Albinas Januška, Lithuanian politician, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, a signatory of the Lithuanian Independence Act and once the ultimate éminence grise, gives a scathing analysis of the country's domestic politics and the ills affecting the European Union.
Albinas Januška
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

In an interview to LRT.lt, Januška, who has exchanged politics for diplomatic service, argues that Vladimir Putin is winning in Ukraine. “I predict that in a year or perhaps even sooner, Putin will win and the EU will back down, leaving the occupation of Crimea and Donbass unresolved and unresolvable alongside the Minsk agreements which have polarised Ukraine.”

Januška also spares no criticism for the European Commission which, according to him, should resign following the Brexit vote and the Dutch referendum on Ukraine. The Lithuanian politician believes the EU itself has more issues it has to solve than Great Britain which is now leaving it.

“The European Commission is in my opinion no longer representing the interests of the EU, nor does it understand them. Meanwhile the Lithuanian party elites should refrain from discussing British populism, as our own politicians are nowhere behind in both demagoguery and failing to keep promises. Just recall the referendum on nuclear power plant when the citizens of Lithuania showed the middle finger to the parties, their policy and arrogance,” says Januška.

Interview by Vladimiras Laučius.

The Seimas elections are approaching. What are your predictions? Will we have a similar coalition government as the current one or will it be completely different?

It is difficult to predict the election results just because we do not know how many more times the Special Investigation Service (STT) will pay visits to the Seimas. Therefore for now those best equipped to make predictions are the prosecutors decisively reforming the Lithuanian political system.

It would be bad for Lithuania if the coalition remained the same as now, since in my opinion, there has never been a more bleak government than the current one. There is a chance that it will be different, because I see very few reasons for anyone to vote en masse for the current parties of Valentinas Mazuronis [Labour Party] or Rolandas Paksas [Order and Justice] and especially their candidates in single-member constituencies.

Mazuronis, the nominal Labour Party leader, seems to have decided to remain in the European Parliament, despite his lengthy demagoguery on where he is more significant, preferring the €2,500 pension boost to risking not to be elected to the Seimas.

The factual leader, Vytautas Gapšys, once a young and promising politician, has forgotten basic political decency and is now using his parliamentary mandate to hide from law enforcement, thus discrediting the entire Seimas, the entire political system and the few remaining decent members of his party.

Meanwhile Paksas’ party, which, what absurd, still calls itself “Order and Justice”, has shown that its leaders can in its name, but without its participation, delegate whatever ministers to the government they want. And Saulius Skvernelis side-switching has caused a crisis for the party's candidate list.

It is therefore likely that the next coalition government will be formed by the conservatives, the Peasant-Greens, the liberals and someone else. Half of the Seimas members are elected in single-member districts, so if the social democrats perform well, a different government bloc is possible.

We are more and more accustomed to discussing personalities and intrigues before an election and not ideas and issues. There are only a few months left until the elections, but parties are still drafting their policy papers, which no one will read nor carry out. Besides some political advertising, there is no visible discussion in the public sphere on what sort of Lithuania will be built over the coming four years by Lithuanian parties, what will be done with the rising monster in Astravyets [nuclear power plant in Belarus], the nation leaving the country, the widening gap between two Lithuanias, with the state budget when EU funding ends.

The candidates are toiling away in their districts, but there is no clash of ideas on a national level.

Meanwhile the rest of Lithuania, left to their own devices, are moving in their own direction.

How would you explain the surge in the popularity of the Peasant and Greens Union? Will the party’s popularity drop off closer to the elections or will it continue to grow?

It looks like the Peasants will receive some of the unstable protest votes.

Ramūnas Karbauskis [party leader] may be faced with a moment of great responsibility, but it is not clear today whether he is prepared to take the lead or whether he will steer the party from the back seat.

Skvernelis, a politician with a gun, has enjoyed popularity on credit, but his star is fading, he isn’t showing the capacities of a political leader, his writings are incomprehensible, he is incapable or unable to put together a team. One can guess that the candidate list is being compiled by Karbauskis and he will definitely not yield power in the party to anyone else.

Much will be decided in single-member electoral districts, but it is unclear who, other than Karbauskis, Skvernelis, Povilas Urbšys and a handful of other individuals, could win in them.

The party is not yet in power, but a schism among its leaders is already on display, for example in the case of the artificial insemination law.

In my opinion, this party's leadership could be called New Nationalists, not Peasants. They would fit better alongside the conservatives. As for the liberals, they will have to adapt – power is more important for them than principles, especially right now.

There’s talk of you personally consulted the Peasant and Greens Union.

