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2019.07.22 11:00

Behind the scenes of President Grybauskaitė's diplomacy: 10 unreported moments

Vaidotas Beniušis, BNS 2019.07.22 11:00

With Dalia Grybauskaitė having ended her second term as Lithuanian president, here is a look at some of her behind-the-scenes foreign policy activities.

The piece reports 10 important foreign and security policy episodes, based on interviews with several dozen Lithuanian and foreign politicians and diplomats who agreed to speak anonymously, as well as on documents obtained by the news agency and in the public domain.

1. Defence plans

A “secret six” gathered at NATO headquarters in a complex of drab, grey buildings in eastern Brussels in the latter half of 2009.

US, German, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian diplomats and the NATO secretary general's envoy began coordinating plans for defending the Baltic nations against Russia.

They agreed that the “prudent planning” efforts that US generals had undertook in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 were insufficient and that more detailed plans, endorsed by all NATO member states, were needed.

The issue was also high on the agenda of meetings of NATO's quad that includes the US, France, Britain and Germany.

Initially the biggest challenge seemed to be to convince Southern European countries, which did not see Russia as a threat and feared that such defence plans would cause unnecessary tension.

Before long, a new plan emerged – namely, how to silence Lithuania’s new President Dalia Grybauskaitė.

Diplomats were disconcerted by her public statements that NATO had no defense plans for the Baltic region and her comments that such a plan might emerge within two years.

Americans and Germans warned that making public the details of behind-the-scenes negotiations might lead Russian sympathizers to try to stop these talks by political means. Latvians and Estonians were infuriated to hear Grybauskaitė speaking on behalf of all the three Baltic nations without first consulting them.

Grybauskaitė firmly rejected all calls to stay silent. On the contrary, she warned that she would become increasingly vocal.

After US President Barack Obama made up his mind, NATO generals took a historic decision on January 22, 2010. They agreed that the Eagle Guardian military plan, originally designed for Poland, would cover the Baltics, too.

That marked the beginning of an important process. Defence plans were thoroughly reviewed in 2016 in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, but intense discussions about how detailed these plans should be continue. Achieving a Cold War-level of detail in planning will now be a task for diplomacy under Lithuania’s new President Gitanas Nausėda.

Grybauskaitė and her circle believe that the president’s public pressure and her tough rhetoric broke the ice and prevented the process from dragging on.

Some of those close to the talks suggest that Grybauskaitė’s merits are a myth. According to them, the public pressure played its role, but the idea was already being debated when she became president, so her statements were not a decisive factor in the US and Germany taking their strategic decision.

The biggest critics say the military plans were approved not because of Grybauskaitė's statements, but in spite of them. They say she just picked up the low-lying fruits that others had grown and ripened.

2. Shadows of the past from St. Petersburg

“We have common friends in St. Petersburg,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, chewing a gum, told Grybauskaitė after cameras were removed from the room in Helsinki, in February 2010.

“We have no common friends,” she retorted.

The face-off with Putin prompted Grybauskaitė to change her attitude toward the Kremlin.

The president told Lithuanian reporters later that Putin gave her a list of demands and cursed several times during the conversation. However the reminiscences of the St. Petersburg meeting were never made public.

Grybauskaitė’s communist past did not stop her from harshly criticizing Russia. On the contrary, her background only strengthened her sense of duty to the state. Grybauskaitė regretted that her family had not imbued her with the spirit of patriotism and she harboured a deeply hidden feeling of indebtedness because of her passivity during the movement for independence.

Her most quotable assertion, made in November 2014, was that Russia was “a terrorist state”. The word had stayed in her head since earlier discussions about the need to include Moscow-backed separatists in lists of terrorist groups. That never happened, and the president’s office explained to surprised foreign diplomats that it was a political statement that would have no legal consequences.

During her second presidential term, Grybauskaitė prohibited any senior-level contacts with Russia. The ban applied not only to ministers or deputy ministers, but also to diplomats at the level of a Foreign Ministry department director.

