In Conversation with the Hon. Darius Skusevicius, Ambassador of Lithuania to Canada

ABOVE: Hon. Darius Skusevičius, Ambassador of Lithuania to Canada.

Lithuania is a small Baltic country at the heart of Europe. A northern trading ground for centuries, its historic capital, Vilnius, noted for its beauty, was once a power player in Europe from the Medieval times until the near end of the Enlightenment under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Today, a highly developed economy and high standard of living make Lithuania comparable with any other European Union State. However, Lithuania has faced a difficult history. Regaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 after over 45 years of brutal Soviet occupation, Lithuania still borders Russian Kaliningrad and Russian-aligned Belarus. It has been at the forefront of the new frontier between Russia and NATO since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent Invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022.

In April, we sat down with the Ambassador of Lithuania to Canada, Darius Skusevičius, to discuss Canada-Lithuania relations, Tourism, and European Security.

The following is our discussion.

OLM: How are Lithuania-Canada relations in 2023?

Ambassador Skusevicius: The basis of our relations is, first of all, our community. The first Lithuanians arrived in Canada at the beginning of the 19th century, according to historical documents. Mass immigration began at the beginning of the 20th century, and many Lithuanian community organisations in Canada sprung up after the second world war. Many are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year. Today, there are sixty thousand Lithuanians across Canada in all the major cities across the country and the Northern territories.

Canada has always been a partner and never recognized our annexation into the Soviet Union. Canada was the first G7 country that recognized our regained independence in the 1990s.

Lithuania and Canada celebrated 30 years of restored diplomatic relations just a few years ago. In 30 years, we can count on the one hand the number of visits from one country to another. Only in the past three years we've had two Lithuanian Foreign Ministers visited Canada and two Canadian Foreign Ministers came to Lithuania for different events. Just recently, the Senate speaker and a delegation visited Lithuania. Canada is also upgrading their presence in Lithuania to an embassy level. We see more and more of those contacts, so the political track is great as we've finally both started “finding” each other. More and more Europeans are finding Canada. Same for Canada. More and more Canadians find Europe. There are several reasons for this. First of all, global challenges that we have to address all together, defending rules based world order, supporting Ukraine's victory, or supply chain disruptions, and the need to develop our own capabilities where Canada is a very valuable partner because of the resources and capabilities to not be as dependent on other countries. It is for many reasons that our relationships have a great trajectory, as well as great potential.

Our bilateral trade is relatively low with Canada. It was around 150 million Euros which includes imports and exports last year. If we take services, we see growth, but the numbers again will sound small, about 15 million Euros in 2021; last year it was 30 million Euros, so it almost doubled, but the numbers are still very low. Nevertheless, we have some very impressive examples. Perhaps you are using a VPN? Surfshark and Nord VPN are Lithuanian companies, and Canada is a top ten market spot for them. In Toronto, one of the logistical companies working at the Toronto airport and other airports, Wright International, is owned by Lithuanians. Another company Teltonika just entered the Canadian market and is making sales all around the North American market from here. They produce routers and battery charging stations. The company is number one in Europe for GPS trackers used in cars. Their sales in the Canadian market are growing exponentially.

Lithuania is entirely independent from Russian gas, which we depended on heavily for a long time, but we managed to become independent with our LNG terminal. We get LNG through a ship on the coast called Independence, so especially now, with what Russia is doing internationally, we realize how smart it was to invest in an LNG terminal almost a decade ago to have it functional by now. We have a supply and LNG works on a market basis. You buy where you get the best price. We have a rule to only buy from reliable partners. I would say the world needs LNG and other energy resources from Canada.

Also, with the global food chain disruption, the world needs Canadian agricultural production and also Canadian fertilizers like potash. There are three major players in this industry – Canada, Russia, and Belarus. Because of what Russia and Belarus are doing with the unprovoked war in Ukraine and human right violations, they are sanctioned by the EU, so Canada has become our number one partner in providing those resources. Rare earth minerals is another area.

