19 October 2019, Saturday, 14:03
We are in the same boat

Andrius Pulokas: You Can See Both Past And Future In Belarus

Andrius Pulokas: You Can See Both Past And Future In Belarus

An interview of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Lithuania to the website Charter97.org.

We met with Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania Andrius Pulokas in a very interesting period: within the short break between the two rounds of the presidential election, a month before the trial disconnection of the Baltic States' energy systems from the so-called Brell power ring. Lithuania is electing a new president, getting prepared for the synchronization with the Western European energy systems, and keeps surprisingly calm regardless of all this, which even makes one envy: no radical changes will happen there, no return to the past will occur. All we can do is to either jealously watch them in a silence, or use the really priceless experience of our neighbours.

- Mr. Ambassador, next Sunday Lithuania will hold the second round of the presidential election. Of course, the European future of Lithuania has already been chosen before. Nevertheless, how can the relations between our states change depending on the victory of one or the other candidate?

- Now is a very interesting period in Lithuania indeed, before the second round of the presidential race. Reading the programs and statements of all presidential candidates, including those who didn't make it to the second round, we will notice that all of them speak about the value of subsequent foreign policy of Lithuania. Thus, there can be no drastic changes. Here, in Lithuania, we have long appreciated and respected consistency in these issues, everyone agrees with this. The relations with Belarus remain part (undoubtedly, a very important part) of the Lithuanian foreign policy, so major changes in these relations seem unlikely.

- And what, in your opinion, are the chances of today's Belarus to become the same European state as the Baltic countries, and in the same way talk about the consistency of foreign policy, the second round of elections and the inviolability of the European way?

- In fact, Belarus is not only geographically, but also historically a European state. You and I have a lot in common in history: do not forget that once we lived in one great European state. Of course, some time ago Belarus chose a slightly different path, but still the main thing is that it remains a European state all the same. And in the long run, I am sure it will be so.

- Lithuania’s struggle for independence coincided with your teenage years. How did you perceive everything that happened around? Just yesterday it seemed that the gray Soviet future lay ahead, and suddenly everything was changing before our eyes.

- I remember well the blossom of the public consciousness. Step by step, we climbed to a new level of freedom, and then we realized that we had to go all the way. Because there can be no semi-freedom or partial freedom. Remember the slogans of the perestroyka times about economic independence?

There is no separate economic freedom. Then everything changed rapidly, and we, too, changed very quickly with Lithuania. One or two demonstrations or bright speeches were enough so that the people were re-born. My brother at that time served in the Soviet army, somewhere in Siberia. And I wrote letters to him in which I told how everything was changing here: about demonstrations, about the revival of Lithuania, about the national idea. He, there, in Siberia, could not understand what was happening, and showered me with questions. However, in order to understand this, it was necessary to live there at that time. In Lithuania it was impossible to explain this in words, let alone in a letter. People really were re-born, they recalled their origins - and after all, in every family there were those who lived in the independent Lithuania and told their children and grandchildren about it. And suddenly it came out of the memories to the reality, the near future.

My grandfather, for example, was a military man, then a wealthy farmer, and of course, in Stalin's times he was exiled to Siberia. So, in the Soviet times, it was not customary in our family to talk about this, as in many Lithuanian families: it was not safe, children could say something superfluous at school. And suddenly it became possible to talk about it - quite openly, not in the kitchen, but anywhere. And, once breathing in this freedom, everyone understood: there is no turning back.

- Lithuania is a free country, but its two neighboring countries, Belarus and Russia, have chosen, as you quite correctly put it, a slightly different path, thus jeopardizing the independence of Lithuania. How effective, in your opinion, is the deployment of the NATO battalion in Lithuania?

- It was easier for us to choose our own path, because we had the foundations of statehood, there was a Constitution, there was experience, there was a generation that remembered the life in the independent Lithuania, there was a diplomatic service in exile, there was an international reaction to the occupation of Lithuania. And since these foundations have been preserved, integration into the European Union and NATO has become an organic step in the return to the European family. And in a family, security is a common cause. And the units of the North Atlantic alliance partners are an element of ensuring this security.

We are a small country that survived more than one occupation in the past century, and we are well aware that we can hardly protect ourselves alone. Therefore, we have chosen a collective security system from the very start. It was our choice with all the subsequent steps.

- You are the only ambassador who, while at work, at the same time remains close to home. Two and a half hours from Vilnius to Minsk - and there seems to be a many- decade gap between them. Do you have cognitive dissonance when you cross the border?

- Yes, we are the closest capitals. And I see the neighboring state, which is developing. It develops in its own way, in many ways quite differently than my country. However, diplomats have no place for emotions - we have to go to the country where we are sent, and build up, and then develop relations with it.

We are also neighbors, and we need to remove obstacles that prevent people from traveling, communicating, and cooperating.

