2020.12.22 08:00

Russians see Lithuania as small, Russophobic country – interview with ambassador Bajarūnas

Natalija Zverko, LRT.lt2020.12.22 08:00

In May this year, Eitvydas Bajarūnas assumed his position as the new Lithuanian ambassador to Russia. In an interview with LRT Novosti, he talked about goals to strengthen economic, political, and cultural ties between the two countries. 

In 2005–2008, you worked as the Consul General of Lithuania in St Petersburg. You are returning to Russia after 12 years – what has changed since that time?

Return sounds symbolic. In 2005, I was offered the position of Consul General of the Republic of Lithuania in St Petersburg. Frankly, the situation back then was different and our political relations with Russia were more balanced.

On the one hand, Moscow is undoubtedly one of the most important professional appointments for Lithuanian diplomacy. But on the other hand, I also had some fears since a lot of hard work awaits us in our political relations.

Russia plays a very important role in terms of politics, economics, and relations across the region. For me, this appointment is an affirmation and self-affirmation of my professionalism.

You arrived at a difficult time, during the coronavirus pandemic. How have quarantine and restrictions affected your work?

Only after this quarantine period, the first working meetings began, most of which were held online. Of course, for a diplomat accustomed with active communication, such beginning of work did not bring much professional satisfaction.

But I don’t want to talk about this period from a purely negative perspective. […] Before my appointment to Moscow, I participated in various European Union’s working groups and visited Brussels often. But now, I am beginning to think that probably half of these meetings could have happened online without hindrance. It seems to me that in the future, some meetings could still happen at a distance.

What immediate goals do you set for yourself?

There is hope for better development of relations between Lithuania and Russia. I have heard them being defined as arctic cold or dead end. [...] This is a challenge for both the ambassador and the country he has the honour to represent.

Firstly, we are in close proximity, we are bound by centuries of historical experience, and we must find ways to establish a mutually respectful dialogue. Secondly, there are many practical issues that we, as an embassy, and I, as an ambassador, must resolve. It is up to us to decide how our relations will develop and whether it will be a political dead end or not. We are neighbours and, therefore, we must solve many practical problems that are mutually important.

A border treaty was signed between Lithuania and Russia a long time ago. The process of demarcation is over. Now, the talks are on the third and final stage – the border regime treaty. We are also finalising the agreement on the legalisation of diplomatic property in Moscow and Russian property in Vilnius. These are just a few examples.

Thirdly, I would mention our ties in the field of culture, as well as between people. It seems to me that on these issues we must move even further. Although in terms of culture, it is like a miracle. Here, in Moscow, Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas directs Vakhtangov Theatre, Mindaugas Karbauskis directs Mayakovsky Theatre, Lithuanian actors, including Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė and others, also play in Moscow.

One of my first visits after the summer holidays was to the play The Seagull directed by Oskaras Koršunovas at the Moscow Art Theatre. Some of my colleagues even joke that "you, Lithuanians, always talk about occupation, but Moscow is being occupied by the Lithuanian culture". I hope you understand that this is just a joke.

And, of course, the economy. Here, the situation is again specific. You reminded me of my work in St Petersburg. Then, Lithuanian dairy producers were actively expanding [in Russia]. [...] There was a time when you could walk into a big supermarket and see a large assortment of various Lithuanian dairy products on the shelves.

Of course, the situation is different now. The European Union imposed sanctions on Russia and Russia imposed counter-sanctions. So, the entire economic potential has narrowed. But, interestingly, the trade turnover between the two countries is still around eight to nine billion euros, which is a lot.

I would like to highlight the transport services. Transit goods go to Russia and Russian goods go to Europe through Lithuania. Also, the logistics of Kaliningrad are tied to Lithuania. So, there are many economic ties that we need to develop.

There is also tourism. [...] In general, Russia ranks third, after Poland and Germany, in terms of the number of tourists arriving in Lithuania. I hope that we will see these figures again after the pandemic. So, trade, tourism, and transport remain important areas of cooperation.

During your accreditation ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is ready to cooperate with Lithuania on principles of good neighbourliness and respect for each other. Lithuanian political analysts said that these words did not mean a real breakthrough in bilateral relations. Do you think that neighbourly cooperation is possible between our countries?

You touched upon several areas at once, which the ambassador traditionally does not comment on, as these are words of the president of the host country and political scientists.

Read more: After years of animosity, is Russia ready to talk with Lithuania?

But the foundation of good neighbourliness and mutual respect that President Putin speaks of, perhaps it sounds unnatural for some, but this is what we are talking about.

Even if we take the Lithuanian–Russian agreement of 1991, all these postulates – the spirit of good neighbourliness and mutual understanding – are laid down there. I can only say that it is very important that the president of a neighbouring country speaks about this.

