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Awards

Dalia Grybauskaite: the Iron Lady of Lithuania

It's known as the "Oscar of politics." Whoever receives the Charlemagne Prize is esteemed in Europe and beyond - such as this year's laureate: Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite. But her style is controversial.

President of Lithuania and Charlemagne Prize Laureate 2013: Dalia Grybauskayte 
(Photo: Šarūnas Mažeika / DW)

President of Lithuania and Charlemagne Prize Laureate 2013: Dalia Grybauskayte

Shoulders straight. Eyes straight ahead. Concentration. Focus. That's the role Dalia Grybauskaite is best known for: the resolute ruler in charge of Lithuanian politics.

"My character was created in the battle for survival," the 57 year-old told DW, regarding her interlocutor attentively without betraying any emotion. "I was not from a very rich family. So I had no one for support. That's why, maybe, there's this sense of strictness."

Since 2009, Grybauskaite has been the president of Lithuania. She is the first woman to have reached that office. The media frequently refers to her as the "Iron Lady," a reference to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite speaks to the media at a polling station in Vilnius 
(Photo: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/dapd)

Not a friend of small talk: Dalia Grybauskayte

And it's with an iron grip on it, it seems, that Grybauskaite has pursued her career. After Lithuania's independence in 1990, she was first appointed to the ministry for international trade as a section head and later, inside the foreign office. She was the chief negotiator for the free trade agreement with the EU, then she acted as the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Lithuanian Embassy in the US, thereafter finance minister, and, eventually, appointed as EU Commissioner for Financial Programming and the Budget in 2004.

"I think that any achievement cannot be based on talent. It's necessary to be based on hard work and discipline. So I do that myself, and I work that way, and I ask others to do the same," she said.

No endless chatter

"Her style is deliberately structured in such a way as to present her as a strong, concrete person, who doesn't like long talks with few results - who wants to get to the point immediately, who wants to get things done," says Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Vilnius.

He told DW that with Grybauskaite, extensive speeches are the exception and pragmatism the rule.

Outside her office, the president has a black belt in karate. Strength, endurance, discipline and ambition may be the foundation of that sport, and they have certainly proven helpful in the area of policymaking, too.

And now, another watershed moment: Grybauskaite's winning of the International Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen, also known as the "Oscar award of politics."

In its statement, the prize's board of directors declared Grybauskaite as "one of the outstanding personalities in the Baltic region," with the award being a "tribute to her exceptional endeavours for deeper integration in the European Union, and for finding solutions for the current crisis."

President out of necessity

When Lithuania was hit by the economic crisis in 2008, Grybauskaite left her post as commissioner and ran for the country's presidency. "I never really had this goal - to become president," she said. "I saw Lithuania sliding deeply into crisis, and I wanted to help the government get our country out of those troubles."

Together with the government of then-Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, she managed to stabilize the country. And, unlike other crisis-stricken countries in the south of Europe, she did so without drawing on financial aid from the International Monetary Fund.

"If the political will and political responsibility are in place, you don't need anybody to help you," Grybauskaite said, adding that this was how Lithuania had succeeded in mastering the crisis without the need for any "dictatorship from outside."

Skyline of Vilnius
(Photo: Monika Griebeler / DW)

Modern - but not quite done: The economic crisis put the construction boom in Vilnius on hold

Authoritarian streak

Grybauskaite's critics, meanwhile, speak of a "dictatorship from the inside." Public spending has been cut by 30 percent. Administrative wages have dropped by 20 percent. Pensions were reduced by 11 percent. At the same time, the government enacted tax increases.

What followed was an exodus of the despaired - and the well-trained. Since independence, Lithuania has lost about a half-million citizens, or one-fifth its entire population.

"So, that's the price, probably, of integration into a larger economic area," Grybauskaite says, referring her country's EU membership. "And for a small nation, that is a very, very bad message."

Youn people sitting in the street in Vilnius 
(Photo: Monika Griebeler / DW)

Many Lithuanians are moving abroad

On the streets of Vilnius, Grybauskaite is mostly seen as being focused on her own interests - as having a personality with streaks of authoritarianism and narcissism. She's still up in the polls as one of the country's most popular politicians, but since the crisis, her score has dropped somewhat.

A further annoyance are the various rumors that continually resurface - that she's lesbian or that she worked for the KGB. During Soviet rule, she did study in Moscow, where she obtained her doctorate degree. She of course denies them vehemently.

Grybauskaite - the next EU president?

The presidency of the EU Council is to some extent Grybauskaite's dream role.

"In the last year - or even more - I see this more active role in the foreign policy, and also on domestic issues, and, for example, in the eastern neighbourhood with her trips to Ukraine." said political science expert Vilpišauskas. "But what is most visible Grybauskaite's use of the approaching Lithuanian EU presidency to make herself visible, and her position on different issues visible - not only in Lithuania, but in the EU."

Ramunas Vilpisauskas, director for the Institute of Political Sciences at the University of Vilnius
(Photo: Monika Griebeler / DW)

Vilpisauskas: "The president has fully arrived in office"

Lithuanian media are speculating that Grybauskaite's goal might be to play an even stronger role in Europe. Presidential elections will take place in Lithuania in 2014. A half-year later, the EU Council, too, will have a change in leadership. Current President Herman Van Rompuy has already announced that he is ready to step down.

"Whether or not I'm going to run for a second term in office in Lithuania, I'll decide next spring," Grybauskaite said. "For this year, I'll start with focusing on [Lithuania's] EU Council Presidency."

She speaks the words seriously. But then - a loosening of the shoulders, a smile, just on the brink of laughter. "Let's see how we're going to pull it off this summer," she says.

As part of the "Nahaufnahme" ("Close-up") project, DW journalist Monika Griebeler has been a guest writer for the Lithuanian news portal delfi.lt. It's a project from the Goethe-Institute, where journalists from Germany and other European countries swap places for a number of weeks. In return, Lithuanian journalist Vytenė Stašaitytė visited Deutsche Welle in December 2012.

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