President Dalia Grybauskaitė has been "involved in scheming and intrigue and has shown her true colours". That's how Vygaudas Ušackas, former minister of foreign affairs and ambassador to the US, Mexico and Great Britain and EU ambassador to Afghanistan and Russia described the scandal that has shaken Lithuania when he spoke to LRT.lt.
"I think that over the past nine years president Grybauskaitė has given a new a new style to the presidential role in political and economic life. Unfortunately the information that's come out creates the impression that she's been caught up in a game which has compromised her integrity". Says Mr. Ušackas.
- Eleven years ago scandals around email servers rocked Lithuania in the same way. There's alarm around the content of leaked documents and the fact that top secret documents have been leaked, journalists are being followed, privacy is being violated and there's the prospect of a trial in the Court of Strasbourg where Lithuania could lose face a crushing defeat. What do you think of all of this?
- I think it's very bad. Firstly, as a lawyer I never jump to conclusions. Accusations are being made but we're still quite far away from evidence and verdicts.
Secondly, what alarms me is and I think a large section of the public as well is that we've seen that the king is naked. We've seen what Lithuania is like.
Accusations are flying that there are attempts to usurp specific decisions and influence various state institutions. That influence is however already there, it's a normal process in a democratic society when making decisions. In this case, it's not transparent and it's manipulative and offensive in terms of moral and legal norms.
- Do you mean business influence?
- Yes, business influence on politics. There are now allegations that she wasn't being transparent, that political institutions were being created and that the persons not elected by the people have tried to influence decisions. On the other hand, they have shown that certain political players, amongst them the head of state, have been involved in that scheming and intrigue and she has shown her true colours.
The worst consequence of this game is that it has taken away hope from people. Instead of meeting people's expectations they all about intrigue and manipulation. What we need is further strengthening of our defence and counteracting threats from the outside. Complete unity is needed here as is leadership, not intrigue and scheming.
Lithuania's biggest problem needs to be solved – one, which Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis has finally acknowledged: the demographic crisis, which has become a national security problem. At the same time, intrigue undermines confidence in our political system and democracy and I am concerned that it can create stepping stone for a new "saviour".
When this whole scandal broke, I was speaking with a group of intelligent people in the north of Lithuania about what was going on. And then a girl – twelve years old – stood up and said: "Ambassador, 90 percent of my classmates are just waiting to finish high school and leave Lithuania". I was shocked and so I asked why?
She answered that they don't see any good news and lose hope. That undermines people's confidence. They see hypocrisy and no political will to solve problems.
- In Lithuania, the head of state is the Constitutional guarantor. Regarding the said scandal and everything surrounding it, how has the leader of the country fared in your opinion as that guarantor?
- I think that over the past nine years president Grybauskaitė has given a new a new style to the presidential role in political and economic life. She has taken advantage of her popularity and moral authority. Only time will tell how this current crisis, our internal conflict and the information that's come out will end. Unfortunately the information that's come out creates the impression that she's been caught up in a game which has compromised her integrity" says Mr. Ušackas.
Unfortunately, the information that's come out creates the impression that she's been caught up in that game which has compromised her integrity. She didn't deny it in an interview with Lithuanian Television."
- Do you think this could damage her career in the future?
- It depends on what she intends to do – whether it's to stay in domestic politics in Lithuania or go into charity as heads of state who have finished their term do, they focus on charity, noble goals or pursue a career in international politics.
- Let's say it's the latter.
- In that case, I think that the current information, which is internal, shouldn't cast a shadow if she seeks a post in international organisations. Competition for posts like that is very strong. Dalia Grybauskaitė has a good image and history of a commissioner with a sound fiscal policy.
The Germans and French are talking about introducing a new post, that of the European Finance minister but it could also be the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank of Investment and The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
- The EU is getting more and more distant from the US. This became evident this year in reactions to America's position on Iran and sanctions against Russia. Jean-Claude Juncker recently said that Russia is very important to Europe's security architecture. Lithuania supports the position of the big EU states. Do you find Lithuania's foreign policy in this regard acceptable?
