Mr. Audrius Brūzga is a prominent Lithuanian diplomat and a holder of various decorations such as Officer of the Legion of Honor (France) and Commander of the Order of Merit (Lithuania). He is currently Ambassador to Turkey and accredited to Iran. Mr. Brūzga believes that for many reasons, Iran can be considered by Lithuania as a modern area of interest, and apart from the overall attraction the Iranian culture and ancient Persian heritage offer, the official ties between Lithuania and Iran are a fledgling phenomenon that needs to be enhanced. He also underscores that the people of Lithuania still believe in the future of the EU and amongst the people of Europe, perhaps they can be named as one of the strongest advocates of it, and that is why Lithuania, in line with the EU, supports the JCPOA.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Audrius Brūzga,
Accredited Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
Lithuania managed to sail past the communistic system without any quarrels and make itself compatible with the European regulations and become an EU member. What pattern did it follow to walk through such developments?
Let me start by saying that in 2018 we are celebrating the Centennial of the Republic of Lithuania. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1918 the brave and visionary Lithuanian patriots seized the opportunity and put Lithuania back on the map. After decades of foreign domination, Lithuania was free and independent again. This freedom did not last long and was interrupted again in 1940, when the Soviet Union moved westward to take control of Eastern Europe, including Lithuania. Soviet occupation was brutal and left a deep scar on the face of my country. Close to 300 000 Lithuanians
– which is nearly 1/10 of the population – were deported to Siberia or were imprisoned. Many did not return. Those who were able to escape the regime fled to Western Europe, USA or Australia. Those who were not – had to choose between the armed resistance in the forest and a silent resistance at home. Opposition to the Soviet rule could not be extinguished and eventually this brought about a peaceful restoration of independence in 1990.
History matters only because history defines the future. After so many trials and tribulations in the past, it was only natural for Lithuanians to embrace liberty and democracy and open up to international cooperation. We saw our interests best secured through membership in the European Union and NATO, so we did what we could to accede to them both.
NATO membership for Lithuania depended on a political decision of our Allies and a commitment of the acceding country to share NATO ideals and capabilities.
In contrast, accession to the European Union was a truly transformative experience: a lot of hard work, learning on the job and risk-taking. Good thing, we had the overwhelming support of the Nation. Nobody was willing to go back to the old Soviet system. Instead, most were prepared to endure a hard transition to market economy and adopt EU regulation. In many instances, the Soviet-built economy simply could not be repaired. A new competitive and market-oriented economy, based on private ownership had to be built from nothing. Luckily, Lithuania has overcome challenges and has become fully integrated in the EU, including the Euro and the Schengen zones. In spite of recent doubts and mounting criticism, Lithuanians continue to believe in the future of the European Union and are perhaps the strongest supporters of the EU among fellow Europeans. This should not come as a surprise. We believe in freedom – freedom for nations and freedom for individuals. We see a benefit in debating, not dictating. We choose cooperation, not confrontation. We hate wars only because we know what war is.
Today I can proudly say that thanks to the decisions made first in 1918 and then in 1990s Lithuania has evolved and prospered beyond recognition. It is now such an attractive place to live and do business. I hope Iranians appreciate this when they visit my country.
What position does the Middle East have in terms of energy security for Lithuania?
Energy security is a very important issue for Lithuania for it goes hand in hand with national security and foreign policy. We do not have oil or gas deposits in Lithuania, so we have to import raw materials from abroad. For a long time we were a 100 % dependent on Russia for our energy needs. Not anymore. In 1999, a newly constructed offshore oil terminal opened on the Baltic coast near Butinge and offered a needed alternative to the Russian Druzba pipeline. In 2014, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) floating storage regasification unit (FSRU) sailed into the port of Klaipeda and in doing so broke the country’s dependence on Gazprom gas. The floating terminal was appropriately named “Independence”. Now we can buy LNG gas on World markets and ship it to Lithuania. Shipments have been coming from Norway, Russia, USA, Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago. The Terminal has extra capacity, which makes it possible launching an LNG bunkering service for other customers around the Baltic Sea. In 2016, a LNG Cluster and LNG Competence Centre was established in Klaipeda with a goal to develop technology, innovation, competence and business models for LNG application in transport, energy and maritime sectors. The Competence Centre is open for international partners.
In terms of energy, the Middle East is important for Lithuania for at least two reasons. First, we are interested in buying oil and gas at competitive prices and the Middle Eastern countries have much to offer. Second, we follow developments in the broader Middle East with concern because political instability affects prices and supply of hydrocarbons, which by extension, affects energy security of many countries, Lithuania included.
Lithuania’s economy of 41 bln. EUR might look small and insignificant to make a difference on the World stage but I strongly believe in the two–way traffic. We can buy raw materials and we can sell renewable energy know-how and technology. In Lithuania, we have advanced R&D in laser, optics, photovoltaics and IT, which when put together make excellent products for solar power generation and smart city solutions. For example, a BOD Group company SoliTek develops a cutting-edge technology and manufactures photovoltaic cells and modules that have few rivals in the World as far as quality and efficiency is concerned.
