Lunch with The Baltic Times: Vytautas Landsbergis

  • 2015-03-05
  • By Will Mawhood

Our first interviewee for The Baltic Times’s major new interview series is Vytautas Landsbergis. Landsbergis is probably Lithuania’s most significant politician of the twentieth century, one who did more than any other to bring the country back from the dead, to trace its outline back on the map of Europe and ensure that it stuck there. As the outspoken leader of the independence movement Sajudis and then democratic Lithuania’s first president; to the West, he represented the bid for freedom not only of his own country, but of all of the Baltic States. In a book he gifts me at the end of the interview – a meticulously assembled collection of documents related to the January 1991 massacre in Vilnius – I later find him in cartoons published in British, American, French newspapers. Landsbergis, always distinguished by his neat little beard and moustache, contends with Gorbachev again and again; in one he calls from within a jail cell for freedom, to which Gorbachev answers with “prison reform”. Would a caricature of his Latvian and Estonian contemporaries Arnold Ruutel or Anatolijs Gorbanovs have held their own in a Western cartoon? I think not.

You could even claim, if you were going to take a slightly unusual tack, that he was the politician who set in motion the process that ended the non-consensual union of soviets. Lithuania was the first soviet republic to declare independence – and it did so unilaterally, without consultation with Moscow about ways and means. There were hopes among many enthusiasts for perestroika that the USSR’s geographical shape would be retained, if not the economic system. Had Lithuania agreed to compromise with Soviet power, settled for a gradual loosening of the puppet strings, would the grand collapse really have happened? How far did his no-nonsense approach to Russia set the tone for Baltic foreign policy from then onwards? Would the Baltic countries now be the fully detached political and cultural entities they are today, or mini-Belaruses and Ukraines? I don’t know, but these seem increasingly relevant questions.

Footage from that day in January 1991 when the Soviets lost patience with these impertinent Balts and sent in troops remains astonishing; in his television address to the Lithuanian people after the start of the Soviet assault on government buildings and important sites of the media had already started, Landsbergis is defiant, declaring “even if killed and tortured, we are worthy of the name of the people, the nation, and the country”. But he’s also oddly impassive – he certainly does not look like a man who might, for all he knows, shortly come under fire or be forced to leave the country;  his body is a little hunched, true, but this doesn’t seem to be him bracing himself against a potentially destructive historical event, just how he’s comfortable. His tone and expression is that of a professor giving an oration at a graduation ceremony, serious but unhurried; there is little if any agitation, only determination.

But there are some people who seem that they’re born just for one moment, make sense only at that one moment, and perhaps Landsbergis is one of these. He became undisputed president after his bravery paid off, and the Soviet Union blinked and then shattered in late 1991, but the first year, dominated by infighting, cannot have been what he envisaged. The average Lithuanian seemed to want him facing down a tank – or at least cheering them on via the media while they faced down tanks – but it seemed that many were not so keen on him chairing meetings on transport policy. And thus he was not only responsible for the shock of the union’s disintegration but, a couple of years later, he also – inadvertently – gave the first shock to the already-settled Western political narrative about the inevitable victory of the market and liberal forces.

Although elected president in 1990 – at a time when the restored republic was still not recognised by any major foreign powers – his ferocious style proved less successful when turned against his own staff and opponents than against a foreign power; he lost the election he had called in 1992 to the renamed and regrouped Communists, under Algirdas Brazauskas, who won the election handsomely, and presumably with great surprise. It’s hard not to think of Winston Churchill, defeated a few months after the end of World War II by Socialist Clement Attlee – like Britons then, Lithuanians seemed to be saying: “we trust you to win the war, but not to put together our future”. Since then, Landsbergis has run for president again (in 1997, when he finished third) and served as Speaker of the Seimas; in 2004, he was elected as an MEP for Homeland Union, the centre-right party which he founded.

