Lithuania’s Ambassador to Armenia Erikas Petrikas:

Lithuania’s Ambassador to Armenia Erikas Petrikas:

“We are here to help Armenia”

In November 1991, the Republic of Lithuania signed an agreement of diplomatic relations with a newly established independent Republic of Armenia. This might look like an ordinary diplomatic routine, but the fact is that Lithuania became the first ever state to recognize the independence of Armenia. This year both countries celebrate the 25th anniversary of independence and 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. But how would the relationship between the two countries develop a century later? How deep our countries cooperate in the 21st century? We talked about this with the Ambassador of Lithuania in Armenia, Mr. Erikas Petrikas.

Text: Mikayel Zolyan / Photos: Embassy of Lithuania in Armenia

Mr. Petrikas, you were appointed an ambassador to Armenia in 2013. Was it your first visit to Armenia at that time? What surprised you most of all?

— Yes, it was my very first visit to the region. Previously, I served in four European countries. And never before I have encountered such a strong acknowledgement of my country as I met here. Nobody in Armenia confuses us with other Baltic countries; ordinary people know such small towns and villages of Lithuania which I don’t even remember myself. Later I found out that it was coming from Soviet times when lots of Armenians served in the army in Lithuania and their relatives went to see them. Many others went there for their honeymoons, because Lithuania seemed to be Europe inside the Soviet Union. And it is such a great thing that they still remember it with warmness. And, of course, Armenians remember our great basketball players.

Finally, Lithuania was among the first countries to recognize Armenian independence!

— Exactly. And it comes as no surprise. Armenians and Lithuanians have always been like brother nations, starting from the middle Ages and ending with the national movements during the last years of the Soviet Union. And I can say for sure that friendship between our nations is still very strong. On one hand, Armenians remember us very well; on the other, Lithuania sends signals and states: “We are here to help Armenia”. We really see a huge potential of your country.
When our Minister of Defense, Juozas Olekas, met Levon Ter-Petrosyan during his official visit in 2014, they remembered each other from the times when they were both deputies in Moscow. And our minister even visited Ter-Petrosyan when the latter was in prison in Moscow in late 1980’s. It’s not surprising that I remember Armenian and Lithuanian flags carried together during our national movements.
And, of course, the earthquake of 1988. It was one of the worst tragedies that united our nations. I was so proud to see several buildings, including two schools in Artik, that were built from scratch by a Lithuanian company. I remember myself collecting things for those in Spitak… It was as if this tragedy happened to your relative, your brother. When I was appointed an ambassador, I’ve been called “akhper jan”, my brother, many times. So proud to be.

Strengthening of economic cooperation is your priority as an ambassador, isn’t it?

— It is. I have to say, that previously there wasn’t much positive experience in two-side economic relations. But then a special intergovernmental commission was organized, which marked fourteen areas where our countries could cooperate. And it is not just an agreement on paper. There are numerous practical steps that can be seen already. Like three business forums that had a great impact. There were three participating countries in one of the forums: Lithuania, Armenia and Iran. Though we do not cover Iran from Armenia, this request came from the President of Lithuanian Business Confederation, and it could be a good example of how big is Armenia’s potential to serve as a bridge between Europe and Iran. Armenia has to use this opportunity.

Did all this result in a significant growth in terms of economic relations?

— Yes, since last year game-changing things started to happen. Last year our export to Armenia grew up to 16 million euros. It is not that much on a big scale, but in comparison with previous years, it is more than twofold, so I’m quite pleased with the progress.
In February, Lithuanian meat and dairy products could already be found in Armenian supermarkets – two supermarket chains so far, but still it’s a great step forward. The decision was made by one of the Lithuanian companies, the one which was exporting products to Georgia – it was easy to enter the Armenian market from there.

What about other spheres?

— Agriculture is one of the key priorities for both countries. Our Minister of Agriculture was here in June and signed an agreement with Armenian exporters, who were invited to Vilnius in August. We pay particular attention to cattle breeding, ecological farms, fishery and consultancy in agriculture, and we can become trusted advisors to Armenia in this sphere. We’ve been in a similar situation some ten years ago, and now we can share our experience with Armenian colleagues, so they could avoid mistakes we had made.
There are three agreements between our countries already on the table ready to be signed – in the areas of social security and labor, sport and readmission which will be signed later this year or at the beginning of 2017. It’s so much important for us to share our experience with you!

Lithuania is part of EU, Armenia recently became member of Eurasian Economic Union. How did this affect the relationships between our countries?

— I remember it was at the beginning of 2013, when we were all busy with preparations for your President’s visit to Vilnius where he had to sign an agreement with EU, and I, on my side, had already reported this news, and then September 3rd happened. It was quite a surprise, but we have what we have, and we need to think about the future. Fortunately, Armenia laid a good basis for negotiations. We really want to save all those positive elements gained during the negotiations before 2013, so we don’t have to invent a bicycle, just keep on going and find common solutions. EU is very positive and Armenia is quite flexible, so the relationship between these two definitely has a future.

You mentioned Iran. How should Armenia use its close position to it?

