Representing Lithuania’s strongest ally

  • 2011-09-07
  • Interview by Rokas M. Tracevskis

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Anne E. Derse (born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1954) as the U.S. ambassador to Lithuania. Derse joined the U.S. State Department in 1981 after receiving a B.A. in French and Linguistics from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1976 and an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She worked as U.S. diplomat in Trinidad and Tobago, South Korea and the Philippines. From 1997, Derse worked in the U.S. embassy in Brussels. From 1999-2003, she was minister counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. From 2004-2005, she assisted in establishing the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. From 2006-2009, Derse served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. Derse is married to a fellow Foreign Service officer and has four children. During the meeting with The Baltic Times at the U.S. embassy in Vilnius, Derse said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is very satisfied with her visit to Vilnius from July 31-August 1. Derse emphasized that Clinton supports Lithuania’s moves towards diversification of its energy sector.

Do you agree with Mr. Putin that the U.S. is a “parasite” on the global economy?
The United States has made an impact on global economic growth for decades. Every country in the world is grappling today with the economic crisis. We admire the way the Baltic States, including Lithuania, have been able to turn around their economies. The United States and President Obama are working hard to express a complete commitment to do the same in the United States.

Don’t you think that the United States should start massive investment into scientific research, if it would like to stay a superpower? I mean in seeking a breakthrough in alternative energy, for example.
If you would study the program that President Obama and Secretary of Energy [Steven] Chu have put in place, we are making important investments in new kinds of energy technologies including, for example, hybrids. But let’s remember that the United States is an exceptionally open academic environment that attracts the best talent from around the world. Most scholars in the most innovative fields are going to study and work in the United States. We want to continue to encourage that. If you would look at President Obama’s economic plan for the United States, he has put great emphasis on the importance of investment in the knowledge industry.

How many Western democracies will not support the independence of Palestine during the coming U.N. General Assembly in September?
You have to ask them.

What do you think about the Golovatov incident in Austria?
That’s a very serious question because I understand how sensitive it is in Lithuania, given the tragic events of January 1991. I would like to say that our hearts go out to the families and the friends of the people who were injured and killed in that incident. We are concerned about this issue between two of our partners. We are pleased that the Lithuanian and Austrian governments established a commission to look into it. We are going to monitor the work of the commission very carefully.

Do you think that Russian democracy is much better than the Belarusian one?
We encourage all of our partners, particularly in the OSCE, to meet their commitments under the OSCE to support freedoms and human rights. It is a part of our dialogue with the Russians. You know what we think, in respect to Belarus, that there were huge steps backwards with the election of December 2010. People have been arrested and imprisoned. We call Belarus to change dramatically its approach to basic freedoms and human rights to which it is committed under the OSCE.

I guess the candidates of the real opposition in Russia will not even be registered for the elections there.
We want to encourage all countries that have made commitments in the OSCE to respect basic freedoms and human rights, including the conduct of elections.

How did you manage to learn the Lithuanian language so perfectly?
[Derse answered this question in good Lithuanian]. I must admit that the Lithuanian language is really a very difficult language [Derse can also speak French, Italian and Azerbaijani]. I think it is very important that I try to speak Lithuanian. I did study with a teacher in the embassy every day and I can speak fluently. I hope so. However, I don’t have many opportunities in Vilnius to speak Lithuanian because people, like you, can speak very well in English. I like to visit regions and to speak with people in the countryside, though it is not very easy because the Lithuanian language in Zemaitija, Aukstaitija, Dzukija is different. [Starting from here, Derse continues in English] So, I’m trying. I think it is important from the point of view of showing respect for the country and trying to understand the thinking of the people.

You are the best U.S. ambassador ever in speaking Lithuanian.
That’s an enormous compliment. Thank you. I appreciate it because I need encouragement. It is not easy to continue on.

Which city, where you have stayed during your career, do you like most? Vilnius? Singapore? Brussels? Baku?
It is really a hard question. I’m not pretending to be diplomatic. It is hard to pick some of them because each and every one of them was interesting in its own way. It was the time when I was traveling with my family. I have four children. We happened to be in Singapore [her husband was a U.S. diplomat in Singapore], Brussels and Manila. The kids were in an excellent international school in Manila and that was great from the family perspective. My husband and I were together in Iraq and Azerbaijan. And those were really exciting and interesting assignments, but at that moment there were just two of us. We were focusing very much, you know, on what we can do as a couple. Here in Lithuania, I find a little bit of everything that I like because I studied in Europe, in Italy and France. I like Europe very much. When I left Azerbaijan to come here, my Azerbaijani friends were saying to me ‘you are very lucky, you are going to Europe.’ They were right – it feels like a very European lifestyle. But it is a European lifestyle with quite an interesting, rich and sometimes difficult history. So, I can’t say that I like any one [place] better than another. I’m very happy to be in Lithuania, from a work perspective and personal perspective.

