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Lithuanian-Russian relations: An ambassador’s view

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This year we are marking two centennial anniversaries: the signing of the Peace Treaty between Lithuania and Soviet Russia, and the establishment of the Lithuanian diplomatic mission in Moscow in 1920. The occasion is a good opportunity for us to look into the past and think together about the future of our relationship, so that the “dark pages” of the past are never repeated again. This was the first thing that came to my mind after I was offered the job of Lithuania’s new ambassador to Russia.

I will make no secret about the fact that I accepted the proposal of the President of the Republic Gitanas Nauseda and the Government of Lithuania responsibly, but at the same time, with a grain of concern. Even though Lithuanian-Russian relations are not particularly good now, working in Moscow is a challenging, albeit interesting, posting and, of course, one of the most prestigious in our diplomatic service. In basketball parlance, this is the “major league,” on par with a diplomatic post in Washington, Brussels, London, Berlin or Paris. People here often joke that there are three million basketball specialists in Lithuania and as many experts in relations with Russia.

Therefore, I was absolutely clear about where I was going and how important and responsible this posting really was. I realized the seriousness of the challenges that awaited me there already during the very first months of my work in Moscow. Relations between our two countries have been going through a difficult time for many years now. Immediately after arriving in Moscow, I heard some high-ranking Russian officials describing our relations as “Arctic chill” and “dead end,” so I realized that it was not going to be easy.

True, the top-level talks that were held in Vilnius before my departure for Moscow inspired extremely cautious optimism, because even in these conditions, our countries should focus on mutually beneficial areas and look for areas where we can move forward. I will mention only the main such areas: development of trade relations, establishment of a border regime,  solution of transport problems and issues of diplomatic real estate, Kaliningrad transit and the development of cultural ties.

At the same time, I certainly realize that finding solutions to some of the most difficult issues will hardly be possible any time soon. And still, despite our obviously different views on certain things, we need to have a better idea of each other’s positions and look for the root causes of our problems.

So, we are all set to move forward on the issues we disagree on, and I see no alternatives here. As the saying goes, “when the window is closed, there is no wind or air movement,” which means that when the windows are closed, you can suffocate! This is what I write about in my essay.

Lithuania and Russia at the crossroads of history

Why do I start with history? Naturally, in the 21st century, our assessment of the past has changed. Contrary to the prophecy of Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history” didn’t come with the end of the Cold War [1], but it is now back, primarily on the socio-political aspect. The past often impacts interstate relations, becoming an integral part of the current information wars. On the one hand, historical issues, if viewed not as something that happened in the past, often lead to serious contradictions. On the other hand, the past is also a valid part of our identity. Therefore, historical memory often determines our worldview and our attitude towards many events.

In international or interstate relations, I would single out three strategies for dealing with the past: the past is used to exacerbate or initiate a conflict; the past is used as a tool for building positive relationships and the past is accepted as a given, and its positive and negative aspects are fully recognized. Which one to choose? It depends on the goals we set ourselves. Of these three strategies, I would choose the latter.

The centuries-old historical relationship between Lithuania and Russia is extremely complex and intertwined. There were moments of tension, and there were moments of good-neighborly coexistence. Perhaps this was inevitable because during the Middle Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Moscow were both engaged in expanding their territories. The pendulum of military success was swinging all the time. Midway through the 15th century, the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, led by the Grand Duke Algirdas, twice besieged the Moscow Kremlin, but never managed to take it. In 1610, Rzeczpospolita – the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – encircled Moscow and occupied it, only to see the Russian army occupy Vilna and a number of other Lithuanian cities in 1655.

Both sides pursued their own political goals, and not always by means of military force alone. For example, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas gave his daughter Sophia in marriage to the then ruler of Moscow, Vasily I, temporarily gaining strong leverage over the policy of the Moscow state.  There were also examples of our two countries fighting together against a common enemy: on July 15, 1410, Polish and Lithuanian forces, along with  several Smolensk regiments, as part of the troops of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, fought in the Battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic Order. There were other examples of interaction. The noble Russian families – the Golitsyns, Trubetskoys, Kurakins and others, whose descendants still come to the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow on holidays, all trace their ancestry to the representatives of the Gediminas dynasty, who then ruled the Russian cities.