- I see the problem somewhat differently. The problem is that US president Donald Trump has introduced a new dimension to the international political landscape, especially when it comes to relations with his allies. He has introduced unpredictability. Angela Merkel has asked if we can trust the United States in resolving Europe's complicated problems.
It has to do with the new order that Donald Trump has founded - "America First". The last century was the Pan-American century. This century cannot be created by eroding transatlantic relations and international agreements. The EU project would not exist without the support of the US in creating a European economy and policy that promotes our defence.
Donald trump's last decisions on Iran's nuclear program and on introducing customs tariffs on European coal and steel products has most certainly soured relations between the US and the EU. I won't hesitate to say that these relations will be damaged. It will be a huge test for both sides to pass that test.
The closest allies, the British and the Germans, and Emmanuel Macron in speaking with Donald Trump have tried to propose the alternatives to a complete withdrawal from the nuclear program in such a way that political face is saved as well as the agreement itself. But despite sincere long-term efforts, Mr. Trump's decision has deeply undermined European interests.
I believe that he is also undermining American interests because in this way the EU is being pushed towards China and Russia. We see that the EU has more in common with Russia and China on the Iran issue than with the US. It's because of these geopolitical changes that not only Europeans but also quite a few strategists in the US are concerned when they see how Mr. Trump's decisions can create a completely different world order.
- In your opinion, is Iran the threat that Donald Trump makes it out to be?
- Iran is a threat. That's exactly why negotiations were about Iran's nuclear program being controlled. It's the same thing with the way Donald Trump is now behaving with North Korea. But if the US withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal then North Korea's leaders will ask why they have to adhere to agreements with the US and if they can trust America if agreements were to be reached.
- What if it turns out that the EU chooses to support Iran and in this way become Russia and not the US's workfellow?
- Iran is a greater threat to the EU than to America. The Iranian threat to the US is secondary – like the threat to Israel and America's energy partners like Saudi Arabia. And the EU must safeguard its defence interests so that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, and also work more constructively in the Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan region where Iran has a lot of influence.
Economic interests are of course important for the EU. When an agreement was reached, Europeans invested a lot and signed important commercial agreements. That's why the Europeans are seeking to resolve the Iran problem by reducing tensions.
- Donald Trump was accused of being "pro-Russian". But then his administration applied strict sanctions on Russia which the EU opposed. Indeed, nobody forced Jean-Claude Junker to say that Russia is very important to Europe's security architecture. How does one understand this divide?
- When I was in Moscow, I worked very well with the US administration and ambassador in coordinating steps regarding sanctions. I was mandated to lead and coordinate decisions on sanctions. Of course, when Donald Trump was elected he wanted to remove sanctions. That was an open "secret" and of course, there were plans to this effect.
One must be glad that a substantial and protective system that "encases" president Trump functions in America. Congress, the independent media and think tanks helped. They forced Donald Trump to change the initial mood to remove sanctions. In this way the Americans exhibited the maturity and ability of their political system in managing a possible crisis.
We on the other hand coordinated sanctions as a response to the annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass. The latter was the Americans declared response to interference in the US elections. That's why the EU doesn't argue about these sanctions. The only sanctions that are debated are those in reaction to the Skripal poisoning.
The third factor is that the EU is more linked to Russia than the US. The scope of EU trade with Russia is ten times greater than with the US. The EU buys gas and oil from Russia and that increases its dependency.
Jean-Claud Juncker with whom I had to interact likes Vladimir Putin very much. He, one can say, is enraptured by Mr. Putin's personality and is maybe a bit naïve in his opinion of the Russian president's intentions and abilities.
