Belarus-Lithuania Relations: Pragmatism Despite Politics
Belarusians and Lithuanians have a long common history which started long before the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 500 years ago. Two nations followed clearly divergent paths only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Lukashenka came to power, he recognised the state border of Lithuania and thus prevented the main source of possible tension between two countries.
Lithuania hosts many Belarusian exile organisations including the European Humanities University but remains cautious about economic sanctions. It supports the liberalisation of the visa regime for Belarusians but was guilty of leaking information to Belarusian authorities which led to the imprisonment of human rights activist Ales’ Bialiatski. Two countries cannot agree on several issues, including Belarusian nuclear power plants, but overall their relations remain remarkably pragmatic.
History of Peaceful Coexistence
For more than a half of millennium, Belarusian and Lithuanian people have peacefully lived together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This experience of coexistence continued after the Russian Empire had annexed their lands, with many Belarusians studying at the Vilnius University.
After the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks united the Lithuanian SSR and Belarusian SSR into a short-lived single state called Litbel that collapsed due to the Polish-Soviet war. In 1940 Soviet troops occupied Lithuania in compliance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and transferred Vilnius to a newly established Lithuanian SSR.
After the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks united the Lithuanian SSR and Belarusian SSR into a short-lived single state called Litbel. Read more
Only at the end of the 20th century did these countries go their different ways. Lithuania decided to become a member of the European Union and NATO. At the same time Lukashenka as a leader of Belarus stated that he would not lead his country to a civilised world and built a Soviet-style authoritarian "market socialism".
But it was probably a good choice for Lithuania, because Lukashenka agreed on the existing border between the two countries and did not make any claims to the disputed Vilnius region. In 2007 Belarus and Lithuania finished demarcation of the common border. This year they should allow people living in territories adjacent to the state border to travel without visas a distance of no farther than 50 km.
Why Lithuania Resists EU Sanctions Against Belarus
In 2005 former Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus made a controversial statement that Lukashenka “might attack Lithuania” whereas Belarusian state TV channels broadcasted anti-Lithuanian propaganda. Bilateral relations significantly improved when Dalia Grybauskaitė came to power in 2009. At that time the EU started an engagement policy towards Belarus and Grybauskaitė invited Lukashenka to visit Vilnius for the first time since 1997.
The trade turnover between two nations increased by 162% in 2011. Read more
Lithuania advocates for Belarus in the EU, because it has substantial economic interests in this country. The trade turnover between two nations increased by 162% and exceeded $1bn in 2011. Moreover, Belarusian companies, especially Belkali and GrodnoAzot, are responsible for more than 30% of the cargo at Lithuanian Klaipeda port on the Baltic sea that wants to be their main partner instead of the Latvian Ventspils port.
Earlier Minsk stimulated their competition when it was choosing which port should become a dock for tankers carrying oil from Venezuela to Belarusian oil refineries. This was a part of the ambitious project on the creation of the Eurasian oil transport corridor between the Caspian Sea and the Baltic Sea. However, when Russia promised to Lukashenka extremely beneficial prices for oil and gas, he stopped his attempts to diversify hydrocarbon supplies.
Lithuania’s need for economic cooperation with its bigger Eastern neighbour explains why it opposes comprehensive EU sanctions against Minsk. On 5 March Grybauskaitė said in an interview for Agence France-Presse that economic sanctions would only further push Belarus into Russia's sphere of influence.
Lithuania as Second Home for Belarusian Civil Society
Strategic interests do not impede Lithuania to stay one of the most active supporters of Belarusian civil society. Since 2004 Vilnius has become second home for the European Humanities University that Belarusian authorities expelled from Minsk. Nearly 1500 Belarusian students study full-time in the arts and social sciences at the university and the overwhelming majority of them are against the Belarusian regime. Besides, the Belarusian Human Rights House has existed there for several years and the Belarusian opposition will likely open the United Belarus House in Vilnius soon.
Only 170 km separate Minsk and Vilnius thus making it the closest EU capital to Belarus. The 2 million residents of the Belarusian capital need only three hours and $10 to see how Europeans live, work and relax. Belarus has nearly three times more consumers than Lithuania, that is why local businesses are truly interested in their visits. Many large Lithuanian shopping malls depend on Belarusian customers. Unfortunately, there is a big obstacle for Belarusians – the Schengen visa regime.
