the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence], which I signed in 2013 and which has not progressed since then.
But I am glad that Lithuania and its policymaking are more mature now. We are more aware that we are part of the world and we are no longer newbies in international organisations.
Joining the European Union and NATO [in 2004] was a geopolitical turning point. Before then, Lithuania had been tossed from one aggressor to the other and could not decide its own destiny. Historically, we always depended [on other powers] and we were often left alone in the face of crises.
Later, a different feeling arose. We joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is the club of the world’s most successful economies, and chaired the EU Council in the second half of 2013, which we did successfully, according to others. […] It gave us a lot of strength and confidence.
When our EU Council presidency ended, the very next day, on January 1, 2014, we became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. I want to emphasise that this was no easy achievement. We kept the position for two years and chaired it twice, in February 2014 and May 2015.
It was a time when we did not have to look for doors to open if we wanted to be accepted and heard. We were seen as competent in solving global issues. We received calls from all over the world, including places where we had neither contacts nor presence before.
Why do I mention 2013, 2014, 2015? I think this period gave our diplomatic service maturity and confidence. I am also talking about the state in general. Globally, we started to be respected and there appeared an understanding of who we are and what we strive for. […]
What do you consider to be your most important achievement or perhaps the most interesting issue you had to work on?
I must say that our work is collective, there are no personal achievements. It was a great honour to work in a truly mature, professional team that knew what it wanted to achieve.
I would not single out one achievement. I’d mention three moments that were significant and historical: the EU Council presidency, membership in the UNSC, and joining the OECD. Maybe some people think that it was a natural process, but when I started working, we were not among the candidates and many said that we had no chances [to join the OECD].
It was the period when we coordinated the accession process in the government […] and worked under difficult conditions. It was hard work, but I am glad the team persevered until the victorious end.
Can you single out a particularly memorable difficult situation that you addressed? Maybe Turkey’s veto on NATO defence renewal plans or another episode?[Turkey’s veto] was a challenge, but not completely fatal. Our relations with Turkey have always been constructive and very friendly. Back then, they emphasised that [the veto] was not directed against Lithuania. I explained to our media and people that the process had stalled temporarily. It turned out to be true. The Turks have the trait of always tackling their problems decisively, so other issues may suffer as a result.
The biggest challenge for the whole service was when, with very modest resources, we had to repatriate our citizens from around the world at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic [in March]. The public undeservedly underestimated diplomats’ work in this situation.
It turned out that our compatriots are very mobile, among the most active travellers. They found themselves in completely hopeless situations in the remotest corners of the world. It was necessary to work around the clock and speak to everyone – from ministers to those who solved problems practically.
Neither I nor anyone else could remember such a challenging period. Everyone was under tremendous strain, both psychological pressure and fatigue. It was a huge job.
Thanks to our efforts, we repatriated over 5,000 [Lithuanians]. We organised special flights on unique routes. […] Everyone was important. This required enormous resources. Our people and volunteers were on duty around the clock […].
I think this was not sufficiently understood by the public and was taken for granted. […] Every crisis exposes both weaknesses and strengths. In this case, we demonstrated that Lithuania could endure such a crisis.
What failures did you have to grapple with?
The main failure is that, despite all the arguments, I have not been able to improve the funding, conditions, and attitudes towards the diplomatic service.
The new government is likely to address this issue. Gabrielius Landsbergis [the new foreign minister] is the chairman of the ruling [Homeland Union] party, so there is likely to be more focus on the foreign service. It is the worst funded service of all our state institutions. […]
Lithuania is a member of international organisations and it is a real honour to participate in solving global problems. But the fact that we are at the end of the EU’s table [in terms of funding] is not something to be proud of. I consider this to be a failure and take responsibility for it.
How have the relations with the United States changed during your term? You worked with multiple administrations, presidents, secretaries of state. Did Washington’s attitude towards Lithuania depend on who was in charge?
I was lucky because the relations were great. […] We maintain excellent relations with experts and politicians from both Republican and Democratic parties. Therefore, in answering your colleagues’ questions about President Donald Trump’s statements and criticism of Europe, I always said that we had no concerns because the continuity of American policy was a much greater factor.
US attention to Lithuania and the region has increased in terms of financial support, resources, as well as politically. The presence of US troops in Lithuania is greater than ever. […] We can talk about what we want, but we need to look at ourselves and deliver on our commitments so that we are respected as allies. Fortunately, there is a public agreement on increasing defence spending. We must implement it. Then, we will be able to count on the US and NATO support.
With the change in the US administration, I see no reason why [the relations] could get worse. I think there will be a much more positive and rational American approach towards NATO […].
Relations with Poland are improving, we speak of strategic partnership. As you saw these developments from within, did the change happen on the Polish or the Lithuanian side, or maybe both?