Following the third partition of the Commonwealth of Lithuania and Poland at the end of the 18th century, most of historical Lithuania was annexed to the Russian Empire and remained there until 1918. That period witnessed a series of bloody conflicts. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian government did not interfere much in the economic, judicial and cultural life of Lithuania. It was then that Vilnius University enjoyed much-deserved acclaim contributing heavily to Polish culture, and becoming famous for its graduates such as Adam Mickiewicz and others. However, after the uprisings of 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, the situation changed. The Russian authorities even came up with a historical concept of two Russian states – Kievan and Lithuanian Rus, which, due to various historical circumstances, existed separately until the end of the 18th century when Empress Catherine II brought them together into one state. Thus, the region’s ethnic composition and historical concept made it possible to perceive the onetime territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania not only as part of the Russian Empire, but also as ethnically Russian.

Upon closer examination, one could ask what this has to do with the Lithuanians who are not Russians, but there were also theories about the Lithuanians being Slavs. In this context, the policy of Russification pursued by the tsarist government, including  the closure of Vilnius University, a ban on the use of the Lithuanian language in public places, the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet, the desire to consign the very name of Lithuania to oblivion by renaming the region into the Northwest Territory – looks by no means accidental.

However, the second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of a national revival movement in Lithuania, which laid the foundations of the modern Lithuanian culture. Launched by a handful of intellectuals, this  movement ended in 1918 in the revival of Lithuania as an independent state.

The restoration of the national state made it possible to quickly achieve our country’s international recognition. By the way, Soviet Russia was the second country in the world to officially recognize the born-again Lithuanian state. According to the 1920 treaty, [3] Soviet Russia, proceeding from the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, “unconditionally recognizes the independence and sovereignty of the Lithuanian state with all the legal consequences of such recognition and in good faith renounces all sovereign rights of Russia over the Lithuanian people and its territory.” The treaty fixed the Soviet-Lithuanian border, making the city of Vilna (Vilnius) and the Vilnius region part of the Lithuanian state. It also provided for the settlement of property, financial and economic issues between the two countries, free economic assistance to Lithuania by Soviet Russia, recognition of Lithuania’s neutral status and the return (with reservations) of cultural assets previously taken out of the country.

During the period between the two world wars, Lithuanian and Soviet diplomats signed a raft of bilateral agreements, called upon to ensure the stable development of bilateral ties. However, in the summer of 1939, after the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols, it became clear that all these accords no longer provided any guarantees and were simply ignored. [4]

Lithuanian and Russian historians are still discussing the tragic events that followed, which, according to the Russian interpretation, ultimately led to Lithuania’s incorporation into the USSR. Lithuania, for its part, regards these events as nothing more than occupation and subsequent annexation. [5] The two sides are unlikely to agree on this issue any time soon, but the work started by Lithuanian and Russian historians must certainly be continued. [6] I still believe that of the abovementioned three strategies for dealing with the past, both of us will eventually choose the third.

I will wrap up this historical journey by saying that despite the tragic years of World War II and the post-war period, the Lithuanians have managed to preserve their national identity and restore their statehood.

In keeping with the Treaty on the Foundations of Interstate Relations between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Republic of Lithuania [7], signed on July 29, 1991, Lithuania and Russia recognized each other as sovereign states in accordance with their state status, enshrined in the basic acts adopted by the Republic of Lithuania on March 11, 1990 and by the Russian Federation on June 12, 1990. By the way, the agreement makes a clear mention of the term “annexation.”

Shortly after, other agreements followed, setting the timetable for the withdrawal of the Russian (Soviet) troops from Lithuania, delineating the border, on economic and business cooperation, which inspired hope that after many centuries, relations between the two countries would finally return to normal. Lithuanian Presidents Algirdas Brazauskas and Valdas Adamkus visited Moscow, and members of an intergovernmental commission, ministers and lawmakers were meeting regularly. Then everything ground to a halt.

Relations after 1990

Considering the current state of relations between our countries and looking for an answer to the question “Where are we?” I have always avoided a “black and white” approach.