These are just rumours with no basis.

What do you think about Gabrielius Landsbergis’ ability to keep the conservative party's leadership after the elections? Was it a mistake on the part of the party to elect him as the chairman?

Initially it looked like a mistake. But Landsbergis is transitioning from a diplomat to a politician. Of course, he is no Andrius Kubilius yet and it is difficult for him to rejuvenate the party, to find a place for the old guard who in fact are not that old. To unite, not divide. Looks like he has some good advisers, albeit his statements contain precious few strategic ideas for Lithuania.

Overall, the Conservatives, unlike the Social Democrats, have no shortage of intellectual resources. The Liberal Movement's catastrophe of Eligijus Masiulis and (unexpectedly) Antanas Guoga made for an opportunity for the Conservatives to sweep up the single-member electoral districts in big cities and that is already a big deal.

Thus the Conservatives stand to win many votes and Landsbergis now has good prospects not just because of his family name, but also because of his other attributes. So he could keep the chairmanship of the party after the elections. Furthermore, he could become prime minister, even though just a few months ago this would have seemed a surreal proposition.

It is a fact that the Conservatives benefited the most from the downfall of the Liberals, but please note that I am not implying any conspiracy theories here.

Before your diplomatic career, you were a member of the Social Democratic Party. What are the biggest advantages and weaknesses of the Social Democrats right now?

The Social Democratic Party, recreated in 1989 by a handful of Sąjūdis members, me included, was part of the Sąjūdis and served its purposes. Today that party no longer exists.

On merging with the LDDP (Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania, the successor to the Communist Party) it became a party of Algirdas Brazauskas and this is how it survived. At the time it was a party which did not truly believe in either NATO or EU prospects. The pro-Russian factor has significantly withered nowadays. That said, its interest in foreign policy has in general almost vanished.

Unfortunately, it has no policy for agriculture, nor any serious proposals for social policy. There’s no strategy how to win over the bigger cities. It is a party of pragmatic policies with no underlying ideology. Attempts at being socialist have never been successful and likely never will be. Today it continues functioning out of inertia, as any attempts at reorganisation, preparation of a programme or a strategy usually ends in scandals. Unless they find leaders who could take responsibility soon, there could be popularity problems. They have few talented youths compared to the conservatives or liberals.

Despite a degree of fracturing, it remains a united party due to its traditional respect for the prime minister, although notwithstanding his popularity with the electorate, Algirdas Butkevičius commands little authority in the party and cannot effectively oversee it. Still, it is, perhaps by the skewed Lithuanian measure, a leftist party which has enough common sense and a stable voter base. It therefore stands to win quite a few seats in the Seimas.

Two Lithuanian presidents will have served two terms in office. How would you describe the differences and similarities in the policies and world views of Valdas Adamkus and Dalia Grybauskaitė?

No Lithuanian president had it easy, because if they want to actually accomplish something, they need to seize additional power. And to carefully react to changes in ratings because their power declines in proportion to their ratings. The Lithuanian president rules by authority and when there’s no authority there’s no power.

The two presidents, I believe, were and are capable of commanding this strength, just in different ways. It becomes easier when for, a number of terms now, the Seimas has demonstrated not only its political weakness, but also absence of a strong political figure to head it.

Valdas Adamkus was more of a team player president. Dalia Grybauskaitė is more of an individualist, her advisers, bar the inner circle, are there more to carry out directives than advise. That is not, however, inherently bad.

Adamkus had a difficult time adapting to the realities of post-Soviet Lithuania, while Grybauskaitė is perfectly familiar with them. Adamkus was more of a compromising president, while Grybauskaitė prefers to take a firmer stance. Each of them tried at least initially to change their predecessors' foreign policies, even to distance themselves from it, but not always successfully. It turns out that something more objective exists in the state than the subjective opinion of a president.

Sometimes the president's best intentions are simply ignored by the bureaucratized and often corrupt government. A case in point – the president’s excellent initiative to establish a rotation of heads government agencies. In the days of Adamkus, this was something to dream about, while Grybauskaitė almost succeeded. I say “almost” because there are still a few leaders in government agencies who have such a protection that even the president lacks the power to remove it. It will be interesting to see how it ends.

What agencies are you speaking of specifically?

Such state institutions and companies like Air Traffic Management, Centre of Registers, the Fire Department, Lithuanian Railways.

Take the diplomatic service. There are good ambassadors and not so good ones, some could be kept abroad for longer, while some should be recalled sooner. However, one of the oldest professions in the world has long figured out that differentiating like that is risky, therefore 4-5 years in posting and you return home, to another position.