Grybauskaitė’s personal diplomacy with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was also a failure despite initial hopes.

During her first visit to Brussels a month after her swearing-in, Grybauskaitė informed EU leaders that she would go to Minsk, end Belarus’ isolation and bring it closer to Europe.

Jerzy Buzek, the Polish president of the European Parliament at that time, cautioned her, saying, “Are you sure about that? If I were you, I’d be cautious.”

Grybauskaitė did not hesitate. She hosted Lukashenko in Vilnius three weeks later and paid a visit to Minsk in October 2010.

In Minsk, Lukashenko promised her that Belarus’ upcoming presidential election would be democratic. Later, the regime detained hundreds of protesting opposition activists after the polls closed.

Grybauskaitė changed her mind: there would be no dialogue with Minsk. The inability to halt the construction of the nuclear power plant in Astravyets became the biggest failure of her diplomatic efforts and of Lithuanian diplomacy as a whole.

At the end of her term, the president was convinced that Belarus was not a truly independent country.

“I treat Belarus as Russia’s territory,” she said once, explaining her tough stance.

3. Libyan veto

Phone lines between Vilnius, Brussels and Washington were overheating in March 2011 when Grybauskaitė threatened to block NATO’s operation in Libya.

The Lithuanian president believed that an attack on the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's government forces would be unlawful, sow chaos and that those involved would face an international tribunal.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was initially quite critical of France's enthusiasm for military action, but nobody expected a veto threat from Lithuania, a country with no military resources for the operation and no interests in North Africa.

“Everybody agrees; you are the only one (to oppose),” Grybauskaitė’s advisers were warned by US diplomats in a phone call.

Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, together with Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis and Defence Minister Rasa Juknevičienė, began discussing plans to convene the State Defence Council to reverse Grybauskaitė’s decision, and diplomats started arranging a meeting between the Lithuanian president and Merkel.

“Vote as you need to, we’ll defend you,” Kubilius told Lithuania' representatives in Brussels.

Following intensive behind-the-scenes talks in the run-up to the decisive vote, some decided that they would rather risk being fired by the president than back the veto.

It was the Scandinavians who helped resolve the crisis which lasted for several hours.

Grybauskaitė had just arrived in Brussels for an EU summit. Baltic and Nordic leaders met separately ahead of the summit and all of them spoke in favour of intervention. The Danish prime minister asked: “Is there anyone among us who opposes NATO’s mission in principle?”

Seeing that Lithuania was all alone, Grybauskaitė bit her lip and said nothing. That gave the green light for diplomats to vote “yes”. The crisis was over.

Critics say Grybauskaitė behaved inadequately, unnecessarily angered the allies and risked undermining NATO’s unity.

In the eyes of her supporters, however, the president showed that Lithuania was a country whose opinion mattered and that she foresaw that the toppling of the regime after military attacks would plunge Libya into chaos.

4. Polish contentions

In the summer of 2014, Grybauskaitė refused to the very last moment to support Prime Minister Donald Tusk in his bid to become president of the European Council.

When she received a call from Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, the outgoing Council president, Grybauskaitė said that Lithuania backed Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, not the Polish politician.

However, Tusk emerged as the winner after several days of behind-the-scenes talks. When the issue was put up for a vote, Grybauskaitė voted in favour.

Relations between Lithuania and Poland were quite sour at that time. Tensions were mostly fueled by Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski with his continuous criticism of Lithuania over the rights if its Polish-speaking minority and its treatment of Polish investments in the Mažeikiai crude refinery.

Outraged by Vilnius’ refusal to back down, Sikorski tried to persuade the Defence Ministry not to send Polish fighters to Lithuania to participate in air-policing missions and prohibited Polish ambassadors from organizing joint events with Lithuanians.

During his visit to Vilnius in September 2013, he emphatically spoke in Polish to Lithuanian reporters who asked questions in English.

