PM's stance on Russia: 2 points in support, 2 against, 2 motives(2)
The call from Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis to resume contacts with Russia on the political level and operations of an intergovernmental commission have made top headlines over the past few days.
After discussions with diplomats of different institutions, officials and political experts, BNS Lithuania presents the argumentation in support, argumentation against and other possible motives.
Argumentation in support:
1. Supporters of this position say that communication channels are needed for efficient policies and settlement of the problems the country's residents, companies, institutions and organizations are faced with, also for possible closer contacts with the Russian Kaliningrad region. The big Western democracies maintain contacts with Russia on the highest presidential or prime ministerial level, while the more critical Eastern European nations make contacts on the level of ministers or vice-ministers. Lithuania is the only country of the European Union with no such contacts whatsoever. The prime minister's team maintains that reintroduction of the intergovernmental commission would not mean revision of relations. The so-called selective cooperation in some areas is allowed by the generally-accepted EU guidelines. A dialogue is usually maintained even between countries at war. "Is it not the case that Ukraine, which has been most affected by Russia, has more contacts with Moscow than Lithuania does?," an unnamed official asked rhetorically. Supporters of the position say that dialogue is the best way of talking about values, including cases when they are oceans apart.
2. Lithuania sometimes comes under criticism that its calls to isolate Russia do not fit the call to maintain dialogue with other countries. Lithuania has initiated an EU meeting with the Israeli prime minister, emphasizing that a direct dialogue is needed even in major disagreements, although the EU criticizes him for expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Lithuania has also urged Europe to maintain closer ties with Turkey, although Western Europeans censure its anti-democratic processes, while Greece, a NATO and EU member, is at odds with it over occupation of part of Cyprus. Lithuania is sometimes criticized for an attempt to verge off the NATO position agreed by all partners that a dialogue with Russia is needed to enhance military capabilities in the region.
1. Changes in Lithuania's position can be seen as a concession, weakness or admitting that Lithuania is in part guilty for the poor bilateral relations. Moscow may view the resumption of the intergovernmental commission's operations as a signal of change of stance by Lithuania on other strategic issues, which were repeatedly raised ahead of the commission's meetings, for instance, on better conditions for Russian giant Gazprom's operations in Lithuania or weaker checks on trains transiting Lithuania to Kaliningrad. Resumption of the commission's operations without any visible progress in the implementation of the Minsk accords or on the occupation of Crimea by Russia would undermine Lithuania's efforts to keeping the EU discipline, as well as the consistency in extending sanctions against Russia and provision of aid to Ukraine. If needed, resumption of contacts could be discussed after good preparations, with a good exit strategy and plan.
2. The prime minister publicly stated an opinion that had not been coordinated with the president or the foreign minister. This undermines the Lithuanian position on the international arena that Russia should endure consequences over the occupation of Crimea and support to the Ukrainian separatists. Return to the usual relations with Moscow would promote continuation of the aggressive policies. The current contacts on the technical and embassy level are sufficient, as indicated by Lithuania's growing exports to Russia and signing of the border demarcation treaty in December. If Lithuania was unwilling to make concessions, there would be nothing to discuss at top-level meetings. "It seems like the prime minister is hoping that Russia will all of a sudden starts taking the interests of Lithuanian citizens into consideration, although Lithuania continues ignoring the interests of Russia? Strongly illogical or simply naive," another official said. Politicizing one of the key foreign and national security matters prevailed by a nationwide consensus until now is a dangerous move. Internal tensions and contradictions among the main state institutions would only benefit the Kremlin and its propaganda.
Domestic Policy Motives:
1. Skvernelis is aiming to expand its influences and take over some of the foreign policy mandate from President Dalia Grybauskaitė. This could be seen during the prime minister's visit in Poland and can sometimes be heard in his rhetoric. According to the Constitution, main foreign policy matters are decided by the president, while foreign policy is executed in cooperation with the government. This leaves room for interpretation, which steps are in connection to main issues and which entail execution of the policies. The prime minister has shown discontent with the president's failure to consult him on the Lithuanian stance on the Jerusalem issue and his removal from deciding EU matters.
2. The prime minister's position may be due to a belief that a large share of Lithuania's society see the Lithuanian position as too rigid, and his thoughts may boost his popularity. In his statement, Skvernelis emphasized that Lithuania would state its position without humiliating the Russian state and its people, which is a barely disguised criticism to the president's recent rhetoric to dub Russia as a terrorist state. Some think the steps have to do with Skvernelis' presidential ambitions, while he has dismissed the insights as ridiculous. Others say this is an attempt to bring the attention away from domestic problems.