In November 2007 Lithuania had to increase the visa application from €5 to €60 on the demand of EU institutions and the number of Belarusians tourists significantly decreased. Read more
In November 2007 Lithuania had to increase the visa application from €5 to €60 on the demand of EU institutions and the number of Belarusians tourists significantly dropped. Only recently the cross-border movement has intensified again. In 2011 Lithuania issued approximately 150,000 Schengen visas for Belarusians which is higher by 59% in comparison with the previous year.
Lithuania refuses only 0.17% of Belarusian applications and actively supports the idea of reducing the visa fee for Belarusians. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis declared this March that Lithuania plans to issue no-fee long-term national visas for citizens of Belarus.
Bialiatski Case and EU Conflict
The imprisonment of Ales’ Bialiatski, a prominent Belarusian human rights activist, reduced Lithuanian officials’ trust in Belarusian authorities. The then Lithuanian Department of Justice provided information about his bank accounts to their Belarusian counterparts within the framework of the official procedures established for the combat against organised crime.
Only months later did they understand that Belarusian intelligence services would use the received information for repressing Bialiatski. As a result, the Belarusian court sentenced him to 4.5 years in prison. Consequently, it undermined Lithuania’s image as a country that defends human rights.
Another point of tension is competition between Lithuania, Belarus and Russia on the construction of nuclear power plants in the region. Lithuania opposes the plans of Belarusian authorities to build nuclear power plant in Ostrovets situated very close to the Lithuanian capital. At the same time Belarus considers the Lithuanian project for the construction of a power plant in Visaginas as ineffective. Moreover, Belarus does not want to extradite former general Vladimir Uskhopchik who allegedly participated in the Soviet troops’ bloody assault on the Vilnius’ TV tower in 1991.
Successful cooperation between Belarus and Lithuania depends on the future of the EU-Belarus dialogue. More than a month ago Head of the EU External Action Catherine Ashton recalled all EU ambassadors from Minsk in a sign of solidarity against the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. This move will definitely not foster common projects and puts prospects of political dialogue between Minsk and Vilnius in doubt.
But despite the diplomatic conflict and the Schengen visa wall Belarusians and Lithuanians manage to maintain healthy economic cooperation and historically close
Opinion: Does Russia Want EU Sanctions Against Belarus?
Yesterday Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talked with Alexander Lukashenka over the telephone. On the same day Lukashenka announced at a meeting with Belarusian foreign policy officials that he may release some of Belarus' political prisoners.
The relation between these two facts is unclear. However, this coincidence once again provokes thoughts as to Russia's real and possible role in influencing the Lukashenka regime.
Over the past few weeks Russia has called upon the EU several times to lift sanctions against Belarus and start a dialogue with Lukashenka. This demand was made by Russia's foreign ministry, in a joint statement with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and in a joint statement by Medvedev and Lukashenka.
It can be argued that these calls clearly contradict the most popular argument for the lifting of economic and political sanctions against Belarus. The argument says that the Kremlin is interested in strengthening the sanctions against the regime in Minsk. Sanctions would strengthen the dependence of Belarus on Russia and enable Russia's businessmen to get access to the privatisation of strategic Belarusian enterprises.
In fact, Russia is strategically far more interested in the West lifting its sanctions on Minsk. Belarus plays an important role in Moscow's long-term vision for Europe, where Russia, its post-Soviet satellites and the EU would create a common economic area. For this, Russia needs Belarus to be eventually accepted as a legitimate participant in the integration between the European Union and a Russian-led bloc of post-Soviet countries. This may be the strategic reason why Russia is interested in Lukashenka's eventual resignation – but not before having Belarus' key companies land in the hands of Russian investors.
Russia's long term foreign policy strategy: EU + Eurasian Union
Putin's articles show the two main directions of the Kremlin's foreign policy for the coming years. One concerns the traditional integration (as is stated, mainly economic) with former Soviet republics. This includes the construction of a single economic area with Belarus and Kazakhstan, with a possible future involvement of other countries, especially Ukraine.