He remains a figure whose stature is out of proportion to his actual power, which is, accordingly, relatively limited these days. Years of outspokenness have eaten into the respect and admiration he gained as the guarantor and defender of independence – at one point a few years ago, his approval rating was just 11%. So as I wait in the lobby of the fancy La Pergola restaurant in the Old Town of Vilnius, I feel a sense of more than mild trepidation; he’s a commanding figure, impossible not to admire, but one who I can imagine being querulous and defensive as well. I don’t want to spend the next couple of hours quibbling over the consequences and approaches of things that happened twenty years ago. But when he does appear – or rather burst in, immediately casting everything around him into relief – I find that I don’t have time to remember that I’m not looking forward to this.

Have I heard the news, he asks me, immediately familiar, with an odd mix of disapproval and relish.
The news, if it’s bad news, in Vilnius in February 2015, could be very bad indeed.
I say I haven’t, already planning my evacuation routes.

Jens Stoltenberg has refused to call for arming Ukraine, apparently. And he’s off, fuelled by his own disdain, contempt and disappointment, amused. He’s still recognisable as that person in the news broadcasts from 1991 – he asserts himself very little in a physical sense, beyond leaning forward now and then, and yet the force and certainty of his words enables him easily to dominate the conversation. He’s older now, of course – he was almost sixty even then, close to the end of an academic career as a professor of music. The ageing process has softened the face; when he was leader of Sajudis his dark, severely outlined beard-moustache gave him a sardonic, confrontational look; now, white, the same style of beard gives his face an avuncular trim. Anatol Lieven described him in the early ‘90s as looking like a mole; colleagues in the late ‘80s referred to him as the wily fox; now, what he reminds me of more than anything is a bulldog; despite having something of the benevolent elder statesman about him and a wide repertoire of laughs, his mouth is set in a slight, pre-emptive downturn, and as I find, he is more than ready to go on the attack.

So, we have started with Ukraine, my plan anyway. I decide to press on with my original scheme of questioning. What does he think about the sentiments of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, expressed a couple of days before our interview, that the EU needs to arm Ukraine or risk Russia winning by default?

“Very probably Russia will win”, he begins. “But it is not only armaments and assistance with arms that Ukraine needs.” He describes the problem at length, slicing through the convenient vocabulary that Europe has used to excuse itself for doing little – “the tricky wording” of describing the Russian army in Ukraine as “alleged separatists”. “The Ukrainians are fighting not with separatists, but with the Russian army. To my mind, there is no need to defer even by saying ‘alleged separatists’. They are the Russian army.” Meanwhile, Europe, who he personifies in the form of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, is “totally confused”. Putin’s goal, he tells me, is to get separatists to be seen as separate from Russia, and thus, I presume, for the states they have founded to receive some grudging acceptance - not something likely from Landsbergis himself. “They are Russian war dogs”, he says, chuckling. He is fond of this phrase, which he uses a number of times throughout the interview, and something about the lurid metaphor is very typical of the way he speaks.

But why, I ask, has Europe decided not to arm Ukraine?
“Because Europe is stupid,” comes the immediate response; he seems, as frequently in the interview, amused by his own bluntness, outspokenness. He puts on a faintly feminine, naïve voice an octave or two higher than his usual one. “Oh, we did not think that Putin will go such a way, that he will go to the end, that he will bomb Kiev…” He speaks with qualified approval of David Cameron’s approach while expressing deep doubt about France and Germany. He asks whether they lack understanding or lack courage, whether they are confused or cowardly; then, in possibly the most Lithuanian thing he says during our entire conversation, speculates that maybe their priests could ask them, during confessional, to tell the truth “in the name of God”.