The bad blood of past relations, memories and mutual grievances will not go anywhere, but we still believe that cooperation in the field of culture and sports continues successfully. Eimuntas Nyakrosius, Rimas Tuminas, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Marius Ivashkevicius, Oskaras Korshunovas are well known in Russia, and Lithuanian artists regularly perform here. The basketball club “Khimki” in Moscow region is coached by Rimas Kurtinaitis, etc.

Despite existing constraints, economic relations between the two countries are developing quite successfully, above all in transport. Russia remains one of Lithuania’s main trade partners with the volume of mutual trade now in the ballpark of 9 billion euros. Business, both Lithuanian and Russian, is looking for the most comfortable conditions to work in. That being said, the potential for trade cooperation is far from exhausted. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made adjustments here, but although there seems no end to it in sight yet, we already think about reviving traditionally popular areas of economic cooperation, such as tourism.

Whatever political issues may arise between our countries, Lithuania remains a go-to place for Russian tourists. In Vilnius, Palanga and Druskininkai, you can always see a lot of Russian-speaking travelers, attracted by the European quality of life, closeness to Russia, inexpensive services, security and being able to speak Russian. We hope that in 2021, tourist flows between Russia and Lithuania will return to their pre-epidemic level. In turn, Lithuanian tourists are equally interested in visiting Russia’s Kaliningrad region, as confirmed by the popularity of e-visas.

With the border demarcation process now over, consultations on a border regime agreement are already underway. We hope that the new, modern, and technologically well-appointed Rambinas – Dubki border checkpoint between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad region will open shortly.

Overall, relations between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad region are both positive and pragmatic. After Lithuania joined the EU and became part of its legal system in 2004, our two countries introduced a visa regime. Therefore, to ensure the Russian citizens’ unobstructed passage to and from the Kaliningrad region, a special simplified transit scheme was created on the initiative of the EU and Lithuania, whereby Russian travelers are not required to obtain Schengen visas to move across Lithuania. Together with Kaliningrad, Lithuania is implementing an EU-funded Cross-Border Cooperation Program that municipalities from both sides of the border participate in. One of the Program’s projects envisages the reconstruction of the infrastructure of Tolminkemis, or Chistye Prudy, as this place is now called, where our famous poet and pastor Kristionas Donelaitis once lived, and make it a tourist cite.

Some people tell me that Lithuanians are “Russophobes.” To this I say that in Lithuania all children, from kindergarten to high school graduates, are free to receive a complete education in Russian. Even universities have Russian-language programs, and this is by no means a handout to an ethnic minority. Russians, like Poles, Jews and Belarusians, have been living in Lithuania for a long time, and all of them without exception enjoy the rights of Lithuanian citizens.

Russia is one of the countries where cultural attachés are on the staff of the Lithuanian embassies, and this is another graphic example of the successful development of cultural cooperation between our two countries. The legendary Juozas Budraitis, who is almost a household name in Russia, served as our cultural attaché in Moscow until 2010. We all remember the “Window on Lithuania” program of Lithuanian cultural and business presentations across Russia that was initiated by Budraitis.

Much has been done here in recent years, with exhibitions of contemporary Lithuanian art, screenings of Lithuanian films, presentations at book fairs, Lithuanian issues of Foreign Literature magazine published, along with translations of books by Lithuanian authors, and much more. When speaking about Lithuanian culture in Russia, it is impossible not to mention the music and paintings of our genius Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. There are more and more young representatives of contemporary art in Lithuania and Russia now meeting each other and exchanging professional ideas. When it comes to cultural diplomacy, I am an optimist and believe that we can really do a lot in this area by building bridges and bringing our societies closer together.

We do have something to be happy about here, but we also have painful topics that have soured and continue to complicate our relations today. This applies to the past and, unfortunately, to the present as well.

