In this interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. For this month’s interview, we asked Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, leader of ALDE member party Liberal Movement in Lithuania, how chess and politics relate in her view, who is the political leader she looks up to and how she sees the situation in Belarus.
Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, you were recently elected Speaker of Parliament. What does this mean to you?
I see the role both as a challenge and a huge responsibility, especially since I combine being Speaker with being Chair of my party, Liberal Movement. Apart from promoting the political agenda of the party, as a Speaker of Seimas I need to make sure that the Parliament is operating smoothly and, whenever necessary, be a mediator between position and opposition.
Speaking of your party Liberal Movement, which was set up 15 years ago, you are now in government. How is this experience different from being in opposition and what are the lessons you have learned so far?
It is obviously quite different from being in opposition, as it gives us the opportunity to both implement our political programme and to have a very real impact on the direction our country is heading to. Being the smaller partner in the coalition means there is a limit to how freely we can implement our ideas. Nevertheless, it is a unique chance to put topics such as human rights on the very top of political agenda.
By Lithuanian standards, 15 years is a mature age for a political party. During this time, Liberal Movement has had its ups and downs. We grew to become the second most popular party some years back but have also had the experience of some of our former colleagues leaving to form a new party. We have learned that in Lithuania, there is a demand for liberal policies and this demand is steadily growing, especially among the younger generations. And with the recent election results in mind, there is every reason to look optimistically towards the future.
And how has COVID-19 impacted your role as leader and the work of your party? Have you any best practices your party has implemented during this challenging year that you would like to share?
The parliamentary elections in the COVID-19 year were dramatically different from previous elections, with social media playing an even bigger role during this campaign than usual. This was predictable, and parties across the political spectrum were active on the various platforms.
From the point of view of a political organisation, it has been a challenging year, since debates, live discussions and meetings are what keeps the party alive and growing. I would say that a lesson for the future is that part of political work can be moved online, but in terms of getting new people to join politics, campaigning and debating, there is nothing like meeting people face to face.
Has your background as Chess Grandmaster been of any help?
To be good at chess, you must learn to calculate ahead and evaluate accurately the upsides and downsides of the chosen course of action. The same, I believe, goes for politics.
However, chess being contained to 64 black and white squares and a clear set of rules, it is not nearly as complicated as real-life politics.
You are also an alumna of the European Women’s Academy, now known as The Alliance Of Her. What inspired you to enter politics as young woman, and do you have role models you look up to?
I was inspired by the many examples of other women who were passionate about certain issues and entered politics. The European Women’s Academy was an eye-opening experience for me as a young politician. It came very early on and I had a chance to learn a lot about setting political goals, drafting communication strategies, and so on. But above all, it was a unique platform to meet other women in a similar situation, share our experiences and learn from each other.
There are several politicians I look up to. Should I pick one belonging to the ALDE family, it would be Margrethe Vestager.
Given the current global context, how can the EU effectively take on the role of global leader?
From the Lithuanian perspective, the EU leadership in promoting democracy, respect for human rights, greening the economy and fighting climate change is of paramount importance. The challenges we encounter these days are way too complex for countries to tackle separately, be it pandemic, the growing threat of Russia or human rights violations from Belarus to Taiwan. In all these situations, the EU can and should act as one and we would all be better off if we manage that.
Liberal parties have also their role to play, from consistently fighting for liberal values to raising awareness about human rights abuse or corruption in their own countries or abroad. While the issues that dominate the political agenda vary across the EU countries, the core values are the same, and it makes a lot of sense to share our experience within our political family, be it from government’s side or from opposition.
Speaking of Belarus, Lithuania has welcomed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and your party’s MEP Petras Auštrevičius is the rapporteur on the situation in the country. What does the fight for freedom and democratic elections mean to you, and what can all of us – from citizens to politicians – do to ensure democracy is upheld?
The situation in Belarus, the people’s fight for democracy and the regime’s cold-blooded crackdown on peaceful protesters have caused an outcry in Lithuania. The memory of our own similar struggle is still fresh and that is one of the reasons why the support for Belarusian democratic opposition has been unwavering.
I believe that today we are in a dangerous situation, with the risk of the status quo in Belarus becoming normalised, and that is why it is very important to keep the pressure and the sanctions and make sure that the situation stays in the focus of the international community.
Members of the Lithuanian Seimas have become ‘patrons’ of Belarusian political prisoners and take personal interest in and care about the individuals who have been imprisoned for months on false accusations. Talking to the members of their families and finding out about the people behind the statistics has been a difficult and humbling experience. It serves as a reminder that there are thousands of human tragedies behind our neighbours’ fight for democracy, and it is our moral duty to give the voice to those who cannot otherwise be heard and to do our utmost that their sacrifices are not in vain.
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