Lithuania courts Belarus with economic incentives

Though Minsk has been reluctant to heed such requests, the crisis in Ukraine and a changing energy landscape in the Baltic region have made opportunities for economic collaboration with the West more enticing. Still, Belarus’ strategic alliance with Russia and its hesitance to adopt Western-style governance will hamper Lithuania’s efforts to bring it into the EU fold, at least for now.

Lithuania, despite its small size, has been an active player in the West’s competition with Russia over influence in the former Soviet periphery. It has been one of the staunchest supporters of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, which has sought to bring the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan closer to the European bloc. Lithuania has also been one of the most assertive challengers to Russia’s position in the region, supporting the pro-Western government in Ukraine as well as pro-EU opposition groups in Belarus. Additionally, Lithuania has called on NATO to become more active in the Baltic region, and reacted to Russia’s actions in Ukraine with the formation of its own rapid reaction forces.

Energy has been a key part of Lithuania’s opposition to Russia. Like the other Baltic states, the country is completely dependent on Russia for natural gas, but it has vigorously pursued energy diversification. To this end, Lithuania debuted a liquefied natural gas import terminal — the first of its kind in the Baltic region — Oct. 28 in the port of Klaipėda. Stratfor estimated that the import terminal and Lithuania’s resultant diversification from Russia would lead Vilnius to more aggressively oppose Moscow, especially when it came to Ukraine and Belarus. Now, just one week after the LNG terminal‘s debut, there are already emerging signs that this is the case.

LNG Limitations

At the Lithuania-Belarus economic forum held in Mogilev, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius said the Klaipėda LNG facility could supply the Baltic states as well as other countries in the region — a thinly veiled reference to Belarus. Once it is fully operational next year, the LNG terminal will have an annual import capacity of 4 billion cubic meters (bcm), greater than Lithuania’s total annual consumption of 3.27 bcm, thus enabling the country to export the overage to other countries.

However, the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia are more likely to benefit from Lithuania’s LNG terminal than is Belarus. Together, Estonia and Latvia consume only around 1.5 bcm of natural gas per year and have existing or planned pipeline connections to Lithuania. Belarus, meanwhile, consumes between 15 bcm and 20 bcm of natural gas annually, meaning any spare capacity from Lithuania’s LNG import facility would be negligible for the country. Indeed, former Lithuanian Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said Nov. 4 that only small amounts of natural gas could be shipped to Belarus with existing infrastructure.

Butkevičius’ statement is therefore more political than realistic at this point, but it does demonstrate that Vilnius is still trying to coax Minsk away from Russia and closer to the European Union. Previous efforts by Lithuania to bring Belarus closer to the West by undermining the pro-Russia government of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and supporting the country’s pro-EU opposition were largely unsuccessful compared to similar endeavors in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Belarus is aligned with Russia, is a member of the Moscow-dominated Customs Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization, and is completely dependent on natural gas imports from Russia. Despite the inclusion of Belarus in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, Belarus remains largely isolated from the West because of its centralized political system and close ties with Russia.

Improving relations with the West

The crisis in Ukraine, however, has also presented Minsk with key opportunities to break its isolation from the West. Concerned about his own political position after the Western-backed uprising against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, Lukashenko positioned Belarus as a key mediator in negotiations between Kiev and Moscow over the fighting in eastern Ukraine. These talks led to the cease-fire agreement known as the Minsk Protocol, which was established in September. Lukashenko’s nuanced position between Moscow and the West and his cooperation with both Russia and Ukraine over the past few months have improved his image from the EU perspective.

This improved image has made the West more interested in Belarus economically. A number of joint conferences between Belarus, EU countries and the United States have been held during the past few months. On Sept. 22, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich attended the first Belarusian-American investment forum in New York, and on Oct. 7, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prokopovich and French Minister of State for Foreign Trade Matthias Fekl met in Paris and signed an agreement to set up a joint Belarusian-French intergovernmental commission for economic cooperation. Additionally, more than 200 businessmen attended the latest forum between Lithuania and Belarus, which is expected to lead to major trade and investment agreements between the two countries.

The West’s more active pursuit of economic cooperation with Belarus appears to represent a new strategy to bring Minsk closer to Europe, and Lithuania’s offer to extend its cooperation with Belarus to the energy realm should be viewed within that context. Though Lithuania is not likely to serve as a viable alternate supplier of natural gas to Belarus for the foreseeable future, further advancements in the broader Baltic region — such as the planned 2015 opening of Poland’s own LNG terminal and the creation of more pipeline interconnections within the region — could persuade Minsk to strengthen its ties with the West over time. This is especially true given that Belarus, like Ukraine, often has spats with Russia over energy supply and pricing but has not had other options available in the region.

Still, Lithuania has much work to do if it hopes to cause any meaningful shift in Belarus’ position toward the West. Belarus is economically integrated and strategically aligned with Russia. The country will enter into Moscow’s Eurasian Union next year and will soon after open a Russian air base in its territory. Minsk is also inherently opposed to the West’s efforts to support pro-democracy and pro-EU groups in the country, and the European Union recently added a one-year extension to sanctions against Belarus for human rights violations. Though Minsk is certainly interested in strengthening ties with the European Union and the United States, the Belarusian government will be careful to keep such ties limited to the economic sphere. Nevertheless, greater advances in Baltic energy projects and regional interconnections in the next few years could play an important role in shaping Minsk’s ties with Russia and the West.

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