Lithuanian-Georgian relations: from blind love to reminding of the necessity of homework

  • 2010-09-09
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

If, during the past sweltering summer heatwave, his attaches and advisors had seen him nonchalantly sauntering in a baggy shirt and shorts along the main Palanga resort promenade, they likely would not have recognized him. Jonas Paslauskas, a seasoned diplomat, certainly knows very well how to blend in with the mainstream crowd. Probably that virtue has helped him, a Soviet-era high-ranking official in the Ministry of Foreign affairs, to climb the diplomatic ladder to the highest levels. Fifty-three-year-old Paslauskas can pride himself on a successful diplomatic career.

In 1993-1995, he served as a political advisor in the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington D. C. From 1995- 1999, he worked in different capacities in the Lithuanian Embassy in Canada. His diplomatic career peaked in 1999, when he was appointed Lithuanian ambassador to Belarus. After 6 years in its capital, Minsk, he took over the diplomatic mission in the Lithuanian Consulate in New York, where he spent over two years.

In the beginning of 2010, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite received his letters of credence as the newly appointed Lithuanian ambassador to Georgia. Paslaukas took time out for this interview with The Baltic Times.

In our pursuit to maintain Georgia’s striving for a slot in the European Union, development of the Lithuanian-Georgian tourism ties, some experts claim, are lagging behind. I have never heard of a Lithuanian tourism agency offering any vacations in Georgia. Do you support the notion?
Well, indeed, tourism between the two countries could be developed much better. Though Georgian resorts cater to tourists from Armenia and Turkey, I see big potential for the development of  tourism between our countries. I believe that the ties should be started with relations among different Lithuanian and Georgian towns and cities. In that sense, I am disappointed that the Palanga Municipality Administration has declined Kibuleti, a small Georgian resort town’s offer to strike up mutual cultural ties. While such lower-level ties are absent, we cannot expect positive changes on a larger tourism scale. Had Palanga stretched out its hand to Kibuleti, the tourist flow would have been streaming between the two resorts by now.

What are the main differences between the resort town of Palanga, and Batumi, the main Georgian resort?
Well, to tell the truth, before the clashes in Abkhazia, Georgia’s main resort was Sukhumi. However, after the Georgia – Russia war in 2008, Abkhazia has been controlled by Russia  ever since. Therefore, Georgians are not allowed to go to Sukhumi any more. Speaking of Batumi, its differences in comparison with Palanga are big. Palanga can be proud of a large strip of powdery sand along the seashore. Batumi’s seashore is stony. In Palanga, you can wade into the Baltic Sea’s water dozens of meters, while in the Batumi resort, the sea hostilely deepens at once. Though there are many different restaurants in Batumi, speaking generally, most of them lack service quality, as the whole resort lacks a developed infrastructure. Unlike Palanga, Batumi does not have many small cafeterias and taverns in a close proximity to the sea. In terms of service quality and infrastructure development, no doubt, Palanga is more advanced. However, Georgian nature and landscape are fabulous.

Obviously, Georgia has invested millions into its tourism. With regard to Georgian laws, they are very flexible and foreign-investment favorable. It is why Batumi has turned into a large construction site in recent years. Such large hotel chains as Sheraton and Kempinski are building their hotels in Batumi. The Georgian government perceives the ultimate importance to turn Batumi into an excellent, Western-like resort. Thus, Georgians want to show the world the difference between Russia’s occupied Sukhumi and Georgia’s Batumi.

You have been involved in different diplomatic missions, ranging from Minsk to New York. How is your ambassadorship in Georgia special?
Oh, no doubt, the diplomatic mission in Georgia is very special in many senses. The Georgian plight for the Euro Atlantic and European integration could be compared to Lithuania’s integration bids back in the 1990s. However, Georgia is in a much more complicated situation, as 20 percent of its territory is occupied by Russia. I am not afraid to use the word, as the Lithuanian parliament recently passed a resolution proclaiming occupation of two Georgian regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is very important that, during the hard times in Georgia, other foreign countries would support its aspirations. Georgia understands that very well, therefore, it appreciates wholeheartedly the foreign support. Georgia has a clear-cut goal – to obtain EU and NATO membership. However, let us admit, Georgia has to do certain homework while pursuing it. Lithuania’s mission is to share its political experience with Georgia – not only its achievements, but disappointments and blunders as well. It would help Georgia to avoid mistakes.

