Lithuania: in struggle for identity. T-shirt PR

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In a small country tiny signs of acknowledgement turn into moments of triumph. For instance the fact that Ozzy Osbourne wears Lithuanian Basketball Team's T-shirt with his name on it during a gig in Vilnius.

Photo by R.Neverbickas

Ozzy is not the only celebrity who happened to come home from Lithuania with a new T-Shirt. Princess Máxima of the Netherlands got one and so did the United States Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Photo by ELTA

We realize that these VIPs won't bother wearing them once they get back, yet naively hope that perhaps BBC or CNN have noticed...

Dr. Lecter and sharp-toothed Lithuanians

Lithuania is smaller than the Republic of Ireland, bigger than the Netherlands and the population is about the same as in the city of Madrid. No wonder we are so sensitive to whatever foreigners state about us or our country - be it Mel Gibson infamously calling Lithuanians "sharp-toothed" and "armed with baseball bats" or Jonathan Franzen, depicting Lithuania in his "Corrections" as hell where there is a shortage of coals and electricity and the people have to eat horses in order to stay alive. Actually before watching "Hostel" I was saying my prayers and hoping it is not about Lithuania (yes, it was Slovak Republic!). Although Dr. Lecter turned out to be from my country...

One can hate Mr Thomas Harris, but I have to admit that we did enter history as a savage country. In 2009 we will be celebrating the Millennium since the historical mention of Lithuania and the story is frightening:

"In 1009 saint Brunon <...>, an archbishop and a monk,<...> on the border of Russia and Lithuania was knocked down by non-Christian pagans and on the 23rd of February with 18 fellow travelers departed to heaven." (German Quedlinburg Annals a)

“We are a nation that was formed out of barbarians, nomads and peasants. And our mixed genes are the reason for Lithuanian nostalgia and individualism”, - a few years ago stated Gintaras Beresnevicius, a Vilnius University professor at the Ethnology and Folklore Department, in “Creation of the Empire. The Blueprint for Lithuanian Ideology”. Ironically, he passed away last year after being taken from a party in a police car. Investigation has proved that the injuries later discovered on his body had nothing to do with policemen. Although one witness claimed to have seen them putting Mr Beresnevicius into boot used for transporting animals... Mr Beresnevicius was considered as one of the most prominent historians of religions specializing in Baltic mythology.

Ignorant Westerners or indifferent politicians?

Have you got electricity? Is the war over yet? Do you speak Russian there? These and similar questions myself, my friends and many other Lithuanians who live abroad have to face on a daily basis. Yes, we do have electricity. As a matter of fact Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant produces way too much of it. The war? You probably mixed up Baltics with Balkans. And yes, quite a few people still speak Russian, especially in the capital, although younger kids are fluent in English and could hardly understand any Russian. Yet the main language is Lithuanian - one of the oldest in Europe, similar only to Latvian and we managed to preserve it despite being on the crossroads of civilizations.

Some Lithuanians accuse foreigners of ignorance when they ask questions like the ones above. When my dad was a teenager he could name the capitals of all African countries. For decades the only way people of the Eastern Block could learn about the world was by looking at the maps. We didn't have "National Geographic" or "Discovery". Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people from former Soviet Union have great knowledge of geography. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I buy "National Geographic" - I still enjoy looking at the maps and reading about the world.

Although I do agree that sometimes Westerners' indifference to the rest of the world is the case, in my opinion, the main reason why Lithuania is not so well known in the world or is more known from a rather unpleasant and negative point of view (corruption, suicides, alcoholism, crime) is because the country is not being branded in a proper way.

Christian Caryl's story in "Newsweek" last month should be read by everybody who struggles to come up with the best idea for branding Lithuania yet it stresses that first of all local people shape the identity of a country.

"In the end it's the Italian people who brand Italy, and they do it so damn well," says Simon Anholt, founder of the National Brands Index, in the story. "And the countries that haven't quite succeeded at that are the countries that don't quite love themselves."

Love you, love you not

Lithuanians' relationship with Lithuania is a love-and-hate story.