You previously served as a Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Lithuania and well know the foreign policy approach the country practices. Where do Iran and other Middle Eastern countries stand in Lithuania’s foreign policy?
One can say that Lithuania is still a new player in the Middle East. Our diplomatic outreach is limited and our trade policies are regulated by the EU. Yet, we are eager to deepen our understanding of the region and seek to expand cooperation with the MENA countries and beyond.
Lithuanians are curious and open-minded people, they enjoy traveling and exploring and they are quick at making friends and business contacts. Foreign policy must follow popular and national interest. As diplomat, I have worked in Israel, now in Turkey with concurrent accreditations in Iran and Pakistan. A few years ago, I accompanied my Prime Minister to the Sultanate of Oman where, Lithuania had been already for some time building a base for trade and cooperation. To be better represented in the Arab world we might be opening in the near future a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates. Wherever we go, we follow the policy of non-interference, reciprocal respect and parity and we adhere to the International law and practice.
Iran in many ways is a recent opening for Lithuania. General fascination with Iranian culture and ancient Persian legacy notwithstanding, official Lithuania – Iran relations is a rather new phenomenon and is in need of a boost. This year we commemorate the 25th anniversary of re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran, which is a good opportunity to reflect on the past and to plan for the future.
In 2016, we had a first-ever visit to Iran of a Lithuanian Foreign Minister. H.E. Mr Linas Linkevičius had a productive meeting with his Iranian counterpart, H.E. Mr Javad Zarif, and drew up guidelines for future cooperation. In Tehran Minister Linkevičius signed an Agreement on Economic Cooperation and attended a business forum. He also met with a number of Cabinet Members of the Iranian Government. Earlier this year, H.E. Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar traveled to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania to attend the Women Political Leaders Summit 2018 under the auspices of H.E. President Dalia Grybauskaitė. In 2017 Mr Mohsem Karimi, a distinguished Iranian businessman was appointed to serve as Lithuania‘s Honorary Consul in the Islamic Republic of Iran with an office in Tehran. This is by far our first official resident representation in Iran. I am confident that Mr Karimi will spare no effort in helping to bring our peoples together for friendship and for cooperation.
In a meeting with you, President Rouhani stressed the use of Lithuania’s technology and capabilities related to renewable energies. Is there any ongoing activity in this regard?
I mentioned to H.E. President Rouhani that renewable energy is one area of our prospective cooperation. Biotechnology could be another. We are aiming at positioning Lithuania as a regional center of excellence in biotech. A rapidly growing Life Sciences cluster in Vilnius brings together universities, businesses and venture capitalists. Very recently, on September 26-27, 2018 a major biannual conference was held in Vilnius, Life Sciences Baltics 2018. Iranian professionals are welcome to get involved.
These and other possible partnerships had been discussed with the Iranian Ministry of Science and Technology in 2016 but we still have to see some concrete action. To facilitate cooperation the Embassy will organize a ‚Lithuania in Focus‘ event in Tehran in November of this year and will invite Lithuanian universities to introduce study and research opportunities in Lithuania. I hope this outreach event generates additional interest on both sides and brings about new parterships.
What can be the areas of cooperation between Iran and Lithuania?
Our trade with Iran is modest. Exports went down from 240 mln. EUR in 2014 to just 16 mln. EUR in 2016. We are still in the phase of exploring each other‘s capacities. No secret, the absence of a credible international banking platform in Iran hampers trade since it makes payments so much more difficult to make. The immediate future does not look good either. In these circumstances we should invest more in building long-term partneships for developing products and services with added and lasting value.
Lithuanian entrepreneurs who had visited Iran represented companies doing business in healthcare, printing machenary, logistics, transport, textile, petrochemicals, agro-business and others. Iranian business delegations travel to Lithuania to explore joint ventures in petrochemicals, agriculture, aviation.
Does the two countries have a precise understanding of each other’s potentials?
I don‘t think so. As I said, we are in the process of getting to know each other yet. This is why we need more business delegations and more advertising. Seeing is believing. You have to travel and see for yourself what the country looks like and what it has to offer. Attending trade fairs and sending trade missions is a good and proven way to start a business plan. My Embassy will give companies every support and encouragement to pursue that objective.
One has to remember that Lithuania is a member of the EU and operates in the single Europen market. Therefore, when you strike a deal with a Lithuanian partner, you strike a deal with a community of 28 nations 500 mln consumers strong.
What potentials are there to develop tourism between Iran and Lithuania?