— Energy security has always been a priority for Lithuania, and still is. From this perspective Armenia’s cooperation with Iran in this area is very important. Iran is a friendly partner and a good neighbor to Armenia, so I see big potential there. Armenia may become a transit between Iran and Eastern-European countries. It’s all in your hands.

Few years ago tourism was declared as one of the priority segments of the Armenian economy. Do you see any potential here? Are there many tourists from Lithuania traveling to Armenia?

— Honestly, we haven’t succeeded much in this area yet, but I hope that the situation will change in the coming years because I see real potential for it. Armenia should improve its touristic infrastructure. See the example of Kutaisi in Georgia. By the way, the other way to attract more tourists is to bring to Armenia those who are visiting Georgia. I know lots of Lithuanians who would be pleased to expand their trip while exploring Georgia and visit Armenia. Besides, the road signs should be also written in English and not only in Armenian. It may seem a small thing, but believe me, this matters a lot. The other thing is promotion. While waiting for connecting flights to Yerevan, one can see attractive ads of Georgian resorts, but not a single sign of Jermuk or Tsakhkadzor, or the Symphony of the Stones in the Garni Gorge.

You seem to travel a lot in Armenia.

— I’m trying to! There are so many magnificent places here! And you know, it’s important to realize that Yerevan is not all Armenia. So I love traveling and meeting people, talking to ordinary Armenians. It is the only way to understand the country.

You are also very active in a cultural area.

— We are not a very rich country and usually we prefer to organize one big event within the scope of a National Holiday inviting the best Lithuanian artists. On February 16, we hosted an accordion virtuoso, Martinas Levickis, while last year we enjoyed a concert of two prominent Lithuanian jazz musicians – Petras Geniu6as and Liudas Mockūnas. However, we started our cultural activities here from cooperation with a talented Armenian pianist, Hayk Melikyan, by supporting his project called “1900+”. In 2014, we supported Hayk’s initiative and organized concert series where works of three Baltic States composers were presented; and in 2015, we released a CD dedicated to the works of famous Lithuanian artists, Čiurlionis and Dvarionas.

We have also presented some Lithuanian films to the Armenian public. But to me the most interesting and important project was the one we had on May 21st which was the Street Music Day in Yerevan. It was very difficult for me to convince Armenian counterparts to “copy” a Lithuanian project which we have been running for 10 years already. Most supportive person there was Mayor of Yerevan, Mr. Taron Margaryan. He asked me very openly: “What other towns have “bought” this Lithuanian idea?” I mentioned Tallinn, Riga, St. Petersburg, Dublin, Vienna and Tbilisi. He was convinced. So Northern Avenue and other places in the city center have become a stage for all those who wished to showcase their musical talents in public. This event was widely publicized in the Lithuanian media. Another significant event I felt very happy about took place in May 2015, when the Poetry Spring with participation of three Lithuanian poets was held in Yerevan as well.

I can see few interesting books here…

— Yes, this one means a lot to me. In 1928, Jurgis Baltrušaitis Junior, Lithuanian art historian, visited the Julfa Cemetery in Nakhijevan and took 38 photos of Armenian khackhars. For years it was thought that those photos were lost, but with the help of our friends – a Paris-based professor, Dickran Kouyumjian, and our Portuguese colleague Carlos Costa Ramos – we managed to find them. Our Armenian friends helped us to have this book translated into Armenian and present it to the Armenian public in Matenadaran. Next steps would be to inaugurate a room named after Jurgis Baltrušaitis Junior at the Yerevan State University of Architecture and Construction and to establish a scholarship fund in his name available for Armenian architecture students. For me Baltrušaitis Junior is one of the most significant figures in history of the relationship between Armenia and Lithuania. By the way, Lithuanian J. Baltrušaitis also wrote two books about Armenian architecture in 1929 and 1936.
And here you can see two books that came as a wonderful surprise to me: Felix Bakhchinyan translated into Armenian the works of our famous poets – Kristijonas Donelaitis and, later, Maironis and Baranauskas. So this is a big cultural exchange that comes from both sides.

What is your biggest achievement as an ambassador?

— I spared no efforts to create an intergovernmental commission. We managed to achieve this with a great support of Ara Ayvazian, former Armenian ambassador in Lithuania. Well, there were some obstacles that just had to be put aside in order to move forward. And step by step we built our relationship.

What about things yet to be done?

— Many things could be done in the areas I have mentioned before, as well as, for example, in education. So far, there are only five Armenian students studying in Lithuania. Regretfully, no one has applied for the government scholarships for researches and fellowship particularly in the Baltic studies. Those scholarships didn’t disappear, of course, they just were given to students from Moldova, Georgia, and other countries. Starting from 2015, Armenian universities can apply for the exchange programs for students and fellows through the Erasmus EU program – the package holds about 1.6 million euros. But again, lack of interest is seen.

What are your favorite places in Yerevan?

— It’s great to live in the city center, so you can walk a lot. I really enjoy walking. My local friends organize Saturday walking tours in the city, during which we not only explore architecture but also visit wonderful artists of Yerevan. We visited Benik Petrosyan’s, Pharavon Mirzoyan’s and Shahumyan’s families, Ara Alekyan’s, Hasmik Avetisyan’s, Ashot Harutyunyan’s, Eduard Shakhikyan’s and many others’ studios.