Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis‘ statements that Lithuania does not have any contacts with Russia and should renew them, for example through the work of the intergovernmental commission, continues to be surprising. Politicians and experts warn that such talks are not just part of irresponsible political games, but could also undercut Lithuania’s principle stance which, it would appear, is gradually becoming understood in Europe.
“We are a unique EU state which has no, let me stress – absolutely no contacts with that state though other countries, even those in the neighbourhood are actively cooperating in economic questions,” S. Skvernelis said in early January in an interview for the LNK show Savaitės Panorama.
Later he proposed to renew the work of the intergovernmental Lithuanian-Russian commission, which had been cancelled four years ago when Moscow demonstratively expressed untenable conditions.
And while S. Skvernelis attempted to explain that his position is consistent and that he does not plan to relinquish Lithuanian foreign policy principles and this supposedly matches the opinion of President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the PM received an indirect reprimand from the president and was met with criticism from the opposition.
Furthermore the Lithuanian prime minister’s statements were not left unnoticed abroad either: S. Skvernelis’ words were diligently reported on Russian propaganda channels and the West was also left surprised by the peculiar statements of the PM.
Compared to G. Schroeder
“I believe it would be a paradox when at a time when Europe is beginning to understand Lithuania’s view of problems linked to Russia, Lithuania would toss its policy aside and begin acting like Gerhard Schroeder,” famous analyst for the Economist, Edward Lucas chided, reminding of the pro-Russian former German chancellor who later began working in the Russian state company Gazprom.
E. Lucas believes that over the past 10-15 years Lithuania has done an excellent job in waking up the people of Europe and warning of the threat of Russia – be it military or information. Furthermore Lithuania has decisively taken up energy independence projects such as the construction of the Liquefied natural gas terminal.
“You should be proud of it. People are fascinated by Lithuania in Brussels, London, Berlin and other capitals and say that this country has become a policy super-player, Lithuanians do their work excellently and thus there are no reasons to change course.
If Russians wish to invest and it causes no danger to national security – excellent, but I see no reasons why you should take the first step,” E. Lucas, participating in the annual security conference Snow Meeting, emphasised.
Short sighted and dangerous game
MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas echoed E. Lucas, stressing that S. Skvernelis’ actions should seemingly not come as a surprise because all Lithuanian governments, even right wing ones, would consider opening a new page in relations with Moscow.
“Because we would always think that if we soften our tone, stay silent, avoid saying something, Russia will reward us. This way we place ourselves into the frame that it is our fault that supposedly those relations depend on us. But that’s not the case, the ball is on the Russian court,” L. Kasčiūnas said.
One of S. Skvernelis’ main arguments is that Lithuania is almost the only European state with no normal relations with Russia, but L. Kasčiūnas finds that it is no significant since, for example, trade with Russia grew some 25% just last year.
“What else do we need? More investment in strategic sectors by Russia? I doubt it. Entry to markets? Good, but just not where the markets are politicised as in Russia, where you need to give bribes, obtain permits by the specific ways because later that political culture gets imported. You will be bound to the game rules of the kleptocratic regime,” the MP mused. In his opinion, Lithuania has taken the role of an ice breaker, a moral authority and this should suit the Lithuanians.
Meanwhile another conservative MP, Žygimantas Pavilionis emphasised that S. Skvernelis’ political games could even be dangerous.
“Currently Washington, Berlin, London, Warsaw view us positively, we can make use of it wisely and gain benefits in the region because our leadership, experience, knowledge of the region and ability to break down walls is desired. However what S. Skvernelis is proposing could break bridges and deepen the gap which is increasingly expanding between Germany and Central Europe which is orbanising.
After all such is V. Putin‘s goal – to break democracy, when corruption increases, freedoms and choice decrease, attachment to monopoly becomes more threatening.
If we play S. Skvernelis’ short sighted game in seeking to win the elections, we will lose Lithuania because we will become uninteresting to the West. And we know well ourselves that things do not end well when playing games with Russia,” Ž. Pavilionis emphasised.
