The most important challenge is ensuring peace, stability and security in Europe
Interview with H.E. Darius Jonas Semaška, Ambassador of Lithuania in the Netherlands
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: Lithuania is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, a full member of the Schengen Agreement and NATO. It is also a member of the Nordic Investment Bank and part of Nordic –Baltic cooperation of Northern European countries. The United Nations Human Development Index lists Lithuania as a ‘very high human development’ country. Lithuania has been among the fastest growing economies in the European Union and is ranked 24th in the world in the Ease of Doing Business Index. On 1 January 2015, Lithuania adopted the euro as the official currency and became the 19th member of the Eurozone.
His Excellency Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lithuania Mr Bert van der Lingen said in the interview with me that ‘Lithuanians in general seemed to feel proud of this achievement of becoming the nineteenth member of the euro area. Rightly so, as the country went through a long period of prudent fiscal policies and serious economic reforms. ‘
What were the main changes that the government had to introduce 25 years ago after the fall of the communism to be able to achieve so much? Can we look back at these impressive changes?
In the light of current Russian aggression against Ukraine, we should perhaps start listing our achievements with achieving withdrawal of Russian military forces from Lithuania in early 1990-ies and gaining membership in NATO in 2004. Restoring market economy in Lithuania, as well as the mentality change towards pro-free market mood was another great achievement. We should take into account that most Lithuanian entrepreneurs back in 1940 and in the aftermath of the WWII were either killed, or died in Russian GULAG, or flew to the West. I recall my mother’s effort back in 1993 to hire people to work in her forest, property rights to which had been restored earlier in that year. Even with the offer of generous compensation, it was difficult to find anyone willing to work for a private individual rather than for a state-owned entity. There was a need of timber in the construction sector, however, there were no intermediary companies, that would deliver one’s timber to the construction companies. Next year already a lot of farmers in the neighborhood were ready and willing to be hired. And in the year 1995 there were already dozens of small forestry companies that would offer full range of services. That rapid mentality change was a remarkable process to witness and to be part of.
All the other achievements you mentioned were also about the mentality and perception change, and I am proud that we were quite successful in that process.
The Lithuanian government stimulates the international trade cooperation by for example offering special incentives for investments into the high-technology sectors and high value-added products. Who are the biggest trade partners of Lithuania and could you tell us more about the trade relations between Lithuania and the Netherlands. What are the main fields of cooperation?
Major export and import markets for Lithuania are in the EU. Among those outside of the EU, the biggest trading partner until the last year was Russia. Russian embargo is changing the picture dramatically. The share of the EU market in Lithuanian trade statistics will definitely increase. The Netherlands is among the first five or six biggest export and import partners for Lithuania. The turnover in 2014 was ca. 2.3 billion Euro. Dutch companies that operate in Lithuania mostly do trading or provide services in the sectors where the Dutch are traditionally very strong, e.g. Van Ord had orders for dredging in our seaport Klaipėda. There is also some outsourcing to Lithuania taking place, e.g. in metal processing and engineering. The newly launched LNG Terminal in Klaipėda has drawn the attention of the Dutch companies that service or provide and develop equipment for the use of liquified natural gas.
In your opinion, what is the recipe to do successful business in Lithuania?
Just come and do. Lithuania can boast having a very competitive and favourable environment for business. Starting a business takes three days. In IMD World Competitiveness Ranking 2015 Lithuania moved to 28 position from 34 leaving behind its neighbours ( Estonia – 31, Latvia – 43, Poland – 33). Our problem is that our advantages are not known. As the former Director of Lithuanian Investment Agency once noted, “Lithuania is the best kept secret in Europe”.
What is the current state of bilateral relationship between Lithuania and the Kingdom of the Netherlands?
We are allies in NATO and the EU. The Netherlands together with a few other NATO member states took the lead in establishing NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force which is of paramount importance for us these days. A few weeks ago, together with Estonian and Latvian ambassadors we decorated 178 Dutch Air Force men and women for their participation in the Baltic Air Policing mission. In the EU we are in the same “camp” promoting deepening of the single market, and robustly expanding it into the services and digital sector, supporting liberalization of trade with the outside world, and staunchly defending fiscal discipline.
What were the main milestones of the Lithuanian-Dutch cooperation throughout the ages?
It was namely trade, that defined those milestones. We even got our first known environmental problem because of the intensity of trade back in the 17th century. Because of high demand of timber in the Netherlands, our coastal area was deforested. That eventually caused erosion and sand dunes started “moving” around and were burying fishermen villages under the sand.
The first Envoy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Count Michal Kleofas Oginski was posted in The Hague in 1790-1791 to negotiate a trade agreement between the Commonwealth and The Netherlands. By the way, Michal Kleofas Oginski, besides serving as Treasurer General of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania and being a member of the Sejm of the Commonwealth, was also a composer. I was more than glad to hear his famous polonez “Farewell to the Motherland” broadcasted by Radio 4.
If we look to the development of bilateral trade over the recent decade, we shall find that 11 years ago, when Lithuania joined the EU, its volume was negligible. Today the turnover is 2,3 bln. Euro. Just the profit of the Dutch exports to Lithuania over that period was larger than the Netherlands’ contributions to the EU structural and cohesion funds to assist Lithuania.
Lithuanians in the Netherlands. What were the main immigration waves and how big is the Lithuanian population in the Netherlands?