Grybauskaitė had no doubt that Sikorski was responsible for her being greeted by angry protesters and forced to stand outdoors in poor conditions for a long time during her visit to Warsaw. The last straw was Sikorski's decision to leak to the Reuters news agency Grybauskaitė's statement made to diplomats in a closed meeting that Lukashenko was a guarantor of stability in Belarus stability and the Belarussian opposition was useless.

No one in Lithuania liked Sikorski, but many had hopes for Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, who has family roots in Lithuania.

Grybauskaitė thought otherwise. The two presidents did not bond. Grybauskaitė complained in private after one of their first meetings that Komorowski was a chatterbox who was too fond of wine and decided later that her Polish counterpart was malignantly ignoring her remarks about Sikorski’s blackmail and her complaint that the staff of the Polish embassy in Vilnius was flirting with Russians on ethnic minority issues.

Grybauskaitė ended the tradition of going to Warsaw on November 11 to mark Poland's Independence Day and later declined the Polish president's invitation to come to Poland to discuss NATO issues.

“We must not yield to any pressure from Poland. We must not dramatize matters and say we could not do without them,” she once said.

In the eyes of her critics, Grybauskaitė’s ambitions prevented Lithuania from making use of the Komorowski presidency to accelerate the implementation of energy projects. Some believe that a warmer relationship would have opened up new opportunities for closer trilateral military cooperation between Lithuania, Poland and the US.

Grybauskaitė’s supporters say she defended the honour of the country by not allowing herself to be humiliated. They say her predecessor Valdas Adamkus’ friendship with Poland’s presidents did not translate into tangible results, noting that it was pressure from Brussels, rather than friendly relations between politicians, that got strategic projects going.

5. Echoes of Crimea

A Russian train headed from Moscow to Kaliningrad braked to a halt near the Kaunas water power plant on August 28, 2014. For 15 minutes, tensions ran high at the Presidential Palace in Vilnius. Officials started discussing a worst-case scenario of the plant being blown up, causing numerous casualties.

The train was surrounded by police cars. The tension subsided after it emerged that it was no more than a technical problem.

Five months earlier Crimea had been annexed, and an armed conflict raged in Eastern Ukraine. Many Lithuanians were alarmed by Russia’s aggression, and the president was no exception.

Grybauskaitė changed. She began to care more about her personal security and about national defence.

She would have liked to forget her earlier assertions that raising defence spending would negatively affect plans to compensate for pension cuts and that “several tanks” would not protect the country.

In the wake of Crimea’s annexation, Grybauskaitė took on a strong leadership role and pushed for increasing Lithuania’s defence budget, reintroducing military conscription and purchasing new military equipment.

Partial conscription was reintroduced in Lithuania in 2015 despite opposition from the defence minister, Juozas Olekas. The president ignored him, accepting advice from his conservative predecessor, Rasa Juknevičienė, and the chief of defence, General Jonas Vytautas Žukas.

After a month of behind-the-scenes meetings, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius and Loreta Graužinienė, the speaker of the Seimas, sided with the president, leaving Olekas isolated in the State Defence Council with his opposition to the plan.

The president used the same tactic in deciding on the country’s most expensive military acquisition. When the State Defence Council convened to decide which infantry fighting vehicles to purchase, Olekas proposed to leave three or four options open, saying competition might help negotiate a better price. Grybauskaitė’s answer was abrupt: “No lists, no negotiations; we are taking German Boxers.” The issue was settled.

Grybauskaitė believed that the threat from Russia was genuine, and therefore rejected US and French requests to send special operations troops to Iraq and Africa, stating that elite troops had to stay in the country.

She remained unconvinced by arguments from her ministers that the Lithuanian troops’ participation would strengthen ties with the two strongest NATO armies and help the soldiers gain invaluable experience.

But as her term was drawing to a close, four years since the Crimean crisis had begun, the president finally gave a go-ahead for Lithuanian special operations troops, who are highly valued by the US military, to return to Afghanistan.

