The news that Lithuania would continue to receive Belarussian exports of potassium fertiliser, after actively campaigning for sanctions against the regime in Belarus, rapidly became a scandal. The experts are appalled, the transit companies are listing their excuses, and two of the ministers have sort of announced their plans to resign. “Sort of,” because even though both of them claimed they’re willing to do so, they have left the decision up to the Prime Minister. After a barrage of criticism, they signed their resignations. A year ago, the PM herself had stated that she would resign should a compromised minister refuse to step down. But now, she decided that both ministers can stay in their posts.
Sanctions and the real culprits
Gabrielius Landsbergis has compromised himself on every level – including his chosen policy and its execution. Today, everyone seems to be talking only about the latter. The narrative was that in light of the US imposed sanctions on Belarus, the Government of Lithuania has indeed disgraced itself by its inability to implement the same from Lithuania. That being said, three billion euros worth of potassium fertiliser from the Belaruskali company is annually delivered by transit through Lithuania to the seaport of Klaipėda. The company has paid in advance, Customs allowed the freight to pass, and Bulk Cargo Terminal (BKT) is shipping the supply to the USA and other buyers. Furthermore, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, OFAC, officially informed Lithuanian Railways that Lithuania has no obligation to stop the transit of fertilisers. Yet, unofficially, this was known months ago.
IF (and that’s a very big “if”) there really was a need to prohibit the transit of Belarussian goods through Lithuania, it was not the responsibility of Lithuanian Railways, customs officers, or private stevedoring companies, and not even the Government itself. Considering that Lithuania’s foreign policy has as of late been focused primarily on instigating conflicts (this year alone saw an unprecedented number of new and intensified controversies), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (URM) has established the Sanctions Group, headed by Vice-Minister Mantas Adomėnas. Yes, that’s the real name and direct function of this body; it’s precisely this body and its head who were supposed to prepare an action plan, ensuring that everyone involved in implementing the sanctions would be informed and ready for the task. Articles 11 and 13 of the Law on the Implementation of the Economic and Other International Sanctions provide that the implementation of sanctions is coordinated and supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Article 12 provides the obligation for other institutions.
Indeed, there was a lot to prepare for. Lithuanian Railways cannot simply forfeit the agreement, as the resulting fines would mean not just some losses but a full-on bankruptcy of this state-owned enterprise. Both the Parliament (Seimas) and Government had to provide a legal basis for it – the amendment of laws is considered to be force majeure and sufficient reason for terminating the contract. The same applies to the private stevedoring companies, as well. And yet, nothing was done.
Why? Because, actually, there are no sanctions for transit, only for buying Belaruskali products. There was nothing to implement. Minister G. Landsbergis has allegedly once again “not been informed,” only for it to become clear that he was, and in fact, Minister M. Skuodis as well, well aware of the matter. When the topic became a public concern, the Government pretended this was a case of mismanagement. Still, in reality, ministries were informed about every step being made by Lithuanian Railways to ensure that goods would continue to flow through Lithuania and payments continue to be made. The blatant lies – fake astonishment and outrage – of G. Landsbergis and M. Skuodis were the biggest shame and the real reason for their much-needed resignations. In an incredibly ironic manner, the only person to lose his position for the incident is M. Bartuška, director of Lithuanian Railways, who did everything in his power to keep the transit flowing, which both ministers were well aware of.
Russia’s gain from the policy of conflict
However, the URM’s supposed mismanagement of nonexistent sanctions is not the real failing of G. Landsbergis; albeit scandalous, it is but a secondary matter. Lithuania’s “values-based” foreign policy, which has amounted to nothing but perpetual instigation of conflicts, is the real failure of the minister and the reason for him to resign.
Unprecedented interference with the internal affairs of Belarus is clearly contrary to Lithuania’s geopolitical interests. Lithuania requires a sovereign and stable Belarus – preferably a pro-European and democratic one. However, these goals are at odds. This attempt at democratising Belarus was made with no regard to any necessary prerequisites, lacking the critical mass needed to overthrow the regime and the popular pro-European candidate that Lithuania and the EU could legitimately support. The protests in Belarus were unable to overthrow Lukashenka, and any efforts to weaken his regime without overthrowing him can only result in one thing – an increase in Russia’s influence in the country and further growth of Lukashenka’s dependence on Russia’s support to maintain his rule.
That is exactly what the Conservative “values-based” foreign policy in Belarus has managed to achieve so far. The related consequences, such as Lukashenka’s unpredictability, his seizing of aeroplanes, and the migrant crisis he eventually caused, are also detrimental to Lithuania and the entire region. In promising democracy, the ruling majority have destabilised the regime and actually pulled Russia closer to the Lithuanian border. In the name of the (as of yet) impossible democracy, they have sacrificed sovereignty, stability, and the pro-European perspective.
Lukashenka’s actions are aggressive, and he must not be appeased. The only way to restore relations with Minsk is by forcefully repelling the migrant onslaught, not by asking for Lukashenka’s help or mercy. And yet, G. Landsbergis reacts to all of Lukashenka’s actions in the same manner – threatening more sanctions. The US imposes sanctions following its national interests, which it clearly demonstrated by enacting sections against Nord Stream 2, deeming them beneficial to US exports. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Government pays no mind to the country’s interests. It seems to be merely hoping that the people of Belarus will prove less patient than the people of Lithuania.
