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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

Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe

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Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.

Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.

In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values ​​of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.

The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.

In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.

President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.

Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…

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Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.

Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”

On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”

So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.

Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.

Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.

As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.

Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.

Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Eastern Europe

Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

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