The second vector, which usually remains in the shadows, is economic integration with the European Union.
In his recent article about Russia's foreign policy, published by the newspaper Moskovskie novosti
Russia proposes to move toward the creation of a common economic and humanitarian area from the Atlantic to the Pacific – a community which the Russian experts call the Union of Europe.
Prior to that, Putin wrote the same in an article published by Izvestiya which was dedicated to the possible creation of a post-Soviet integration body referred to as the Eurasian Union:
The Eurasian Union will be based on universal principles of integration as an integral part of Greater Europe, united by shared values of freedom, democracy and the laws of the free market(…)
The Customs Union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and later the Eurasian Union will be the party holding the dialogue [on the creation of the common economic area] with the EU from our side.
We can conclude that in the long run, current Russian foreign policy is aimed at some form of economic convergence between the EU and the would-be Eurasian Union.
Russia (the Russian elite) has perhaps even stronger ties with the EU than with the countries of the former Soviet Union. Western Europe is the main market for Russia's exports, the source of investment and technology. The EU attracts Russians by its lifestyle, investment opportunities and education.
Russia has not recovered from the gloomy 70 years of communism and is not able to form a separate civilization. In today's globalising world it will therefore inevitably see itself more and more as a distinctive part of European civilization and strive to integrate with other European countries, given its closer ties to them than to the Muslim East or China.
Lukashenka as an Obstacle to the Implementation of Russia's Strategy
Needless to say that Belarus, at the junction of the European Union and the so-called Russian "near abroad", plays a notable role in this picture. If not a nodal point, it can (and has) become an obstacle to the realisation of Russia's strategy of building a "harmonious community of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok" Putin writes about.
Russia is interested in Belarus as a full-fledged subject of the pan-European economic integration process. Economic and political sanctions against Belarus are clearly inconsistent with Moscow's vision of a future Eurasia.
Thus, Russia is naturally interested in the lifting of Western sanctions against Minsk. The question is what the costs and the instruments available to do this are.
Obviously, there are two options with regards to how to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted. One is to force the regime in Belarus towards democratisation. The other is to force the West to accept Lukashenka as a full and respected partner in pan-Eurasian integration.
The second approach has been repeatedly tried in the past years and has consistently proven to be ineffective. It is likely that Russia would oppose, and possibly prevent the imposition of, new sanctions by the West against Belarus. But Russia will never succeed in returning Belarus to the status of a full member of the Eurasian-European integration as long as Aliaksander Lukashenka remains president of Belarus.
Forcing Lukashenka to dismantle his authoritarian regime (and, if possible, to resign) is the only measure that ensures the lifting of sanctions against Belarus. It is easier for Russia to help Lukashenka resign rather than trying to force the EU to engage in a dialogue with his regime, which has proven to be absolutely unable to negotiate, naively referring to "artificial barriers to trade".
What Stops Russia from Making Lukashenka Resign
It took the Russian government ten years to realise that the construction of a "Union State" between Belarus and Russia has no future. Let us see how long it will take to realise that the easiest way to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted would perhaps be to join these sanctions at first.
The only thing that stops Moscow from deciding the fate of Lukashenka is the illusion that he may give Russia preferential access to the privatisation of the few attractive assets in Belarus. This presents a contradiction between the strategic interests of Moscow in pursuing pan-Eurasian integration and tactical interests in the privatisation of specific assets by Russian companies. This is the issue which provides the main uncertainty for the coming one or two years and the only area for speculation by Lukashenka's regime.
One must realise that the contradiction is not stable and cannot last too long. For instance, against the status quo works the critical situation of the Belarusian economy. In addition, Russia may soon find out that negotiations on the privatisation of strategic companies would be far more productive with almost any future government of Belarus. Most importantly, deals with a future government would be less likely subject to a future revision and cancellation – never forget that Lukashenka has been holding his position illegally since 2006 or perhaps even 1999.
Despite a common discontent with the situation in Belarus, the West and Russia have been reluctant to publicly cooperate on this issue or to even form a single position. One may argue that no change may be expected until the international community acts jointly and leaves Lukashenka with no space for manoeuvring between Russia and the West.