Canada is one of the world's wealthiest countries for rare earth minerals, so does Lithuania need it directly? Yes, because some of the sectors of our economy are using these resources in the production, can we get it from elsewhere? Yes, but Canadian input into the Western supply chains helps us to diversify and develop our own capabilities, which is of crucial importance. What the war in Ukraine showed us is that all the resources coming from undemocratic countries work as addiction, and then it's very difficult to escape dependency. It costs more, but the Western world produces resources with more environmental and employee protection. We have to understand we will have to pay this price if we want to move forward.

Ottawa Life Magazine: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were all brutally occupied by the Soviet Union for over 45 years, but within 30 years of your independence, they are all Schengen countries in the EU and all highly developed compared to other former Soviet Republics. Why do you think Lithuania has done so well with European integration?

Ambassador Skusevicius: In medieval times, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was through other nations that came in and co-operated that we were able to grow. For example, Vilnius, our capital city, is now celebrating its 700th anniversary. We know this because the Grand Duke of that time wrote letters inviting other nations to come and co-create in Vilnius together. This is one thing that goes through history, also being on the sea and being at a crossroads continentally (depending on the measurements geographically) a location near Vilnius is the centre of Europe. We were always on the axis between North and South, East and West and geography has played a large role.

Another thing is that we are just under three million population. From one side to the other, you can drive a car from the capital to the seaside in three hours. We've had to fight for our existence throughout history because we've never been resource rich, so our brains were our main resource for survival throughout history. During the occupation by the Soviet Union, the movement of freedom fighters existed throughout the whole period and all the processes of getting out of the Soviet Union started around 1987. Why have we been successful? Because of our determination. The determination of our people, the determination of our political elite, and the unity on main topics which meant that we were united from the very beginning.

When the Lithuanian Parliament announced Independence on March 11, 1990, from the very first moment, we knew that we wanted to be part of the European Union, the European family, and the transatlantic family. There were no radicals who were campaigning against that in our country, so we became members of the European Union and NATO in 2004, so it has been 19 years already. The Lithuanian armed forces actively participated in missions and operations which were needed by partners and friends and we proved we can be there. There has also been natural development and integration deeper and deeper. To become members of the Schengen zone, the borderless travel zone within Europe, you have to fulfill certain rules to prove that you are able to control the flow of migration, that your documents are issued properly. We had the benchmarks, we tried to do it, and succeeded. We have the same currency now as the majority of the European countries, which again we had to prove by showing our economy is sustainable and finances are governed properly.

All these processes were natural for us. Thirty-three years later, we see those were such significant decisions. If we had made different choices back then, God knows what would be happening now. We were blessed with the wisdom of people who fought for independence then.

Ottawa Life Magazine: Lithuania is becoming a global tourism destination. Given the proximity to Ukraine's conflict, would you say Canadians should still visit?

Ambassador Skusevicius: Lithuania just marked 19 years in NATO. Main principle of NATO is “one for all and all for one” and that collectively we will be protecting every inch of NATO territory. Canadian troops are in the Baltics, around 1000 are there with a projected increase for the multi national brigade in Latvia led by the Canada. This is also an assurance. Of course the war is next door, and of course we live in a very difficult neighbourhood with Kaliningrad Oblast on one side and Belarus on the other, but I don't see any possible conflict coming. Nobody would dare to attack a NATO country.

In terms of tourism numbers are still low but it it's difficult to track statistics now because of the Covid years affecting tourism, however we see the growth of tourists coming from Canada. My number one recommendation would be that Canadians should understand that once you are in Lithuania you can visit the entire region. Lithuania is famous for it's nature and Canadians love nature. We have many forests and lakes, historical cities and places to visit, with very vibrant capital Vilnius.

Another thing which I discovered here in Canada is that some Canadians go to Lithuania for medical tourism. This is because services are of European standard, that is to say of very high quality. You can come and do a process like a hip replacement or other surgeries with no wait time.

However if we take a regional approach, Riga in Latvia is very close by at three hours away and is very different. Tallinn is kind two more hours away with completely different landscapes, architecture and history, and Warsaw in Poland is a one hour flight from Vilnius, so I really encourage Canadians to come and see the region. All those who visited came back extremely happy.

Being far away, especially at the beginning of the war last year, people thought "you cannot travel" to the region. However even in  Kyiv now things are relatively safe and Ukrainians are returning to their capital to live and create and run their businesses, so it is definitely safe to travel to Lithuania and our region.

