After exactly one decade of service, Honorary Consul Dr. John Vytautas Prunskis of Lithuania will be leaving his position in Aspen.
The Baltic nation consulate will remove its flag Saturday, on a very significant date for Lithuania.
“On March 11, 1990, The Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was our re-independence. It’s like our Fourth of July,” he explained. “The Soviet Union had occupied the country, and we were the first of 15 Soviet republics to declare independence over a 21-month period. This became known as the ‘parade of sovereignties’ that turned into the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s a momentous day for Lithuanians.”
Even more significant for Aspen, there will no longer be a consul from any country in town.
“I once had another diplomat joke to me: No country in the world could afford a residence in Aspen,” said Prunskis.
Why did Aspen even have a Lithuanian consulate? He estimated fewer than a dozen Lithuanians live in Aspen. Hillary Clinton asked the same question.
“Whenever a diplomatic mission is asked to be open in a city that has never had one before, the United States secretary of state, who at that time was Hillary Clinton, had to sign off on the Consulate and Aspen,” said Prunskis.
In 2013, then-Lithuanian Ambassador to the USA Žygimantas Pavilonis asked him to become the consul here because of the reputation of Aspen as where leaders in business, government, the arts, and the outdoors come together.
“I was told initially she was surprised and asked questions about me and why Aspen. Although I did not know Secretary Clinton, there are people who knew both her and me, and they wrote letters of recommendation and vouched that a Lithuanian Consulate would be a good idea for Aspen, and I would be the right person for the position.”
Clinton concluded that it would be favorable for both the United States and Lithuania to open the Consulate in Aspen with Prunskis, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later renewed his credentials supported the continuation of the consulate.
“Lithuanians have played an active role in the history of Aspen, including the Markalunas family and the Crown family, who have some Lithuanian heritage,” Prunskis said.
Why a consulate?
A consulate is different from an embassy in that there is only one embassy for a country, and that is located in Washington, D.C. There is also only one ambassador for every country, as well.
However, there may be dozens of consulate offices for a country across the United States, giving more access for that country’s citizens to meet with local representatives. For example, Mexico has 50 consulates in America, and Lithuania will now have 17.
A consulate office is a resource for its country’s citizens.
“Mostly, I handled general questions about Lithuania, how to invest in Lithuania, people whose ancestors were from Lithuania who were interested in seeking dual citizenship, interpretation of Russia’s actions not only since their invasion of Ukraine but over the last 10 years as well,” Prunskis said.
However, he had power to do much more.
“Although no one made the request, someone could’ve asked for asylum within the consulate. Also, as the highest-ranking European Union diplomat on Colorado’s Western Slope, visitors from the European Union who had lost their passports or perhaps were arrested could have sought my services to offer them assistance,” he said. “I’m happy to report that that never occurred.”
Why the closure?
“Lithuania’s ambassador to The USA, her Excellency Audra Plepyte, at my request, is moving my diplomatic mission to South Florida,” he said.
There are more Lithuanians there, for one, but this also will give the consul greater access to the international stage.
“My principal residence will be in Fort Lauderdale, along with my consulate.” he siad. “You may be surprised to know that the South Florida diplomatic corps is third in size behind Washington, D.C., and New York.”
Prunskis was also elected for his third term as a representative of Lithuanians living in the United States to the Lithuanian Parliament/World Lithuanian Community Commission.
Not entirely goodbye
“I still intend to come to Aspen for spring skiing and a lot of time in the summer and fall,” he said. “I will still maintain my home here in Aspen. I will still be coming to Aspen quite frequently, so I’ll still be available to answer questions, give interviews and presentations regarding Lithuania or eastern Europe. However, it will not be an official diplomatic mission.”
He said he will miss parts of his role here. But not when he was pulled over a few years ago by an Aspen police officer and asked if his diplomatic license plates were rental car plates.
Rather, he will miss the help he could offer to Lithuanian citizens and others.
Consulates by international law are the official territory of the representative country. Therefore, if someone needed to seek asylum or protection, then they could come temporarily reside in the consulate.
“Until the time I became friends with Bill Browder — best-selling author, part-time Aspen resident, and foe of Putin — the offer of diplomatic protection was more lighthearted and theoretical,” Prunskis said. “Knowing Bill’s situation with the current Russian government, I offered him unlimited access to the Lithuanian Consulate if he felt it was ever needed. Those who are familiar with his books know that he did have an unfortunate experience in Aspen.”
Browder, the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, has written two books on Russian corruption under Vladimir Putin and had a frightening incident several years at his second home in Aspen, which he thought at first might be an assassination attempt.
Roughly every three years, the Lithuanian American Hall of Fame has an induction ceremony, and this year on May 20, Prunskis will join the Lithuanian American Hall of Fame.
And, the Balzekas Lithuanian museum in Chicago is naming him Person of the Year in October.
He was born in Chicago after his parents left Lithuania during World War II as the Communists were occupying the country. His cousins and their children still live there.
He excelled in school and business. He received the Knight of the Order of Merit from the President of Lithuania for his professional and philanthropic contributions. He is also the co-founder of Illinois Pain Institute and The Regenerative Stem Cell Institute, is a clinical professor at Chicago Medical School, and the chief medical officer of DxTx Pain and Spine. He co-authored Health and Human Services Best Practices Final Report and is a 15-time winner as a Top Pain Doc, as voted by peers.
Allied with Ukraine
The last year of the Prunskis tenure in Aspen was fraught with concern and horror over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Lithuania and Ukraine are extremely friendly,” he said. “We (Lithuania) are members of NATO,” while Ukraine is not. “We would be their spokesperson. Lithuania was a safe place because of NATO.”
He is on the board of Blue Yellow USA, a non-profit organization raising resources for non-lethal aid in Ukraine.