Opinion: What does Russia’s trade embargo remind us of?

The problem is that this had already happened in interwar Lithuania and the region of Klaipėda. The deterioration of relations between Lithuania and Germany in the 1920s had direct consequences to the economy of Klaipėda region, especially agricultural production, most of which was sold to East Prussia.

When Lithuania re-emerged as an independent country, economically she was very dependent on Germany. In 1925-1929, Germany accounted for more than 50 percent of Lithuania’s export and import volumes, while Lithuania had only 0.4-percent share in Germany’s foreign trade (in 1927).

In its hands Germany had a very effective tool to pressure Lithuania. It regularly used trade to achieve political goals, and stressed that Germany’s position on economic relations with Lithuania depended on Lithuania’s government policies regarding Klaipėda’s Germans.

In July 1925, Lithuania and Germany signed a border agreement which established special privileges for people of Klaipėda region and the borderland areas of Prussia. This treaty was very helpful for local farmers, allowing imports of various agricultural products to Germany, without customs duties and taxes.

Even though the amount of goods available for one person to transport was small, a lot of frontiersmen seized the opportunity. Farmers and traders of East Prussia began to complain that there was no place left for them in the market of Tilžė, for local producers could not compete with cheaper products from Klaipėda.

Alfonsas Nevardauskas served as a border policeman in Klaipėda region between the wars. He left idyllic memoirs about borderline trade on the banks of the Skirvytė river: “Butchers lined up their white-sheeted tables on the riverside, displaying imported goods, and after putting water to boil for sausages were waiting for customers. Bakers would do the same. When people from the local village sensed the smell of ‘Litauische Wurst’ (Lithuanian sausage), they would rush to the customs checkpoint and, after getting their border pass, they crossed the Skirvytė river in small boats into the Scharafenland. Entire families would flock to the market. They were going there to have a square meal.”

Because of deteriorating relations between Lithuania and Germany over Klaipėda, and the deepening economic crisis, Germany’s sanctions on Lithuania hit farmers of Klaipėda harder than anyone else. Due to the economic crisis in Europe, demand for agricultural production plummeted, so the officials of Klaipėda region traveled to Germany to agree on the purchase of additional pork.

According to Martynas Anysas, it was joked at the time that politics was determined by pigs: “The number of pigs was a political barometer; the more unsold pigs in farmers’ barns, the more tension in the political situation.”

Hitler came to powe, and in January 1934 Nazi Germany significantly reduced imports of agricultural products from Lithuania, removed the meat, butter, cheese and eggs from a list of goods allowed to enter, and Erich Koch even threatened to send to a concentration camp those residents who dared to buy in Lithuania.

On March 1934, Germany launched an open economic blockade on Lithuania: imports from Lithuanian were completely stopped, the transit of cattle and meat through Germany was forbidden and the border was closed. The transit of pigs through Klaipėda region was the only exemption, but in 1935 the German government banned even this transit of Klaipėda region.

So the global economic crisis and economic war declared by Germany on Lithuania severely affected the economy of Klaipėda region, particularly agriculture, which lost its markets, so Lithuania began gradually moving its trade to England.

Today, the situation is not as frightening. Farmers are looking for new markets, payments from the European Union help offset some of the loss, and the history of Klaipėda region economic blockade teaches that it is necessary to trade carefully with hostile neighbours. Who knows what they will come up with.

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