6. CIA prison

In December 2014, Grybauskaitė received a phone call from US Vice President; around the same time, the US ambassador to Lithuania met in person with her and Valdas Adamkus, her predecessor. They warned that the US Senate was about to publish a report on CIA prisons.

The document confirmed Grybauskaitė's suspicions that the Americans had equipped a prison in Antaviliai near Vilnius in 2005-2006 and brought individuals suspected of involvement in the September 11 terror attacks on several occasions.

The story began in August 2009, 40 days after Grybauskaitė's inauguration, when the US TV channel ABC News reported on the secret prison. Although intelligence chiefs categorically denied everything, the president was not convinced.

She invited Arvydas Anušauskas, the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defence, over to the Presidential Palace for an early morning coffee and expounded her conviction that the prison did exist and called for a comprehensive investigation.

She was not convinced by assertions that there was no evidence for the claims. Her response was stern: “It means you are not looking well enough.”

Border guards were the first to break the silence with their unexpected testimonies that, in October 2005, they were prevented from checking an incoming plane from Antalya, Turkey, linked to CIA flights.

Then intelligence officers invited lawmakers to visit the State Security Department base in Antaviliai.

Following a month-long investigation, the Seimas released a report, saying that there existed suitable premises for a prison, but there was still no conclusive evidence about whether any people were brought in.

Prosecutors followed up with their own investigation, but after learning that Antaviliai housed “an intelligence support centre”, law enforcement officials ended the investigation in January 2011.

Grybauskaitė was convinced the investigation was superficial. Her appointed Prosecutor General Darius Valys reproached prosecutor Mindaugas Duda over the aborted investigation and indicated specific individuals whose actions could be deemed criminal.

The investigation was resumed following the publication of the US Senate's report and still continues. But key question – how and to whom the Americans unofficially paid for the prison – remains unanswered.

7. Unpredictability of Donald Trump

The Baltic states were “brave” countries that “started World War One”, the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian presidents heard from Donald Trump in April 2018.

In this chaotic White House meeting, he mixed mistook Baltic states for the Balkan countries. Trump pretended not to hear journalists' questions about requests to send more American troops to deter Russia, but beamed with pleasure when Grybauskaitė said his unpredictability was a good thing.

“Repeat that during the press conference,” Trump told Grybauskaitė. She agreed.

Grybauskaitė's relations with US leaders went through several cycles.

Soon after assuming her position, she told the ministers of foreign affairs and national defence: “The Americans will no longer boss us around.”

Her critical attitude towards the US had been influenced by the mildly anti-American atmosphere in Brussels and her resentment over the fire-sale of the Mažeikiai refinery to an American company at the time she worked at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington.

Criticism was soon followed by actions, as she rejected a request to accept several Guantanamo prisoners, and refused Obama's invitation to meet in Prague in April 2010, fearing the consequences of US-Russian military cooperation.

Obama himself did not learn about this slap in the face, but White House officials and people in his close circle later complained about it to Lithuanians on several occasions. Later on, these officials received new assignments, and during preparations for the 2013 meeting of the Baltic and American presidents, the White House no longer demonstrated any hard feelings.

During her second term, Grybauskaitė's relations with the United Stated were smoother and she was praised by the Americans for her competence and leadership, the service of Lithuanian troops in Afghanistan, freeing the country from Russia's gas monopoly, increasing defence spending, for refusing to pander to Russia and to tolerate corruption.

But the Americans knew all along there would be no automatic backing for Washington's initiatives from Vilnius.

Although Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius proposed otherwise, Grybauskaitė decided in December 2017 to vote in favour of a UN resolution condemning Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Grybauskaitė's decision was motivated less by geopolitical calculations than by the US administration's blunt threats that the vote would determine the Americans' further cooperation with foreign countries.

“I will not let anyone bully us,” she later explained.

In June 2019, Grybauskaitė rejected a proposal to hold a meeting of the Baltic presidents and the influential US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in Slovenia. Such a ‘3+1’ group had recently met in Ukraine, and Grybauskaitė believed a second meeting was unnecessary. Presidents meetings with ministers should be the exception rather than the rule, she thought.

