On the eve of the Lithuanian Armed Forces Day (23 November), Rasa Jukneviciene, Lithuanian Defence Minister and deputy chair of the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, said that if Lithuania does not increase its defense funding, the country may be unable to perform the duties of a NATO country, Veidas weekly magazine wrote on 22 November.
Veidas – Was the statement an exaggeration? Are the 870 million Litas planned for 2011 not enough to maintain our defense system? These were the first questions we asked the defense minister.
Jukneviciene – The numbers and the real situation speak for themselves. Latvia, Poland, and Estonia can allocate more to defense than Lithuania can right now. This is why my warnings that Lithuania may be unable to perform duties of a NATO country are justified. I would like to remind you that when Lithuania was in the process of joining NATO, it promised that it would be a perfect member of NATO. However, after Lithuania joined NATO, all the promises and efforts vanished for some reason. There is an article in the NATO Treaty, according to which each country, together with the other NATO members, is responsible for the defense of its territory. After Lithuania joined NATO, the people were lulled into believing that Lithuania was safe and that it did not need to do anything, that all we needed to do was to participate in missions, and that we did not need to pay any serious attention to our own defense. NATO’s work is based on certain principles; its strength actually depends on the strength of its members.
Are you saying that Lithuania is not a full-fledged NATO partner and that it is not capable of effectively defending itself or helping the partners?
I cannot give you an answer because there have been no conflicts. However, NATO has been constantly reproaching Lithuania for that. The underfunding of the army has always been seen as the most serious drawback. However, NATO is a gentlemen’s club. There are no sanctions because NATO countries show their solidarity, and each country should understand, without sanctions, that defense is a serious issue. NATO has a very serious attitude toward the requirement to participate in its missions, and Lithuania has been performing this duty well so far. For now, until something happens, the Alliance sees this as compensation, but we cannot expect other NATO countries to ensure security of our own territory. This is our responsibility. If we do not do that, I think NATO countries will not show us solidarity anymore.
I do not agree with the statements that the participation of Lithuanian troops in the mission in Afghanistan is Lithuania’s price for NATO membership. If we want Lithuania to be protected in time of danger, we have to participate in missions and defend other countries. I firmly believe that by participating in the mission in Afghanistan we ensure our own security and fight for our civilization’s values. It is easy to criticize the mistakes we have made when restoring the Ghor Province. Of course, we made some mistakes.
How did the budget trimming affect the Armed Forces this year and what will be the situation in 2011? I assume the army has not started mending the uniforms yet.
No, not yet. The staff understands the situation, they have told me that they have had worse situations, there were times when they were not paid salaries, but the army has survived because of strong motivation. Speaking about the uniforms, there were some cases of overspending, and there were some cases when new uniforms were written off. But now we are really short on uniforms.
However, it seems that the citizens do not understand that it is necessary to increase the Defense Ministry’s budget. A public opinion poll commissioned by Veidas shows that 93 percent are against an increase in defense spending.
All I can say is this: The people were being fed information that the army’s economic situation was better than the economic situation of any other institution and that the army received the mysterious 2 percent of GDP. Moreover, the people see the well-dressed members of the Lithuanian Guard of Honor; during celebrations the army shares porridge with the people. The people do not see shabby soldiers and this is why they think that the army has sufficient funds. But all they see is the surface, the people do not know about the real problems.
One of such problems is the imbalance in the Defence Ministry’s budget: More than 60 percent of the budget is spent on the personnel and the administration, and only 1.2 percent of the budget is spent on armament and military equipment. The allocation of funds in the other NATO countries is different.
This is our biggest headache that we have inherited from our predecessors. We have planned in the draft budget for 2011 to reduce the share of the Defence Ministry’s budget for personnel. In any case, our budget is not sufficient to maintain the army we have at the moment. If we evaluate the tasks and the geopolitical surroundings, I think our army is too small. The Lithuanian Army is one of the smallest armies in the region, or perhaps the smallest one, if we calculate the number of troops per 1,000 citizens. It is impossible to reduce the army any further. This is why we have been saving not at the expense of the staff, but at the expense of technical and other equipment and at the expense of combat training. This is why we have the aforementioned disproportion. And this means that we have only two possibilities: to reduce the army, which I refuse to do because I think it is already too small, or to increase spending.
How are you going to expand the army and increase the number of soldiers if the budget remains tight?
