Lithuania has several neighbours. Relations with three of them – Belarus, Poland, and Russia – are tense or hostile, writes Kestutis Girnius for DELFI. We get along better with Latvia, but the relations are just correct rather than warm. We lack the close co-operation that marks the interrelations among the Northern countries.
One would wish to think that the major responsibility falls upon the neighbours. To dictatorships and semi-dictatorships, like Russia, the democratic nature of Lithuania is a challenge and a reproach to their regimes. Poland, purportedly, sees Lithuania as its nearly-grown-up younger brother, and Latvia is an unreliable partner due to the enormous influence of Russia and the Russians.
Such reasoning could be consoling if we had sincerely tight relations with at least one of our neighbours. However, we do not have such relations with Latvia. Thus, we ought to consider the possibility that Lithuania is, in large part, responsible for its poor relations with its neighbours. This is not an original thought. Quite recently, Žygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian Ambassador in the U.S., said ‘by the way that we acted towards Poland in those four years we have impaired our relations not only with Poland, but also with the Northern countries’.
In truth, our relations with Poland worsened, but the former ‘grey cardinal’ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is forgetting that, in 2006-2008, the relations between Lithuania and Russia had reached the bottom, and continuous, yet unfounded, preaching about ‘values, and not pipelines’ infuriated Germany and certain other Western European countries.
If none of the neighbours are the ‘bad guys’, and Lithuania does not always behave impeccably, what other factors would explain this state of relations? The first candidate is geography and history, both of which determined who our neighbours are. Fate has not been particularly favourable to Lithuania. Russia and Belarus are not ideal neighbours. Russia’s claims and imperialistic thinking is almost an insurmountable barrier to better relations.
President Dalia Grybauskaitė accurately noted that good relations should be equal and based on mutual respect. Until we gain that respect (and this is not going to happen any time soon), the relations will not warm up. Depending on the conjecture, they will improve, worsen, and get better again, but they are doomed to remain abnormal and disingenuous. In this regard, Lithuania does not differ from other countries. The U.S. will be forced to repeatedly ‘recharge’ its previous recharges, and even Germany’s admiration of the Kremlin is beginning to fade.
Belarus is a different case. For as long as Lukashenka stands at the helm of state, poor relations is what political correctness requires. The attempts to improve relations evoke criticism in Lithuania and abroad. Grybauskaitė was strongly criticised when she unofficially met with Lukashenka in Vilnius and also when she went for a visit to Minsk in 2010 in the eve of the Belarusian election.
Any offering of the hand would inevitably lead to reproaches; Lithuania would be accused of connivance to dictatorship and indifference towards democracy and human rights. At the Snow Meeting in Trakai this year, a leader of a U.S. non-governmental organisation suggested inviting the representatives not of the Belarusian government, but of the opposition to the Eastern Partnership top meeting in Vilnius. While such a mood prevails, one cannot even spare a thought for improving relations.
The relations between Lithuania and its neighbours are also affected by the fact that Lithuania is a small country. This fact is not, however, only because the great neighbours demand reverence. There is also a complex of worthlessness and the willingness to show that Lithuania is not going to accept the role of a pawn. Undeniably, the size of Lithuania conditions the neighbours’ behaviour. The Lithuanian diplomatic influence is modest, its military power is non-existent, and the economy is slender, with no production of any essential and unique goods.
It is easy to marginalise, or simply ignore, Lithuania and its interests because it does not have proper weight. Even in the years when friendship was thriving, Poland was protracting the construction of Via Baltica, Rail Baltica, and the electricity network not out of some evil calculations, but because these projects were not very important to Poland itself. On the other hand, I do not imagine the Polish government attacking Lithuania for its national minority policy so rigorously and for such a lengthy period of time if Lithuania was the size of Germany or even Czech Republic. The talks would be carried out with more diplomacy.
The small-country complex was especially apparent between 2006 and 2008, when Lithuanian diplomats made attempts to form a meaningful and distinctive foreign policy that would be more than just a reflection or echo of the NATO or EU policies. The search for uniqueness led to a rhetorically combative and confrontational policy towards Russia, the threats to veto the new co-operation agreement between the EU and Russia, and claims of being the leader of the region and diplomatic tiger of the Baltics. Four years ago, before becoming president, Grybauskaitė stated that ‘Lithuania has not yet shed away certain complexes of a diffident country’. There are fewer of these complexes today, but they have not disappeared completely.
However, the most significant factor is, probably, that freedom and independence set in this corner of Europe rather late. All the countries, except Russia, started implementing their independent foreign policy barely twenty years ago. They are looking for their place under the Sun; they feel the need to defend national pride and envisage insults where there are none. Local politicians speak their mind without considering the after-effects or in order to please their electors.
Likewise, Poland is also a young country because it was dancing to the Kremlin tune until 1989. Some major diplomatic slaps in the face did take place. In June 2007, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski threatened to veto the Treaty of Lisbon because Poland was, purportedly, given too few, and Germany – too many votes at the Council of the European Union. He maintained that Poland would have many more residents if the Nazis had not ravaged it during World War II. He did not repeat this thesis, but Sikorski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the intentions to build the Nord Stream gas pipeline a second Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.
There is a lack of skill and experience in communication; interrelations are often treated as a game of zero value, i.e.,that one party can only win at the other’s expense. The Baltic countries find it difficult to agree on joint projects even when the agreement would be beneficial to everyone. The EU is determined to sponsor a joint regional liquefied gas terminal if the Baltic states and Finland agreed on this matter. The company which conducted a survey, by order of the EU, proposed to build a terminal in the Gulf of Finland, but Latvia and Lithuania are not expected to consent. The rational Estonia cannot accept the idea that the NATO air mission may be executed from Zokniai and, therefore, it aims to trade off its own airport. One needs to have what one’s neighbour has.
The lack of diplomatic maturity and communication experience of Lithuania and its neighbours is probably the main reason that prevents more genuine co-operation between them. That maturity and experience is acquired annually; therefore, there is hope that, in five or ten years, there will be less talk of mistakes, blame, and grievances in this corner of Europe.