I have come down for a few days to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
I am here to participate in the Lithuanian World Economic Forum an event which last took place 17 years ago, but has been revived in conjunction with the celebrations of the Millenium of the Lithuanian state and the reign of Vilnius as European capital of culture 2009.
It is a very Lithuanian affair, and the several hundred delegates have all been selected as "foreign Lithuanians". It is in fact an outreach to the hundreds of thousands of sucessful Lithuanian ex-pats. I suppose it is a tribute to the longevity of my relationship with Lithuania that I am one of the very few non-Lithuanian speakers to have been invited. I am, apparently, a Lithuanian ex-pat, resident in Estonia.
The fatted calf has certainly been slaughtered in honour of these particular prodigals: yesterday the outgoing President, Valdus Adamkus hosted the first session at the Presidential Palace, and several of the most prominent members of the government- notably the foreign minister and the economy minister- have been active participants in the conference.
I too have made a contribution, being part of a panel with the Prime Minister and some of the best known Lithuanian investment professionals (and Bill Clinton's Deputy Treasury secretary who wife is Lithuanian). It is refreshing to see how open the political leaders of this country are and Mr. Kubilius accepted comments with a grace and intelligence that would be astonishing if it had come from the mouth of-say- Gordon Brown. His wry comments about the extraordinary difficulties that his government has to work with were greeted with appreciation- even by his political opponents. Yet the government situation, despite the relatively recent general election, is in a certain amount of flux- all Ministers must await reconfirmation after the new President, Dalia Grybauskaite, is sworn in next week.
Nevertheless, despite the financial crisis there is a definite air of celebration in the air. July 6th, is a national holiday- commemorating the coronation of King Mindaugas in 1253. In addition to the Capital of Culture, it is also the five yearly occasion of the Lithuanian song festival, where choirs of tens of thousands are watched by an even larger audience. Although the economic position is indeed grave, Lithuanians seem determined to enjoy the muggy days of the brief summer here and get back to work when the parties are over.
I shall drive back to Tallinn tomorrow- the slow roads making the journey a bit of a hike- three and a half hours to Riga and then another three hours back to the Estonian capital. Then I shall reflect on the determination of Lithuanians to reach out and the equal determination of the Estonians not to.