Words of advice

  • 2002-04-04
  • David Holliday
In May 1992 I was in a meeting with the National Defense Committee. One of the members was Saulius Peciulunas, and I remember very clearly one of the things he said.

"Gentlemen," he said, "You know that we want to move toward NATO and the EU, but when you are dealing with us you should always bear in mind one thing. People of my generation have all been brought up under the Soviet system, and whether we like it or not, we have all inherited the Soviet way of thinking and the Soviet way of doing business."

In my 10 years of living in Lithuania I have never forgotten it, and I have learned how true it was. But I now have two further thoughts of my own for people wishing to do business in this part of the world.

The first is that image is more important than substance. The second is that when dealing with people in positions of authority in the bureaucracy, you must remember that if there is a choice between what is in the national interest and what is good for the pocket, then there is no choice!

This may seem to be a harsh judgment on a country which has been my home for the last 10 years. But it is better not to hide such things because it does Lithuania no service.

There have been countless occasions over the years when Western visitors have made week-long tours in the Baltics to become "instant experts" on the region and pronounced that everything is moving along "splendidly."

My experience has been otherwise, but at least my long association with this area, going back to 1974, has taught me why it is so.

What is required to move things along in the direction that Lithuania wants to go are initiative, a willingness to initiate change, and the energy to push it through. These, of course, are precisely the qualities that got people sent to the gulag in Soviet times. Is it any wonder that the majority were content to keep their heads beneath the parapet?

In many ways the situation facing Lithuania after the break-up of the Soviet Union was analogous to the situation that faced Germany and Japan after World War II.

Germany and Japan both suffered heavy damage to their national infrastructure and industry. But with the assistance of financial aid from the Marshall Plan and the enforced reorganization of trade unions and work practices, they were able to make rapid progress and quickly achieved their respective positions as the most powerful economies in Europe and the East.

Sadly, the analogy is not complete. The Soviet Union was not defeated in war and therefore the infrastructure, poor as it was, remained intact and functioning.

Indeed, the bureaucratic machine Lithuania inherited has grown even bigger with the passing years and is severely hindering or actively sabotaging the country's economic reforms.

Can Lithuania survive? Yes, of course it can. The march toward NATO and the EU continues, and as the months move on both goals appear almost inevitable.

My own rather hard view is that Lithuania does not really deserve to be a member of either organization, for it has not done anywhere near as much as it should to improve the situation in its own backyard.

Over the years, the government of the day, both left and right, has done just enough to meet the aims of the World Bank, IMF and other international bodies, and then continue to play games in the margins. Corruption is endemic and, as always, it is the general public who suffer the most, while the cronies get rich and stay out of prison.

The worst crime here is for a poor man to steal 500 litas ($130). This will get him a two-year prison sentence. But steal $5 million and you are OK, because you have enough money to buy influence.

So I say yes to the EU, but for the wrong reasons. The EU will at least give Lithuania an infrastructure and a discipline, which it is unable and unwilling to impose upon itself. Tough measures will be imposed, but then the government of the day will be able to say to its people, "But this is an EU requirement and we have to do it!"

But, to be fair, there has been some remarkable progress in the last 10 years. Just look at Vilnius. Ten years ago it was rundown, sad and drab. Look at it now and it is bubbling, alive and thriving. Every time I pay a visit there is something new to see - restored churches, new restaurants, the opera, the theater, the open air markets.

And life for the Lithuanian man in the street will get better. It will just take longer than it should.