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Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis: 36 schools in Lithuania provide Russian-language education, with nothing comparable in Russia

Audronius Ažubalis
BFL/ Tomo Lukšio nuotr. / Audronius Ažubalis
Šaltinis: 15min

In an interview to 15min.lt, Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs Audronius Ažubalis discusses key directions of Lithuania's foreign policy, claiming that Russia does not reciprocate in treating its national minorities the same way Lithuania treats its Russian population, that encouraging democracy in Belarus and Ukraine remains key priority, and that expensive oil is not too great a price for European unity vis-a-vis Iran.

- Mister Minister, your colleagues from Russian Foreign Ministry have recently published a report saying that Lithuania has been narrowing its informational and educational base in the Russian language. How would you comment on that?

- The very fact of your portal's launch indicates that diversity of information is increasing in Lithuania, not declining. As to the situation of national minorities' education, it must be noted that there has been a steady decrease in pupils attending schools with instructions in minorities' languages. This has led to a situation where “students' baskets” (Lithuanian education funding system whereby school's budget depends on the number of student it has) are not enough to support many schools. Reorganization has solved the funding problem while the needs of those pupils who want to get instructed in Russian are perfectly met.

Russian-speaking students can get secondary education in their native language in 36 schools throughout Lithuania. In Russia, meanwhile, including Kaliningrad region, there are no public schools with instructions in languages of national minorities or diaspora communities. As we know, there are almost 14 thousand Lithuanians living in Kaliningrad region. Classes of Lithuanian language and ethnic culture are only taught after-school, while teachers from Lithuania have been having visa problems for years.

The so-called “difficult questions” require open and honest dialogue as well as Russia's determination to deal sincerely with the crimes of soviet totalitarianism.

I'd take the report you are referring to to be intended as a distraction from Russia's internal problems.

- According to a poll by the “Veidas” magazine, 37 percent of Lithuanians believe that the country should concentrate on improving its relations with Russia while 17.8 percent cited the need to cooperate more closely with the Scandinavian countries and 16.6 percent believe Lithuania should strive for greater unity among the three Baltic states. Which of these directions do you see as the most important?

- The most promising area today is the so-called “Nordic arch” that envisages a dynamic region of the sovereign Baltic and Nordic states, closely cooperating with their trans-Atlantic partners, the UK and other EU countries. Becoming the centre of Nordic and Baltic trade, transit and innovation is the best way of assuring economic well-being of the Lithuanian people.

Meanwhile relations with Russia can be called pragmatic cooperation with both nations clearly stating their respective positions that overlap in many respects but occasionally contradict too. The intensity of the links between the two countries is well exemplified by last year's growth in trade.

The so-called “difficult questions” – Russian-Lithuanian relations in the past century, views on the crimes of soviet totalitarianism – require open and honest dialogue as well as Russia's determination to deal sincerely with the crimes of soviet totalitarianism. That's something that is still lacking.

- You have recently started to talk about creating a European alternative for Belarus. What kind of a project is that? Does it mean that the “Eastern Neighbourhood” policy has not turned into an effective tool as regards Belarus and we must think of something new?

- Unfortunately, I must admit that the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus is deteriorating, while the government's attempts to crush any manifestations of civil action are intensifying. One gets increasingly convinced that there is a need for an ever greater cooperation with the Belorussian society, encouraging European trends and clearly showing that Europe is not indifferent about what happens to a country of 10 million. We want a democratic Belarus in our neighbourhood. Change can only come from within, while the democratic community is ready and willing to assist Belorussians in transforming their country.

We want a democratic Belarus in our neighbourhood.

The EU might be the end of Belarus' development while Eastern Neighbourhood policy is a concrete tool for making that happen. Whether Belarus makes use of the possibilities offered by the EU initiative, depends entirely on the government's actions and not words.

- A group of Lithuanian MPs have recently defended Hungarian constitutional reforms that go completely against the EU spirit. Naturally, the European Commission might not be too happy about it. Do you think that the EU might be nearing its end in general?

- I shall not comment on the assumption of Hungary's “breach” contained in your question. I think that in order to to look for rational and efficient solutions, we need strong European institutions, especially the European Commission. This institution has a crucial role to play – as the protector of the EU treaties. In order to assure that the EU legislation is being observed, the Commission has the right to take legal action against any member state.

The Commission's decision to examine some of the norms in Hungary's legislation is a perfectly ordinary legal procedure. The fuss started by the European left does not help the dialogue between the Hungarian government and the European Commission or constructive settling of all the doubts.

- What do you think of the referendum in Latvia on making Russian a state language?

- The Latvian referendum on state language is Latvia's internal affair.

- You have repeatedly voiced your support for a European Ukraine. Do you not agree that the fight for that was lost with Yulia Tymoshenko's imprisonment? It seemed that the EU and Lithuania protested the decision very reluctantly. Why?

- I do not know what makes you speak of  “reluctance” on the EU or Lithuania's part. In various meetings with Ukrainian government representatives, Lithuania's officials have repeatedly emphasized our concern over arrests of Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of the opposition . This issue has been consistently raised during our OSCE presidency. The EU member states and leaders of key EU institutions keep a close eye on the political situation in Ukraine.

- Referring to the EU sanctions against Iran, you called them an effective way of showing Iran that the EU is united. The following day, there were reports that sanctions against Iran would hit Lithuanian consumers and petroleum prices would rise. Do you think Lithuania should protest decisions that are harmful to its people?

- The 23 January decision by the EU Foreign Affairs Council to impose additional restrictive measures in finance, transportation and oil import from Iran was a justified step, by no means directed against the Iranian, let alone European, people. Its aim was to send a strong message to Iran's regime about its nuclear program. Iran lost confidence of the international community when it failed to present proof that its nuclear program was indeed peaceful and presented no danger of other countries in the region developing nuclear weapons.

Because of tensions in Iran, oil prices have been going up since the beginning of the year. Temporary jump in prices is a natural market reaction, but they should stabilize, as alternative resources are being sought for.

The world oil prices will largely depend on how Europe replaces Iran's stock. Negotiations are being held with Saudi Arabia on increasing oil extraction there. Saudi Arabian oil will probably substitute Iranian oil in Europe. European market is not big enough to provide for sharp jumps in prices. However, Russia might decide to exploit the situation and raise the price, claiming that sanctions against Iran have increased the demand for Russian oil.

“Orlen Lietuva” does not buy oil from Iran, it processes Russian oil “Urals” that has quality comparable to that of Iran's.

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