The first new-year statement by Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis was about foreign policy. It was a rather bold statement. On the other hand, the Prime Minister could still be struggling with the consequences of the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Be it boldness or consequences, it is only his personal matter. However, what worries us most is that the Prime Minister had practically no clearly visible direction of foreign policy throughout 2017 and, all of a sudden at the dawn of 2018, he made up his mind and decided on our direction of travel to the East. The Prime Minister thinks it is bad that we have absolutely no contact with Russia when other states do. The Prime Minister does not yet realise that Russia is putting every effort to end our success story of freedom, democracy and reform, as well as success stories of other states.
However, is everything really so wrong? Let us try to analyse the facts.
Washington is the transatlantic capital, but we have not yet seen any steps in this direction: at least a single visit or an attempt to forge stronger links. This is despite many helpers there: our American friends and the American Lithuanian community that is one of the most powerful action groups. The only thing that is needed is getting there and talking.
A counter-argument may go that we are a small state and it is Washington that chooses with whom to talk. However, this is easy to refute if we take the Georgian Prime Minister, who was among the first to visit Washington. I would like to remind the Prime Minister, who is anxious about the economic relations with Russia, that the USA is the world’s biggest economy contributing by its investment to the creation of new well-paid jobs in Lithuania.
The grounds for the visit seem to be sufficient, let alone the struggling civilian airport in Šiauliai, which could be advertised to US logistics undertakings with the same success as the seaport of Klaipėda some time ago, as well as the projects of gas supply, construction of the nuclear power plant, and shale gas exploration and extraction, which the Americans and Japanese were willing to help bringing into being.
Brussels is the European capital. The Prime Minister has been there once to introduce himself, seemingly not to come here again. Of course, it could and should be done much in Brussels. However, no attempts have even been launched to make our presence in Brussels stronger. The standing in the EU is earned by the ability to form coalitions and establish excellent personal contacts and by the knowledge of where, when and how strongly to press the right button, rather than just by winning a single fight. Brussels is an orchestra with highly creative soloists, conductors and players behind the scenes. The single, and probably last, appearance on the stage cannot achieve much. Meanwhile, the challenges are numerous from the Kremlin’s nuclear power plant in Belarus to the EU support that, if not negotiated, will be terminated in 2020, though it makes up nearly a third of the state budget. The Prime Minister is nonchalant about this future development.
Thus, the only place to go remains London with Prime Minister Theresa May, also a former Minister of the Interior, whose priority is the fight against modern slavery, an area where Lithuanians are well-known. Unfortunately, it was just a vain hope that the concern over migrating Lithuanians will bring both leaders together. For the time being, the areas of modern slavery are visited only by the members of the Homeland Union, while the ruling majority does not bother about such ‘details’. There is also no talking about economic, financial and other interests as the Prime Minister fails to advance them even in the current context, let alone Brexit that will uncover even more problems.
Where, then, does the Prime Minister usually go? He visits the countries in our region, which is a rather good thing. The region has well-established structures that do not necessitate much thinking or activities, unless new issues arise such as the liquefied natural gas terminal or the struggle against the Kremlin’s nuclear power plant in Belarus. However, the results are limited even here. The attempt to establish communication with Warsaw and the meeting with the Pope are commendable actions. However, it is naïve to hope that one beautiful photograph will change anything when pursuing long-term interests. Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Ukraine are our direct neighbourhood in the region, where the Prime Minister feels best. Again, this is indeed a good choice, but this is not sufficient.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister can make it on the international stage only turning to the East: beautiful new-year words about the relations with Russia and courtesies to China are the height of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy.
At the end of November 2017, the Prime Minister did a summing-up by a highly symbolic journey to Budapest, where he finally got into the limelight at the Summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries (16+1). The Prime Minister felt comfortable as he attended, for the first time, such a friendly multilateral meeting between China and the former Communist bloc countries. However, I have never seen the Prime Minister at a similar meeting in the West. Well, perhaps I am mistaken or have missed something. Anyway, Brussels is the farthest capital that the Prime Minister has visited in the West so far.
China was the only member of the UN Security Council that received Mr Skvernelis’ attention over the last year. Along with other autocratic states, China keeps constantly promoting its model of ‘democracy’ claiming that the Western liberal democracy has long been in crisis. Is it not reminiscent of the rhetoric of some leaders of the Farmers Party? Yes, it is China that actively funds electricity network upgrades in Belarus (USD 324 million) and the construction of new power lines to serve the Astravyets nuclear power plant and is believed to have helped Minsk in obtaining loans for the Kremlin’s project of the nuclear power plant, whose need for closure is simply neglected by the coalition led by Mr Skvernelis. Like Chinese, the team of the Prime Minister is more concerned about cargo flows to the seaport of Klaipėda, as agreed with the Belarusian Prime Minister some time ago.
China is also interested in investing into strategic transport projects in Lithuania, mainly in the construction of Rail Baltica and the deep-sea port in Klaipėda. However, national security has to be necessarily taken into consideration when deciding on Chinese investments because China focuses on the strategic facilities, such as the railway connection with the EU and the seaport, which are key to the defence of the state. It is also essential to take account of the risk of the possible dominance of Chinese investments in the economic sectors of strategic importance to national security. In view of the fact that the transport sector generates as much as 13 % of Lithuania’s GDP, this could affect political decisions and the competitiveness of local businesses. The risks may arise not so much from Chinese investments as from their scope. Acquisition of shares in individual shipping companies ensures cargo flows from China across our territory and, consequently, higher income for the Lithuanian transport sector. The risk may however result from a dominant position of Chinese companies in the seaport of Klaipėda because that would allow them to dictate their conditions and outrival local businesses. The predominance of the Chinese capital in Lithuania’s strategic transport sector could provide China with political leverage, thus affecting investment, infrastructure development and other areas in Lithuania.
It seems that our foreign policy is becoming pro-communist.
The external policy was once Lithuania’s trademark to be taken pride in; our decisions once determined our own destiny; our each move was once important to the world. However, now we are in a situation without a clear direction of travel. Drifting downstream is also not a way out because life in our geopolitical environment requires continuous creativity, setting of goals, knowledge and ability to organise ourselves and to act in our national interests. If a clear policy is not formulated, we will fall victim to the policies of other states, as it is already slowly happening with Lithuania led by Mr Skvernelis.