Lithuanian soft power
E. Lucas also adds that when looking to Moscow for supposed economic benefits, one risks to pay an overly large price and thus it is bad policy.
“If you wish to improve relations, I always ask the question – why? To what end? You have to say something during dialogue. We, for example, can say that NATO, the EU are strong, we are a member state and do not wish to play their stupid propaganda games.
We can also tell democratically inclined Russians: come here, visit our country, it is friendly, not fascist.
Let Russians from Kaliningrad come study here, we would help create a European identity for Russians. You could also encourage Russian tourism to Lithuania and let there be a publication about Lithuanian history in Russian in every hotel – that would be examples of Lithuanian soft power.
As for encouraging business, I believe that the attitude that the state should encourage foreign trade is outdated – it is not intergovernmental commissions that trade, clients and suppliers must find one another,” E. Lucas said.
According to him, Lithuanians sometimes even forget their history, that while initially the West had a skewed view of them, as of stubborn and sometimes isolated with their position, later it turns out that Lithuania was right.
“In 1990 you were right to demand independence, you were also right about EU and NATO membership and finally you were right over the threat of Russia. You adhered to a consistent position, why change it then? Europe is finally slowly coming to understand your perspective, even countries such as Denmark and Spain which had no understanding of the Russian threat are now concerned about what V. Putin is doing. This also means you were right,” the analyst stressed.
In his opinion, S. Skvernelis’ words can only really be viewed as a pre-electoral trick in an effort to appeal to those who blame relations with Russia for various problems such as low wages or emigration or simply those who are nostalgic for the Soviet era.
“Such an attitude repeats, particularly in the centre left and usually brings nothing good, sometimes even brings very bad things, as was with Rolandas Paksas. Thus such a policy of improving relations with Russia is often not successful, but instead only harmful,” E. Lucas emphasised.
According to him Lithuania is not unique in this regard because for example for the past few decades, after every presidential election, the US attempts to improve relations with Moscow. But it ended badly every time. For example E. Lucas views the Barack Obama administration’s efforts to “reboot” relations as a classical example.
D. Trump and V. Putin’s benefit to Lithuania
However the past year can be seen as paradoxical when Donald Trump who caused much concern and fright in the Baltic States due to his pre-electoral rhetoric did not cause a catastrophe in the region. Quite the contrary. The past year has, according to E. Lucas, been controversial in the context of relations with Russia.
“On one hand D. Trump’s temperament, his habits, inability to evaluate information, talking without thinking is very concerning. However practical matters look good: there are more US troops in Europe than during the Obama tenure, Washington’s policy in regard to Ukraine is stronger. Thus it can be said that D. Trump’s administration is the best your region has experienced.
Of course the real price is long term. The USA has lost its moral leadership it used to have when the USA was more concerned with the rule of law and democracy. Now a man became president who cares not about these values. We want a united America, but with D. Trump it is split, he creates an aura of instability and makes friends with strong leaders, thus the damage to Western moral reliability is tangible.
On the other hand, the US system remains strong. For example the US Congress is especially friendly toward the idea of European security and has dedicated more funding than we know how to spend. Baltic States’ politicians are invited in congress to where it was necessary to struggle to during the B. Obama administration,” E. Lucas outlined the benefits of D. Trump’s election.
The expert notes that it can be admitted that not just without D. Trump, but also without V. Putin’s own actions, Lithuanian security would not garner as much attention.
“Putin continues to be the best ally when we are talking about people who care about European security because his actions strengthen our arguments,” the analyst stated.
“Of course I would want to live in a world with neither D. Trump, nor V. Putin, however they have brought concealed benefits to the region – V. Putin has created an image of a threat, while D. trump is encouraging to take up measures that remedy mistakes,” E. Lucas said.
That said he did not allow himself to be provoked by an earnest or perhaps mocking statement from Lithuania that D. Trump is the best that could have happened to Lithuania.
“Of course in philosophy “best” is a difficult definition – what you can choose may be better and also that which would be best in theory, thus I apologise, but I won’t help you make a headline,” the long-time Economist journalist quipped.