The president is correct to seek to expand the application of this principle. Those who pretend to be so good as to be irreplaceable are simply dishonest. It could be that there are other reasons why someone’s rear may get stuck to their chair. This is something that law enforcement and the media could help with.

We can be sure, for example, that Stasys Dailydka is a competent and talented manager of Lithuanian Railways. But then why, after 20 years of independence and spending hundreds of millions, if not a billion, on railroads and rail cars, we still can't catch a train to the West – Warsaw or Berlin.

I don’t think that this is a result of some successful secret operation by an Eastern state to limit the progress of Lithuanian citizens, but various thoughts come to mind. Belarussians can catch a quick and modern train to Vilnius on a railway line paid for with Lithuanian and EU money. We can go to Minsk, but not Berlin.

The European Commission and the Lithuanian president are urging reform, while the cabinet and Lithuanian Railways are only giving ambiguous excuses. The Belarussian railway carriers are pushing Lithuanian carriers out of the market with dishonourable practices, while the awkward and unwieldy Lithuanian Railways just shrugs it off. If a new more modern-thinking team with at least some English skills turned up, perhaps something would change, heads would turn from East to West?

Adamkus saw relations between Lithuania and Poland as crucial. What has been going on between the two countries for the past decade? What is currently missing?

All foreign policies depend on policymakers' understanding and implementation of Lithuanian interests. With Lithuania deciding to become a member of the EU and NATO, an understanding of national interests was formed, maintaining that Poland is the neighbour with and through which it is far simpler to realise vital strategic Lithuanian needs. A bilateral presidential council, cabinet council, parliamentary assembly and non-governmental foundations were laid. There was a drive to create a relationship of strategic partnership. Today this is all in the past.

Still, there is still no denying the thesis that Lithuania only has as much power in the international arena as it can extract from its friendship with the United States and Poland. Or that disagreements between Lithuania and Poland please the East [Russia].

Why has this happened? The famous Lithuanian diplomat Vytautas Antanas Dambrava used to say that Lithuania only has important interests, while all other interests are immaterial. This is what happened in this case as well. The importance of interests has shifted. Before, they included strategic partnership, today it is just letters or plaques on a wall. There is a lack of leadership from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in brushing off the minor issues from the table and implementing the larger perspectives.

Meanwhile Poland, unfortunately, was incapable of listening to the needs and sensitivities of its smaller “sister”. There are various opinions, but somehow I am convinced that in seeking alternatives such as Germany or Scandinavia, we are being pushed into provincialism and isolation in the EU.

That said, it is not as simple to say whether we need or can build strategies with the current Polish government. I am especially concerned by the overt support for the representatives of Lithuania's “Polish Party” who display Russian symbols. And Warsaw’s explanations that Lithuania is at fault for the unfavourable electoral system that forces the Polish minority into seeking Russian votes to enter the Seimas are worthless.

It is often repeated that Lithuania's security depends on its membership in the EU and NATO, as if the two factors carried equal weight in providing security. Could you say what percentage of our security comes from EU membership and NATO membership?

This would only be a theoretical assessment for which I have no data. In fact, it would be good if no-one tested it in practice either. If some hostile state would tried to occupy an EU member like Sweden or a NATO member like Norway, would the EU and NATO react? Of course they would. It is even better that Lithuania is a member of both organisations.

But in Lithuanians' heads, the EU is more tangible, since it means free movement for people and EU funding. Meanwhile NATO is seemingly just expenses and a security guarantee that some struggle to come to grips with. “If the Russians come, NATO will not help.” Ever heard this phrase? [Former president and prime minister] Algirdas Brazauskas, a man of straightforward and pragmatic mind, liked to debate on this topic, because he didn’t always like it when MFA diplomats involved him in games of NATO membership. He would interrupt arguments about deterrence as immaterial.

For a long time Brazauskas was convinced that it wasn’t NATO defence, but a non-aggression agreement with Russia that would serve Lithuanian interests best. Once, on Boris Yeltsin’s offer, we almost signed such a treaty.

By the way, today in patriotic courtyards we sometimes see an EU flag hoisted alongside the Lithuanian tricolour, but never a NATO flag. Why? Is it because it is scary, unimportant, foreign? I have only seen a NATO flag openly hoisted once, at the family residence of Gediminas Kirkilas.

With Britain leaving the EU, the relative weight of Berlin is growing. German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently criticised NATO for the Alliance’s position on Russia and called it “warmongering”. How do you view such a signal from Berlin in the context of Lithuanian security?

