Can new ambassador save Lithuanian-Russian relations?

President Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania and Vladimir Putin of Russia nuotr.

However, the Social Democratic Party, which nominated Motuzas for the post, insists he will do better than Lithuania’s outgoing ambassador Renatas Norkus. Motuzas, according to the party, is good at not making enemies, has good manners, is persuasive and level-headed.

Motuzas’ colleagues describe him as a typical diplomat of the Soviet school, one who can keep his mouth shut and adapt himself to any company he might find himself in.

“I feel sorry for Renatas [Nortkus], he is a good diplomat, but also an ardent supporter of NATO, so Russians keep him at a distance. They know everything about his sympathies. Whereas Motuzas is well-suited for the post: he will not probably have much work to do, he’ll be able to dedicate himself to the Jurgis Baltrušaitis House [early 20-century Lithuanian diplomat and poet],” comments one member of the Social Democratic Party.

Another politician says that the appointed ambassador’s appearances might give one false impressions: while he might come across as rather soft, in fact he is not. He adds that the current state of Lithuanian-Russian relations requires an ambassador who is able to deflect aggressive interactions.

“If we had intensive economic cooperation, then, I’d say, we’d need someone young, sharp, with economic savvy. But the current situation is different, so we need someone with different qualities,” he says about Motuzas’ appointment.

Ambassador to a country president calls terrorist

Lithuanian-Russian relations have turned particularly sour lately, which has results in relative isolation of Lithuania’s current ambassador Norkus in Moscow.

Lithuania has been particularly vocal in condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, President Dalia Grybauskaitė went as far as to suggest that Russia was a terrorist-state. In retaliation, Moscow has banned imports from Lithuania. Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius seems worried – he said in November that, should Moscow completely sever trade with Lithuania, this will send many local logistics firms into bankruptcy, shaving as much as 4 percent off Lithuania’s GDP.

When tensions run this high, is there anything at all that an ambassador can do?

Political analyst Marius Laurinavičius of Eastern Europe Studies Centre believes that the current situation requires someone like Lithuania’s former ambassador to Moscow, the prime minister’s advisor Antanas Vinkus. He is a person known for his direct manner of communication, emotionality, proclivity to offer praise and give presents.

“I should say that despite my own criticism of his behaviours, Vinkus was a very good ambassador to Russia. One must admit that. His character, modes of behaviour were very suited to this country. He was able to find way anywhere, to offer anything and reach a deal with anyone. The media still use images of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and [Russian Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev eating Lithuanian bread they were treated to by Vinkus,” Laurinavičius says.

He adds, however, that these are just personal qualities that do not reflect the country’s official position. Lithuania’s policy vis-a-vis Russia is very complex, according to Laurinavičius.

“We haven’t made up our minds what it is we want from relations with Russia in the first place. We even said so ourselves once. What relations? This has been dramatically evident lately. The president is saying that Russia is a terrorist state. In principle, I agree. But some other officials speak otherwise. Even now. This kind of inconsistency is harmful,” he thinks.

When part of the state leadership says one thing and others the opposite, it makes diplomats’ work much more difficult, according to Laurinavičius.

“We do not have a consistent strategy. We should agree among ourselves what kind of strategy we want and what we are going to do with Russia. Are we preparing to defend ourselves against aggression? Then the president’s statements are appropriate. Or do we want to include Russia in supranational institutions and be friends? Or perhaps we prefer to be the EU’s golden province without an independent foreign policy? If we made up our minds, then we could discuss what kind of ambassador would represent those interests best,” the analyst says.

Should, for instance, Lithuania decide to treat Russia as a terrorist state and make arrangements for defence, the best ambassador to appoint would be someone with good sense for analysis and intelligence, someone able to coordinate intellectual support for Lithuania’s policies regarding Russia. “This should be a person with strong analytical skills, someone able to see and grasp what Russia is, to look for its weak spots and opportunities for us to act,” according to Laurinavičius.

If Lithuania preferred trade with Russia to conflict, then someone like Vinkus would be perfect for Moscow. Finally, if Lithuania wanted to rely on the EU’s foreign policy, the best ambassador to appoint would be someone able to carry out representational functions and stay on the point of messages from Brussels, according to Laurinavičius.

Commenting on the EU’s current ambassador to Moscow Vygaudas Ušackas, who is often seen as a truly Western-style diplomat, Laurinavičius says that Ušackas is very good at his job as an EU representative.

“All the controversies about him in Lithuania originate from and are signs of the fact that our rhetoric on Russia is very different from the one that dominates in the European Union. That is why some of his statements seem unacceptable to us. But since he is a representative of the European Union, not Lithuania, I think he is very good for the job. He is highly visible in Russia, people listen to him. This is what the European Union needs, a good messenger for its policies able to talk to many different elite groups,” Laurinavičius says.

Ambassadorial post just a formality?

Laurynas Jonavičius of the International Relations and Political Science Institute at Vilnius University says that Russia’s regard to different ambassadors is often in proportion to how powerful and important the states they represent are. Ambassadors of big countries will find they are treated well in Moscow, whereas those of small countries will not see many doors opening for them.

“Under the current circumstances, the ambassadorial post in Russia is, politically, a pure formality. Lithuania does not exist for Russia. Ambassador or not – they will accept his letters of credence, observe the formalities, but that’s it. No one will receive him on the highest level. If you look at surveys in Russia, it is clear that Georgia, America and Lithuania are the three top enemies. From the Russian point of view, Lithuania is not even a state, just a microscopic entity that is ruining Russia’s relations with Europe and other great powers,” Jonavičius says.

According to him, such has been the case for the last five or even ten years. There are other tasks, however, that the Lithuanian ambassador can help with, like assisting Lithuanian nationals in getting visas, etc.

“Russian institutions usually want everyone to dance to their tune and stop bothering them with things like democracy, equal opportunities and human rights. What kind of ambassador could be effective in such conditions? Someone firm, a strong ambassador who could represent Lithuania’s interests based on international agreements, the World Trade Organization regulations. There is an option to concentrate on defending our lawful interests,” he believes.

In the end, however, any ambassador will find him- or herself constrained by the prevailing attitudes in Moscow that Lithuania is not even a proper state, Jonavičius says.

Would it be preferable to have an ambassador able to please Russia? According to Jonavičius, such an ambassador would have to play by the rules observed in Russia: pay bribes, abide by corrupt, perhaps even criminal rules. “But is this what we want?” he asks.

“When there’s so much confrontation, whoever is Lithuania’s ambassador to Russia, they will not make much difference. Russia will have everything its way – and Russia’s way will be decided by higher officials, but not necessarily the central government,” Jonavičius adds.

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