President in the Media
AP interview: Lithuania's 'Steel Magnolia' defends maverick approach to foreign policy
By Liudas Dapkus
VILNIUS, Lithuania - Lithuania's president can number karate fans, European Union dignitaries and her countrymen among her admirers, but its her independent-mindedness which has raised eyebrows in Washington.
President Dalia Grybauskaite has goaded the United States - unsuccessfully - to share information on two CIA prisons she says were set up in Lithuania, openly disagreed with the U.S. on missile defence and in perhaps the most shocking move, snubbed U.S. President Barack Obama at a dinner in Prague last year, even though nearly every other Eastern European president attended.
Since becoming Lithuania's president in 2009, she has wasted no time defining her leadership. "Yes, you have to be a strict and loud partner if you want to be heard in the conversation," Grybauskaite, 55, told The Associated Press.
Lithuania, a country of 3.4 million that was occupied by the Soviet Union for a half-century before gaining independence in 1991, remains leery of Russian intentions in the Baltic region, but Grybauskaite's views have stunned U.S. diplomats, who were accustomed to virtually flawless relations with Lithuania under her predecessor Valdas Adamkus, a former U.S. citizen.
After the Obama administration, along with Russia, unfurled a strategic missile reduction plan - dubbed New Start - Grybauskaite was the only ally who criticized it, claiming the plan harmed Lithuanian security.
"Lithuania is not used to a straightforward, terse, forceful way of making statements. I admit using this style in pushing NATO defence plans for the Baltic states," she said.
U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this year show NATO privately decided in January 2010 to expand a NATO defence plan for Poland to cover members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
"I am afraid that if I had chosen a different tone, Lithuania and its neighbours would be still waiting another six years for these," she said.
A trained economist, she spent several years in Washington in the 1990s studying and working at the Lithuanian Embassy. She returned home to become finance minister, and as a reward for her fiscal discipline and political independence - she never joined a party - was sent to Brussels to serve a prestigious five-year term as the European Union's budget commissioner.
Lithuanians, who lost one president to impeachment in 2004, are enamoured by Grybauskaite, who has never married and has no children.
A February poll by Lietuvos Rytas, the country's leading daily, showed her with a more than 80 per cent approval rating.
Domestically, Grybauskaite - nicknamed "Steel Magnolia" in local media - has shown zero-tolerance for political impropriety. In less than two years she has ousted a foreign minister, a general prosecutor, and a State Security Department chief - quite a feat in the Baltics, where presidents are constitutionally weak.
And this week the economy minister, Dainus Kreivys, was forced to resign after falling from Grybauskaite's grace.
"This woman is God sent to us during such difficult times. She worked in Washington and Brussels for many years, and she came back not to steal like many others in politics, but to genuinely help her homeland," said Vladislava Keraitiene, 72, a retired teacher.
With such support, many believe Grybauskaite will be able to serve two five-year presidential terms, or until 2019.
Press Service of the President