Sometimes I really see something here that reminds me of the Soviet past. And sometimes - on the contrary, something super-modern. In a word, Belarus is a country where you can see both the past and the future in one place.

- The approaches of the current President and Prime Minister to the Belarusian NPP are somewhat different. If the PM proposes a “hooligan plan” that will allow not to shut down the nuclear power plant, the President insists on the termination of the construction. In your opinion, what is the best approach?

- In fact, despite the apparent differences in the wording, our position on the nuclear power plant is one, and very solid: the construction does not meet international standards that were not respected from the very beginning. But this is an object of nuclear energy, and not just a factory. For the construction of such objects there are international rules that must be strictly followed.

The need to take into account the opinion of the neighboring state is one of such rules. For this, all mechanisms and conventions have been created that are strictly regulated by the site selection of such objects. However, unfortunately, since the very beginning we have heard from Belarus either denial or manipulation of the international opinion. The proposal of the Prime Minister is to preserve some elements of the infrastructure of the facility and use it differently. This is a rational proposal that would not be detrimental, especially since the goal of building a nuclear power plant is Belarus’s independence from the Russian gas.

The most important thing is that the position of Lithuania regarding the Belarusian NPP is not only the position of the President, or the Prime Minister, or the Seimas members, or individual politicians. This is the opinion of the Lithuanians. So people think. They fear possible consequences, especially considering the Chernobyl experience, experimental reactors, the Russian construction culture, incidents with the falling of the reactor vessel, and so on, not to mention the very expediency of the construction.

By the way, we had a referendum on the development of nuclear energy in Lithuania, and the people decided not to develop this industry. We talked about the geographical closeness of our countries, so, geography and nature have no borders at all, they are common. The principle “this is my territory, I will build on it everything I want” should not work, it contradicts the spirit of good neighborhood. Of course, every state has the right to decide what to do, but not in those cases when it comes to objects that are potentially dangerous for other states. There is a decision of the Espoo Convention, which recorded violations. But how to live with it further - unfortunately, this question is of somebody else's competence.

- Lithuania will not buy energy from the Belarusian NPP. But Lithuania is not the whole of Europe. Can the Belarusian nuclear power plant find a market in other European countries?

- We have a law according to which electricity from unsafe sources cannot enter the Lithuanian market. Following the decisions of the Espoo Convention, the Belarusian NPP is not considered safe. In addition, our energy systems will be integrated into the West European energy system and disconnected from the BRELL. It will be a different system, and generating capacities that are not included in it will simply not participate thereof.

The synchronization of the systems should be finished by 2025, and then even technically energy from the Belarusian NPP seems unlikely to enter the European market.

- Before Belarus, you worked in Russia and, of course, you know the classic formula from the last century that there are two misfortunes in Russia - fools and roads. And what, in your opinion, are the main troubles in Belarus?

- I don’t know where it comes from — perhaps from the ancient times — but it surprises me that often you are only interested in what is very near. As for the things that are, relatively speaking, behind the wall of your house or behind the fence of your site, you seem not to care about them at all. This is such closeness, isolation in your world, when you don’t realize yourself as a part of something big, in common, and give no particular importance to what is happening around. Such semi-domestic passivity. But the main prerequisite for change is civic engagement.

We need to go beyond the usual framework. By the way, not only in Belarus, I face a situation where the younger generation believes that social networks are enough to express their own position. There you feel completely free and even active. However, in the reality this is passivity.

The world is changing, and we need to change. And posts on Facebook will not lead to change - only real civic engagement and awareness of every citizen as part of the society.

- Summer is coming soon, and Belarusian resorts will be filled with Russians, and Belarusians will go to Druskininkai and Palanga, along with some Russians who failed to book Belarusian resorts. Where do Lithuanians go on vacation?

- Domestic tourism had recently become very popular among Lithuanians. To spend holidays in Lithuania, to travel around the country - it has become very fashionable and stylish. For myself, it was a discovery that many Lithuanians before some long weekend say: “Well, why do we need this London or Rome? Let's go to Anykščiai or Žemaitia ”. And this is very good: people began to rediscover their country. This is despite the fact that flights to any European city became available to Lithuanians thanks to low-cost airlines.

Besides, the low-cost airlines, attracted to our airports, strongly contributed to the openness of our country. Let me say a few words about the tourism from Belarus - the flow of Belarusians to Lithuania is growing every year. I see it in our statistics - if last year the issuance of visas grew by 3-4 per cent, then the number of border crossings - by dozens per cent.

Yes, there is a border between our countries, but the people go to and fro more and more often, and communicate more actively. And I hope we will manage to bring the border infrastructure in correspondence with the constantly growing flow of tourists.

Of course, there will be certain inconveniences for some time in rush hours and days, but I assure you: it will become better soon. Herein, not only at the border.

Iryna Khalip, specially for Charter97.org