Dear Fellow People of Lithuania,
Distinguished Members of the Seimas,
We are living in extraordinary times – when both history and today’s global challenges are persistently knocking at our door.
The approaching centenary of the restoration of Lithuania’s independence has expanded the usual field of vision, offering deeper insights into our statehood, ultimate goals, and responsibility.
The February 16 generation brought the nation back from oblivion and set out to build a new modern Lithuania. Remarkable progress had been achieved by the time it celebrated 20 years of independence. If we had not been brutally stopped, today we would be living in a state that does not need to catch up for the time lost.
The jubilee year commits us to take an intense and realistic look at the most challenging tasks facing us. There is no one but us to speed up national progress. And there is no other time but now.
Rising expectations for justice, opportunities, economic prosperity, bold and awaited changes swept across Lithuania last year. Together with elections. People related it with the renewed Seimas and Government of professionals.
There were changes in the leadership of most parties in the past year. It raised hopes for a more prosperous and secure life. And more transparent: the era of some perpetual top managers in the Lithuanian Railways and dozens of other establishments ended during the first one hundred days of the new government.
The rediscovered original Act of Independence has boosted our national pride. And the persistence of Professor Liudas Mažylis is yet another reminder to all of us that personal resolve and initiative hold great power.
The century-old signatures on the Act of Independence inspire and commit us to action. Resurrected by these signatures, the State of Lithuania – even though divided and devastated – emerged as a bold decision maker in matters of land, education, industry, and defense reform.
Nationwide literacy through education reform, Antanas Gustaitis-designed aircraft, Lithuanian butter, and Lithuanian basketball became the visiting card of a developed European nation at that time.
We need talented reformers today too. Strategic reforms can predetermine the quality of state governance for decades to come.
People expect the public sector reform to end the nomenklatura rule. They hope that the new government will not surround themselves with only their own kind. That it will be resistant to narrow-interest lobbying and that the restructuring process will not end in a few job cuts or 100-percent salary increase for certain officials.
However, the prolonged confusion in state governance and the vagueness of some reforms are already causing alarm.
The restructuring of state forests is stalling, the Seimas and municipalities are entangled in suspicious intra-group transactions, and the start of the education reform seems to focus on dividing up immovable property.
Political responsibility does not mean sectoral reshuffling – it means coordinated work and joint responsibility for the sum total of decisions critically important to the people of Lithuania. Neither the Tripartite Council nor bulldozer-style pseudo democracy will add the necessary political will to the decision-making process. Major changes and effective self-cleaning require not only courage and resolve, but also common sense.
We keep saying with one voice: low quality education is becoming an issue of national security. It is the cause of emigration, social exclusion, declining investment, economic stagnation, and most importantly corruption.
The restructuring of the education system is described as the priority of priorities in all election programmes and the Government’s action plan. It seemed that a broad political understanding and agreement had already been reached on this matter.
We must reform the teachers’ training system, review educational and overlapping study programmes, develop new funding models. Modify the network of educational institutions in order to make quality education accessible to all. End child segregation and shadow education, tailor vocational training to our economic needs, and restore viability to university graduation diplomas.
Meanwhile, here is what we see and hear instead of “quality change”: ten days added to the school year, plans devised to redistribute and sell off buildings.
It looks like an imitation of action. Uncertainty and chaos have doomed the reform even before it got started. Lack of political will in critical decision-making and entanglement in petty details is becoming a serious problem.
Brave decisions can be made only by men and women whose hands are untied. If invisible interests are guiding the hand, the dismissal of even one top executive becomes a matter more complicated than the entire centenary programme of cultural events.
Serving the state and at the same time private business seemed to be fully compatible to some until there emerged the will to pursue investigation and make a decision.
Principled clear actions and a fully implemented reform are bringing back trust in courts of law. It is not a random tendency because people see genuine commitment and real change.
By legalizing individual constitutional appeals, we would enable people to defend their constitutional rights more actively themselves.
The sense of justice would also increase if investigations into illicit enrichment stopped stalling. The Constitutional Court dispelled all doubts when it ruled that living beyond legal means deserves criminal liability. So the police, tax inspectors and prosecutors no longer have a reason to delay action.
It is time to increase fines for inexplicable wealth or income and for tax evasion in millions. They cannot be like those for petty theft.
Because we all want to be sure that justice in Lithuania is more powerful than the offender. People who work and live honestly must feel that the state supports them.
The transformation that has already begun in the pharmaceutical market, balancing for several decades between greedy pharmacists and people who cannot afford medicines, also needs to maintain a strong posture.
If the Ministry of Health has the backbone to withstand the pressure and if the recommendations of the Competition Council and the National Audit Office are implemented, the price balance will be finally tipped in favor of people. And there will be less corruption in this vitally important area.