Lithuania, or to be more exact the former Defense Ministry’s leadership, had not done anything to ensure that the country has an army reserve. The reserve was only theoretical. Our defense system should have the possibility to expand in case of war or other dangers. We should have established some structures to engage new people and to mobilize the people with military training if there is war. The conscripts who have served in the army already are prepared to do the job, but not a single former conscript has been invited and instructed where he is supposed to be in case his service is needed, where he is supposed to report for duty, to which squad or to which division he is supposed to arrive, and what his duties are. We do not have a well-organized reserve. I think that we will start organizing it next year. It all will depend on the money because we need money to be able to invite people, to refresh their knowledge, to work with them, to feed and clothe them, and to upgrade their skills.
Since 1998, the number of civilians in the defense system has grown by almost 1,500, and now there are 2,160 civilians in the system. Why did we have such a rapid growth? Do you think this is one of the areas where you could save money?
When the Lithuanian national defense system was being created, the majority of the staff was military men. The same situation was in the Defense Ministry. It was necessary to change that, and this was why certain duties were transferred to civilians. The process is still ongoing: For example, this fall, the status of the Land Force orchestra was changed from military to civilian. The number of civilians in the army has not grown much over the past decade – 253 new civilian staff.
The Defense Ministry has submitted a draft of the new Law on Conscription to the Seimas, according to which basic military training will be conducted annually for the period of 50-90 days. Participation in the training will be voluntary. How many people are you planning to train next year?
I have already said that it was a huge mistake to cancel conscription. It was cancelled without a proper action plan. No proposal was made on how we would be training people after the conscription is cancelled. The army will always need new young people. This was why I was and will be criticizing the decision. Lithuania needs a military reserve to ensure that as many Lithuanians as possible have knowledge about military issues and defence; they need to know what they have to do in case of natural disasters or catastrophes. We are planning to train 600 people in 2011, but it is up to the Seimas to make the final decision.
What are you going to do if there are not enough volunteers?
Incentives should help. For example, additional points to those who want to study at higher education institutions, civil service advantages, financial contribution toward tuition, and so on. If we do not have enough volunteers for the training, and the situation is such that we need more people to be trained, we will do the same they are doing in Denmark, we will organize a lottery. We will select candidates from the list of the men who can serve in the army and will summon them. And we will summon as many people as we need.
Sociological opinion polls conducted this year show that the number of Lithuanians willing to defend the country is decreasing: Only one-third of the respondents were willing to do defend the country.
I saw how many people were leaving Vilnius on 13 January 1991. I saw how many people ignored the Baltic Way [peaceful political demonstration that took place on 23 August 1989]. Coming back to the present, I am happy that this one-third of the people is eager to defend the country. I think even more people would be willing to do that if the country is in a bad situation. I would like to remind you that on the eve of 13 January, many people changed their minds and came to defend Lithuanian institutions.
We are interested in your opinion about the changes in Lithuanian foreign policy. For example, what is your opinion about the changes in Lithuania’s cooperation with Russia? What benefits can we expect from the new cooperation?
Indeed, there have been some changes because all we had in the past was pure rhetoric, and in the meantime, we were becoming more and more dependent on Russia’s energy resources. It is more important to do our homework, something that was not done over the past decade. I am speaking here about our energy security. I want all our neighbors to have a friendly attitude toward us. And we expect the same from Russia.
Is that possible?
There are many things going on as far as our cooperation with Russia is concerned. Yes, Russia is not what it was 20 years ago. In my opinion, the Russian nation is capable of creating democracy, and I disagree with those who are saying that this is a special country and that it cannot be democratic in principle. I do not believe that.
What is your opinion about Lithuania’s relations with the United States, our strategic partner?
Our relations with the United States are the best ever. Our relations with the United States are great. This is not just our opinion; US officials are saying the same.
And this is despite the fact that the president said that Lithuania had been a political hostage of the United States?
I do not know. I see a remarkable upsurge in our military cooperation.
Before the parliamentary election, you were one of the politicians who declared that you would clean up the law enforcement institutions, first of all the State Security Department. Have this already been done?
Not fully yet, but the process has already started. Certain groups, those who we call “the statesmen,” cannot use the VSD the same way they were using it in the past. However, “the statesmen” are not the only ones who want to use the VSD.
Does this mean that some groups are still using the VSD?
From what I can see, much less than they did in the past.
Not long ago, MP Aleksandr Sacharukas, your former colleague from the ruling coalition, said in the Seimas that you were worse than (mafioso Henrikas) Daktaras, and that Lithuania was controlled by secret services. Are you going to react to that?
I think I will take this issue to court. I have already contacted my lawyer and have forwarded all information to her. She is analyzing what legal action can be taken