GUILFORD — The Guilford Country Store doesn't normally play host to international diplomats.
So it was a bit of a change on Aug. 19 when the newly appointed Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Audra PlepytÄ—, spoke to reporters at a table in the café area at the rear of the store.
She was accompanied by her attaché, RytÄ— KukulskytÄ—, and by the honorary consul of Lithuania to Vermont, Kerry E. Secrest of Brattleboro.
PlepytÄ—, 49, was appointed to the post in May. She's been a diplomat for more than 25 years. Her most recent posts included serving as Lithuania's permanent representative to the United Nations (2017–2021), director of the European Union Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vilnius (2014–2017), and ambassador to Spain (2010–2014).
She came to Vermont last week to learn more about the Green Mountain State and explore ways that the two places can collaborate on economic ventures.
“Like Vermont, Lithuania also has a strong agricultural background and is faced with many similar challenges to keeping smaller towns and villages thriving in this global economy,” said Secrest.
PlepytÄ— said Vermont and Lithuania have many things in common - both are small, resourceful places that put a premium on local products and innovation.
Vermont is familiar territory to Lithuanians, especially southern Vermont, which is home to Camp Neringa (neringa.org), a Lithuanian heritage family camp in Marlboro.
PlepytÄ— spent much of the morning at The Cotton Mill in Brattleboro, the business incubator space operated by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. After her impromptu news conference, she headed north to Windsor, South Royalton, Burlington, and Craftsbury.
She said she liked what she saw at The Cotton Mill, and said she enjoyed the smells of chocolate and fresh-baked granola from the businesses there.
“It was impressive to see how the local community and the people can help the local businesses to develop, providing different types of assistance and premises,” she said. “I think that inspires others as well to develop their own businesses.”
The U.S. and Lithuania have enjoyed close ties over the years. PlepytÄ— said the United States was one of the first countries to recognize Lithuania as an independent state in 1922 and stood by to support the tiny nation during its occupation by the former Soviet Union from 1939 to 1991.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Lithuania regained its independence and the United States again re-established diplomatic and economic ties. Now a member of NATO and the European Union, Lithuania remains a key ally of the U.S., and the country played a large role through NATO during the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan.
The chaos that has recently ensued after U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan, with the collapse of the Afghan government and military and the quick ascension of the Taliban to power, was “a sad situation,” said PlepytÄ—.
“The decision was made to withdraw, and I think it's right,” she said.
Now, she added, “we have to work closely with the U.S. and other allied countries on withdrawing the Afghan people who worked with us and helped us in building Afghanistan.”
“Nobody expected - not the E.U. or any of the European allies - how quickly the Taliban would come and take over,” PlepytÄ— said.
Lithuanians questioned why their country got involved with the U.S. with military and development efforts in Afghanistan, but “then they felt very much for the Afghani people and they saw how Lithuania could help other countries, which are maybe so far away from our region.”
Just the same, she said, Afghanistan “has to be able to protect itself and ensure its own economic future.”
Secrest, a fourth-generation Lithuanian-American, first came to the region as a camper and, later, a counselor at Camp Neringa. After graduating from Villanova College in 1991, she spent two years in Lithuania and witnessed firsthand the fall of the Soviet Union and the return of the country to independence.
She returned to the U.S. and joined the new Lithuanian embassy as an advisor for educational and cultural affairs. After leaving to study at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, she was granted Lithuanian citizenship.
According to a news release announcing the appointment, Lithuania, northeast of Poland on the Baltic Sea, is “comparable in area to Vermont and has a population of 3 million in a largely rural country of lakes and forest.”
“Lithuania is situated at the geographic center of Europe,” Secrest said at the time. “It could serve as a great connection to Europe for Vermont exports, and a gateway in particular to Eastern Europe for Vermont businesses. And because it's a small country, it can be easier to access the right people to get things done quickly.”
A collaboration with Vermont
PlepytÄ— said she sees see great potential for Vermont and Lithuania to work together.
Lithuania has some of the fastest wired and wireless internet and cellular phone service in Europe, which PlepytÄ— said has helped the country attract many financial technology companies.
At the same time, like Vermont, Lithuania is trying to balance its growing tech sector and its longtime agricultural sector.
“We hope to take some concrete steps where we can cooperate and see the possibilities in high tech and life sciences,” she said.
For her, meeting people and learning more about Vermont was the first step toward building those connections.
“We've learned from Vermont that it is not quantity, but quality, that is important,” she said.