By Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, published in atgimimas.lt on 18 May
Difficult situations, which require carefully considered decisions at the highest political level as well as planning on how best to present them to both general public and foreign partners, give a good indication of how successfully the declared foreign policy principles are carried out.
In her annual report last year, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that openness, transparency and continuity remain characteristic features of Lithuanian foreign policy. These words should be remembered when reflecting upon some of our recent foreign policy decisions. As a matter of fact, foreign policy principles, strategic priorities and means of achieving them are rarely publically discussed these years, and probably for the reason that the chief policy makers do not think such issues could be much of a concern to the general public.
And of course, the more specifically one formulates the priorities and goals, the less room there is for flexibility in day-to-day affairs. However, only a well-grounded and defensible policy can ever be effective, and this is true of the foreign policy also. This is particularly important in cases when the ties between foreign policy and domestic affairs are fairly close. We can clearly observe this in Lithuania, especially when talking about the neighbour countries and the effect our relationships with them have on Lithuanian economy, energy sector and, ultimately, the prices and our welfare growth. Importantly, country‘s welfare objectives embody its statehood and political independence goals to the extent to which country’s independence relies on economic openness and the variety of product suppliers (and this is true not only for the energy sector).
Returning to the foreign policy principles stated by the President, it is curious to compare several recent Lithuanian foreign policy decisions. Namely, the information publicised not long ago about our President’s refusal to go to Poland to meet its leaders as well as the leaders of the Baltic States on the one hand, and her recent visit to Ukraine on the other. The former manifestly contradicts the declared principles of openness, transparency and continuity – many analytics and foreign partners of Lithuania point out both the failure to provide a rationale for such decision and the lack of consistency in coordinating Lithuanian regional partnership policies.
The second decision, conversely, has been publically rather well-reasoned and, in effect, continued the commitment, formulated upon joining the EU, to help facilitate the closer relationship between the countries of the Eastern Neighbourhood and the EU. During the visit to Ukraine, rather than praising its current policies, delivered was the message about the necessary changes without which any closer cooperation between Ukraine and the EU may be at risk of slowing down, if not coming to a halt. One can therefore regard this visit as part of an active and continuous operation in order to accomplish Lithuania’s strategic objective – to bring the EU and its Eastern neighbours closer on the basis of the general EU principles of democratic policy and market economy. Even if it remains unclear as to how successful the visit to the Ukraine was in terms of stimulating the necessary changes, one thing is certain: it has shown that Lithuania has a position and is prepared to put it forward. One shall hope that this position was presented, via diplomatic channels, to our EU partners also.
One is tempted to ask, then, why do these two decisions, taken by our President in the span of several weeks, deserve such different assessment? Is it only because the first one had to do with the changing Polish foreign policy and some classified information that prevented any public statement about her reasons not to go? Even if this much is conceded, one still has to note that this case is illustrative of the difficult relationship between the two countries at present. And the latter cannot be explained merely by the changes in the policies of Polish leaders and their altered understanding of the role of Poland in Europe.
Such changes – and especially the review of the geopolitical situation of Poland and of its relationship to the major European states – made Polish leaders reconsider their relationship to Lithuania also. Negative effects were also brought about by certain politicians who, in either country, manipulated the bilateral relationship and ethnic minority issues for the short-term election gains. And finally, there exist a lot of plain miscommunication and stereotypes that result from the shortage of information. There is certainly no lack of such inadequate views in the speeches of Polish representatives.
But is Lithuania itself doing enough so as to build a more constructive relationship with the country that could potentially be a close partner of the Baltic States in both the EU and NATO? Is there enough effort on its part to ground the bilateral relations on trust and willingness to solve any issues that arise rather than talking without listening or ignoring each other outright? Of course, it takes two to tango and it is difficult to continue the discussion when the partner does not always respond accordingly. But the refusal to talk at the highest level is not a solution – especially when the leaders of other Baltic States are present.
It seems that active cooperation with other Baltic (and Northern European) countries is, for some of the Lithuanian foreign policy planners, an alternative for good relations with Poland. Perhaps it is this view that is responsible for the lack of effort adequately to inform our Baltic and Northern partners about the ethnic minority issues in the country and about our bilateral relations with Poland: it is plain enough that some of Lithuania’s decisions are presently incomprehensible to our partners. Moreover, our cooperation with Poland on the one hand and Baltic (and Northern European) States on the other should strengthen and reinforce one another, rather than being regarded as mutually exclusive alternatives that might balance each other out.
On the whole, Lithuanian–Polish relations presently seem very far from the principles declared in the President’s annual report. Foreign diplomats, admittedly, emphasise that the cooperation on the working level goes smoothly. It is also not unlikely that many people in both countries view our bilateral relations rather more positively than some of the political commentaries might indicate.
But our communication on the level of foreign policy leadership is not as it should be – not between the two neighbouring members of the EU and NATO. Even allowing for the fact that neighbours are often at odds with one another because they have most things to settle and that some other countries are quick to exploit this, the situation isn’t normal. Thus, new initiatives, in the area of Lithuanian–Polish relations, from the political leaders, businesses, media and academic institutions are crucial at this point – from all of those who can contribute to a more constructive bilateral cooperation and the spread of information on the most pressing issues.
In view of the approaching parliamentary election in Lithuania, it is important not to manipulate these issues so as to guarantee support of own electorate (or, in some cases, of electorate of other parties). We must instead find ways to constructively respond to the reasoned complaints of the other country and to provide clear explanations to the less reasoned ones.
It should be emphasised that the negotiating power of countries such as Lithuania and their ability to convince the partners does not directly depend on the size of the country’s economy or its political influence at the international level. Persuasiveness and authority, rather, are directly linked to the country’s ability to both present and defend its position at the highest level, its domestic policy and the capacity to stick to earlier promises and declared priorities. This last factor becomes extremely important when assessing Lithuania’s openness to external influences, its geopolitical situation in Europe as well as the effects of the approaching parliamentary election. During the election year, the role of the President in ensuring the continuity of policies is also becoming increasingly important. This is also applicable to the energy sector issues that are currently debated in Lithuania.
Finally, it should be mentioned that there is a heated discussion at the moment of whether or not to boycott this year’s European football championship matches in Ukraine. But, as we all know, some of the matches will take place in Poland also. It is of no lesser importance that the Ministers of Lithuanian Cabinet and other political leaders, once they’ve received the invitations to see the matches in Poland, would use this chance to go and discuss the matters over and above those confined to sport.