Kęstutis Girnius. Challenges to the president‘s rulership

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

So far President Dalia Grybauskaitė would set the outlines of foreign policy herself, on rare occasions consulting the cabinet.

From the very first days of her presidency she allowed everyone to understand that it will be her and only her who makes the key decisions and that diplomats who do not agree with her position can resign.

The then Lithuanian ambassador to Georgia Mečys Laurinkus was the first to experience the wrath of Grybauskaitė. He was recalled from his post for “politicking”, for his penchant to express his opinion on news media. A similar fate soon befell the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Vygaudas Ušackas, who would not always coordinate his words and actions with the president, particularly regarding Belarus.

The president consistently and persistently stressed her prerogatives and protected her powers, while the cabinets and prime ministers would yield to her. Saulius Skvernelis is the first PM to dare challenge the president’s dominance, something his predecessors did not dare. He not only urged to renew contacts with Russia, but also invited Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki to visit Vilnius in March. This will be the first such visit in six year.

It is of note that Skvernelis is seeking to give momentum not only with insignificant countries, but also with Lithuania’s major neighbours – Russia and Poland.

Relations with Russia are tense and will remain as such for a long time because imperialist thinking is so deeply rooted in the Russian ruling class that Moscow simply is incapable of communicating with neighbours, particularly those who were part of the Soviet Union once.

The relative antagonism with Russia will not vanish, but how to react to it?

We will not find a unanimous answer, especially when the main premises are constantly changing. It was not just US President B. Obama who tried to “reboot” relations, Grybauskaitė did as well.

During her first electoral campaign she expressed strong criticism toward the foreign policy of her predecessor V. Adamkus. Lithuania apparently was performing unilateral policy, caring only about the East, constantly reproaching Russia. Her words soon became actions when she called Russian president D. Medvedev and later met with Putin.

The Russo-Georgian war had already happened, so there was awareness who talks were held with.

After the Crimean annexation the president became Putin’s harshest critic, calling Russia a terrorist state and not missing any occasion to condemn the Kremlin.

Though most Lithuanian politicians agreed with the president’s policy, she still played first violin. In terms of policy toward Russia she was the author and main executor. The prime minister thinks otherwise. While Skvernelis stressed that principal stances will not change, values will continue to be cherished, he think that political contact with Russia is important, as well as efforts to resolve various bilateral questions, even those such as the Lithuanian teachers’ situation in Kaliningrad.

Skvernelis described the current policy of isolation as unuseful and unique in the EU, hinting that it is time to rethink it, perhaps also change it.

There won’t be vast sweeping changes any time soon. The status quo suits most. Seimas Speaker Viktoras Pranckietis rushed to say he sees no possibility for any fundamental changes to relations with Russia until Moscow’s position changes.

The president does not intend to step back. She called Skvernelis’ idea “irresponsible in terms of national security.”

According to the president, the most important strategic, energy, transport and trade questions must be resolved with the participation of European Union institutions. The president’s comments are disputable. She herself does not always coordinate Lithuanian policy with EU institutions. In providing weaponry to Ukraine, Lithuania does not adhere to the overall EU stance, instead taking its own path. There is a need for EU contribution in resolving the key strategic energy, transport and trade questions, but there are many questions that are resolved at the bilateral level. Skvernelis has specifically only those in mind.

In either case, Skvernelis’ comments should move discussions forward, encourage people to rethink the premises of current Russia policy even if in the long term the conclusion will be made that current policy best serves Lithuanian interests.

You can also congratulate Skvernelis’ decision to invite the Polish PM to visit Vilnius. Though I think that Warsaw is more responsible for the difficult bilateral relations, the situation that has developed is intolerable.

Poland and Lithuania should not act as two teens who feel they can no longer talk to one another after getting into a dispute. Cooperation must be strengthened, points of contact pursued, it should be shown that state and personal disagreements can be removed, especially when numerous resolvable problems are accumulating. Skvernelis dared make the first step, thus he is the one who will garner praise if the relations improve.

What is also important is that Skvernelis reminded Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius that he is after all a member of the cabinet and not just executing the will of the president or his own. Skvernelis pointed out that dual, thus ambiguous, subordination of the Foreign Ministry.

Inevitably the question arises, how to match the president and cabinet’s wishes when there is disagreement on an important question?

There is no long standing tradition. Grybauskaitė views foreign policy as almost her private domain and those desiring to partake in decision making in it must request her permission. The situation was different during V. Adamkus’ second term when the Foreign Ministry acted as an independent institution whose leaders decided foreign policy.

The Presidential Palace became as if a second office of the ministry, passively enacting the foreign ministry or its delegated advisor’s policy. Unwilling to put up with this faulty situation, Grybauskaitė made Ušackas resign. It is good that she established order, but in the long term she went to the other extreme and became the single ruler of foreign policy.

Skvernelis is overall dissatisfied that he is distanced from decision making of EU matters.

But there is only a small likelihood that he will manage to influence the president. Grybauskaitė can point out that in the Constitution it is specified that she decides the main foreign policy questions and enacts foreign policy together with the cabinet. Let Skvernelis enact her policy.

On the other hand if you invite the Polish PM to visit, why not do so with others?

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