Vox Populi: “Freedom is the greatest dream”

Categories: Talks and IdeasPublished On: 2017 April 24

Dr. Milda Ališauskienė, the Chairperson of the Board and Sandra Adomavičiūtė, Head of the Open Lithuania Foundation, revealed more details surrounding the circumstances of the reopening of the OLF and shared their thoughts on planning and implementing the Foundation’s activities for 2017 with Kultūros savaitė (Week of Culture, a Lithuanian National Radio and TV program) on April 22, 2017.

They stressed that the OLF, with its modest budget at present, is not going to be able to be a grant-provider, but will rather seek out feasible opportunities for small, but significant changes in Lithuanian policies, its economy and the sociocultural area.

One of the most pressing needs in Lithuania is to reinforce its society’s resilience, starting with legal and psychological support in problematic provincial areas or the so-called “under capture” municipalities.

To illustrate her point, S. Adomavičiūtė shared her personal experience of meeting people who have approached the OLF for assistance in literally getting freedom. FREEDOM, she noted, is still the greatest dream for some people in certain areas of  Lithuania.

Below please find a truncated version of the interview. 

When the OLF was just starting in 1990, the timing was very favorable, with all of society’s hopes pinned on Europe and a broad public consensus on the importance of European integration. Europe sounded hopeful. Now, when the OLF is reopening, is it still the same?

M. A.: We are approaching a new point in history when we have to reflect on achievements that have been made and identify concerns, and invite our society for a dialogue to search for common solutions.

S. A.: We started considering the idea of reopening the OLF as long ago as 2015, before Brexit and other major developments in Europe, including disturbances in Poland and Hungary. We believe the current situation is yet another reason to justify our idea for reopening the OLF. However, the original intention was based purely on our situation at home, in Lithuania.

M. A.: When the OLF’s operations were phased out in 2008, we had a lot of optimism, with good foundations established for a civil society, a huge amount accomplished, lots of programs implemented and NGOs founded. However, the social and economic crisis in 2009 along with other indications proved that, even though Lithuanian society is in the process of opening and moving towards more freedom, it still lacks resilience, i.e. an ability to identify and solve problems. Issues of social justice, social exclusion, inequality, and lack of trust in governmental and municipal institutions are still very prevalent. We are interested in seeking out common perspectives with different groups of society. Even though we understand that there is no single correct perspective and that is not supposed to exist in today’s society, we are still aiming for discussion and a polylogue culture.

S. A.: Apart from discussions, we also have specific plans for activities in three areas.

What are the steps you have planned?

S. A.: The OLF does not have as much funding as it previously did, but if we identify a need for e.g. legal or psychological services, we can organize support, with society’s resilience as a key goal. We want the well-off members of society who are able to stand on their own two feet to support others. Studies indicate clear trends that in some places of Lithuania people still feel oppressed with no freedom of speech.

M. A.: There is not even physical space available for people in need and potential support-providers to meet. They might be neighbors without knowing each other. We believe that business in Lithuania is strong enough to give back to the issues of local communities.

S. A.: Some examples are inspiring. I know a person in Naujoji Akmenė who came back from emigration to strengthen the local community and “take care of his backyard”. When you have taken care of your own backyard, you can also help your neighbors.

M. A.: A Festival of Ideas in September is one of our specific plans, with people coming in from many regions. This is where we want to help those with ideas who are in need of support.

S. A.: Public policy analysis is another area of interest. The first step towards finding solutions is an emerging new policy analysis center that will bring together experts and analysts to generate solutions and proposals.

M. A.: For example, to grasp the reasons for emigration from Lithuania. Statistics show that it is not about the average salary being 100 euros higher somewhere else. Emigration is a lot lower in Estonia. We need a deeper and more self-critical analysis.

How are you going to reach out to people in the regions? Some places are very authoritarian, resulting in oppression and no meeting spaces.

S. A.: Our current field studies reveal a depressing situation. Some municipalities are truly “under capture”. During one of my municipality visits, people in Lithuania in the 21st century, in April 2017, told me that freedom is their greatest dream. FREEDOM. Really? That is going to be my inspiration for a long time. The challenges are still vast.

Some municipalities are truly “under capture”. During one of my municipality visits, people in Lithuania in the 21st century, in April 2017, told me that freedom is their greatest dream. FREEDOM. Really?

Therefore, the new OLF is not about distributing grants. Your functions are changing and expanding, but what about your funding?

S. A.: We have received co-funding for the first three years to fundraise and implement our core programs. In the case of the Resilient Society program, our role is, rather than acting as the sole donor for local communities, to find more donors and partners and take the lead by highlighting the need for support. We will also allocate funds for discussing the idea of Europe, as we do not want to stand on the sidelines amidst significant security and openness challenges throughout Europe. These funds are modest. As we say, the old OLF had a budget comparable to the annual budget of the Ministry of Culture; the current OLF budget is similar to that of a small agency under the Ministry. For three years, we will be receiving about 700,000 USD annually. It would be very easy to give it all away or ‘to absorb’ it the way it is done with European structural funds. Yet, we want each dollar or each euro to be well spent.

Was it easy to convince George Soros to resume support to Lithuania?

S. A.: We drafted and sent him our strategy and list of proposed activities on September 29, 2016. We received an answer on the 30th, saying, “Yes, we are on your side”. To disclose a small secret, Soros met us in Vilnius on October 16, to listen to our justification for the reopening of the OLF.

M. A.: Soros certainly sees the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, with many alarming trends. The OLF is as relevant as ever before. This is a space for free discussion. The first public event of the OLF will be a discussion, “The Fate of the European Dream”, on April 27. Please feel free to join us.

The full Lithuanian audio of the talk can be found here.