Juozas Olekas, the 57-year-old Social Democrat and now Lithuania’s defense minister, has had one of the most outstanding careers in an independent Lithuania. Born into a family of Lithuanian exiles in Siberia, he managed to do what virtually seemed impossible for such a child - enter the prestigious Vilnius University’s Medicine Faculty. Ever since graduation he saw his medical career rising. In 1988 Olekas received a National Prize for achievements in the surgical theater. Engulfed in the activities of Lithuania’s national movement, Sajudis, with its land-slide victory in the election to the former Soviet Union’s Supreme Council, Olekas then went for a stint to Moscow. But with state independence imminent, just before 1990, he along with other Lithuanian representatives quit the Moscow job and returned to the singing-revolution-gripped Lithuania. Already an outstanding member of the then-political stalwart Algirdas Brazauskas’ led Social Democratic Party, he has since seen his political career blossoming, snatching over the years five health minister portfolios in as many Social Democratic governments, and two defense minister portfolios. Olekas agreed to responsd to questions from The Baltic Times.
What have been Lithuania’s EU Council Presidency priorities in terms of defense and security?
One of them, certainly, arises from the EU Eastern Partnership framework; a second, enhancing the EU and NATO collaboration and third, new challenges stemming from energy security, cyber attacks, in a word, new security threats. It’s been very rewarding to be part of the joint defense effort. I believe the Lithuanian forces have proved their efficiency and skillfulness in responding to the challenges they have encountered along the way.
What are the government’s top priorities in terms of homeland defense? What has already notably been done?
Indeed, state defense and security has been one of the government’s top priorities. Although the previous center-right government had always underscored the prioritization of defense issues, the budget it had actually disbursed for defense needs, however, did not [match] up to the [promises].
As a matter of fact, our government has found a shrunken defense budget - only 0.7 percent from 2011’s GDP against, in comparison, over 1.2 percent in 2008, when the Social Democratic government ended its tenure. Along with the other ruling coalition parties, we have pledged to seek a considerably higher funding for defense purposes, and I am proud the results are already seen: the national defense system over the last year has received roughly 6 percent higher financing, which translates into an extra 50 million litas (roughly 15 million euros). The ministry hopes to ensure similar defense budget growth in 2014, too. I believe that, by 2016, we will have secured 1 percent of our GDP for defense.
But that is still 1 percent short of the country’s pledge to NATO, to spend 2 percent of annual GDP for national defense.
Indeed, it is, but the government is slowly, but assuredly, moving there.
What are the other defense priorities of the Social Democratic government?
Our second important goal is securing the country’s security in partaking in the collective defense system. It is very important to make sure that the Lithuanian military is ready to operate both on Lithuanian soil and along with our partners in other countries. As we’ve accumulated some good military experience both in the EU and NATO-organized military operations, we seek, with this unique experience and, especially in the harmonization of military actions, to use both in other military operations and exercises. In fact, an international military exercise, carried out under the name “SteadfastJazz 2013,” has been recently completed, and the ministry is proud of having received much praise for the Lithuanian soldiers’ performance. In addition, we pay particular attention to our soldiers’ military training, as well as the personnel’s working condition improvements and youth patriotic nurturing on the whole. For the latter, we disbursed last summer additional funding as approximately 3,000 young people gathered at summer boot camp, a three-fold rise from the previous year. This was an event organized by the Lithuanian Sauliai Union [a patriotic youth military union founded in Lithuania in 1919 to nurture patriotism and provide military apprenticeships for young Lithuanians].
Can you share the vision as to what direction the Lithuanian military is being developed in response to the new challenges? And what are the challenges?
As I said, our key goal is having a modern, well-equipped and motivated army that is capable of working along with our military partners. Speaking of the challenges, there are quite many of them, both conventional and pretty new ones, like cyber attacks. Responding to them, Lithuania’s military has made some significant strides - an Energy Security Center tasked with locating and identifying new threats has been launched. Second, our military have been well prepared and have proven themselves in a number of international military exercises and operations. I am proud to say that some of our more powerful military partners, acknowledging our military personnel’s skills, present them as an example to others. Third, we are permanently focused on strengthening our participation in EU-led operations.
Can you please mention some of them?
For example, our servicemen instructors provide training for the Mali army, and this kind of activity will be continued in the future as well. These are some of the other directions that Lithuania has been successfully advancing in. In some of them, Lithuania has become a leader by now, and in some others, its work is already appreciated by the international community. But sure, there remains a whole lot to do when it comes to the development of the Special Forces, sharing the experiences and participating in military exercises.
What do you see as the biggest land security threats Lithuania may deal with, and how does the ministry intends to stave them off?
I’d like to divide this into two parts: [first] the new ones, including cyber and informational attacks, energy security threats and the conventional ones, though the latter are shifting due to new warfare methods and, sure, terrorism threats. All kinds of threats ought to be fenced off both using our own force and NATO, because some of the issues, like the anti-missile defense system shield and air space security, due to a lack of our own jets, is an issue for all the NATO members. I also want to emphasize that Lithuania, in training its servicemen, should rely on strong public support and reliance in the pursuit.
As Lithuania completed the military mission in Afghanistan’s Ghor Province, are there any new hot spots on the world map where Lithuania’s military could be soon sent for a mission?
The international support mission in Afghanistan has been the most important not only for the 28-member state NATO, but also on a whole lot larger scale, as it included over 50 countries. Lithuania’s active participation in the mission and the success in restoring the Ghor Province have shown that Lithuania is an equal NATO member state, capable of assuming responsibility and overcoming all kinds of challenges. It is rewarding to hear that after our withdrawal from the province, it remains stable. This is perhaps the best evaluation the Lithuanian military can expect. It was lauded not only for its military actions in the region, but also for providing assistance for local military units that have taken over responsibility for the province’s security. As far as I know, there are ongoing negotiations now with the Afghanistan government over the country’s future after 2014. One of the proposals on the table is to continue the NATO-led Afghan military forces’ training. And this is where I see the Lithuanian instructors capable of sharing their knowledge with the Afghans. But it would be a training mission, not a military one. Certainly, there are some other international operations where the Lithuanian servicemen could be of use. [For example], the NATO presence in Kosovo, where Lithuanian officers work in the local NATO headquarters, and some of the EU-led operations, like ATALANTA and one in Mali. Maybe in the future some new, UN-led mission crops up. Although we do not have much experience of participation in that kind of mission, we can, nevertheless, obtain it through collaboration with northern countries. One of the sure ways to keep up the preparedness is participating in global military exercises; therefore, that will remain a very important task for our military.
What do you make of Estonia’s wish to rotate the NATO air police mission location? In other words, move it away from the city of Siauliai, its current location?
Our wish is to have the air space of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia undivided. I’d say Siauliai City is very successfully carrying out the mission so far. Look, we see the border violations [by Russia] in decline; and the Siauliai Air Base has been fully equipped, as we invest pretty many resources into it. The incoming NATO forces and pilots are really satisfied as to what we have there. Therefore, frankly speaking, I do not think it makes sense to change anything in that regard - any tweak would not give any additional value to the mission. We’ve spoken to the Estonian officials on a range of issues but, certainly, we do not want to rip up something that is established and functioning well. But sure, we are open to any suggestions - including from the Estonians - to seek new cooperation opportunities and participation in interstate projects.
Do you believe that today’s youth is still is very patriotic and homeland defense-minded?
I really do. Last summer, as I said, we three-fold more teenagers at Sauliai summer boot camps. I support the idea that every young man should be given the possibility of having a proper military training, but this has to be done without any coercion.