Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania Renatas Norkus discusses celebrating a centenary of restored Lithuanian statehood
In 2018, Lithuania celebrates the centenary of her restored statehood. 100 years ago, out of the ashes and destruction of the Great War a number of independent European states emerged, including Lithuania. The Act of Reinstating the Independence of Lithuania was signed by the Council of Lithuania on 16 February 1918. Ever since, 16 February has become the official birthday, our Independence Day. 100 years is a considerable amount of time, and it is only natural on such an anniversary to pause in order to reflect on the past and to look to the future.
Looking back, we see that it was a century full of both despair and hope. Charles Dickens’s immortal words from his novel A Tale of Two Cities describe it quite accurately: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” After Independence was proclaimed, we had to defend it from multiple aggressors and then it was lost again by 1940, in the twilight of World War II. In Yalta in 1945, the fate of Lithuania, along with hundreds of millions of other Europeans, was sealed. For 55 long and dark years Lithuania’s name was deleted from the political map of the world thus repeating the traumatic experience of 1795, when Poland-Lithuania was partitioned by neighbouring empires and the Commonwealth of two proud European nations was extinguished. Tens of thousands of Lithuanian patriots died fighting a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation from 1945-53, and hundreds of thousands were deported to GULAG. Hundreds of thousands fled to the West seeking refuge from death and repressions. The flame of freedom stayed alive nevertheless. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lithuania’s independence was restored on 11 March 1990.
Since then, we have been building a free, democratic and prosperous Lithuania. Our efforts to rebuild a viable state with an open and vibrant society had to start from scratch, but we were never alone in this endeavour. Our efforts were supported by the international community – the US and Western European partners amoung numerous others. We are grateful to our Nordic friends who believed in us all these years. State building and integration into European and transatlantic political, economic and defence structures became closely interlinked, almost synonymous notions. After numerous painful but necessary structural reforms, we joined both Nato and the EU in 2004. This experience has been a sort of homecoming, returning to the European family of nations, where we belong by virtue of history, geography and system of values.
Good neighbourly relations is the third pillar of Lithuania’s foreign policy. Based on the principle of ‘Building bridges, not walls,’ Lithuania has been investing heavily in creating lasting, solid relationships with our Eastern neighbours, Belarus and Russia. Of course, it always takes two to tango. We sincerely hope that Russia stops its aggression in Ukraine (and Georgia) and returns to cooperation, not confrontation with the West.
When I look back at the early 1990s, it is striking how much we have accomplished in such a short time. From a predominantly agricultural country (the quality of our dairy, meat and wheat products as well as beer is a source of national pride and inspiration for many Lithuanians) we have become a nation which sent Lithuania-built satellites into space in 2014. Our laser sector accounts for more than half of the global market of pico-second laser spectrometers. Lithuania’s life sciences sector is regarded as one of the most advanced in Central and Eastern Europe. With five integrated science and business valleys receiving over 400 million euros of investment in equipment and infrastructure, Lithuania provides the most extensive and up-to-date support network for life sciences in Europe. In the field of fintech, you will find an IT savvy and multilingual pool of talent. Lithuania leads the EU in broadband speeds and fibre-optic internet penetration. In the World Bank’s Business Report 2018, Lithuania ranks as number 16 among 190 nations in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ category.
All that is very well, but what about hygge, you might ask. Aren’t you Lithuanians melancholic and introspective and sad? Introspective – yes; sad and melancholic – no. What we are good at is tranquillity and serenity. In Lithuanian, we call it ramybė. If you want to experience a real ramybė, come visit, and immerse yourself in the Lithuanian countryside. With 2.8 million people in a territory slightly smaller than that of Scotland, you can observe communion with an unspoiled nature.
The centenary is also a great opportunity for cultural exchange and bilateral visits. There will be many high-level visits to Lithuania this year, including Pope Francis and a number of royal families and other dignitaries. What makes my work as Lithuania’s Ambassador in the UK so gratifying is first and foremost the work with the Lithuanian diaspora and our cultural events. This year, we are bringing Lithuanian music, performance and cinema to London, Cardiff, Glasgow, and all over Britain. Some Lithuanian artists have already become household names in Britain, like Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The London Book Fair in April is another milestone, featuring Lithuanian writer Kristina Sabaliauskaitė as Author of the Day (together with Nora Ikstena from Latvia and Mikhel Mutt from Estonia).
We look forward to the next 100 years of Lithuania among our Euro-Atlantic allies and partners!