WASHINGTON –?U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following virtual address at the Republic of Lithuania’s Centenary Conference in Vilnius, which was convened in celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations between Lithuania and the United States. Chairman Menendez applauded Lithuania’s commitment to democracy in addition to its service to the global community and broad impact on the international stage.
“Thank you to the people of Lithuania for standing up for the Cuban people when the rest of the EU turns a blind eye to their struggle. Thank you for hosting the Belarusian opposition who fight every day against a terrible regime. Thank you for hosting the Russian opposition, who valiantly marshal on through the darkest of days. And thank you for supporting our friends in Taiwan, despite crushing pressure from Beijing not to do so,” Chairman Menendez said. “The fortitude of the Lithuanian people and your leaders sets a proud example for the rest of the world. … I am proud to call Lithuania a friend and a stalwart ally as we stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight for freedom.”
Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.
“Thank you for that generous introduction.
I was thrilled to accept Zygis’ invitation to speak with you all today. He is an energetic, passionate, stalwart—and yes—persistent fighter for freedom in the Baltics and around the world. I admire his tenacity. And we are indebted to him for bringing us all together at this crucial time.
Of course, I wish I could be there with you in Vilnius, in Constitution Hall, but circumstances beyond my control prevented me from joining you today. Constitution Hall is a place that symbolizes Lithuania’s fight for freedom and its commitment to democracy – a place that stands as a reminder for all freedom fighters around the world. A reminder of victories won and autocrats vanquished. A reminder of Lithuania’s proud and long history as a free people.
But also a reminder that freedom is not set in stone and democracy is not a finished product. It is something that we need to continuously fight for and defend.
This a critical moment in history for Lithuania and the world.
In the last month, the head of the Russian Security Council threatened Lithuania on a visit to Kaliningrad. Russian cyber-attacks have hit Lithuanian targets. And the Russian Duma has questioned Lithuania’s very independence.
So many of you were there in 1991 when Soviet tanks crushed innocent Lithuanians. You saw Russian soldiers walking the streets of Vilnius. Your buildings have withstood damage from Russian bullets.
We all know what is at stake in this fight.
As vanguards of the democratic order, we have a responsibility. An obligation to step into the breach. To defend the principles that free people cherish and millions more yearn for around the world today.
From Kyiv to Havana, from Taiwan to Minsk, freedom is under threat.
It is incumbent upon us to take up that mantle and do our turn as stewards of a cherished legacy started by the likes of Aristotle and Korais in Greece. By Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King in America. And by Jonas Žemaitis who led freedom fighters against the brutal Soviet occupation.
This legacy lives on today with names like Navalny, Tsikhanouskaya, Otero, and, yes, Zelenskyy.
As defenders of freedom and democracy, we must take up that mantle. It is our turn in the arena.
Our turn to stand in the shadow of these giants and defend the principles that they dedicated their lives to.
As Chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am fortunate to come into daily contact with some of these brave voices for freedom.
Nowhere is this struggle for liberty more evident than Ukraine.
And while the news in Donbas and southern Ukraine is hard to hear some days, one simple fact remains: Ukraine is winning.
And it will emerge from this terrible conflict victorious. And do you know why I believe this?
Is it because of the arms we have sent them? No. Is it because of the diplomatic support we have provided them? No.
Is it our humanitarian assistance? No. My friends, the simple reason why Ukraine has momentum—the reason why these freedom fighters will emerge victorious—is deeply rooted in the bones of the Ukrainian people.
Rooted in their thirst for freedom. Rooted in a desire for a future for their children not dictated by Moscow. Rooted in a simple creed: the people of Ukraine are the only ones fit to determine their country’s future.
President Zelenskyy, and the brave souls fighting off Russian attacks, are on the front lines in the fight for democracy.
And this fire will propel them to victory.
Many commentators like to say that around the globe democracy is backsliding – that autocrats have the upper hand and the good guys are on their back foot.
But I tell you they are wrong.
Inspired by the courage of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, I believe we are in the midst of a global democratic renewal.
One where democrats and freedom fighters are seizing the initiative and standing up for their rights.
The pessimists are wrong because you — gathered here together today — are prepared to defend these universal values that burn in the hearts of all our citizens.
I am not naive about the world we live in.
Yes, the challenges from Russia and China are formidable.
They possess dangerous resources and are relentless in their drive for power.
But international solidarity with meetings like this show that we who support democracy are here and we aren’t going anywhere.
It has been over eighty years since the American State Department condemned the occupation of the Baltic states in what would go on to become known as the Welles Declaration.
It stated that ‘the people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or by the threat of force.’
That is as true today as it was eight decades ago.
We who support democracy are focused and committed to building a free world.
Principles matter. Values matter.
And we aren’t going to back down, we aren’t going to cower, we aren’t going to sit by silently.