Hollande and Merkel are discounted, the EU is wrong-headed and weak-willed; his own side seem to have been comprehensively savaged. Is there anything Lithuania can do for Ukraine? Is Lithuania just moral support or can it help materially in any way? Landsbergis denies that much can be done in and of itself – “not a great amount in material ways… Lithuania can awaken those still dreaming, those under hypnosis.” He then shows a flash of a quality that has characterised him a great deal as a politician: spirituality, emotionalism, and an almost semi-mystical sense of Lithuania that goes beyond mere nationalism; for all his brusqueness and hawkishness, he is the reverse of the hard-headed, cynical modern politician. “In today’s world, the leader is the one who has force. Lithuania doesn’t have force which is taken into account; spiritual force is not taken so much into account – Lithuania has it. But it is not nothing. To be able to say the truth, to condemn the criminals – not to appease criminals, to condemn, to name is important. So many would be eagerly betraying. They would easily go the way of Munich… Many matters are similar to Munich…” He explains that by this he means that a widespread perception is that, by appeasing Putin, giving him little bits of what he wants in the hope that this will sate his appetite, we will be “winning the peace – for one year more.”

Landsbergis tells me that Georgia was the first victim of the new Russian expansionism, and by not defending it the West missed an opportunity to quickly check this tendency. I pick him up on this – surely, I ask, Georgia was, if not the aggressor then the initiator of armed conflict in the region, by sending troops into the disputed statelet of South Ossetia in 2008. He repeats the year with an odd kind of hoot of incredulity, and then asks “and what about 1992, 1993? Who sent the troops to Abkhazia then? In result when Shevardnadze was in power, the Russians invaded Georgia; Russians invaded from the sea; they invaded, they surrounded the Georgian army, they reinforced the capitulation… So it is a long story, how to get and keep Georgia under Russian domination – as a former Soviet colony.”

We then turn to Russia itself, unambiguously identified as the culprit and aggressor by Landsbergis. It is, he tells me, a state “without borders in the mind”, always looking to expand. Speaking about those who have justified Russia’s role in Ukraine by invoking its historic cultural and political influence in the region, Landsbergis makes the point that the British are not about to demand India back, despite their colonial past. He says that Alaska could be next, and chuckles at the thought. He lists a number of other far-flung places Russia has, at points, seen as viable targets for expansion – Honolulu, Spitzbergen and India are mentioned – gurgling with laughter at the absurdity, but the threat of less far-fetched expansionism – to the Baltics, for example – is clearly no joke. Putin is, he says, a mentally unstable figure with a “sick mind”, referring to a book recently published in the US analysing his “level of insanity – obsessions, and so on”. But surely he has just said that aggression towards its neighbours is inherent in the Russian mindset? Isn’t he now putting its actions down to one unbalanced individual? “It is a tradition – it is the mentality of Russian rulers, Russian tsars.”

That Landsbergis has an obsession with Russia and, like an old spy, is forever jumping at threats where none exist, is something that has been contended repeatedly. Now, what with Russia’s behaviour consistently baffling expectations, it seems hard to think of conspiracy theories or wild accusations that wouldn’t be given a hearing. He tells me about The Third Empire, a book published over a decade ago by Mikhail Yuryev, a Russian of seemingly nationalist views Yuryev, associated in some way (I wasn’t quite sure how) with Aleksandr Dugin, which sets out in geographical terms the shape of greater Novorossiya. “A huge red spot covering the map” is how he describes it – adding, finger aloft, that it includes Israel and, oddly, Denmark. He describes this book as the bible of Russian imperialism, which is deeply worrying if it is in any way accurate – it is a fictional portrayal of the world in 2054, where Russia is one of just five worldwide empires, and controls all of Europe and much of Asia.

It’s hard to characterise his attitude as straight Russophobia – he is, if not scrupulously balanced, prepared to exempt certain Russians from his criticism. He mentions how profitably he was able to work with Aleksandr Yakovlev, and has kind words (unlike most) for Boris Yeltsin, pointing out that his was a very different Russia, one almost unique in its history, striving for democracy and cooperation with its neighbours. He objects when I refer to “Lithuanian Russians” with a single adjective or verb, pointing out that they cannot be generalised about, and that many are quite content to be part of Lithuania.

