Lithuania's liberal voice

  • 2009-10-01
  • Interview by Rokas M. Tracevskis

Leonidas Donskis, 47, is member of the European Parliament where he is a member of the liberal faction named the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. During the European Parliament election, which was held in June 2009, Donskis was elected from the list of the Lithuanian Liberal Movement, though he is not a member of any political party. He was born in Klaipeda. Donskis has been a professor of philosophy and political science in the U.S., Britain, Lithuania, Finland and other countries. He speaks Lithuanian, English, Russian, French, Italian and German as well as ancient Greek and Latin. Donskis was host of a popular show on politics and culture on Lithuanian public TV. Now he and his wife Jolanta live in Belgium due to his work in the European Parliament.

Do you enjoy your life in Belgium? Do you often visit the Belgian chocolate shop chain which is named Leonidas?
I very much like living in Belgium. Since my younger days I was in love with Flanders and with the Flemish Renaissance, and Baroque painting in particular. As a football fan, I have always had much admiration for such great football clubs as Bruges and Anderlecht. As for the Leonidas shops, yes, I adore dark Belgian chocolate.

What perspective do you have for the Lisbon Treaty? Don't you think that Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, will hesitate at signing this treaty, waiting for the parliamentary election in Britain, which should definitely be won by the Conservative Party? The latter did promise its electorate a referendum on the Treaty. It is easy to make a prognosis on the outcome of the referendum, taking into account the Euroskepticism of the Britons.
As a Euroskeptic, Klaus may decide to do so. Yet this would lead nowhere, as we are all in that same boat. This kind of political reasoning and behavior strikes me as nearly suicidal, since Euroskepticism and the failure of the EU are exactly what would substantially weaken Eastern and Central Europe, fully satisfying the needs and plans of the Kremlin. On the other side, much to my regret, we have to face the fact that skepticism about, if not hostility to, the EU is part of mainstream domestic policies in Great Britain. 

What is your opinion on the election of Jerzy Buzek, Poland's former prime minister, to the post of European Parliament's president for the first half of the parliament's term“ for 2.5 years?
I am in favor of this fact. Jerzy Buzek's election to the post of president of the European Parliament signifies a historic change of Europe's political sensibilities. Europe with Buzek on top of the EP is less divided than it was at the moment when the former French President Jacques Chirac notified Eastern European partners and allies that they missed an opportunity to keep quiet. I would hate to sound banal here, but Buzek's election returned to Eastern Europe some part of its moral and political dignity that it lost during the five decades of miserable and humiliating existence as a boundary region and a zone of Soviet influence.
You did work in universities in many countries. Please briefly compare those countries.
I researched and lectured in the U.S., Great Britain, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Hungary, and Estonia, not to mention my native Lithuania. As an academic, I was very happy in the U.S., and I still think that American colleges and universities are less bureaucratic and more independent than European institutions of higher education. As an esthete and a lover of a particular country, I am happy to teach in Italy. As a person not devoid of interest in the media world and the public domain in general, I immensely enjoyed my life and work in Great Britain, precisely because I was able to reveal for myself its incredible political debates and book reviews. Sweden allowed me a glimpse of a model democracy, a bit boring and bureaucratic, yet magnificently civilized and secure. In a way, Hungary and Estonia may be regarded as the significant Other, of my country, as there is a sort of family resemblance of Eastern and Central European countries, although Estonia is closer to the Nordic countries than Lithuania. Finally, Finland, the country to which I owe a great debt of gratitude for allowing me to feel more at home than anywhere else outside of Lithuania. I defended my second doctorate at the University of Helsinki, and I serve as a Docent of Social and Moral Philosophy there.          
Is it easy to be a liberal in Lithuania, which is dominated by some rather provincial conservatism? How many liberals are in Lithuania, in your estimation?
I guess it is difficult to be a liberal everywhere nowadays. It is hard to speak up in favor of the human individual, their conscience and reason, instead of defending faceless and soulless organizations with their awful bloodless vocabulary and seemingly correct phrases, without any content. Yet your remark about our parochial conservatism is quite correct. In a conservative Roman Catholic country like Lithuania, liberalism is unavoidably linked to agnosticism, if not overt atheism. Liberalism is, first and foremost, about the political priority of the individual over collectivities, and the moral superiority of individual conscience and reason over anonymous decisions. Liberalism is condemned to remain in Lithuania a property of the creative minority. We have very few genuine liberals.

Did you ever have some problems in Lithuania because of your Jewish heritage? What does it mean to be a Jew in Lithuania? Are you the only Jewish-heritage member of the European Parliament?
As a Jew, I have had difficulties not only in Lithuania. Yet it is a long and separate story. To be a Jew in Lithuania means to be exposed in the moral sense. Any silly remark or an embarrassingly inadequate commentary in the press or among public figures may hurt you both as a Jew and as a patriot of Lithuania who feels miserable about his country. Since I happen to be the son of a Holocaust survivor, I am not going to hide my Jewish background, although I am a secular human being. For me, to remain silent when you read and hear all this anti-Semitic rubbish in tabloids like Respublika or Vakaro Zinios means to betray the memory of my father. I am a Jew whenever and wherever I encounter anti-Semitism. I do not think that I am the only Jew in the European Parliament, yet it may well be that I am the only descendant of Litvaks there.    

What do you think about the activities of Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite?
I have much admiration for her courage, commitment, and decisiveness. I suppose she may lack that sort of warm responsiveness, which was a trait of her predecessor Valdas Adamkus. Yet she is a lady with a strong sense of mission. Lithuania badly needs profound change. I hope President Grybauskaite will live up to the expectations of the people who want to see Lithuania as a better place to live. 

A couple of years ago, you commented on soccer, on Lithuanian public TV. Why do you support the national team of Holland?
The Dutch became my infatuation and love when I watched the World Cup games in 1974. Their game against Brazil was a miracle. I nearly cried when the Magnificent Orange lost the final game to Germany. A sort of deja vu happened in 1978, when they again lost the final, this time to Argentina. It is the team that may lose the game, yet win the hearts and minds of football fans, precisely because their ambition is to play elegant and beautiful football, rather than to win at whatever the cost. The Dutch football team is the incomparable underdog of genius' almost in every European and World Cup, except 1988, when not only genius and inspiration but also luck was on their side.

You are a fan of The Beatles and you sing their songs sometimes. What was your biggest audience? Which Beatles song is your favorite?
The largest audience seems to have been at the University of Bologna-Forli campus when I performed Eleanor Rigby. Another similar case was at Tallinn University during the summer school when I performed for my colleagues and students. I know that Frank Sinatra considered George Harrison's Something the most beautiful song ever written. I like very much Harrison's Something and Here Comes the Sun. Yet the most beloved song is Paul McCartne's and John Lennon's Eleanor Rigby. Incidentally, Ray Charles's interpretation of this song is nothing short of a miracle.       

I read somewhere that you are a fan of good, non-commercial movies. What movies would you recommend to our readers?
Not to mention my beloved Italian masters, I would strongly recommend several musts: Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Manhattan, Celebrity; Wayne Wang’s Smoke and Blue in the Face; the the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski; and Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.