In contrast to Adamkus, Grybauskaitė never managed to have a bilateral meeting with a US president, despite active attempts to arrange one.

8. Feminine solidarity

Grybauskaitė took Lithuania's foreign policy into her hands from the very beginning. This was especially visible in Europe, for she, rather than the prime minister, represented the country at every meeting of the European Council.

Prime ministers and Seimas members stayed out of the way as Grybauskaitė was making decisions on EU economic issues that were within the government's competence. It was an effective arrangement, although hardly in line with the Constitution.

Over the course of her two terms, she opposed EU tax harmonization, backing the dominant opinion that low taxes are the best solution for a peripheral country to attract investment.

When the then Lithuanian EU Commissioner Algirdas Šemeta proposed taxing financial transactions, Grybauskaitė was categorically against it.

“The Council did not ask for the Commission's proposal on the financial transaction tax. Why should we welcome it?” Grybauskaitė said during the October 2011 summit, addressing her counterparts around the table and suppressing French President Nicolas Sarkozy's enthusiasm to welcome “the Šemesta project”.

The foreign diplomatic corps soon realized that convincing ministers might be not enough for decisions to be made, as the domineering president might decide otherwise. Therefore, occasions for direct communication were always appreciated.

Female ambassadors had an advantage, as Grybauskaitė started having regular lunch meetings with them. Female ambassadors from different countries took turns to organize such meetings where men were not invited.

At the end of the term, women led diplomatic missions of major Western countries, including those of the United States, Germany, Britain and France.

Grybauskaitė would never be completely relaxed during such meetings, but ambassadors were glad she allowed them to see some charming aspects of her personality that were at odds with her image of a stern head of state.

Such meetings also provided opportunities to cautiously raise some political issues, despite the officially declared wish to avoid them.

Following Grybauskaitė's departure from the Presidential Palace, the diplomatic corps will become less feminine as men are due to take over the lead of the US and UK Embassies in Lithuania this autumn.

9. Saving Merkel

NATO headquarters in Brussels was overwhelmed by confusion in July 2018, as US President Donald Trump had just lashed out at Chancellor Angela Merkel over Germany's defence spending and started voicing doubts whether the United States needed NATO at all. The meeting was on the verge of collapse.

After Trump's rant, several other leaders read out their notes on Georgia and Ukraine. And then Grybauskaitė decided to speak impromptu.

She came to Merkel's rescue and, with a smile on her face, addressed Trump directly, saying that his comments on the need to increase defence spending were right, but it was wrong to nail the German chancellor over this.

Grybauskaitė reminded that German troops arrived in Lithuania at Merkel's initiative and it was her who kept Europe united in the face of Russia's aggression.

Grybauskaitė was the right person at the right time and the right place, and her statement brought back a constructive tone to the discussion.

Soon afterwards, the Dutch prime minister suggested that Trump claim the credit for the the growth in defence spending in Europe. The US president liked the plan and gave a self-praise session to the press.

Grybauskaitė and Merkel have always got along pretty well, and this connection contributed to Grybauskaitė being awarded the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen in 2013. Grybauskaitė's addresses at EU summits were fairly rare and short, and she would often back the German chancellor. She was considered to be a pro-German president.

Grybauskaitė's staunch position on Russia helped Merkel to convince EU member states to keep sanctions and evict Russian spies in a coordinated response after the the Skripal poisoning incident in England. Germany did, however, wish that Lithuania opt for dialogue with Russia rather than isolation, and show greater solidarity during the migration crisis.

Speaking with Merkel, Grybauskaitė would sometimes criticize Lithuanian governments, especially the one of Algirdas Butkevičius.

Therefore, Saulius Skvernelis was not very much surprised when Merkel asked him directly during his visit to Berlin: “Is Grybauskaitė strict to your government?”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had a fairly good opinion about Grybauskaitė and these ties helped to ensure the Commission's support for the synchronization of the Baltic power grids with Western Europe through Poland, as Lithuania wished, rejecting Estonia's bid to use a link via the Nordic countries.