What, I ask, of the “Vilnius People’s Republic”, the breakaway state that mysteriously appeared – if only virtually - a couple of weeks prior to our interview. It takes a few goes before he gets what I’m saying, but then makes a sound of physical disgust – “oh this… oh my god! This is a provocation of course… it is too similar to the Donetsk republic”. Who is behind it? Landsbergis seems incredulous I’m even asking. “Russia, of course; the secret services or even diplomacy based in Vilnius. The embassy is full of spies and agents.” Are there not some Russians or Poles living in Vilnius who are dissatisfied with life in Lithuania, who might be open to some kind of regime change? Again, I’m reprimanded for generalising – which I didn’t, I don’t think. “Local Russians are not an entity… Of course the embassy would like to have them under control as an entity.”

He is patient and kind in our conversation, but firm as well – when I ask a rather foolish question about how his work as a musicologist affected his political outlook compared to someone who was, so to speak, a career politician, he is immediately scornful – “what do you call career politicians? It was not the same as in a democracy.” My comparative youth is referred to quite frequently, as are, surprisingly, my experiences of life in Latvia, as though this invalidates an ability to understand Lithuania - I don’t think he’s dismissing me, so much as gently reminding me of my limitations. After referring to a particular event in the early ‘90s, he asks me if I had been born at this point; I tell him that I would have been five or six at the time, to which he responds “you were not born in politics yet”, in an indulgent tone of voice, as though describing a small, but endearing fault.

If it’s not already clear, Landsbergis is a passionate advocate of the EU and Lithuania’s place in it; indeed, one could argue that he risked his life so that Lithuania could become European. He even has a habit of tacking on “European” to the front of his country’s name when he talks about it, whether or not the adjective is in any way relevant to what he is saying, as if they were official but rarely used elements of the country’s name – something like “Republic of”. And yet, as we can see, he is dispirited and cynical about its ability to stand up to an existential threat to its values and way of life in the 21st century. The danger comes not only from outside, of course; I mention the possible exit of the UK from the EU within the next few years and the impact on Lithuania and the wider union. He sidesteps the specificity of the question a little, and starts to talk about Russian influence on the EU and the billions he claims it is spending trying to split and undermine the union: about anti-EU representatives, he says that while “not all of them are conscious agents”, they certainly can be used as “useful idiots”. There is not just some, but a great deal of deliberate Russian involvement in undermining the EU from within, he claims.

And yet even if politics are left aside, the union is not truly united. The EU is, of course, not an exclusively liberal body, but it does seem to gently push, in addition to a kind of sanitised neoliberal economics, a programme of tolerance towards minorities, a soft social liberalism. Landsbergis is an explicitly conservative politician from a generally conservative country, which Lithuania is, rather more so than her Baltic sisters; while Estonia has recently legalised civil partnerships between gay people, according to a poll in 2009, over 80% of Lithuanians consider homosexuality a perversion or disease. Moves, albeit unsuccessful, have been made in the Lithuanian Parliament to curtail abortion apart from in extreme cases, as is the case in Poland. Could a split in values between more liberal and conservative member states provide a way in for Russian influence? It’s worth remembering those anti-Maidan banners in Kiev reading “euro=homo”.