After spending a month in my now position in Moscow, I gave my first interview to Echo of Moscow radio about relations between our countries [9] and could not think of anything better than to talk about an ordinary Lithuanian family, who were banished from their own country and subjected to political persecution and other injustices. [10] You can hardly find a family in Lithuania that did not suffer from Stalin’s deportations to Siberia, political persecution, imprisonment in camps and prisons, executions, and those who had to emigrate to the West to avoid all this.  Sometimes, when we hear people say that “Lithuania, like the other Baltic countries, voluntarily became a part of the Soviet Union,” it makes us feel bad. If you want to understand how it all happened, I recommend reading the memoirs of Lithuania’s pre-war Foreign Minister Juozas Urbshis, who was handed an ultimatum from his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov, and other recollections. [11]

We, Lithuanians, are often accused of ignoring the fact that the Russian people, the entire Soviet Union, lost so many of their own and fell victim to Nazi atrocities. However, we, like the rest of the world, are well aware that, compared to other countries, the USSR suffered the most during World War II and that its role in the defeat of Nazism is undeniable.

Sympathetic as we are towards the relatives of the military and civilians of all nationalities who perished during the Second World War, we also hope for understanding of and compassion for the pain suffered by our people, hundreds of thousands of them. The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II reminded us of the great and irrevocable human losses, and we share the pain of Russians (as well as of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Kazakhs and other peoples). But does Russia understand Lithuania’s pain? After all, we had many of our people also killed, deported and losing their property in the post-war period.

When we assess the events of the 20th century we inevitably come across difficult issues that can be resolved only if we listen to and understand each other through our personal pain. There are many issues that we still differ on, and until the wounds have healed, talking about this period will not be easy.

I fully agree with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said: “Let historians study history.” [12] By the way, he also noted that Russia welcomes the work done by a commission of Russian and Lithuanian historians. I am glad that our positions on this issue coincide, because this could become a bridge for us to better understand each other.

A conference on our traumatic past that was recently held in Vilnius showed that it is not just historians, who want to talk about collective “traumas.”[13]

Politicians and diplomats should have a chance to critically reflect on these issues and allow specialists in the field of social stress, prominent public figures and cultural representatives to join this process and complement the work being done by historians. People need to know the truth, because this holds the key to reconciliation.

In his article “75 years of the Great Victory: shared responsibility before history and the future” published in June, President Vladimir Putin wrote: “We urge all states to step up the process of making their archives public and publishing previously unknown documents of the war and pre-war periods … we are ready for broad cooperation and joint research projects engaging historians.” [14]

We wholeheartedly welcome this idea. The archives should also be available to the commission of Russian and Lithuanian historians that I mentioned, because this is the only way we can achieve a common historical assessment and understanding.

There is another problem pertaining to history and historical memory. In the course of the past few decades, we have seen the emergence of great civic initiatives that unite us. Unfortunately, in recent years they have increasingly become hostages to politics and facing artificial hurdles created to undermine their work. For example, Russia has been banning the public Lithuanian youth initiative “Mission Siberia” for several years now *

*Ed. Note

The memorial project “Mission Siberia” was launched in 2006. As part of this initiative, groups of young Lithuanians visited Russia to restore the graves of their compatriots – victims of the purges of the 1930s and 1940s. The project is supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania and personally by the President of Lithuania.

In June 2018, the Russian side was forced to suspend “Mission Siberia” due to the unfriendly actions of the Lithuanian authorities, who actually blocked Russia’s military memorial activities in Lithuania thus leaving the graves of Russian citizens without proper care.

not allowing its members to go to Russia and repair at their own expense the graves of their deported compatriots, which had for various reasons been abandoned. Russia describes this as a “mirror” response to Lithuania allegedly creating obstacles to the maintenance of monuments to Soviet soldiers. However, in Lithuania the graves of and monuments to Soviet (and not only Soviet) soldiers are maintained and managed by municipalities with Lithuanian funds. Moreover, since the Lithuanians are buried in Siberia, where they have neither relatives nor friends living there, their graves are neglected. This is how the Mission Siberia youth initiative came about, essentially to look after these abandoned graves so that they simply do not disappear. I still believe that common sense will prevail and we will eventually be able to receive the Mission Siberia delegation in Moscow and accompany them on their way to this or any other Russian region. 

Another sticking point in our relations are security issues, including conventional weapons, energy pressure, as well as asymmetric, unconventional and cyber threats.