We become ecstatic to the point of madness when we get gold in the Olympics (I recall three so far - correct me if I am wrong). Yet the best of our sportsmen and sportswomen have to go abroad to train since there are no proper facilities in Lithuania.

When a Lithuanian documentary film director Arunas Matelis receives Directors’ Guild of America award in the documentary category we proudly remind to the world and ourselves that he's from the same country as us yet quietly whisper to the neighbor "Who is that Matelis?" (request for the Ministry of Culture - could Lithuania's movie industry be supported at least as much as Kaunas Zoo?)

Lithuania is famous for classical music performers - soprano Violeta Urmana, conductor Saulius Sondeckis - although the latter after tensions in Lithuanian music arena decided to shift his career and rather perform in Germany, Russia or Austria.

Our politicians proudly point out that a Lithuanian is in charge of the gargantuan budget of the European Union (Finance and budget commissioner Ms Dalia Grybauskaite) yet dismiss her when she's constantly criticizing Lithuania's finance policy.

We rave to be presented on BBC or CNN as a country of tranquil beauty yet after two weeks of showing our 30 second long ad during prime time on BBC a few Lithuanian politicians expressed a view that it was wrong to choose BBC without a public competition. Darlings, if there is a chance to be broadcasted on BBC, forget competitions! Or perhaps, as somebody pointed, our politicians would have been more delighted if the ad was broadcasted on Russian TV? Forget the West, let's go back East!

Lack of good policies

"The best way for a country to generate a good image is not by conducting clever ad campaigns, but by implementing good policies," writes Christian Caryl in "Newsweek". "The most important thing is to tell the truth," stresses Mr Anholt in the story mentioned above.

So what is the truth about Lithuania and Lithuanians? How different is it from Latvia, Slovenia or Poland?

Recent survey conducted by Vytautas Magnum University and Institute for Social Studies has proved that Lithuanians firstly consider themselves as jealous, hardworking and hospitable. Yet more than a third of respondents pointed the fact that we are reserved.

My landlord (an old Irishman) keeps stressing that we are hardworking. Jealousy, I believe, we will get rid of once the salaries increase. Yet the main challenge is to stop being reserved since there are things in Lithuania of which the world should hear.

"It is only the material things that matter in Lithuania - construction, roads," a while ago emphasized documentary director Arunas Matelis. Despite winning the Directors’ Guild of America award he's still waiting for state funds to subtitle the movie. Good policies, huh?

Last year I publicly criticized the Embassy of Lithuania in Ireland for ignorance and lack of initiative in representing Lithuania in the Emerald Isle. Despite the fact that there might be over 100 000 Lithuanians in Ireland cultural events that would try to reach out non-Lithuanian audiences are scarce. We did not participate in the largest celebration of cultures in Ireland Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures last year (there was only a few Lithuanians with ethnic costumes). Unfortunately the embassy did nothing this year as well therefore myself and a few friends are trying to do something about it. Yet it is a shame that an institution who is responsible for representing our culture abroad (and this should be one of the priorities, especially now that there are so many of us here) is passive.

When I was in school studies of foreign relations was considered as one of the most attractive subjects one could study. Quite a few of us were dreaming of working as ambassadors. Is it because once you become one you can lay back in a rocking chair, smoke a cigar and drink mohitos realizing that Lithuania is far away and you don't give a **** about your job? At the end of the day, why should Ozzy Osbourne, Condoleeza Rice, Dr Lecter or Mel Gibson do PR for Lithuania?

On the other hand there are some good signs - more video clips like the one on BBC and this one about Vilnius. Yet foreign broadcasters can't substitute the indifference of Lithuanian clerks. Last year the government approved the strategy of Lithuania's image, it's implementation was supposed to kick off this year, yet nothing has been done so far. Any VIPs to volunteer for another T-shirt?

Post Scriptum

By the way, this is Lithuania. Media is about manipulation, yet this video is close to reality. Welcome to Lithuania or actually Vilnius - which is my home city.