What do you think about the ongoing militarization of Russia’s Kaliningrad district? I mean the short-range nuclear missiles, which are already there, and, probably, the deployment of the S-400, the anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems there this fall.
I don’t have any information to discuss about the specifics of Kaliningrad. But I can tell you that I know that security is the Number One priority for the Lithuanian government. It is a very important part of our bilateral relation. I’d like to explain a little bit of President Obama’s approach on disarmament and non-proliferation, which we see as two sides of the same coin. He is working towards a long-long-term goal which, as he said, may not happen in his lifetime but which still is our goal, which is a world which is free from nuclear weapons. In that context, we concluded the START treaty, which is now implemented. The important thing from the point of view of Lithuania, I think, is that as we implement the START treaty, we are committed to finding ways to engage in further negotiations with Russia to reduce nuclear arms, and that includes not only strategic, but non-strategic and non-deployed weapons as well.

You watched, together with President Grybauskaite, the semi-final, Lithuania vs. the U.S., of the world basketball championship at Rotuses Square last year. What was your impression of the communication with Grybauskaite during that game?

I enjoy talking with Grybauskaite. That was a great game. Lithuania has a chance at the coming Eurobasket to distinguish itself again. We like basketball. Basketball is one of those things that unite Lithuania and the United States. It is an extremely popular sport in the U.S. and with our president.

The USA Today newspaper predicts that Lithuania will get silver and the U.S. will get gold in the men’s basketball during the coming Olympic Games in London. After the meeting of prime ministers of the Baltic States, Scandinavia and the UK in London in January of this year, there was some talk about an emerging northern alliance. Do you think that it has some prospects?
That meeting, when Prime Minister David Cameron invited his Baltic and Scandinavian colleagues, was very interesting from the U.S. perspective. We have long been supporters of stronger regional cooperation. The Baltic countries, the Nordic countries and the UK share our basic values of democracy, freedom and free markets. There is a great scope for economic growth and greater economic cooperation. We think it is positive. And don’t forget, we have the Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (e-PINE). It is a body which includes the Baltic countries and Nordic countries and the U.S. It is a forum that we conducted for a number of years. The forum will be chaired by Lithuania next year. We find that the dialogue, which we have with the Baltic and Nordic countries, through the e-PINE mechanism has been very useful. Certainly, the UK is one of our strong partners. 

There are several hundred thousand people of Lithuanian origin in the U.S.
Almost a million, actually.

And Latvian and Estonian communities in America are much smaller. Does it give some advantage for Lithuania in dealing with the U.S.?
I can’t really compare. I know about the Lithuanian diaspora. The Lithuanian diaspora in the U.S. has always been a very strong force ensuring close people-to-people ties between our countries. I personally believe that to have a strong relationship between countries, it isn’t just the government talking to the government. We need a much further network of contacts: civil society groups, NGOs, and citizens – professors, students, doctors and lawyers – and having the very strong diaspora in the United States has ensured that we have that large network of connections between our people. Lithuania is now a member of the European Union and that’s good – the United States strongly supported your joining the European Union – but it means that we need to work even harder to continue to keep those close people-to-people ties connection. We have established a new exchange program, at the U.S. embassy, of high school students. Fifteen-year-olds (60 this year) go to live in families and study in American high schools and then they come back to complete their high school. To me it is an extremely important new way to build ties between our future leaders. My goal is eventually to bring Americans also to study here in Lithuania and to live with Lithuanian families. We depend on donations from interested companies and individuals to support this program. Anyone who is interested can go to our embassy’s Web site to find more information about it. We certainly welcome contributions from those who want to build these kinds of ties between our future leaders. 

How many U.S. citizens live in Lithuania?
It is hard to count U.S. citizens, exactly, unless they register in the embassy. I would like to use this opportunity to encourage American citizens who are living in Lithuania to come to the embassy and register.

Your favorite Lithuanian dish?
Hahaha. There are a lot of them. I used to say kepta duona [baked bread]. Now I say blynai su varske [pancakes with curd] because I had wonderful blynai su varske in the countryside and I was out of this world. I also like troskinys [stews]. I have a fantastic cook from Kaisiadorys who occasionally cooks Lithuanian dishes.

Do you want to say something for TBT readers at the end of interview?
I’d just like to say that I read The Baltic Times regularly and I find it very interesting and provocative sometimes, and stimulating. I wish them all the best.