Lithuania, as time and events have shown, made the right decision to join NATO in 2004, even though, according to various estimates, is faced no direct military threat from Russia (by the way, the 1991 agreement on the foundations of interstate relations says that “The parties recognize each other’s right to independently exercise their sovereignty in the field of defense and security in forms acceptable to them, contributing to the disarmament process and reducing tensions in Europe, including through collective security systems.”)

It needs to be borne in mind that NATO*

Ed. note*

The 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia looks rather strange from the standpoint of the Alliance’s defensive doctrine. Those “defensive” actions claimed nearly 2,000 lives, and left about 10,000 more injured. For 21 years now, the destroyed buildings in downtown Belgrade leave no doubt about who the aggressor really was.

Nowadays, NATO’s constant activity near the Russian border raises a lot of questions as to the basis on which the members of the North Atlantic alliance intend to build trusting and transparent relations with Russia. And what about NATO’s major Defender Europe 2020 military exercise, that was to be held in Germany, Poland and the Baltic countries for almost six months, but was largely postponed, but not canceled altogether, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? It was to be the biggest test of NATO members’ ability to support large-scale movement of US forces across the Atlantic to Eastern Europe.  The drill was supposed to involve about 40,000 troops from 19 countries, including about 20,000 Americans. For more details see: in accordance with the security strategy of the alliance, is not directed against Russia.

Unfortunately, today’s objective reality and historical experience, are forcing us to keep an eye on Russia’s military actions in the vicinity of Lithuania’s borders: the military build-up in the Kaliningrad region, the military exercises “West” and what we see as irresponsible behavior.

Small wonder, that geopolitical assessments and threat perception studies still point to Russia as the most unfriendly country towards Lithuania. [15]

For over two decades, NATO and Russia were trying to develop a strategic partnership by fostering dialogue and practical cooperation in areas of common interest. Russia and the Western countries were also attempting to establish an atmosphere of trust, which, much to our regret, was broken, first in Georgia in 2008, and then in Ukraine in 2014. As a result, our cooperation ground to a halt, even though political and military channels of communication remain open.

Through dedicated internal efforts, we have largely managed to solve the problem of our energy security. For example, the price of the gas that Gazprom was selling to Lithuania in 2009 was about 20 percent higher than what the Germans were paying. This price is hard to explain from the standpoint of geography. Therefore, to stimulate competition, we have invested in the construction of an LNG terminal in Klaipeda. Time has shown that this was the right thing to do because Lithuanian companies now decide for themselves where it is cheaper for them to buy gas – via a pipeline or through a terminal. We also buy LNG from Russia through the terminal, whenever the price is right. [16]

What next? Conclusions

Just like any other EU member, Lithuania fully adheres to the guidelines for limiting contacts with Russia, as well as the five key principles of 2016, including full implementation of the Minsk agreements, strengthening EU stability, etc., which also includes selective engagement with Russia. However, a lot still can be done on this track.

Lithuania has always been and remains a supporter of honest and mutually respectful dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation with the Russian Federation. This is exactly what the 1991 agreement on the foundations of interstate relations provides for. We proceed from the fact that the provisions of this agreement are equally important for Russia as well.

After Lithuania and Russia regained their independence in 1991, we hoped that, after learning the painful lessons of the past and drawing appropriate conclusions, our countries would focus on building good-neighborly relations in Europe.

Lithuania prioritizes respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, democratic values ​​and international law. We believe that such understanding of and respect for these principles should be conducive to uniting the peoples of Lithuania and Russia.

We sincerely hope that the modern methods of civilized cooperation developed since the end of the Cold War, will help bring back the rule of international law, inviolability of state borders, respect for human rights and rid the world of such concepts as “spheres of influence” in international relations, and that the states’ right to choose the own path of development will be recognized.

While nowadays we clearly differ on various things, we, as diplomats, should strive to maintain a respectful dialogue and seek a common ground for pragmatic solutions to issues of mutual importance. Therefore, we should hear and understand each other, because mutual respect is the only way for us to avoid situations that lead to negative reactions. We can’t quickly and simultaneously solve all the problems that have piled up between us, but if we engage in civilized dialogue, we will be able to communicate and cooperate at any level. For example, we need to establish even more practical ties between our professionals – cargo haulers, customs officers, border guards, scientists, etc.

