As a diplomat-slash-song writer, Lithuania’s Ambassador Renatas Norkus is an expert at tuning-in – whether it’s picking up diplomatic signals in his day job or picking up a melody on his guitar after hours.
As a ‘singing revolutionary’ in Soviet Lithuania, he participated in the 1988 Gaudaemus Festival, where choirs from the three Baltic nations marched the streets of Vilnius, singing and waving their national flags. “Nobody dared to do anything,” he smiles.
But after Lithuania declared independence there was a backlash. In January 1991 Soviet tanks encircled the Vilnius TV Tower and Norkus joined thousands of civilians to form a human shield around Parliament. (This January Londoners will join Lithuanians in a 5.5km run to commemorate the defenders of freedom.)
Soon afterwards, Norkus joined the brand-new Lithuanian foreign ministry, still a student. Describing diplomacy as “being an antenna between two cultures,” he says: “You can do a lot of positive things transmitting messages back and forth.”
He evolved into a security specialist after spending time in the European Security and Cooperation Division as Lithuania was negotiating troop withdrawals with Russia.
Norkus spent a year (1992-93) shuttling to Vienna as Lithuania prepared to join the OSCE and other international organisations.
Joining the club
Accession to the Euro-Atlantic clubs was next and after a secondment to the Defence Ministry (1994-98) he was posted to NATO (1999-2001) and then the US (2001-04).
The Ambassador’s job was to lobby Congress about Lithuania’s bid to join NATO. Initially there were “mixed” feelings towards a former Soviet republic joining NATO, he says.
Then 9/11 happened. “I was in Washington the day the plane hit the Pentagon. It took only a few hours for the US, NATO, EU and even Russia to say that we needed to unite against this new threat. Our NATO accession proceeded with no drama after that.”
Returning to Vilnius, Norkus was seconded to the Ministry of Defence as under-secretary, a career highlight. “During my tenure as a defence civil servant, Lithuania joined one of the biggest and most demanding missions in our history, running a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan. It showed we were pulling our weight.”
In 2008 Norkus was appointed Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OSCE, to prepare for Lithuania’s Chairmanship in 2011, but on his first day in office, the Georgia crisis erupted. “It was a wake-up call for everyone; the only difference was that some countries pressed the snooze button. We didn’t,” he says.
He recalls the “frustrating nitty gritty work” of trying to get observers on the ground. “If you want to apply to the OSCE for instant conflict management it’s very hard, there are so many interests on the table.”
But the observers are doing helpful work in Ukraine, he adds. “They are the eyes and ears of the international community – it’s almost a miracle that they agreed on the mandate for that mission.”
Norkus was in Moscow (2012-15) before the conflict in Ukraine flared up, but his diplomatic antennae had been picking up worrying signals. “Prior to our EU presidency [in 2013] Russia started to apply Lithuania-specific economic embargoes, like a warning signal that we should behave when we take over the presidency.”
Raising the alarm
Not many expected President Yanukovych of Ukraine to back out of the EU Association Agreement, or, after his ousting, Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For Lithuania, with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on its territory, it was alarming. It was time to call in some favours from its NATO and EU allies. “Deterrence works when you have forward troops on the ground that are ready and willing to defend,” explains Norkus.
The Ambassador picked up on another trend in Russia: “They were testing the vulnerabilities of our democracies. In this hybrid, non-conventional warfare, geography makes no difference. Nobody is immune to cyber penetration. We need to invest in this area and we need to build up societal resilience. Some of us have been in dormant democracies and now we have to rearrange our playbooks.”
Now in London as Britain prepares to leave the EU, Norkus is confident Lithuania’s powerful ally will remain engaged in European security and defence. “It is in the strategic interest of all concerned. The UK has to be part of a consultation process, not simply signing up to positions.”
Brexit aside, the bilateral economic relationship could do with improvement too, he adds. “There are opportunities – for instance, we produce eco-friendly modular homes and the UK has a massive house-building programme,” he says.
He will also be consulting with Lithuania’s large communities across the UK to ensure their rights are protected – but also to let them know that Lithuania’s growing economy needs their skills.
They are a cultural bridge to help him raise Lithuania’s profile among the British public. Next year’s centenary celebrations of restored statehood are the perfect opportunity. Music will be involved (naturally!) and he has plans to showcase Lithuania’s prodigious talents in the UK, such as the conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the accordion sensation, Martynas Levickis who will perform at an Independence Day concert.
The Ambassador will keep singing too (he’s currently publishing his debut album), while making sure UK-Lithuania relations remain in tune whatever the political climate.