Although shadow economy and corruption rob us all, including babies and pensioners, we still lack civic awareness and courage. Fighting corruption requires a great deal of effort, but the idea of giving protection to those who report it has been kept at a standstill in parliament for the third term running.
All-out intolerance to corruption would be the best gift for Lithuania’s centenary. No bribe giving or taking, public procurement based on clear rules – not tailored to the needs of a single buyer, employment by aptitude – not personal contacts, use of tax payers’ money for nationally important objectives – not to buy “golden” spoons.
When a declared objective becomes a matter of honor, both willpower and solutions will be there.
Realizing that social exclusion poses a major threat to national stability, last year we came together for a nationwide campaign “For A Safe Lithuania”.
We opened many sores, but it has turned out slowly for the best: there is less indifference, more focus, more control. Children will be interviewed in the presence of psychologists, foster parenting is gaining ground, new day care centers are established, more and more interesting and innovative anti-addiction projects are launched and pursued.
Signatures – although placed very slowly – to the commitment “You cannot beat children” confirmed that violence does not relate only to dysfunctional families; it exists in a multitude of forms. Last year, almost 3000 children suffered from violence. More than half of them, from domestic violence. Our duty is to protect them. It would be good therefore if the restructuring of the children’s rights protection system – given a go-ahead at an extraordinary parliamentary sitting – should gather real force and speed.
We see many positive changes too – there are now dozens of professional foster parents in Kaunas alone.
“These are the children of Kaunas and they will be raised by the residents of Kaunas,” the city declared as it proclaimed 2017 the Year of Child Welfare. It could become a centenary motto for Varėna, Kėdainiai, Skuodas – for the whole of Lithuania.
Fighting alcohol abuse is also a matter of honor which must consolidate, not divide, society. The nationwide campaign against alcoholism cannot be reduced only to provisions that will come into force after 2020. To ban, to take away, to restrict, to tax is an easy and primitive path, but it only leads to a shadow economy and into the underground.
To educate, to offer a chance, to show that life can be different – that is our responsibility. If we shirk it, problems will not be resolved, they will become deeper.
Like it happened with the Labor Code. The election promise to strike a balance in labor relations without impairing the security of workers and employees was delegated to the Tripartite Council, shrugging off responsibility onto others.
Eventually, though, after many discussions and difficulties, the Code was partially amended and most of my proposals that had been vetoed earlier were included. The Code was adopted, but the people’s understanding of the Code, the process itself and the sense of political responsibility, among many other things, were affected adversely.
The removal of VAT on heating will not make life easier for people either. As it is, many cannot afford to pay their utility bills, and the new heating season will further deepen heating poverty, expanding the scope of potential support receivers. Are we in a critical situation that we need such measures?
Reshuffling of taxes – taking away from some and giving to others – will surely not increase social justice.
The mania for hasty unprepared reforms that we see today may turn into a parody on long-awaited changes. Shifted responsibility predicts a season of undelivered political promises and imitated action.
The first year of expectations is coming to an end – being a newcomer to politics is no longer a valid excuse. Trivial decisions instead of sound and effective changes demotivate, increasing disappointment and dissatisfaction. People cannot be disappointed once again. No one of us has the right to disappoint them. Because they will continue voting with their feet.
A stable democracy needs a transparent, mature and strong party system. Blurred party responsibility and accountability allow populism to thrive in a variety of forms. The closed-door and self-interest posture of traditional parties, and sometimes even cases of criminalization, open the door to increasingly less prepared political newcomers.
The chronic fragility of coalitions does not give people a feeling of security; the reform process is also stumbling without strong party backing. Now is the time to invest in the quality of parties and party people. Preparing to govern a state is vitally important and certainly not a one-day job.
It is a time of new opportunities for the political system. The change of generations among most of the party leaders gives rise to expectations of quality renewal.
That nomenklatura-based traditions and corrupt tendencies will be rejected in a principled way; that those who act for money will be discarded; that short-lived populist clusters will be replaced by responsible political forces.
It will be then that our people will not be concerned about economic and social threats more than about Russian invasion, terrorism and the future of the European Union.
We must join forces on strategic decisions, like we did on national defense. We have no hesitations when it comes to national defense. Politicians and society speak with one voice and do what needs to be done.
We know that security has a price and that we ourselves must take care of it. For the third consecutive year now, there are enough volunteer conscripts to fill the ranks, we have sufficient political will, we are increasing investments in our defense, and we have more allies.
From a centenary perspective, Lithuania has never had so many friends. This year we received historic support: a Germany-led NATO battalion with troops from as many as seven allied nations has been deployed to our country. Twenty out of twenty eight NATO allies have sent support to the Baltic region. All of this has upgraded our defense deterrence, taking it up to a new quality level.
