Sajudis, the national movement for Lithuania’s independence back in the late ’80s of the last millennium, and a Lithuanian version of the Soviet Union’s last president Mikhail Gorbachov’s-led perestroika, has thrown into the limelight of politics an array of bright and patriotically-charged, though politically inexperienced men who were ready to take the responsibility and take charge in dismantling the USSR and molding its own state. 47-year-old Alvydas Medalinskas, a young graduate student back then, threw himself into the swirl of the history-making events, gaining a reputation as a Sajudis new-generation maverick. Many bright Sajudis-era politicians have faded away or been pushed aside by less-patriotic-and-more-business-minded people. However, Medalinskas has managed to stay true to Sajudis’ ideals. Having earned a degree in politics from the London School of Economics and Politics, he submerged himself in legislative activity as a two-time Seimas MP; as journalist he highlighted Baltic issues for “Laisvosios Europos Radijas” (Free Europe Radio) and Lithuanian dailies. His further endeavors included the formation of a fund, bearing his own name, encompassing Lithuanian free-mind think-tanks. Currently he is a sought-after political analyst, contributing to the daily Lietuvos Zinios, the trendy Web site Delfi and others. The Baltic Times sat down with Medalinskas for this interview.
Back then, being a member of Sajudis Initiative Group, you were in a position to experience the first-hand political drama of the time. Though Sajudis is still heavily idealized and romanticized, can you today reveal any of the elbowing, nasty, behind-the-scenes struggles for power?
Frankly, there was a lot of everything. As for the romantic part of it, I would attribute this to the establishment of Sajudis on June 3, 1988, until the Sajudis founding conference in October 1988. Certainly, this period was the most precarious. However, it was the nicest, as people would join, driven by long-cherished goals and convictions of self-independence, patriotism and, ultimately, political independence. However, in 1989, with the ongoing campaign of the USSR’s Conference of National deputies, then the highest Soviet legislative body, a putrid smell of anticipated power sank in, ripping up the intentions of a good deal of Sajudis’ members. It became especially smelly before the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Council in 1990, right before the proclamation of the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence, when power-hungry people began courting Sajudis in the hopes of being elected or coming closer to power. This was when the idealism of Sajudis started to substantially fade away. Were there any misunderstandings and squabbles behind the scenes? Certainly there were, as Sajudis encompassed people of very different generations, cultural and educational backgrounds. Some people, let us admit it, were members of the Communist Party, while others hated Communism and the Soviet system.
However, judging from your activities following the benchmark events, swapping several parties as if suggesting you were seeking your political identity, one may get the idea of you being a rather accidental man in Sajudis, a bit of a flip-flopper?
I disagree with that notion. Wikipedia wrongly states that I have been with three different parties in a dozen-year period. Actually, I have been with two parties only - Social Democrats and the Liberal Union. I do not regret anything about the memberships. Back in the ’90s, the founding of a party was seen as a very healthy, democracy-filling thing. Back then, numbers of people would join parties and swiftly move to another. I did not see it as a bad thing, otherwise, we would have ended up with a one-party system. Besides, back then, the parties lacked ideologies and were seeking their identities. So, to speak in your words, flip-floppiness was quite common then. I did not know anything about social democratic ideas then, but I knew that Social Democrats were in power at that time in Sweden. Sweden looked to all of us in Sajudis to be a very attractive example of an independent Western country. When the Social Democrat Party, which was one of the very first to be founded in the already independent Lithuania, experienced some nasty attacks, because the then-leftists were wrongly regarded by Sajudis as inheritors of the Communist legacy, I joined them in the hopes of protecting the Social Democrats against adversity. But when they came to power in 1992, I told them my mission was over. Later, I worked as an advisor for President Rolandas Paksas, who before that was the leader of Liberal Union. Honestly, I was engulfed with his words to eradicate corruption in Lithuania. However, I never joined his party, particularly when I saw how his words differed from his deeds.
What do you believe to be the biggest achievements and setbacks of Lithuania over 21 years of independence?
Obviously, joining the European Union and NATO have been the biggest achievements. As for the biggest disappointments, I would name the lingering injustice and inability to create a normally functioning judicial system. Our people emigrate not only because of the severe economic and social plight. Sadly, many of them leave Lithuania particularly because of the injustice.
Speaking of our EU membership, not only ordinary people, but also acknowledged notables and think-tank types, cast doubt over the scope of our EU integration. Is there something we should worry about?
Quite disappointedly, we can speak of two European Unions – the one we joined, and the post-Lisbon-treaty European Union. Obviously, the current European Union is becoming an entity which differs much from the Union we joined.
What is the difference?
Today the EU is rapidly becoming more federalized. I am not a supporter of a federalized European Union at all.
Does it lead us to a forceful abandoning of our national identity and independence?
It does in a sense. However, it is not that much about the refusal of a part of our identity as it is about the harsh brushing with our values that we have traditionally cherished.
What values are you talking about?
First, I am talking about the values which lay out the foundation of the entire Europe. I was in the Lithuanian delegation for the Convention of Europe. We strongly offered to include a statement maintaining Christianity as the foundation of Europe. I reckoned this to be axiomatic. However, our suggestion was declined. It is still disappointing. Frankly, some EU judicial decisions are hard to comprehend, like, for example, the so-called commercial law, enabling commercial entities not to disclose their margins and mark-ups. I want everyone to consider whether the talk of a common EU foreign and energy policy are useful only for the biggest and most influential European countries, or for everyone?