Because to do so would be the most terrible sin of omission.
Put another way: to ignore war crimes, to ignore atrocities, to ignore tyranny is complicity.
Plain and simple.
Now, some of you know my story and you know how important this fight is to me personally.
My parents came to the United States as refugees from Cuba, escaping a dictatorship that lives to this day. My family had to struggle to give us a shot in life. But as hard as that struggle was, we knew we had a chance because we were free. Free to pursue our goals. Free to work where we pleased. Free to speak out for what we believed in.
You can’t do that today in Cuba.
That’s why last July, the Cuban people took to the streets in unprecedented nationwide protests. In response, the Díaz-Canel regime arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters. Including the renowned activist Luis Manuel Otero.
He is a leading figure in Cuba’s protest movement and for the last year he has been held in a maximum-security prison.
Just two weeks ago the regime sentenced him to five-years in prison for contempt, public disorder, and defamation.
But in the face of repression, Luis Manuel has been unwavering in his commitment to democracy, human rights, and the end of Cuba’s dictatorship - principles that Lithuania has backed with unwavering support.
Lithuania—the only European country to refuse to cooperate with the repressive Cuban regime.
And it’s not just Cuba.
Despite the threat posed by China, Lithuania welcomed a Taiwanese Representative office in Vilnius, a display of bravery and commitment to democratic values that other nations should emulate because we all have a responsibility to stand together in this fight against totalitarian states.
Taiwan is only a hundred and eighty miles off the coast of China – a thriving nation that lives in Beijing’s shadow.
Taiwan’s flourishing democracy of today provides a case study in the promise of democratic consolidation.
Taiwan’s democratic reformers were crushed in the 1950s, and for decades Taiwan was effectively a one-party state.
But by the early 1980s democratic momentum was inevitable, putting Taiwan at the forefront of the ‘third wave’ of democratization. And today there can be no question that for Taiwan democracy is the only game in town.
So when a country like China tries to bully a nation like Lithuania for recognizing Taiwan, like-minded democracies have to step up.
Of course, Lithuania faces dictatorships much closer to home.
Just over the border in Belarus, the Lukashenka regime has been brutal in its repression of freedom and democracy. It is a regime that has responded to peaceful protests with beatings and death. That has ordered police to arrest people for putting opposition flags in their windows. That has forced an aircraft to the ground and abducted a journalist headed to Lithuania.
And yet in the face of these acts, brave opposition leaders have continued to speak out.
They have shown the Belarusian people, and the world, that there is a real, true alternative to the violent Lukashenka regime.
And indeed, it is an honor to see that Svetlana Tsihanouskaya is with you today.
She has testified before my committee in the Senate, and we have met several times in Washington. Her courage, and that of her supporters, is an inspiration to all of us. Thank you, Svetlana.
Shifting to Russia. Over his long rule, Putin has tightened control of Russia by shuttering independent media, arresting activists and poisoning or killing anyone that gets in his way.
When he invaded Ukraine, many Russians were horrified. They quit their jobs. They packed their bags. Overnight they left their homes and fled Russia. And many in the opposition came to Vilnius.
So even though Putin’s thugs have transferred Alexei Navalny to a high-security prison, his opposition movement has thrived in Vilnius. They continue to engage with those back in Russia, trying to break through Putin’s lies. They continue to fight for a Russia where voices are not silenced – where people can choose their leaders freely, without fear or retaliation. And they do all that from Lithuania.
As the great poet Marionis wrote of Lithuania:
‘You are beautiful, dear homeland.
A country where in graves heroes are sleeping.
Not in vain our ancestors defended you.
Not in vain our poets praised you.’
Yes, I too believe Lithuania deserves the highest of praise.
This – my friends – Is why I wanted to speak with you, why I needed to speak with you. To simply say two words.
Thank you to the people of Lithuania for standing up for the Cuban people when the rest of the EU turns a blind eye to their struggle.
Thank you for hosting the Belarusian opposition who fight every day against a terrible regime.
Thank you for hosting the Russian opposition, who valiantly marshal on through the darkest of days.
And thank you for supporting our friends in Taiwan, despite crushing pressure from Beijing not to do so.
The fortitude of the Lithuanian people and your leaders sets a proud example for the rest of the world.
Your geography and population may be small, but your impact is mighty.
Pound for pound—or kilo for kilo—you are punching far above your weight every day in the international arena.
I am proud to call Lithuania a friend and a stalwart ally as we stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight for freedom.
My friends, democracy is poised for a comeback. And so to those of you listening today who champion the values of democracy and self-determination, do not give up.
To those who have been forced to flee their homeland, do not lose hope.
To those who are living in the shadow of a brutal dictatorship, do not despair.
If we dedicate ourselves to the cause of freedom around the world, democracy will flourish. Light will win over darkness. And we will triumph over tyranny.
Thank you and God bless.”