With Grybauskaite’s presidency, Lithuanian foreign policy towards Georgia has become more moderate, as political analysts assert, within the EU foreign policy framework. In other words, it has been a sheer turnabout from former President Valdas Adamkus’ unconditional support for the Georgian bids. Does the Lithuanian Embassy in Tbilisi feel the transformation?
Honestly speaking, I have heard these kinds of assertions. Did the Lithuanian approach change? It did not.  In no way could I agree with the estimations. Let us see how many mutual meetings and visits have taken place recently. A lot! Quite recently, Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vashadze paid a visit to Lithuania. Other meetings took place as well. In terms of issuing visas, we have not seen any decline in their numbers. Georgian businessmen and ordinary people are very interested in Lithuania. However, some people provide false information while applying for visas in the embassy. For example, some claim to go to Lithuania for tourism, but, in fact, they seek illegal employment in Lithuania. However, it is nothing out of the extraordinary - it is a common thing in all embassies. We do try to check out every applicant’s background.

However, quality of state relations is best described by mutual visits of heads of states. Within one year, Grybauskaite’s predecessor, Adamkus, had met with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, probably four times. Meanwhile, Grybauskaite shunned any meeting with him during her first year of presidency. To remind you, to the celebrations of Lithuania’s 20-year Independence proclamation anniversary, she invited Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and even Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, but not Georgia’s Saakashvili. Does is not prove that the relations between both countries are not like they were in the Adamkus era?
I cannot speak on behalf of the president’s office. However, to my understanding, only the leaders of the neighboring countries, including Belarus and Russia, were invited to the commemoration. By the way, the Georgian Foreign Affair’s minister did participate in the celebrations. At the end of May, Lithuania’s Parliament Chairwoman Irena Degutiene went for a state visit to Georgia, where she met the the Georgian president. Does that speak of worsening relations? I do not think so. However, rumors do spread about supposedly deteriorating relations between our countries. Even Vashadze, Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was surprised to hear this kind of question from Lithuanian journalists. He answered clearly that he had not noticed the signs. Absence of highest-level visits does not proclaim declining mutual relations. It means the countries started collaborating on a bit lower level. It usually follows the highest summits.

After more than one year since the end of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Lithuania solely strived to hinder the restoration of EU-Russia negotiations, exasperating some Western leaders for its upstart role and putting all of the EU in a standoff, which was the outcome of Adamkus’ proactive American policy in the region. Looking back from today’s perspective, did it make sense for Lithuania to deviate from the EU foreign policy’s framework? Was Lithuania not, to some extent, a hostage of the American geopolitical plot?
I do not see the things that way. Really, I cannot say that EU and Lithuania’s standpoints and relations with Georgia differed, or currently differ a lot. Maybe there was a certain slowdown in the EU-Georgia relations in the past years, but now they have picked up again. Saakashvili’s recent visit to France was a success - all media acknowledged that. Before this, the EU Foreign Minister Ashton and French Foreign Affairs minister paid visits to Tbilisi. This means the relations are really good.

After Saakashvili clamped down on the opposition and closed down its TV channels in 2008, the U.S. Administration and EU leaders warned him about the negative consequences for Georgian aspirations. Do Georgia and its authoritative leader deserve the Western trust in terms of sticking to the principles of democracy, the way the West understands it? Had it been any other country, it would have paid a heavy price for the reprisals. However, this was not Georgia’s case.
(Pause) I have answered already diplomatically that there was a certain pause in the Western and Georgian relations. To put it more bluntly, one year ago, the relations saw a significant setback because of the aforementioned events. Indeed, Georgia has been warned on several occasions over the consequences of the undemocratic developments. However, Georgia and its President Saakashvili have drawn the necessary conclusions. After the recent municipality elections in Georgia, neither Georgian opposition, nor international observers had any rebukes to Saakashvili. The elections were very democratic.

However, the Adamkus-led Lithuania, as far as I remember, closed its eyes on the crackdowns, as no warning followed them. Do you not think that Adamkus’ unconditional support and endless friendship with the Georgian president have overshadowed the rational outlook to the notorious events?
It is quite difficult to evaluate the past from today’s perspective. I do believe that Lithuania was following the processes and responding to them appropriately. I remember that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a statement warning the Georgian side of possible setbacks in pursuing its political aspirations. Indeed, the setback did follow. Most of the time, like in this case, such statements are delivered through diplomatic channels, not necessarily on the top level. Adamkus has done a lot in ensuring the current quality of the relations which, once again, I describe as very good.

Nevertheless, do you agree that the current Lithuanian stance on Georgia corresponds to the EU foreign policy considerably more than before?
Well, it does. Maybe some side would like a quicker development of the processes, but Lithuania, as the rest of the EU, politely reminds Georgia to do its homework well. Probably it is the best approach under the circumstances.

Did you have a chance to get to know the President Saakashvili better? What is your opinion about him?
I have met him on several occasions. He does have a clear-cut vision of a modern and well-developed Georgia. I am surprised of his insights and exuberance while putting hands on an array of state-level projects. He is a man who never gets tired. I do not know many public officials in Georgia with such a thorough educational background like Saakashvili. Some rebuke him for being a bit authoritative, but his way of governing characterizes the local specifics, which include very strong political leadership. You may not like him or adore him, but he is a very strong and charismatic leader that remains unchallenged in the country.