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Catherine Ashton's Teething Problems

There's nothing quite like language to trip up a diplomat. The EU's high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton -- a relative diplomatic novice -- found out the hard way.

At a press conference in Brussels earlier this week, she was asked to tell the world the name of her brand new personal representative in Afghanistan, Vygaudas Usackas, until recently foreign minister of Lithuania.

For a while, everything went well. "I'm 100 percent satisfied about this appointment being absolutely the right person," Ashton tells an Italian journalist who asked why the job did not go to an Italian. She had personally interviewed a number of highly qualified candidates, Ashton said.

"I didn't hear you say who you appointed, maybe because the name is difficult to pronounce," another reporter asks later.

"His name is Vygaudas Usackas," Ashton shoots back, giving the Lithuanian ex-foreign minister's name a very anglophone rendering.

"Vygaudas Usackas," a visibly squirming EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs -- a Latvian -- makes phonetic amends, leaning over from his seat next to Ashton.

"Usackas," repeats Ashton, refusing to admit defeat. "You see, because I don't have the accent properly." Not liking the line of questioning Ashton then briefly goes off on a tangent, explaining he was the best man for the job.

Piebalgs, however, grimly hangs on to Baltic pride, his dark mutterings not letting Ashton off the hook.

"How do I say it properly with the wonderful accent?" Ashton says, finally prods Piebalgs.

"Vygaudas Usackas."

"Usackas," Ashton repeats, now correctly, clenching her hands for emphasis. " Usackas."

Ashton, who speaks only English, has run into trouble with language before. At another Brussels press conference on January 18, she made a mess of early EU aid figures to Haiti. Ashton was rescued by Spanish Foreign Minister Angel Moratinos, who rattled off the sums in three languages.

Ashton's problems, however, are not just linguistic. Her life in the new job is a day-to-day turf war -- among others with Moratinos, who represents the current EU presidency -- and every slip-up counts.

(You can watch it here, at about 25:08)

-- Ahto Lobjakas

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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