Landsbergis reddens pre-emptively halfway through the question, but answers calmly to the effect that freedom cannot be diluted. Political freedom goes hand in hand with social freedoms, including “this freedom”, by which I assume he means homosexuality. He is, though, on record as warning that there is an increasing risk of “intolerance or discrimination against heterosexuals”. I read him the quote, and he guffaws in recognition. Does he stand by it? “Maybe we are approaching to such a paradox,” he says, then tells me a story he heard about a boy who told his teacher that he wanted to be “a gay” when he grew up because they were always the centre of attention. Citing this as something to worry about would seem to suggest that he believes a person’s sexuality can be chosen, I observe. He tells me that homosexuals are “accidents in nature” who should not be “denied” “annihilated”, but asks “why is it encouraged? Making popularity, excitement…”

Landsbergis’s time in Sajudis has been covered exhaustively, not least by himself, but it’s still to my regret that we touch on it only relatively briefly. If he could see Lithuania now in, say, 1990 or 1991, how would he feel? It becomes very clear very quickly that he is not interested in the third conditional; if things had been different... – but they were not, so why bother? “It is not a question – did we think? Did we expect?” he says, with a degree of impatience. Similarly, when I ask if he has any regrets, he refers me, with seemingly some irritation, to a book he has written – available in a number of languages, as he specifies – then says, firmly, “I am not analysing myself”. The book, a sort-of autobiography called Lithuania Independent Again, came out in 2001, but I’m struck by the apparent implication that introspection is simply something that can be ticked off, a discrete task with a start and an end.

When remembering the early ‘90s, he is entertainingly withering about the US diplomats who had alternately encouraged and cautioned the Baltics about pushing for independence; doing one of his “voices”, this time a weedy and irritating one, as he imitates a Western diplomat handling the “secondary issue” of the captive Baltic nations: “you are right in your ideas. You have the right to be independent, but please do blah blah blah…” he breaks off disgustedly. George H.W. Bush, US president at the time Lithuania was pushing for independence, clearly found him a challenge to deal with, writing that he was “a true patriot”, but “very difficult”. It’s true that his behaviour in many situations is characterised by a surprising puckishness and even bare-faced cheek– he is a man with an appealing lack of respect for diplomatic norms: as well as berating the US for its timidity, he enraged Gorbachev by addressing him in official meetings as “Mikhail Sergeyevich” – a form which is neither totally formal nor totally informal – and responded to his visit to Vilnius in 1990, in a desperate attempt to reason with the intransigent Lithuanians, by welcoming him as the head of state of a neighbouring country.

Bush’s description does seem apt: Landsbergis’s pride and love for Lithuania is palpable, and even sometimes shades into an odd kind of competitiveness; when he explains about the resistance movement to the Soviet occupation in the 1940s and 1950s, he makes a particular point of adding not only that the Lithuanian “forest brothers” fought bravely, but that they fought for longer than the Latvians did. When he speaks about the Soviet occupation and the pressure he was under to compromise with its leaders, the sense of haughtiness and outraged pride at their offers is equally apparent: “co-operate and you will be given something by us masters… we are almighty – it was in their minds – we may give you some freedoms, some chances to participate in international affairs, being part of Soviet Union, with greater autonomy… even in profits. You are now given, with existing rules, around 5 or 7% of your own profits; we will give you 20%, be happy! They did not realise how dated they were: why not 100% if it is our own profits? You try to buy us for kopecks.” The master-servant trope is used repeatedly, both when speaking about Lithuania – and also when referring to Ukraine’s relationship with Russia.

And yet the state that he clearly loves so much has not always treated him with similar affection; for most of his political career, he has been markedly less popular with the Lithuanian public than his less cerebral, more plain-speaking rival Algirdas Brazauskas, the former Communist party boss who defeated him in the presidential election of 1993 and died in 2010. Bearing this in mind, does Landsbergis feel he has had enough influence in shaping Lithuania? “It was not my idea that I have to be president; my idea is towards what is my country heading”. But did someone like Brazauskas have the same vision? Again, there is an immediate tell-tale flush at the mention of his name. “It was not so trustful” (trustworthy, I assume) he begins, then denies he is referring to Brazauskas personally, but his team, “his old Communist Party”. “When finally they realised that they were losing, they had to say the word independence. Before that they were speaking about sovereignty inside the Soviet Union”.