After all, we can’t just sit back and read media headlines telling us over and over again about a “cooling” of relations. As they righty say, “it takes two to tango.”

In addition to dealing with trade, economic and practical issues, I, as the ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to the Russian Federation, will also be trying to find more points of contact that bring our peoples closer together. Culture is one such area. I have already written about this, but I will mention several important points here.

As I already mentioned, 2020 marks 100 years since our two countries signed a peace agreement and Lithuania opened a diplomatic mission in Russia. At the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow, we held a round table “The Peace Treaty of 1920 between Soviet Russia and Lithuania” [17], dedicated to this event, as well as an online exhibition organized by historians from Lithuania, Russia and Poland. Before this year is out, we plan to publish a collection of documents from 1920, jointly prepared by Lithuanian and Russian scientists. The Commission of Lithuanian and Russian Historians is all set to continue its work. A similar joint event by our two countries’ historians is scheduled to be held also in Vilnius.

Also in 2020, Lithuania celebrated the 300th birth anniversary of the Gaon of Vilna, the great rabbi of Lithuania and the most famous representative of the Litvak culture. The Lithuanian Embassy in Russia organized a series of round tables to discuss the historical Jewish heritage in Lithuania and Russia. [18] Similar practical initiatives involving our scientists and historians will follow.

However, there are many other issues related to ecology, pandemics, global problems, regional relations, trade and tourism that I will be focusing on.

Direct exchanges between cities and municipalities will also be a priority. During my work in St. Petersburg in 2005-2008, there were a series of cooperation agreements signed between Vilnius and St. Petersburg, Kaunas and St. Petersburg, Alytus and Petrozavodsk. By the way, in 2022, Kaunas will become the European Capital of Culture, which is an excellent opportunity for further contacts. When it comes to regional cooperation, I would prioritize cooperation between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad region, especially in protecting the environment of the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon.

Joint regional and municipal projects should be instrumental in helping Lithuanians and Russians to better know each other, their culture, art, and life, stimulate tourism as well as cultural and academic exchanges.

These days, there are fewer and fewer Lithuanians who know what is happening in the neighboring country. When I talk to young Russians, I also see that they know little about Lithuania. We need to maintain a dialogue between our youth and public organizations because otherwise we will not be able to understand each other better.

I will be making every effort to make sure that the names of extraordinary people who bring us closer together are not forgotten. Jurgis Baltrushaitis was a great ambassador and a wonderful poet, who built a sort of a cultural bridge between our two countries. Small wonder, that the Lithuanian secondary school in Moscow bears his name. And there were also people like actors Juozas Budraitis and Donatas Banionis, poet Tomas Venclova and blessed Teofilius Matulionis. Lithuanian President Antanas Smetona and Prime Minister Augustinas Voldemaras studied in St. Petersburg, and Jonas Basanavičius and Vincas Petaris are Moscow University graduates. The famous Russian sculptor Mark Antokolsky and the great painter Isaac Levitan were both natives of Lithuania.

As far as military security goes, I hardly expect any changes here in the short term as tensions in the Baltic region have been growing for quite some time now. First of all, we should start with confidence-building measures and ensure transparency. As far as I know, this is exactly what the European Union and NATO are striving for.

In the present-day situation, any changes won’t come easy, especially when you believe that it is your partner alone who needs to change his behavior, not you. But we are connected by one region, history and people and, therefore, we should have a shared interest in a dialogue to end this impasse so that we can restore an atmosphere of trust and develop across-the-board cooperation. However, this requires dialogue, practical cooperation and compliance with international law.

And finally, politics aside, practical cooperation between Lithuania and Russia continues with border demarcation now completed, negotiations on diplomatic property underway, main contacts maintained, day-to-day problems being addressed, economic and trade relations developing, tourist flows (temporarily suspended due to the pandemic) resuming, along with cultural and academic exchanges, informal meetings of Lithuanian and Russian historians being held (as part of a bilateral commission of historians), a program of cross-border cooperation being implemented, human contacts being established, cooperation with representatives of the Russian liberal opposition, civil society and the academic community continuing, and the Kaliningrad transit being implemented virtually unhindered.

And this is only part of the picture.

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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