These sanctions for exporting fertilisers will prove detrimental to both Belarus and Lithuania (especially the Port of Klaipėda). However, as Audrius Bačiulis has been (correctly) reiterating for a while now, the sole benefactor of the sanctions against Belaruskali will be Russia – more precisely, Russian fertiliser producer Uralkali, Russia’s railways, and Russia’s seaports. According to economic forecasts, the fertiliser price will increase alongside its global demand, and there aren’t that many producers of it. Russia is the second-largest exporter, trailing behind Canada but slightly ahead of Belarus in this regard.
But not only this. The shipping of such cargo requires specialised conditions. Lithuania invested millions in accommodating Belaruskali exports. No other port in the region can do the same (Riga has no comparable capabilities – not even close). The most probable candidate to take over the cargo from Klaipėda is the Russian terminal of Ost-Luga near St. Petersburg, which is at its finishing stages. Belaruskali production and its money will probably go through there.
Considering the consequences, one must ask: why is it that our foreign policymakers are once again willing to strengthen Putin in the name of battling Lukashenka?
It is quite hard to explain Lithuania’s ruling majority’s “values-based” foreign policy. Its internal logic does not seem to correspond with the realities of the world. The coalition’s agreement enshrines a promise to fight violations of human rights and democratic freedoms across the globe. That is a beautiful yet impossible goal, and nobody in the world does that. By moderate estimates, there are currently 52 dictatorships globally, but democratic rights and freedoms are being significantly restricted in many formally democratic countries. One can fight for these rights and freedoms to exhaustion; and yet, all democratic countries maintain diplomatic and economic relations with dictators all over the world, no matter how close or distant they are – they trade amongst each other and even cooperate if circumstances require it, as long as they don’t pose a direct threat to each other’s national security and interests. In fact, wealthy democratic countries provide aid to several such dictators. A quintessential example of this can be seen in US relations with Saudi Arabia – a country that does not shy away from dismembering or decapitating its criminals. That’s not an endorsement of actions taken by dictators, but a recognition of the fact that no country can solve the problems of the entire world, as long as there are no crimes against humanity being conducted that would call for direct intervention.
For decades, Lithuania maintained precisely such relations with the dictatorship in Belarus, under every president from Brazauskas to Grybauskaitė. Throughout the years, Lukashenka repressed his political opposition, falsified election results, censored the media, and lied to the world about the situation in Belarus. Lithuania would regularly condemn such transgressions and provide asylum for persecuted political dissidents (although we shamefully surrendered A. Bialiatski), but never broke off diplomatic relations with the country, proclaimed the electoral victory of Lukashenka’s opponents, or treated them as presidents in exile.
Why did everything change in 2019-2020? An inability to set priorities seems to be the most mundane explanation. Breathing down our necks is Russia, objectively aggressive to its neighbours and seeking to restore its control (or at least influence) over the former USSR territories. Whatever capabilities Lithuania has to engage in such conflicts and rally its partners, they should make Russia weaker, not stronger. The current conflict with Lukashenka, who was not aggressive towards Lithuania, directly strengthens Russia, a clear aggressor. Such policy is detrimental to Lithuania.
A more sinister explanation is ideology. This would mean that Conservatives willingly sacrifice Lithuania’s national interests to pursue an ideological or “Brussels-derived” goal of bringing the open society project to Belarus and are doing so with no regard to potential risks or costs. If the regime in Belarus withstands the pressure (and it surely will), it’s the people of Lithuania who will be forced to cover the losses. In fact, not even the construction of the border wall is being financed by the European Commission.
One instinctively rejects the appalling explanation of such foreign policy, but it is worth considering nevertheless. The ruling majority are ideologically motivated to surrender as much of the public sector as possible to the free market. Sycophancy to global capital is a fundamental principle of the neoliberal ideology. Back in June, the Government had already attempted to covertly pass legal amendments that would have allowed for the privatisation of several strategically essential communications assets, but G. Nausėda successfully vetoed them. However, this ideological goal is essential to the Liberal Movement and Freedom Party.
As noted by Prof. Vytautas Radžvilas, the sanctions war against Belarus will almost undoubtedly undermine a multitude of strategically important state-owned enterprises. They will no longer be able to rely on efficiency as an argument in their case to remain in state ownership. As a result, the alleged necessity of privatisation in the name of increased productivity will become much more compelling. This is especially applicable to the case of Lithuanian Railways: should the enterprise go bankrupt due to termination of the contract, it would have to be bailed out using the taxpayers’ money, or privatised. At the very least, zealous adherents of the neoliberal ideology are sure to find this consequence of the “values-based” foreign policy incredibly tempting. The basis for such a hypothesis becomes apparent when one hears what E. Gentvilas has to say on the matter. The Vice-Minister of Economy and Innovations is publicly in support of privatisation.
Whatever the real reasons may be, citizens should be primarily concerned with the consequences above and the political liability that arises from them. The “values-based” foreign policy, curated personally by Gabrielius Landsbergis, is detrimental to Lithuania not only because of its chaotic and uncontrollable implementation. First and foremost, it is detrimental in its very goal – the generation of conflicts, which weaken both Lithuania and Belarus while allowing Russia to increase its strength. As Russia rallies its armed forces at the Ukrainian border, openly threatening military aggression (no little green men this time around), and Joe Biden promises no military response (only diplomatic measures and… sanctions), this threat has become more apparent than ever before. Against such a backdrop, Lithuania’s conflicts with Belarus seem almost like a macabre game played in a sandbox.
Resignation is the only way Gabrielius Landsbergis can leave this sandbox with all his toy cars intact.
The author is a political analyst, a doctoral candidate at Vilnius University, and the vice-chairman of the National Alliance party.
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Lithuania Tribune.