When relations deteriorate, you can never blame one side. Better relations require compromise on both sides as well. You can always look for disagreements between neighbours, but it is always possible to emphasise positive things.
Objectively, there are far more [positive things] than miscommunication in our relations with Poland. In the NATO context, we are in the same boat […]. All infrastructure projects, including electricity and gas connections, Via Baltica and Rail Baltica roads, are projects of strategic importance that could not progress without Poland. This has pushed us towards closer cooperation. We need to overcome our preconceptions. […] Now, we are very close strategic allies. I think it is a great success.
You also saw the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Was it a big shock for the EU, NATO?
I will allow myself to talk not only about Ukraine. I have been communicating with Eastern Partnership countries in various positions for a quarter of a century. It includes not only Ukraine, but also Moldova, Georgia, Belarus. I know those countries, their politicians, their presidents, and their prime ministers, both past and present, very well. I sometimes saw a lack of attention, solidarity, understanding [from the West].
Ukraine has two enemies: aggression from Russia and corruption. One is external, the other internal. We are one of the countries that know and understand this and can help. We are very involved, and this leadership is appreciated by others.
Similarly in Belarus, our leadership is acknowledged. It is not us who are saying we take leadership, it is others who see it. This is not only a European, but a global recognition. […]
Moldova has recently elected a new pro-European president. But without parliamentary support, she is in a very difficult situation. This country needs more attention. We need to go there and talk. Not to interfere in domestic affairs, but to help those who can lead the country on the European path.
It is not that simple. I see that work with the Eastern Partnership countries requires more hands, attention, and understanding, but sometimes it is overshadowed by other European issues. […]
At the beginning of your term and later, you said that a dialogue with the Belarussian authorities should be established. Were the mass protests that broke out in the summer a surprise for you? Is there a threat that the West will forget Belarus?
There is fatigue and I do not justify it. Every crisis gets tiring when things go on for a long time without much progress. We are now feeling the fatigue of the crisis in Belarus, but the worst thing is that [the Belarusian] people themselves are getting tired and frustrated.
We remember the feeling of being left alone. Belarusians, who suffer both physically and financially, also feel this. We, I mean the EU, other international organisations, should do more. […]
During my last visit to Minsk in February, I was surprised by how much openness there was. […] The election was approaching, so there was a bit of worry, but I did not expect that things would turn out the way they did.
Frankly, I was very surprised. The outgoing leader finally unmasked his propaganda. He talked about countering Russian pressure, but we have seen his hypocrisy, as his goal was not to preserve the country’s sovereignty, but to stay in power at any cost. […]
Many have been surprised and disappointed. But it does not mean that we do not have to help those people. I want to emphasise that we must not interfere in the country’s internal affairs, but to help those people who are repressed, beaten, and harassed. […]
How have Lithuania’s and the EU’s relations with Russia changed? Have Lithuania’s warnings been heard?
In the past, I often received questions: “What have you done to improve relations with Russia?” I always said that we are not the ones who occupied Crimea and 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, we are not the ones pursuing aggressive and militant policies. What do we need to improve?
If improving relations means us closing our eyes and not talking or criticising, the relations would have improved immediately. But is this the price we want to pay?
The relations [with Russia] have deteriorated, but it’s not our fault, but the fault of aggression, impunity, and isolation of Russian politics. A lot has happened. I will remind you of the war in the South Caucasus in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the borderisation in Georgia, direct interference in Belarus, and attempt to implement the Union State Treaty. […] These are just a few examples of how things are deteriorating. […]
There are areas where points of contact need to be found objectively, pragmatically. But the relations are very poor. And this is not only a problem for Lithuania, but for the global community as well. Russia has the potential to be a crisis manager, a problem solver. But on the contrary, it creates frozen and active conflicts and exerts influence through them. […]
We are not Russophobic. I like the Russian language, culture, and literature. I have a lot of Russian friends and we organise Russian forums, where we talk about the future of democratic Russia in free Europe. Those who criticise the Kremlin are not anti-Russian. I believe that the time will come when we can have equal, respectful, neighbourly relations with this country as well. I would love to see those times.
What do you think are the greatest challenges for the international world order? Will the EU increase its autonomy, and should it do so?
The debate on strategic autonomy has shown that no one knows what this term means. For me, it reeks of isolationism. If we are talking about building a European force that would complement NATO’s capabilities or about an autonomous ability to act when we need without dividing the transatlantic space, that is alright.
The biggest challenge is the lack of leadership. The world is becoming more complex, crises are more acute. […] We have a lot of respectable structures, but when it comes to problem-solving, we do not see results.
Do you have plans for the future?
Now, I will be intensively preparing for Christmas, and then we will see. There is an option to go back to the diplomatic service, maybe some other options. I cannot answer specifically right now. But I will do something.