Ottawa Life Magazine: You have a small Russian minority that comprises about 5 percent of the population. Are you worried that Russia may try to influence these Russian speakers in a similar way to Ukraine in 2014 to cause unrest?

Ambassador Skusevicius: The Russian speaking population of Lithuania is less than 5 percent so its not a big part of our demographic. There is a consensus among political elite and we do not have any major extreme left or right political movements that could cause unrest. Our history and understanding about Russia is quite clear, and societal resilience to propaganda is really high, which means that the government is taking steps to prevent unrest from happening. For example, Russian TV channels and propaganda are banned in Lithuania. We have active civil organizations that debunk all the myths that are spread by pro-Russian or Russian-linked propagandists. Recent measures just adopted by the parliament ensure that Russian citizens will not be able to get a visa to visit Lithuania for one upcoming year. You have to take measures as the government to be on the safe side because one day, you could wake up and see that it's too late to do something. We live with Russia as a neighbour, we understand better than anybody else what neighbour we have, and we address this challenge accordingly.

Ottawa Life Magazine: Given your shared border with Belarus, are you worried about a possible escalation if Belarus joins the conflict in Ukraine on Russia's side? How would this change your security situation?

Ambassador Skusevicius: Of course, every new mobilization in the region and additional forces and military equipment by Russia worsens our security situation, but at the same time, we already have the capacity in the region to do things, NATO defence plans are constantly updated. Belarus, for a long time already militarily, has been fully incorporated into the Russian military and its doctrine. It is not an independent country acting on its own, it's under Russian watch, at the same time, Belarusians as people are different than Russians, and moods in the respective countries are different. If we look at what happened in Belarus with the last elections in 2020, which Lukashenko stole, we saw the never-before-seen crowds in the streets protesting the elections. I think the so-called President Lukashenko understands that if he was to push his people to fight against Ukraine or to fight against other neighbours,  he would risk much by showing he is not capable of commanding his troops and forces. At the same time, we know that there are hundreds of Belarusians fighting in Ukraine on Ukraine’s side.

Ottawa Life Magazine: How difficult is it for a country of under three million to protect your border with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus?

Ambassador Skusevicius: We live in a difficult neighbourhood, and it poses a challenge and threat. The major challenge to our security is Russia and its ally Belarus, but we live in the 21st century, and the “Red balloon” can go up anywhere. Even Canada being far away does not mean you should feel safer—cyber threats, attacks on critical infrastructure, spying, and disinformation to change people's minds happens everywhere, no matter the proximity. NATO is our security guarantor. At the same time, we take security challenges in our neighborhood very seriously – Lithuania is spending almost 2.5 percent of its GDP on defence and looking at how to plan for the concept of total defence, including through civil society organizations. We do our homework and work collectively to address challenges. With Finland becoming a member of NATO and Sweden to become one hopefully soon, situation changes again. NATO border with Russia has almost doubled. To sum up – yes, we have challenges, but we are moving forward collectively to address those challenges.

Ottawa Life Magazine: What is the Official position of the Lithuanian government regarding their desired outcome in the conflict in Ukraine?

Ambassador Skusevicius: It's the easiest question of our interview—total victory for Ukraine.

The only way forward is victory for Ukraine on the terms created by Ukraine, its government, and its people. History repeats. After Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, when that country had 20 percent of its territory occupied, it was not enough for the West to implement sanctions and start thinking about energy independence or ceasing trade with them. Then it was Crimea in 2014 and Donbas a few months later, and that was not enough for us. This trend shows that if not stopped, Russia will continue. If we have one more frozen conflict, it won't lead us anywhere, and it will renew at some point in the coming decade. The aggressor has to be stopped, and the only way to do so is to support Ukraine until its total victory.

Ottawa Life Magazine: Given your country's history in the last 100 years, do you think repairing relations with Russia is possible?

Ambassador Skusevicius: Our relations are at the lowest point since we regained independence. The Russians are lying all the time, not keeping promises; they are withdrawing from all agreements when they want to. They are not a reliable partner, and we should understand that every Euro and Dollar spent in Russia goes towards funding their aggression in Ukraine. Therefore, we are focused on our relationship with the trans-Atlantic community and Europe.