Although security guarantees are in place, we cannot stop: we will seek NATO reforms in speeding up the decision-making process, having stronger defense plans and joint air defense.
Today, the democratic world understands very clearly that it is our region where major threats to transatlantic security are accumulating: military buildup in the Kaliningrad enclave, aggressive offensive exercise Zapad, the Astravyets nuclear power plant that has become a geopolitical weapon.
We are not only consumers of security or applicants for security. Our people contribute to ensuring lasting peace in all the hot spots around the world. We are strategic partners of Ukraine and Georgia, and we assist them. We help to fight the migration crisis. We are active participants of the global anti-terrorist coalition.
Therefore, Lithuania’s foreign policy is inextricably linked to security challenges. The geopolitical reality makes us – and the whole of Europe – assume greater responsibility for our own security.
These challenges also open up new opportunities for closer integration of European countries. It can become a counterbalance to the ongoing instability and tensions in the world. Membership in the European Union is a strong guarantee for lasting peace, stability, and well-being. Twenty eight European countries – which we still are – together carry considerably more weight than each one alone.
However, Europe cannot protect us from political myopia: we need to cleanse ourselves from foreign influences and increase civil resilience.
Lithuania stands proud of its open society. Still, there were as many as four attempts at the freedom of speech in the year marking the anniversary of Kazys Grinius, the architect of Lithuanian democracy. Meanwhile, just like one hundred years ago, the media continues to be our weapon, guardian of homeland and the sword of truth. Very often, it is the only pillar of the state in combating corruption, information attacks and social insensitivity.
Lithuanian “elves” fighting hostile trolls and fake news in virtual space have received international attention for safeguarding security and resilience in real time.
Free and safe media and informed citizens are in the frontline of the ongoing non-conventional war.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We live in a financially and economically stable country. We are competitive. Lithuania has avoided the drought of investment.
Innovation and highly qualified people are emerging as a global signature for Lithuania in its new centenary. The decisions of today will shape the Lithuania of tomorrow: a country of innovators or a deserted land of elderly people.
So let us not shift important decisions to subsequent meetings or leave them for the next term. Innovations will set the economic path for Lithuania because they are a distinguishing mark that identifies the whole region of Baltic countries. Therefore, they need stronger incentives for development.
The guidelines for science and innovation policy have been unanimously approved by the Seimas. Let’s make them a living document, not shove them away in a drawer.
Let’s not allow science and innovation valleys – where we have already invested European billions – to falter. There will be no other inflow like this.
There are many good signs: engineering and aviation mechanics are resurging, information technologies are advancing. Lithuania is establishing itself as a regional center of life sciences and financial technologies. And that is very good.
Lithuanian made lasers can be found in as many as 90 of 100 top universities.
This month we will become member of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research – which means that the world sees our scientific potential, believes in it and values it. We should feel proud.
It is time to take stock of the State Investment Programme because European funds will diminish in the near future. Therefore, the programme, which receives around 15 percent of the annual budget each year, is becoming a key instrument for giving direction to Lithuania’s economic development. Let’s commemorate our national centenary with projects and solutions that will serve us well into the future. They should be primarily tailored to innovation and technological renewal. We will then become attractive not only to foreign investors – our citizens will choose not to leave their homeland.
The scale of emigration has become a very painful issue, so first of all let’s try to bring our people back. In Estonia, emigrants have been coming back for the second year running – it means the flow can be reversed. Our conditions are similar; the level of development is similar too; perhaps, they have more optimism than Lithuanians have and speak better about themselves than we do. Maybe that is the greatest difference. Therefore, I would strongly support the project “I choose Lithuania” launched by the International Organization for Migration because they know what kind of assistance is needed by those who have decided to return home. Every second émigré is interested in coming back. Let’s make this path easier for them to walk.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let us make the most of the time that favors Lithuania so that each and every can feel Lithuania grow stronger and more prosperous. Our time is our asset. We cannot waste it on petty things – we need to respond to the main challenges of today.
We need the passion, courage, pride, and responsibility of the First Republic.
So let us not argue about the best gift for Lithuania’s centenary. Instead, let us set the icebreaker for crucial reforms into motion so that our children do not have to catch up with the time lost.
This year is a doorstep into a new centenary of our restored statehood and a new quality Lithuania. Let’s do what we need to do today and build up confidence for the future.
I wish success to all who hold the tricolor as a symbol of responsibility. To all those who will celebrate the centenary in the spirit of both deep national pride and intense desire to consolidate our creation – Freedom.
Last updated 2017.06.08 16:46