Over the recent few years the official Dutch statistics provide figures in the range between 5000 and 6000 regarding Lithuanian nationals with residence in the Netherlands. The most populous category is students, who stay in the country three-four years.
I have met a number of artists, IT specialists, medical doctors, managers of logistics, construction and agriculture workers.
What kinds of Lithuanian companies operate in the Netherlands?
Most of Lithuanian companies, that operate in the Netherlands, have their holdings here to make use of the favourable Dutch tax arrangements. Investment figures both ways are impressive, counts in billions of euros, however that is not something that we, as a state, cherish.
I and my company try to promote and intensify the knowledge and contacts about CEE especially in the Netherlands and the knowledge about the Netherlands in the CEE countries. Although the countries are no longer behind the Iron Curtain and are enjoying freedom, like Lithuania for 25 years, so little is still known about CEE and so much can be still achieved together. How would you assess the purpose of my activity?
I sincerely applaud your efforts. Dutch knowledge about our region is very limited, sometimes astoundingly limited. The first diplomatic id card issued by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs read, that I was Ambassador of Lithuania, and my nationality was Latvian.
You have an extensive experience in the relations between CEE and the Western Europe. You have been Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Lithuania to the Republic of Hungary, Republic of Serbia, Republic of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Macedonia before. Now you are the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Lithuania to the Netherlands. What are the most important issues both Western Europe and CEE should both work on and improve?
The most important challenge is ensuring peace, stability and security in Europe. With regards to Russia, over the recent two decades, we, Europeans, have been overwhelmed by wishful thinking. We believed that engagement will help eventually to turn Russia into a liberal democracy and into our strategic partner. Warnings from our intelligence have been disregarded. We were cutting our defense spending while Russia was boosting it. Moreover, Russia heavily invested into its propaganda machine at home and in Europe. It contributed to striking differences in the threat perceptions among NATO member states. Robust European strategic communication effort is needed. It is only increasingly aggressive Russian posture that has brought a change in the character of NATO activity: from psychological reassurance to some of its member states it is gradually turning towards a substantial factor of deterrence. We need to rush to complete this conversion as soon as possible.
How does the cultural cooperation look like? I know that you recently have opened an exhibition in Heerlen: city in the Limburg region of the Netherlands entitled ‘’Among friends’’ Could you please elaborate on this project and other projects?
I was pleasantly surprised to find so much Lithuania related cultural events taking place in the Netherlands. And most of them stemming from the grass-root initiatives. The exhibitions of the works by Lithuanian painters Ričardas Vaitiekūnas and Julijonas Stankus arranged in Heerlen and at Bonnefanten Hedge House in Wijlre fall within that category. Mr. Albert de Groot, Van Eyck family, Mr. Rene van der Linden were those enthusiasts who made the mentioned exhibitions possible. Over the 2,5 years that I have been posted in this country, I have also witnessed Lithuanian visual and audio art presented in The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Naarden, Soest, Hilversum, Delft, Ulft, Utrecht, Dordrecht, Goes and other places. The biggest and most comprehensive presentation of Lithuanian culture traditionally takes place in Amsterdam at de Posthoornkerk at the end of November and is called LTart.NL. Dozens of Lithuanian artists residing in the Netherlands present their audio and visual arts and performances. During the breaks in between the performances one can also taste Lithuanian dishes and beer in the cellar of that beautiful former church.
You became the Ambassador of Lithuania in the Netherlands in 2012. What were you first impressions of the country?
Orderly, cosy, comfortable, rational, with lots of regulations.
His Excellency Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lithuania in his interview with me said that he admires in people from the CEE countries their resilience, pride and dignity. ‘I admire the power they derive from their own culture as the roots of their identity.’ What do you admire in the Netherlands and the Dutch?
Rationality; wide and transparent application of “polder method”; good planning; impressive modern architecture, which is very functional and, at the same time, very cosy and human friendly.
What Lithuania can still learn from the Netherlands and vice versa?
I would outline the so-called “polder method”, i.e., transparent negotiation between different interest groups before decision making. As it comes to something that I miss in the Netherlands, I would mention flexibility, client friendliness and speed of service in some sectors, especially in telecommunications. In Lithuania one does not need to wait a month to get internet into his home. In Lithuania changing telecommunications provider takes minutes rather than, according to the experience of our Embassy, four months. In Lithuania you would not get an answer from telecommunications operator that it is not possible to fix a problem of not being able to call to certain categories of phone numbers in another country.
What would be the message you would like to share with the readers at the end of this interview?
Come and visit Lithuania. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, soon after his participation at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013, went back to Lithuania for a private tour.
 The Nordic Investment Bank (NIB) is an international financial institution founded in the mid-1970s by the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In 2005, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became members of the Bank.  Nordic-Baltic Eight or NB8 is a regional co-operation between Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. During the meetings regional issues and current international topics are reviewed.
Invest Lithuania – http://www.investlithuania.com/
Enterprise Lithuania – http://www.enterpriselithuania.com/
The official Gateway to Lithuania – https://www.lietuva.lt/en/tourism
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania – https://www.urm.lt/default/en/
Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Permanent Representation to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – http://nl.mfa.lt/nl/lt/
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Photos taken by:
3. Andrius Ufartas
5. Algirdas Kubaitis
6. Kęstutis Vanagas
7. Kęstutis Vanagas
8. Šarūnas Mažeika
9. Šarūnas Mažeika
10. Andrius Ufartas
11. Vytenis Jurevičius