Nonetheless, a lot of the reforms put in place by Landsbergis were continued by Brazauskas, and he does seem to take pride in them, however much he seems to dislike the form in which it took - moreover, he claims to regret the “split of society based on purely materialistic approaches” that followed the fraternity and bonding that resulted from the Soviet attack in 1991. We talk about whether his economic reforms were too drastic – they certainly coincided, whether as a direct result or not, in a sudden collapse in GDP (down 37% in 1992 and 17% in 1993) and a great deal of concomitant suffering. However, in what is I think the only negative comment he makes about Ukraine during the entire interview, he invites me to compare modern, post-reform Lithuania with the corruption and sclerosis suffered by Ukraine. “What we see now – it was the right choice. You see how much Ukraine lost not having the resolute will for reforms as soon as possible. They lost time, they lost the chance. They are paying now a thousand times more.”

I’ve noticed, particularly in sources from the early ‘90s, Landsbergis referred to as “soft-spoken” by Western journalists surprised and even amused that such a daring challenge to Soviet power could have a very academic academic at its head. This is rather lazy, as well as inaccurate; it’s true that his rich, if sometimes reedy voice is rarely raised, but his words contain a great deal of volume, are concentrated little bullets that can take you down – sarcasm, mimicry, outraged disbelief, all are weaved into his conversation. There is a certain rhythm to his sentences, an internal music. They can’t be disturbed because they are pre-set, they rise and they fall regardless of anything else; he gives the impression of speaking very slowly, but this is certainly not because of any hesitancy – in fact, he only hesitates when looking for English words, very rarely to alter or correct what he has been saying.  He speaks as though he is relishing it, taking great pleasure in the construction of an argument, regardless of the actual content of what he is saying, which is, more often than not, foreboding.

He’s someone, moreover, who values words, as something more than simply the conveyor of ideas. His pedantry has also often been commented upon – an L.A. Times article from his period as leader of an unacknowledged country catches him critiquing Russian propaganda from a grammatical rather than ideological standpoint, quibbling over two similar-sounding words. One of the many interesting pictures in the book he gives me is of a Yedinstvo rally (a largely Russian-dominated group created to ensure that Lithuania remained a Soviet republic) that took place in Vilnius just prior to independence itself; the picture reminds us that the course was by no means inevitable, but perhaps even more interesting is the caption – it identifies the time and place, and then includes just a single comment: “the banners contain mistakes in the Lithuanian language.”

This seems to be condemnation enough. In English, at least, it’s hard not to notice to what extent he favours emotionally-inflected and garishly figurative language, words that judge you and put you on one or other side of a line. We’ve already mentioned “war dogs”, but “bloody” also appears again and again as an intensifier; it is meant in the literal sense, simply as a way of adding a further dash of emotion to an already accusatory mix – Russia is not just an aggressor, but a “bloody aggressor”. Betrayal turns up a few times as well, and not purely in a political sense; when talking about his party’s commitment to “family values” he cites as a crucial question that defines a person’s character “will you betray your parents”?

There does not seem to be a lot of light and shade in Landsbergis’s universe, but perhaps if someone with greater flexibility and tact had been in charge in 1991, we would not have the Lithuania we know now. As an ally of his, Romualdas Ozolas, told the New York Times in 1990: “He is not handsome. He is not smooth. He is not especially articulate. But he is principled and firm in his convictions and morality.”

We finish – having greatly exceeded our allotted time – with a question that a friend recently put to me, about a city that has suddenly entered the awareness of a very great number of Westerners: will anyone die for Narva, the overwhelmingly ethnic Russian city on the very edge of Estonia? “It is a challenge that may come any day,” Landsbergis answers, sternly. But would the US defend it, or any part of the Baltic countries, in such a situation? “I hope they would. I hope they would understand that it is not about Narva; it is about themselves. If Narva is attacked, it means that the West is attacked.” I try to push him to a prediction one way or the other, but he isn’t having it. “I said: I hope”.