I see a great potential for tourism, both in Iran and Lithuania. So far Lithuanians have been coming to Iran only in small numbers. But the stories they bring back home of a fascinating and enchanted Iran capture the immagination of many more, so the number of Lithuanian tourists will continue to grow. We need to put this sporadic travel of today on a more solid and structered foundation. For Lithuanians No.1 tourist destination is Antalya in Turkey. Every year close to 130 000 Lithuanian vocationers flock to the Mediteranian resorts in Antalya. Some of them skip all-inclusive comfort resorts and go explore the hidden treasures of Turkey. Some would welcome the opportunity to travel to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad or Qom, or to see a sunset in the deserts of Iran, sample local food and meet friendly and hospitable Iranian people. We need to provide this opportunity to them. We are already talking to the Turkish Airlines and drawing some contingency plans.
In the same way, Iranians might enjoy a relaxing weekend in Lithuania, a country of a thousand lakes, green and lush forests and moving white dunes. I know, Iranians love nature and poetry, they value family bonds and respect tradition. All of this they can find in abundance in Lithuania. If pristine and unspoiled nature is not your cup of tea, you can always find modern urban life next to you in Vilnius, Kaunas or any other city in Lithuania. Lithuania is small. But small is beautiful.
To introduce Lithuania to the Iranian people, the Embassy in cooperation with the Honorary Consulate will organize on November 26, 2018 a ‚Lithuania in Focus‘ event in Teheran. The event will feature presentations on tourism and education opportunities in Lithuania, opening of the exhibition of traditional paper-cutting art, introduction of the music and drawings of the famous Lithuanian artist M.K. Čiurlionis and a concert of the folk group „Raskila“. The one-day event is open to the public, a more specific program will be announced in due course.
The ‘Lithuania in Focus‘ event will mark the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Lithuania and 25 year anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations betwen Lithuania and Iran. I am greatful to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the valuable support in organizing the event and I thank the Turkish Airlines for their contribution.
How effective can agricultural potentials be in expanding ties between the two countries?
Lithuania has been rapidly transforming into a manufacturing and services economy but agricultural sector is still important. It generates just 4 % of GDP but keeps traditional rural social fabric intact. Main sectors are milk and crop production and food processing. In 2017, agricultural exports reached 4.8 bln. Eur. In Lithuania, we have good climate conditions for growing cattle and sheep. Lithuanian food industry is diverse and offers high-quality dairy, cereals, confectionary, beverages, fish products, beef (including beef meeting halal standards). Iran has shown interest in buying in Lithuania fodder, butter, sunflower seeds, canola, barley. Before 2015, Lithuania was selling to Iran up to 40 % of its wheat harvest. One other area of cooperation – scientific research. Both our countries have strong agricultural research institutes.
A bilateral agreement in Agriculture could facilitate trade and would regulate phytosanitary requirements. This is on the agenda for the first meeting of the Iranian – Lithuanian Intergovernmental Commission co-chaired by Ministers of Agriculture and Economy respectively.
There were talks going on between the two countries’ officials to decrease the port and loading costs from Iran to Lithuania by 50%. Did that come to realization?
I am not aware of any development in this field.
What agreements have been signed between Iran and Lithuania regarding credit lines as well as banking and trade finance operations?
There have been contacts between central banks of both countries but no agreements have been signed on banking or finance operations in Iran. Most of the commercial banks operating in Lithuania are foreign capital banks and follow their own rules an regulations. We are hopefull, however, that one day a trustworthy and well-connected Western bank opens a branch in Iran to facilitate international payments and transactions without which doing business in Iran remains problematic.
Considering that you were once Lithuania’s Ambassador to the US and are familiar with the political environment there, how affected do you find the relations between Vilnius and Washington by Trump’s approach to re-impose the US sanctions on Iran?
In line with EU, Lithuania supports the JCPOA. Iran honours the provisions of this international instrument as attested by IAEA on many occassions therefore, sanctions with regard to JCPOA are hard to explain.
Americans have a saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”. I believe that cool heads will prevail and that rational thinking will be driving the decision-making process, not emotions. Settlement of disputes can best be achieved in negotiations.
United States is a strategic ally and a trusted partner of Lithuania. With US we share the ideals of democracy and the rule of law which is a cornerstone of just governance. After the WWII, United States‘ leadership was instrumental in shaping and sustaining the World order and institutions as we know them today. Even if these were to change, effetive leadership of the United States would still be required. Without it the World would look less stable, more dangerous.
How effectively can European countries thwart impact of the sanctions against Iran? Is there such a strong will amongst them to do that?
The European Union, as a legal personality has the right and even obligation to defend legitimate interests of its Member States and their economic entities. This has been evident in the initiative to set up a special payments system to facilitate trade with Iran. As stated by EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini, the financial instrument, known as a “special purpose vehicle”, would allow for legitimate financial transfers between European and Iranian companies.
It has to be seen though, how effective this new instrument can be in the given circumstances. One thing is clear: this action was taken not to undermine the United States’ Iran policy but in support of the JCPOA which stems from the obligations of the remaining signatories to the agreement, namely EU, France, UK, Germany, Russia and China.