Yet the EU has politicians that accuse Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski of having ruined relations with Russia. Politicians like these are in the European Commission. That's why an internal discussion about Mr. Putin's regime helps separate the chaff from the wheat and that's very important.
- Some of your public statements were interpreted as being favourable to Russia. Is it true that you think that Lithuania's relations with Russia should be smoother?
- My statements have always expressed the position of the EU. Maybe it's a bit politically risqué trying to introduce some vitality and objectivity.
When I was in Moscow I represented the positions of the 28 EU member states. At times there were discussions on the fact that the EU position was seen as being undecided and reflecting one position only, that being the one I represented and which I defended regarding sanctions on Russia and the need to support Ukraine .
But the EU and Lithuania agreed that we can cooperate with Russia. EU member states do in actual fact cooperate with Russia on various levels– from presidents and chancellors to ministers of foreign affairs.
Why did I level some criticism at Saulius Skvernelis? Because in my opinion our foreign policy must be backed up by a solid democracy and principles of freedom.
Then again, it must be backed up by our national interests. That's why we have to agree before speaking on air. That's why Mr. Skvernelis's statement on the restoration of the intergovernmental commission with Russia not being agreed upon with the president was unfortunate, reckless and immature on the part of the head of government because in accordance with our Constitution, the president together with the government determines foreign policy.
I think that we must state in a principled way state our views on the support for Ukraine and the rising threat from Russia. We must invest in our defence. We also have to agree on which issues and on what level we should conduct dialogue with Russia. The work of diplomats is to negotiate with both friends and enemies.
- Doesn't the current Lithuanian political leadership's position on Russia seem too aggressive?
- I want to cheer at President Grybauskaitė's valued evolution. Eight years ago our relations with the US and Poland were tantamount to isolation. Here I mean the moody refusal to agree with president Obama in Prague and the scandal around the supposedly former base at Guantanamo.
That led to a valued disagreement. I was very worried about relations with Poland. The fact that for eight years there was no presidential meeting I think was strategic short-sightedness.
I am glad that of late the situation has changed. I am glad about the more mature policy that binds relations with the US and I hope the improving relations with Poland.
When it comes to Russia we must remain principled but recognise that they are our neighbours. We must feel a responsibility for the political historical legacy that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and which was founded by our great warriors and wise rulers.
That's why we must be not be concerned only about respect for human rights and freedom in Belarus but also about Lithuanian businesses being able to operate there and also that there are loading operations in Klaipeda and not in Gdansk, Ventspils or Riga.
And when it comes to Russia one must agree on what issues we're going to speak about. There's no need to blame all countries and call them terrorist states because accusations like these are for simple people.
- But it's these simple people that en masse are supporting Vladimir Putin.
- Officially, Vladimir Putin enjoys 80 percent support. Unofficially (when speaking to independent sociologists) he enjoys the support of the majority but not 80 percent. I know also know that from my personal conversations with an academic society, a student organisation and representatives of business.
People are scared and have been frightened. They are scared to tell the truth and indeed, there is no alternative. Even if Mr. Putin actually has 80 percent support, there is the 20 percent against him. That's about 25 million people the majority of whom are in the cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. The coalition "For a free Moscow" lead by Dmitry Gudkov won 40 seats in the Moscow city council.
At this point in time there isn't a suitable environment and enough skills to enable him to go beyond his ambitions and unite the opposition leaders. Those 25 million Russians, the majority of whom live in the big cities support political decisions and do not approve of Vladimir Putin's regime, are numerous. That's why bridges must not be burned.
Relations between the West and Russia are the hostages of a drama that have been acted out because of Mr. Putin's criminal actions. I don't think that these relations will change any time soon because we are in the midst of a deep conflict of world opinions – not only on Ukraine but because on differences in a political system.
It's important for us to strengthen our economic, political and civil resilience, invest in defence (here a strong economy is needed) and to strengthen relations with the US and decide on which level we support relations with our neighbours because we cannot change our neighbours.