Vytautas Landsbergis, the mastermind of Lithuanian independence, believes that Europe has left the era of big-personality politicians in the past. They have been replaced by those who “listen to themselves only.”
To many who lived in the Soviet era, which was falling apart before their eyes in the late 1980s, Vytautas Landsbergis and his colleagues were the living symbols of the struggle for liberty. The ex-chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania (1990–1992) had the sympathy of all who strove for the liberation of their peoples. At the same time, many continued to think in terms of a “great common country” and wanted him to fail. This struggle involved both the national revival and the bloody events of 13 January 1991 when Soviet commandos attacked the Vilnius television tower and TV center killing 14 civilians. In his answer to questions from The Ukrainian Week about what exactly helped the Lithuanians stand their ground, win independence, and then go about building a free EU state, Mr. Landsbergis said: “It was precisely because we strove for democracy as a way of attaining independence and not the other way around.”
The Lithuanian Sąjūdis movement (initially called the Reform Movement of Lithuania) was confidently guiding the country to sovereignty in the most critical years, 1988–1990, and united very different people in terms of profession, background, and even vision of a new Lithuania. What helped such a varied organization bring together different views and aspirations, adopt clear decisions, and act on them? “The feeling and understanding of the main goal and, perhaps, also the fact that the program of Sąjūdis was dominated by foundational questions,” explains Mr. Landsbergis. “The details and technical problems were left for later times when they could be solved legislatively in conditions of democracy.”
When they support changes, people in different places often want to get “everything and here and now.” This was also true of Mr. Landsbergis’ compatriots. “Lithuanians felt disappointed not so much with the tempo of reforms, even though many found it hard to adjust, as over the style of actions on the part of the old self-perpetuating system which relied on clan interests and connections. This style consisted in unabashed embezzlement of public property. This disappointment worked against Lithuanians themselves when they elected the ‘former’ ones. These people seemed to have received a mandate to act impudently.”
In Lithuania, the titular nation is in majority (over 83%) which sets it apart from Latvia and Estonia, for example. But decades of Soviet experience could not fail to leave an imprint on the people’s mentality, needs, and behavioral stereotypes, i.e., the totality of things called “political culture.” Nevertheless, Lithuanians managed to reach consensus within their society on issues that became a bone of contention in many post-Soviet countries, such as NATO membership and resolute, albeit painful, economic reforms with EU membership in sight. “Despite clashes between interest groups, we agreed that such changes and membership in these organizations were necessary. The desire to return to the past and to the East did not win over,” says Mr. Landsbergis.
Nearly seven years after the country joined the EU and NATO, skeptics again raised their voices, especially in Russia. The economic crisis hit the Baltic States very badly, and opponents began to speak about “premature European integration” which allegedly did more harm to ordinary Lithuanians (Estonians, Poles, Slovaks, etc.) than it brought benefits. The Ukrainian Week asked Mr. Landsbergis about how Lithuanian society is doing now, seven years after it became part of the EU, and which position prevails — European integration as a victory (completed “return home”) or the nostalgia for the Soviet past. “The latter is not a view but the propaganda of a well-known ‘office,’” the legendary politician said, rejecting caution for political correctness. “They are under the illusion that the numbers of their followers are growing as investments in special propaganda are on the rise. However, the prevailing feeling among the people is that the road to Europe was the correct one.”
Mr. Landsbergis’ hour of triumph came in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when continental politics shaped by strong personalities – titans who were not afraid of assuming responsibility and passing and implementing decisions that frequently had an uncompromising character. Today the Old World is facing challenges that may be even more serious. However, many admit that the era of “giants” is completely in the past and that few European politicians today have the caliber to claim this title and bear this kind of responsibility. So will they be able to find the correct answers to the risks and threats of modern times?
“It is not about knowledge but rather about the ability to produce and defend ideas that other people will listen to. Contemporary politicians are listening only to themselves or are cater to crude personas on the outside,” Mr. Landsbergis said quite pessimistically.
On this view, the Baltic States, just like Ukraine, are a kind of a European outpost with a culture located next to the “Russian World,” as they like to put it in Russia. These countries show evidence of their border status in various ways: from cultural influences to the desire of the Kremlin to take strategic industrial, energy, and transport businesses under its control. “The Russian World is another myth of estrangement (due to inability) and confrontation, up to a new expansion, The border countries are left with a choice: either immerse themselves into the Russian World or stay on their own shore and hang on to democracy,” said Mr. Landsbergis. The Ukrainian Week asked him to specify how problematic these influences are for Vilnius in politics and society. Many things depend on whether Russian businessmen are prepared to play by European rules on foreign turf or whether they want to transplant their national habits there. “I believe they are following the latter scenario. Even Dmitry Medvedev let it slip that European rules are not for Russians,” he added.
In 2009, Mr. Landsbergis was elected to the European Parliament for the second time. He has been watching up close how politics is made in the EU and what values and details a country like Ukraine needs to appeal to and what methods it needs to use in order to be heard in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and other European capitals. “With regard to values, Ukraine needs to appeal to those it itself believes in and strives for . Details and methods are secondary. Ukraine may or may not find them. The main thing is to be aware of your values, but not those which merely center on consumption,” Mr. Landsbergis advises.
One of the most important elements in overcoming the global crisis is the unfolding and stepping up of regional cooperation. For many years now cooperation projects have been promoted in the Baltic–Black Sea region: common interests can be found in the energy, transport, environmental, and nearly all other sectors. However, one still gets the impression that Ukraine and the rest of the states here are lacking some kind of a push to switch from modeling to implementation. “True, it is high time to move from imitational modelling on paper to action. Ukraine is a big country. If it got moving, the whole thing would get off to a start,” Mr. Landsbergis concluded.
Mr. Landsbergis was born on 18 October 1932 in Kaunas. He studied in the Lithuanian Conservatory of Music in Vilnius (1950–1955). He earned a Ph.D. degree in art criticism and was a professor at the Lithuanian Conservatory in 1978–1990. He is the author of over 30 books.
In 1998, he was one of the founders of Sąjūdis. In 1989, he was elected as a Soviet MP and initiated an MP request to produce a legal assessment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of Lithuania declared, with his active participation, the independence of Lithuania. He was chairman of the Supreme Council in 1990–1992 and Seimas in 1996–2000.
Mr. Landsbergis is one of the leaders of the Homeland Union, a political which party he founded.
On his initiative, a law on compensation to Lithuania for the damage inflicted under Soviet occupation was passed.
He has been an MEP since June 2004.
Vytautas Landsbergis, MEP, EU, Lithuania, independence, freedom