Two countries not so far apart

  • 2009-11-04
  • Interview by Francisco Javier Gregorio

Jose Luis Alonso is the Spanish ambassador to Lithuania. He arrived in Vilnius almost two years ago with his enormous international experience: he has been in other countries including Cameroon and Afghanistan, where he was the boss of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, a dangerous and important mission. After that he was offered to come to one of the Baltic countries, so he chose Lithuania.

"I miss the Spanish weather and the sun, but this country is very interesting; for me it is very enriching. Maybe Vilnius is what I love most about Lithuania; it is the very center of Europe, Catholic and a Baroque city," he says. "I have Lithuanian friends but I would like to have more. Maybe they are more reserved than the Spanish, but I don't know the Lithuanian language and sometimes this is a problem."
Alonso is really comfortable in Vilnius and he doesn't think of moving elsewhere. "I hope to be here two more years." He would then be the Spanish ambassador when Spain holds the rotating EU presidency, next year from January to June.

Alonso is clearly a man who was born to be a diplomat, like his father, and he loves his job in the embassy where he is working to improve the political and economic relations between Spain and Lithuania, countries which are very far apart on the map, but in a lot of important issues are very close, like in the difficult economic situation today and, it seems, in the nature of the people.

The Baltic Times met with the ambassador to delve deeper into mutual relations.

How are relations between Lithuania and Spain at the moment?
The relationship has always been excellent. Spain never recognized the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, we only recognized the first Lithuanian Republic in the year 1922, and then again in 1991. When Lithuania joined the EU we opened our embassy, which has reinforced our friendship. The best proof is the trip by President Adamkus to Spain five years ago, and the trip of the Spanish royal couple last May.

Which are the main points of cooperation between Spain and Lithuania? 
We have similar policies on important issues, like the NATO. Sometimes we have diverging opinions, as in agriculture, but in general Spain and Lithuania, in spite of being very distant countries, support one common policy; we don't have any quarrels. I think we can improve the cooperation on some issues, like in culture or the economy, but we are supporting important projects such as the air patrols over the three Baltic countries. We have some Spanish companies here…

Which projects do you have in mind for the future here in Lithuania?
The best project for our economic relations has been in the signing of an agreement, some months ago, between the Spanish company Iberdrola, which is working in Lithuania and is building a power plant to increase the energetic capacity of Elektrenai with an investment of 330 million euros. We have done other important projects, the radar installations at the Vilnius and Kaunas airports. For the future, Spain should export different Spanish agricultural products and wines [to Lithuania].

What was the meaning of the visit by the Spanish royal couple last May?
It was a necessary visit, and they met all of their goals. The couple met the Lithuanian president; they they paid their respects at the memorial to fallen unarmed Lithuanian civilians (mostly young people) who were killed by the Soviet army during its attack on the Vilnius TV tower on Jan. 13, 1991; they met with Spaniards who are living here in Lithuania; they stopped in at the University of Vilnius… they left very impressed with the country.

How do you analyze the actual economic situation in Lithuania?
We are in a very difficult moment, this is very clear. This crisis is of global nature, however, it is affecting more of the smallest countries because they have less resources and less capacity to adapt. For Spanish people it is very surprising that the Lithuanian budget, or the salaries of the government employees, is dropping by around 10 or 15 percent, where in Spain we are discussing about increasing the salaries a little. This country has a great capacity for effort and sacrifice. Moreover, the Lithuanian people have migrated over the last 20 years to foreign countries like England, Ireland and Spain. Therefore, these years are going to be difficult for everybody, but Lithuania has a lot of options to overcome the crisis.

Which similarities do you notice between the economic situation in Spain and in Lithuania?
In both countries there is an enormous crisis in the construction sector. Lithuania needs more housing and infrastructure and, as in Spain, is suffering a paralyzing contraction in the industry. If we talk about the banks, Lithuanian banking is above all foreign owned, and it has seen fewer repercussions than in Spain. They are very different economies as far as in their importance and size. Both countries have the biggest unemployment rate in the EU, though I can't explain why. For Lithuania, the emigration has always been of enormous concern; it's very difficult for the government to hold the people here because there is little work, and in other countries people can find better salaries. In Spain we have had strong consumption over the last few years, with the construction 'boom' the cause of our real problems.

What can the governments do to fight the crisis?
Both Spain and Lithuania have adopted important measures. For example, Spain is part of the G-20 group of countries. We have to change much of the financial and economic elements [of society], and other excesses of the recent times, such as in the construction sector. Undoubtedly, it seems clear that much of this economic liberalism has been bad, a lot of people have cheated and the economy must be more regulated than in the past.

How are Spanish investments now doing in Lithuania?
Spanish investments are slowing down at the moment. We have had good luck with the project by Iberdrola, but the economic crisis is causing many Spanish businessmen to not move to invest in Lithuania. When I arrived here one of my bigger surprises was that there are no important Spanish investments. Moreover, the Spanish businessman has gone to the traditional countries of Western Europe, to South America, northern Africa and the U.S, and it's difficult to be everywhere.

What would you say to a group of Spanish businessmen to convince them that Lithuania is a good country to invest in?
In Lithuania there are a lot of possibilities, but maybe there is little initiative to come to countries that are a bit unknown to Spanish people, as is Lithuania. The language is important, too. There are great sectors in this country. On the other hand, Lithuanians are trying to come to Spain with small investments, with different products; they are discovering our country, but now it's very difficult.

Is Spanish tourism to Lithuania growing?
The last years has seen an important increase of Spanish tourists in the three Baltic countries. These countries are our new border. Firstly, we visited Portugal; then France; after France we went to Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic, and now we are discovering Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The percentage isn't very high yet, but it is increasing. The main problem is the absence of direct flights between Spain and Lithuania, and to arrive here is more expensive, so people usually choose other countries. In fact, Lithuanian tourism in Spain has gone down this year by 40 percent.