Several foreign policy challenges, by Kestutis Girnius

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Pranešk apie klaidą

Upon joining the European Union and NATO, Lithuania’s Foreign Service was concerned for its future. Would Lithuania be left to only passively implement joint EU and NATO policies or will she have her own foreign policy ? The Foreign Ministry decided to become a regional leader and a promoter of values based policies out of concern that Lithuania otherwise may not have its own policy, Kestutis Girnius writes in alfa.lt portal on 28 December.

The diplomats were mistaken, and not only because they created unreachable goals. Each day it became clearer that even after abandoning these groundless pretenses, Lithuania’s foreign policy leaders are being challenged to address difficult questions. Partly because Lithuania’s borders are also the EU’s and NATO’s borders. And also because its relations with its neighbors and allies had not yet become unstable.

Lithuania was one of the first countries to attempt to normalize relations with Belarus. President Grybauskaite’s first steps in this direction were criticized in Lithuania, yet they were essentially endorsed by the EU. Previous hard line policy was ineffective so positive incentives were offered. Relations between Moscow and Minsk became severely strained which caused Aleksander Lukashenka to look for support elsewhere – so it seemed that the time was right to begin a dialogue with Belarus. This was the feeling of not just Lithuania and the EU, but the USA as well, which commented in support of construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus after it entered into an agreement with Belarus relating to the export of nuclear materials to Russia.

For a time there was room for optimism. Belarus’s parliament amended its electoral code, the government registered all candidates for the presidential election (of which there were 10), the election campaign was more transparent and free compared to the past in that the opposition was critical of the government. Some even believed that there would be no election fraud because Lukashenka was going to win the first round elections anyway. However, the reality was quite different.

Hard line critics feel vindicated. The election events showed that Lithuania and the EU were naïve and were fooling themselves. Indeed, they were too optimistic. However, what should Lithuania’s and the EU’s policy be now ? There will be consequences. Maybe certain high ranking officials will be barred from traveling to EU nations, no one will be in any big hurry to assist with agricultural or other grant assistance. Germany stated that today’s Belarus is not a suitable partner for the EU and that its leaders are pushing it into isolation. Lithuania will also have to find a way to express its displeasure.

Yet even if new sanctions are put in place, Belarus won’t drop off of the European continent into some big hole. Belarus will remain Lithuania’s neighbor and a European country. So dialogue will still be required, negotiations, seek modus Vivendi, improve conditions and after some time make compromises. After all, the EU never completely distanced itself from the Balkans or Serbia. The USA initiated a dialogue with China back when it was still a fierce dictatorship and it didn’t sever ties even after the 1989 murders in Tiananmen Square where over a thousand people likely died. As is mentioned regularly, it’s easy to talk to friends, the important skill is knowing how to communicate with opponents and enemies.

Supporters of the hard line play an important role, reminding us that dictators need to be regarded with skepticism and being suspicious of attempts to cater to them and needlessly bow down to them. But the hard line is in denial thinking that “bad guys” are and will always remain so. This isn’t policy but antipolicy, which in and of itself is useful, albeit generally brings failure. Hard line supporters wouldn’t have negotiated with China or Libya’s Khadafy and wouldn’t have noticed that Gorbachev was a different leader of the USSR as compared to his predecessors. Serious policy needs to be inventive.

The events in Belarus will have an effect on Lithuania. And not only negative. Confidence that Belarus will be able to find foreign investors for their planned nuclear power plant has declined. A. Lukashenka showed that he’s unpredictable and in a country such as his no one will hurry to invest billions of dollars. This spurs Grybauskaite’s critics. Seimas Chair Irena Degutiene’s comments that the primary response should be a clear Lithuanian foreign policy position can be understood as a call for the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry to have additional independence in setting policy possibly in opposition to Presidential initiatives. Yet even under the best circumstances it is difficult to resist against a stern willed President. And currently the circumstances are not optimal as recently Grybauskaite firmly supported the policies of the ruling majority. The ruling coalition would not receive that support if it started poking around the President’s foreign policy.

It was impossible to imagine just four years ago that relations with Poland would be strained, and it’s difficult to foresee when they will improve. Poland’s pressure is increasing even when it’s done politely. President Bronislav Komorowski remarked that Poland is dedicated to Lithuania’s security yet it awaits firm action and good faith responses to questions related to national minority issues. Thus implying that these issues have been addressed in bad faith. Lithuania is responsible for strained relations because it didn’t honor the long term commitments of its Presidents and Prime Ministers. According to B. Komorowski, it is necessary to critically assess the implementation of bilateral relations between the two countries.

As usual, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski shot from the hip. The Education Ministers of both countries should meet until the Lithuanian Seimas adopts the decisions relating to Polish national minority education issues. This sort of request/demand recalls the interwar period when more powerful nations dictated to their neighbors how they should act towards their fellow citizens. Lithuanian Poles have reason to complain, but seriously not about education. Lithuania acted correctly in not responding to the note in which, in Lithuania’s opinion, non-existent issues were being presented.

On the other hand, Lithuania must show more flexibility regarding the printing of surnames and street names in both languages. It’s impossible to understand how Seimas could have rejected the legislation regarding the printing of Polish surnames while President Lech Kaczynski was visiting Vilnius. Such shocking behavior is unjustified. B. Komorowski directly stated that this event, without question, hurt many Polish politicians and further expanded the view that Lithuanians were “wild”. One can’t surrender to ultimatums but one also can’t support unnecessary misunderstandings.

Lithuania’s diplomatic corps does not deal with domestic policy questions but it must explain to politicians the possible consequences of its decision-making.

Translated by VG

Doc. Dr. Kęstutis Girnius is a journalist, writer, political commentator, teaches at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.  He is Harvard University graduate, worked for twenty years at the Radio Liberty.

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