Such statements show the fragmentation of foreign and defence policies of European states. We can see a trend – various new regional groupings whose policies are mostly decided by the larger EU states. It is good that Germany and France are taking the lead, but it is no good that other states are simply informed about their decisions.

Lithuania, once an initiator and active participant of such regional formats, is today humbly silent. Even important national celebrations are only important for ourselves and aren’t used as occasions to gather at least regional policymakers.

Germany, just like France, has its own Eastern policy, its own interests in Russia. Lithuania, no matter how loud it speaks up, cannot influence these interests. We need alliances with like-minded nations like Poland or the Scandinavian states. There is no solid state position or cooperation with other EU states on issues like Astravyets nuclear power plant or Nord Stream 2. This is exceptionally bad.

On the other hand, the fact that Germany is willing to deploy its soldiers in the Baltic states is a definite sign of positive changes occurring in Germany and a major achievement of Grybauskaitė‘s foreign policy.

Is there something wrong in the United Kingdom that it decided to leave the EU or is it perhaps an issue in the EU itself that the UK no longer wants to remain? Now, all the blame is laid on British politicians.

Indeed, everything that is wrong in the UK has been well discussed already. I would think that far bigger problems exist in the EU itself. The arrogant comments of Jean-Claude Juncker or even Lithuanian EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis are just a small expression of something that should not exist in EU policy.

It is obvious the UK felt its interests were restricted in the EU, as did many other states. Most EU citizens were satisfied with the performance of either the EU Commission or the European Parliament. Following the Dutch referendum on [Association Treaty with] Ukraine and Brexit, the entire European Commission should resign, while EU member states should begin decisive reforms, not just business as usual with an added measure of decisiveness.

It would be a major mistake to limit the view to just the questions of the UK departing and not to look into internal EU issues which we need to resolve quickly. Lithuania could start with itself, to formulate its positions and interests. Today, we have several visions competing with one another – a more federalist one versus that of more autonomous states within the EU. Which vision would be more popular with citizens right now? I’d say, the second one.

Although, as you say, the second one would likely be more popular, almost the entire Lithuanian political elite argues for the first. The British decision was decried by the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Social Democrats. How would you explain that?

There is a consensus that small states benefit from a more integrated EU, because then the power of larger states is checked by Brussels. However, the reality is more complex. Foreign policy is strongly integrated, but it is strategically led by Germany and France, while Brussels bureaucrats are just bureaucrats, not politicians. Meanwhile small countries are left with less and less power, their representatives are left as foreign policy commentators for their own audiences.

I think the solution is a European Union of different degrees and speed of integration, where each state chooses its own path and direction. It could be applied to the UK even now. There should be negotiations not on leaving, but on the UK’s special status in the EU, one that is more in line with the interests of the British people and the rest of the EU. I believe that when tempers cool down, this is what will happen. By the way, nothing prevents Lithuania from pushing for such an initiative.

Perhaps for the French or the Commission, it is no big deal that the Brits are leaving. But not for Lithuania. Lithuania has to defend its own interests, to strive on its own and with partners to ensure that the UK remain in the EU through a special membership, because the UK is special.

The European Commission, in my opinion, no longer represents the interests of the EU, nor does it understand them. Meanwhile the Lithuanian party elites should refrain from discussing British populism, as our own politicians are nowhere behind in both demagoguery and failing to keep promises. Just recall the referendum on nuclear power plant when the citizens of Lithuania showed the middle finger to the parties, their policy and arrogance.

What course do you predict the relations between Russia and the West will take over the coming several years? Will the current tensions escalate to more open forms of conflict or will they gradually fade?

Right now, our relations with Russia spans across Ukraine and Crimea.

I predict that in a year or perhaps even sooner, Putin will win and the EU will back down, leaving the occupation of Crimea and Donbass unresolved and unresolvable alongside the Minsk agreements which have polarised Ukraine. This will be a victory of separate EU state interests and another proof of the weakness of the European Commission and the European Parliament.

This would also be a defeat for Lithuania who is incapable of taking leadership on the question of Ukraine or rallying an anti-Russian coalition. It would be excellent if such things could be done, but it looks like everyone in Lithuania who can make any decisions or comment on foreign policy has made their peace with the matter. Something along the lines of “What can we do?” Just like with Astravyets – we’re doing something, moving along, but the power plant is going up. Is this politics?

If Ukraine is left behind, split and ruled by a corrupt oligarchy, while the EU, exhausted by sanctions, steps into a new reboot with Russia, Lithuania's foreign policy or what is left of it will experience a serious crisis. Others would say, if there’s no policy, how can it be in crisis?

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