On the other hand, we are talking about this all the time. We are conducting dialogue with all countries in a spirit of good neighbourliness and openness. So, our reaction is natural; we are ready for dialogue.

Let us move on to one more important point regarding our countries, namely, the topic of interpreting history and historical truth. You said recently that there are three ways to interpret history, while the most faithful of them is to accept history as it is and the past as it was. But Russian historians have their own interpretations and the country’s top officials also often speak out on this topic. Do you think your appeal has been heard?

Firstly, I do not think that the ambassador's call will change anything. I am talking more about how I assess this situation.

To begin with, history, its interpretation, and the political friction related to this question are undoubtedly a challenge for our relations. If we take the most painful point – the annexation of Lithuania in 1940 – Lithuania interprets it as occupation, but the current Russian interpretation is very different.

History must be learned from both positive and negative sides [...]. During the Second World War, there was the Holocaust in Lithuania, in which Lithuanians were complicit, and we lost the majority of our Jewish population. It is a big wound in our hearts. We must also talk about it and not avoid it. [...] The past must be remembered so that it does not happen again, even if we look at these issues differently.

Read more: Lithuanian far-right walking into Putin's trap – opinion

I also mentioned in some of my interviews that if Lithuanian and Polish historians and diplomats sat down and started talking about the situation in pre-war Vilnius, they would not come to a common denominator either. We still interpret these events in different ways, although our historians publish articles, where they try to bring different points of view closer together. But so far, we are not getting closer. Nevertheless, Poland remains one of our closest neighbours and allies.

Read more: Russia remains ‘chief threat’ amid Baltic build-up, NATO report says

When I talk about the positive and negative sides of a story, I mean that we must not be afraid to speak. When we talk about losses of the USSR during the Second World War, we understand Russians’ grief about their population’s great losses. But then I ask: who will understand Lithuanians who also lost a lot of its population? And here again, we return to the issue of mutual understanding.

[...] There will probably never be an interpretation of any historical issue that could be fixed once and for all because new documents appear, and with them, new interpretations. There is always a different understanding, and it always will be. We must all be ready for that.

Read more: Auschwitz: Lithuanian president calls to 'search for truth' amid disputes with Moscow

If you enter the word “Lithuania” in the News section of Google in Russia and Yandex, in eight out of 10 cases, the returned information is from propaganda channels Sputnik Lithuania and Baltnews. How can objective information about Lithuania reach Russia’s residents?

I will not start with Russia. Previously, I worked as the Ambassador of Lithuania to Sweden. There, I was also not completely happy with how Swedes saw Lithuania. So, we made a presentation of Lithuanian tourism in Stockholm, and suddenly one journalist asked, “do you have the internet?”, “do you speak English or only Russian?”

It became obvious that Swedes, who have been to Lithuania, know about it, while for those who have not, Lithuania is just a country of the former USSR, although we are all neighbours and should know a little more about each other.

Lithuania itself must take active measures. I would like to commend the Russian edition of LRT and the fact that both LRT and Delfi have websites in English and Russian. It is good. It would be even better if there were publications in Polish as well. For a small country, it is very important to see what information it spreads about itself. And the most important thing is that we speak about ourselves in English, Russian, Polish, ideally, also in French and German.

As a country, we must talk about ourselves. In this regard, I also try to do my best. I gave several interviews to Echo Moskvy, Interfax, and other Russian publications. I think this is the only thing that is possible at the moment. [...] We need to actively communicate our position to everyone interested in it.

In general, if we talk about the interpretations of Lithuania here, it does not please us. Sometimes, there are stereotypes that we are "a small, angry, Russophobic country, which only thinks about how to mess up Russia". I tell my Russian colleagues that Lithuania is firstly a NATO and an EU country, we are a country in the Baltic region, and we think not only about Russia. We have many other problems that we need to solve, including emigration, the economy, and international problems.

On the other hand, such stereotypes are not good for Lithuania. We must try to get away from this. There are no other recipes here but to talk about ourselves and invite journalists from other countries to come to Lithuania more actively.

How interesting is Lithuania to Russians?

It is an important question. We started with the issue of political relations between our states. They are much better at the interpersonal level. I have not seen a bad attitude towards Lithuania [...].

In general, people have a very positive attitude towards Lithuania. But, naturally, things are changing. If older people remember their vacation to Palanga, young people know less about Lithuania and travel there less. For Russian youth, Turkish resorts are probably more attractive than Palanga, which was a Russian Mecca for the older generation. This raises the question of our relations in the future. After all, the youth is our future, and what we know about each other is important.

But in general, I see a very positive attitude towards Lithuania, despite all the propaganda.

This interview was conducted in Russian and was originally published by LRT's Russian-language service, LRT Novosti.