Lithuania: Part of the EU, Part of the Global World
Q&A with Rolandas Kriščiūnas, Ambassador of Lithuania
Name: Rolandas Kriščiūnas | Age: 48| Hometown: Panevėžys, Lithuania
Ambassador to the U.S. since: August 3, 2015
Tell us a little bit about your family and personal background. Did you grow up in a diplomatic family?
I grew up in a small family in Panevėžys, the fifth largest city in Lithuania and one of the bigger cities close to the Latvian border. My sister and I had a very pleasant childhood. I do not come from a dynasty of diplomats—both of my parents worked in the factories and were blue collar workers all their lives. I was one of the first out of any of my relatives to break through and go to university and to acquire education. It made my parents very proud to see that their child sought for something bigger than they had.
You began your career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at age 23. Was there an experience or moment in your life that made it clear that you wanted to work internationally or in foreign service?
When I was finishing high school in 1989, Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union (by force). As you can imagine, we did not have a chance to travel outside the country. I was very keen to see what was on the other side, to travel, and to understand the world. I also had very broad interests. On the day I was receiving my diploma from university, I met the head of the U.S. unit in Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He came to my university to encourage people to enter the competition to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Keep in mind that the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t exist under Soviet occupation since there was no foreign policy. That was a very fateful meeting and really got me thinking. When you have many interests in different fields, diplomacy is a very good combination because it really helps you to have a very broad vision, as your job is not about a single item. So I went to the competition and got recruited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Your first posting abroad was here in Washington, D.C. – how does it feel now to be back as ambassador 20 years later?
It feels good. Twenty years ago, I was the first secretary at the embassy responsible for business ties with the U.S. Now I’m responsible for everything happening between our countries. Washington is the capital of diplomacy because everything converges here to one extent or another. There is not a single issue where the U.S. voice would not be important.
You've been an ambassador now for three years. What would you say has been the most memorable experience of your posting so far?
I would say that it would be the American Baltic summit this year where three Baltic presidents met with President Trump. We had a working meeting and lunch, tête-à-tête discussions, a business forum on the sidelines—it was a full-fledged summit and was quite impressive. With our centennial celebrations this year, it was important for us to highlight the bilateral relationship between Lithuania and the U.S.
What is your favorite part of being an ambassador?
It could sound cliché, but being an ambassador really enables you to meet a lot of interesting people. You also get to immerse yourself in another country, the history, the culture.
What do you think are the most important traits that a diplomat needs to be successful?
There are a number of traits I would say are important. A successful diplomat should have a very good sense of balance. And I can’t imagine a diplomat that is not inquisitive. If you are inquisitive you will see opportunities everywhere. Then I would say you need to be open and tolerant as you are meeting all kinds of people. If you are not open minded, it really limits your ability to solve problems or find opportunities for your country. And you need to love what you do. In any profession, if you’re really in love with what you do, that will be as good as it gets.
If you were not in foreign service, what would you be?
After high school I had a dream that I would be a writer—I wanted to write a book. I had a small notebook where I wrote down different ideas for storylines, characters, or issues I would like to get deeper into. The older you get the more you start thinking about writing memoirs, but I don’t know if that will be the case with me.
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Honestly, I don’t see anything I would change. I’m quite happy with the decisions I have made professionally. On a personal note, the single thing I would advise is to devote much more time—the most you could really—to your children. They really do grow up very fast. I have a 17 year-old son and sometimes it strikes me when I look back that I could have spent much more time together, even just playing simple games. It’s so easy to get busy with your professional life.
Lithuania joined the EU more than 14 years ago. What were the biggest changes you observed?
Looking simply at the figures, Lithuania was one of the biggest benefiters in economic development and made the most progress out of all accession countries in 2004 in GDP per capita terms. The EU was a big part of it because of cohesion policies and trade relationships which opened up to us. It’s really incredible and easy to forget how it used to be 14 years ago. But if you look at today’s Lithuania, it really is a different country. People are living much better than they used to. I would also say that I see much more openness. We were forced to live in the Soviet Union on the wrong side of the iron curtain and were taken away from the global world. Now, we have really started to feel like we’re part of something bigger, part of the global world and the EU’s a big part of that. And you see the freedom in the minds of people and how they approach different things. These are all very important changes.
