Gabrielius Landsbergis – rising conservative star powered by recognizable name and tough stance on Russia

DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Until quite recently, few outside the party ranks of the conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats had heard his given name, if not surname. A career diplomat, Gabrielius Landsbergis had performed various duties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including a posting to the Lithuanian Embassy in Belgium, and served in the chancellery of former conservative prime minister Andrius Kubilius – that is, at a safe distance from hardcore politics.

A few eyebrows were therefore raised when the Homeland Union gave Landsbergis Jr. a top spot in its candidate list for the European Parliament elections last May. His grandfather was finishing his term in Brussels and had announced he would not be seeking re-election, therefore it gave an impression to some of a dynastic succession.

However, conservative voters seem to have taken a liking to Gabrielius – a family man and a father of four – and elected him to the European Parliament, where he has since been among the more visible Lithuanian deputies. As a member of the EP’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Landsbergis has been a vocal advocate of Ukraine‘s cause and sanctions on Russia.

“We are about to roll out a new EU support package for Ukraine and I’m also engaged in drawing up new EU and Russia relations strategy,” he told me recently. “All understand that wherever the situation in Ukraine takes us, the European Union has to maintain certain contacts with Moscow. As long as we do that, there’s a glint of hope that a diplomatic solution from this crisis can be found.”

Keeping up the pro-Ukraine rhetoric in Brussels and Strasbourg has helped Landsbergis score some points at home, too. Seen as one of the rising stars of the Homeland Union, he has even been tipped for the party’s leadership.

“I’ve heard by now many interesting points in that regard, but, frankly, I haven’t had enough time to delve deeply into what is being said. My bottom line is that one needs to move forward if there is people’s trust,” he told me recently. That was before, however, this Monday when the party’s current leader, Andrius Kubilius, dropped a bomb by announcing he would not be seeking another term at the helm of the Homeland Union. Moreover, Kubilius named Landsbergis as his preferred successor. He is among the candidates for chairmanship of the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, a decision that the party will have to make this April.

In the meantime, Landsbergis is somewhat reluctant to talk about his prospects of leading one of the two biggest parties in the country, insisting that his focus right now is on European policies towards Ukraine and Russia. Economic sanctions, introduced by the EU on Russia in an effort to force it to revise its aggressive policies in Ukraine, have somewhat divided opinions even within the EU.

“It is one of the hardest questions to answer,” he says when asked about the effectiveness of the measures. “We all have to admit that the Western states’ economic measures against Russia, especially coupled with the record-low oil and gas prices, have been quite effective – bearing down on the Russian economy in a very detrimental way. The measures have spiked Russia’s Ukraine war costs to an unimaginable height.

“On the other hand, if they sufficed, we would not have seen the horrible attack against the people of Mariupol in January or the siege and consequent loss of Debaltseve. From that point of view, I believe that West should mull additional sanctions against Russia to keep it at bay.”

He seems a little impatient with the prevailing moods in some parts of the EU to abstain from too much confrontation with Russia. “The European Union is a society based on compromise. I believe both EU President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are quite good at harmonizing different takes in the European Union,” Landsbergis is diplomatic. “It is normal to see some EU member states in the south – like Cyprus and Greece – seeking closer collaboration with Russia, while the Baltic states are wary of it because of the history and its assertiveness.”

However, the United States is taking up leadership in condemning Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and sanctioning it, especially after recent mid-term elections returned Republican-dominated US Senate, he says.

US-EU cooperation in disciplining Russia would be very welcome, Landsbergis believes: “Both the EU and the US understand that it would be a luxury to pass decisions independently amid the complicated geopolitical situation. It is very good to see the ongoing consultations between Ukraine, EU and US on permanent basis.”

While some European countries, he says, still believe that not all diplomatic measures have been exhausted, diplomacy works better when backed by hard power. “Let’s recall that the February visit of German Chancellor Angel Merkel and French President François Holland in Minsk, where sides sought diplomatic solution, took place when the United States started to consider supplying weapons to Ukraine.”

Landsbergis himself is in favour of offering military support to Ukraine. “If it were arms that could be immediately used by the Ukrainian army in the battle fields, then yes, I’d support that,” he says.

But wouldn’t Russia see it as the West encroaching on its national interest, which could lead to further escalation of the crisis, I ask.

“I feel like smirking upon hearing that sort of reasoning,” Landsbergis retorts. “Let’s recall that when Lithuania was joining the EU and NATO, we were hearing the exact same arguments. Supposedly, by choosing its own way of development, Lithuania was posing a threat to someone’s interest.”

Ukraine is a sovereign state, just like Lithuania, and implying that Russia – or any other state – has a say in what alliances it can and cannot strike is unacceptable, he insists.

In this, he is echoing the prevailing line of argument back in Lithuania. A nation with fresh memories of Russian aggression and occupation, it sees events in Ukraine as a direct threat to its own security.

Upon the emphatic insistence of President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania has significantly raised its defence funding – although still falling short of NATO-recommended 2 percent GDP rate – and is to reintroduce military conscription.

True to his conservative affiliations, Landsbergis thinks there is no going too far when it comes to national defence. “I just want everyone – Lithuania, we all as a nation – to take care of our security and defence. And, certainly, make sure that our commitments to NATO are met. Those two percent [of the GDP] we’ve resolved to allot for our defence shouldn’t be some psychological limit – no efforts or resources are ever enough to defend own country,” he says.

There is also NATO and it’s crucial Article Five, the pledge of collective defence. While Landsbergis feels reassured by recent decisions to set up six NATO command centres in Eastern Europe, including on the Lithuanian soil, he thinks there should be more actual presence of NATO forces here.

“Permanent NATO exercises in the Baltics also underline NATO’s seriousness. Personally, I stand for deployment of a permanent NATO base in Lithuania,” he says. “Obviously, no sane person today would dare to plot an attack against a NATO member, but such a military presence would be the best deterrent we could think of.”

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