Grybauskaitė was also a true star among journalists in Brussels, as she would always come prepared to make statements and Twitter posts, fascinating them with her sharpness and straightforwardness. She satisfied their longing for loud headlines. Thanks to Grybauskaitė's statements, Lithuania's name would often resonate more than its genuine influence warranted.

Lithuanian journalists would sometimes be surprised by the fact that she would break protocol during official press conferences and start speaking Polish or English, because she did not always trust interpreters.

Brussels journalists and Merkel supported Grybauskaitė during her last summit for the distribution of top EU positions.

With ten days until the end of the term, Merkel and the Latvian prime minister in Brussels proposed considering Grybauskaitė for the European Commission president. The Estonian prime minister was positive about it, and the Polish prime minister said during a bilateral meeting that Warsaw would not protest.

That was one of more than a dozen scenarios EU leaders discussed during the two-day negotiation marathon. Consultations on the ‘Grybauskaitė option’ took around several hours, but eventually the European People's Party decided the position should go to the party's representative, the German defence minister.

The assurances of Lithuanian conservative leaders that Grybauskaitė could be considered an EPP-affiliated politician were insufficient.

Some leaders also pointed to Grybauskaitė's character, fearing that she is too one-sided to be able to coordinate different positions.

10. Favourites and pariahs

In September 2016, Gabrielius Landsbergis, leader of the conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, presented a possible shadow Cabinet to the president, in case his party won the Seimas election.

Grybauskaitė asked for social democrat Linas Linkevičius to remain foreign minister.

Linkevičius was one of very few politicians to whom Grybauskaitė listened, despite occasional sharp exchanges, for example, after the minister publicly apologized to the Poles over the spelling of Polish names.

She would also listen to the opinion of the country's former leader Vytautas Landsbergis, several diplomats and intelligence officers.

Meanwhile ex-Foreign Minister Vygaudas Ušackas and European commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis topped Grybauskaitė's black list, and she made sure their paths would never cross.

When Ušackas was the EU ambassador in Kabul, the president ignored the proposal to meet during her visit to Afghanistan, despite the fact that the majority of European politicians, including the Estonian president, would usually consult with him.

When Ušackas served as the EU ambassador in Moscow, he proposed discussing the priorities of Lithuania's EU presidency with the president, but received a quick and blunt answer that the head of state had a full schedule.

Grybauskaitė never met with Andriukaitis either, not in Vilnius nor in Brussels, even though the Presidential Palace was usually open to most of the European commissioners from other countries.

She would often encourage discussion and disagreement among her advisers at the presidential office, willing to hear various opinions before making up her mind. Some of the advisers were unhappy that colleagues stuck their noses into someone else's area of responsibility.

The president, quick to notice that her popularity ratings correlated directly with her influence, was careful to cultivate her image, from strict instructions to photographers to granting greater access to favoured journalists.

When the US state or defense secretaries came to Lithuania, Grybauskaitė would insist that she attend press conferences, despite the protocol requiring ministers to do so.

To secure favourable media attention, the presidential office and the government would jockey for the possibility to play the central role during the visits of international political stars – Japan's prime minister or Germany's chancellor.

Those who knew the president only from TV would sometimes be taken aback during live meetings by Grybauskaitė's abrasiveness and raised voice. Some people at the receiving end of her tirades could not comprehend why they were subjected to such harshness.

But if she wished, she could be witty and charismatic, and charm her interlocutors with her straightforward way of speaking, in sharp contrast to the tiresome bureaucratese of many other leaders.

She didn’t like criticism and excuses, but if her interlocutors held their ground, they would earn her respect.

Grybauskaitė has always demonstrated her independence and bossiness, and also made swift decisions. It has allowed her to resist improper influences. On the other hand, she would sometimes be too quick to dismiss people and their advice.

The new president should find his own balance between the head of state's two key functions of checking other powers and pooling them for common solutions.