Sajudis has thrown out many real leaders, in other words, statesmen able to carry the country’s fate. Do you see a generation of new leaders in modern politics? Is there not a vacuum?
The new generation leaders have shown up. However, I do not dare say whether the generation has grown up. Probably it is still growing up. The sprouting of the new leaders has been heavily overshadowed by the lengthy eras of the biggest-caliber leaders like Landsbergis and the late Brazauskas. To some extent I see the second generation leaders in politics. However, I would like to see more of them from the youngest generation. Disappointingly, however, new leaders tend to think not about contributing to the state and statehood, but rather how to get tangible use for his party or for personal use, as it was with the bureaucracy and party nomenclature when Lithuania was occupied by Soviets. That is one of the largest problems in the present Lithuanian politics.
Latvians, and recently the Estonians, have mandated the incumbent political leaders, Valdis Dombrovskis and Andrus Ansip, in carrying out the post-downturn tasks. Do you believe the incumbent Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius can hold onto the government’s wheel after Seimas elections in 2012? I should ask you first whether the unpopular Kubilius, soon facing elections for chairman of the Motherland Union-Christian Democrat Party, can cling on to leadership.
I do not know. When speaking of the middle-generation politics, I also had in mind Kubilius, whom I know well from the Sajudis years. I saw him growing and maturing back then. Unfortunately, having become the prime minister, he has not revealed any virtues that his caliber of politician should expose. People, and his former friends, rightly blame him for the misdeeds of the government, not only for the strategic gaffes and blunders, but also for his uninspiring personal traits, like closeness, conviction of ‘I am the only one who knows anything,’ arrogance and assuming the role of a kamikaze. It does surprise me a lot, as I used to know him as a different person. I wonder whether the prime ministership has spoiled him. Sometimes he does declare good things, but, unfortunately, due to these characteristics, they are not channeled to the grassroots. I doubt the possibility of him being re-elected.
Speaking of the new leaders, certainly President Grybauskaite pops to mind first. Her leadership sometimes receives very extreme evaluations, ranging from sheer exaltation by your colleague, Sajudis notable Arvydas Juozaitis, and panicky warnings of an impending dictatorship by right-wing MP Saulius Peceliunas. Who is right?
I guess neither. I believe the truth is in the middle. Most importantly, our own constitution does not enable a president to act like a dictator, so Peceliunas’ worries sound quite exaggerated. No doubt, the biggest problem today is not a pro-active president, but the weak parliament that has depleted the public’s trust to zero. In addition, the weak quarrelling parties and passive public. Altogether, the presidential institution has been riding high in Lithuania so far. Let’s remember the popularity of the former President Adamkus. While his popularity rose from his being a man from America, Grybauskaite’s popularity is built up on her work and phenomena in the European Commission. I do believe she works successfully so far.
Is her policy of the so-called head-cutting understandable? As you know, she has changed the heads of the most influential institutions: General Prosecutor’s Office, Special Investigation Service and Financial Crimes Investigation Service.
In some cases I would have expected clearer explanations as to why it was needed to do so. I do not justify “head-cutting,” but when it is done for the sake of boosting the responsibility of the state authorities, I am fine with it. Let us not forget that we still very much lack a responsibility of the people in power.
In a recent statement, Grybauskaite pinpointed the spread of the oligarchy, intertwining politics, business and media, as the biggest vice in present-day Lithuania. As blame for the first two, perhaps, does not surprise anyone, fingering the media has caught many off guard. Was she right to claim this?
I do not believe there is more oligarchy in Lithuania than in Latvia, Estonia or Poland. The question should be related to whether the countries have the means to harness it. Speaking of the Lithuanian media, I want to stress a few things. It is good that it is owned by private companies and people. However, one can wonder whether their personal interests do not interfere with the core journalism objectives - to disseminate objective information and be unbiased. Do we not have the so-called “ordered” articles in our newspapers that are not marked as advertising? I reckon we do. No one doubts the necessity to have free media, but a media owner’s business interests in an outlet must be declared. Unfortunately, we do not have a system ensuring this. Some media is owned by foreign-capital entities. I am not saying it is bad, but I wonder whether the interests of a foreign country are not put above journalistic objectives in Lithuania.
You have worked for a while in the daily Respublika, which is notorious for its xenophobic and homophobic outbursts. How did it come that you, being so well-read and independent, applied for a job within it when many self-respecting journalists stay away from that daily?
Maybe not everyone knows that Respublika was a Sajudis daily. When I came to the newspaper, I wanted to breathe the Sajudis spirit into it, as well as a portion of patriotism and love for Lithuania. There is nothing bad in these things. It is all about how we channel the message. Paradoxically, and not arguing with you, many people of a cultural background do read the daily because of the striving by the newspaper. I believe I have managed to achieve the objectives that were strongly supported by Tomkus, the Respublika publisher and editor-in-chief. When I left the outlet, he told me I had managed to add new readers to the total. I am proud of that.