You've worked as Director of the EU Program Management Department in Lithuania's Ministry of Finance. What would you say is something that most people don't know or understand about the EU, but they should?
I’m not sure if we Europeans really understand how good we have it. How comprehensive is our sense of unity? We are very different but there are a lot of things that converge and make us a unit. Not a lot of people attribute Schengen to the EU, for example. As a smaller country it’s easier for us to get this sense that you are part of something bigger. And just because we are a unit, it doesn’t devalue our differences or our interests.
Eurosceptics say that the EU devalues nationality. But feeling that you are part of a bigger family doesn’t make you less Lithuanian.
What do you hope to see the EU accomplish in the next 5-10 years?
I hope we will be more confident. We kind of lost some of this confidence after the financial crisis and then Brexit, but I hope to see us get it back. I also hope that there will be fewer challenges and more integrational forces as opposed to disintegrational forces.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
That I like to paint. I haven’t taken classes, but it’s a conscious choice. I have my limits and within those limits I want to express something. It’s a type of meditation. When you get absorbed in painting something, time flies by. Every single painting is a discovery and I like discovery. But I also have less and less time for that. Being ambassador you have stretches where you will not have a single weekend on your own. You’re always somewhere. Another thing is you would not expect is an ambassador who likes silence. Yes, you meet a lot interesting people but sometimes you reach this point of too many people and you really treasure going out in nature. Being ambassador helps you appreciate the value of silence.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
I sound already like a very old man, but fun for me is being together with my wife looking at the sunset surrounded by forest, ocean, sand, with not another human being in sight. Having a glass of wine and relaxing, getting away from industrial noises and civilization.
The year 2018 is an important milestone for Lithuania – could you tell me more about the centennial and what it means to you personally?
Lithuania’s statehood dates back to the 14th Century. But the birth of modern Lithuania and the first independence day we celebrate is February 16, 1918. One-hundred years ago, quite a number of Lithuanian Americans went to Lithuania to build this re-established second state. After WWII and the occupation by Soviets, many people ended up in Siberia and their hopes of rebuilding their country were smashed. They could have remained in the States, but they chose to be a part of Lithuania. Their sacrifices and personal choices enabled the country to survive. If it wasn’t for their efforts in 1918 there would be no March 11, 1990 independence day. The foundation laid for the country 100 years ago helped us to survive all the tragedies which came our way.
Another thing—this embassy is the most special building for any Lithuanian because it was never occupied by Soviets. And this was due to the very principled American policies. The Americans never recognized the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The flags were never taken down. I would even say that this building is a monument, a reminder to Americans of how good and principled they are and how it’s important to stand for freedom and true values.
What are you most proud of?
I am very proud of my family—my son, my wife—and of course my country. You feel like you work for the benefit of your country and that’s a very big driving force for me personally.
What advice would you give to young people today?
Never lose track of the big picture. The world is getting more complex with more access to information and lots of distraction around. In Lithuania, we have a saying—you could lose track of the forest in the trees. If you concentrate on the trees you lose the grasp of the forest itself. This kind of understanding came to me through an interesting story. I was 18 years old at the time and had spent 11 years studying in the Soviet school. And to give a little background, anything which reminded one of independent Lithuania was forbidden and you could get in trouble with the KGB for owning a national flag or any other symbol of an independent Lithuania. There was one painting that hung in the main hall of the Soviet school where I studied. There was nothing very special about this painting. It was a painting of the Lithuanian fields in autumn. When I was 18 years old and the freedom movement was starting, somebody pointed it out to me and said, "Do not pay attention to what’s in the painting—the cows, the trees, the houses—just look at it as a big picture." Then it struck me that this painting was a painting of the national flag of Lithuania—yellow, green, and red. Someone was smart enough to create something like this and the three color national flag of Lithuania was hanging in the Soviet school. That showed me that when you pay attention just to details, you miss the big picture and it’s important not to let the big picture out of your sight.