2019.10.07 17:45

Lithuanian hardline on Belarus cracks with China’s investment push

Looking to mitigate the threat from a nuclear plant under construction across its border, Lithuania is warming up to dialogue with Minsk. Yet, the thaw in relations is bringing more Belarusian business to the Baltic nation, and with it, more silk ties to Beijing.

A third of all cargo passing through Lithuania’s Klaipėda port now comes from Belarus, and various companies, including the state-owned Lithuanian Railways, reap hefty profits from Belarus’ export vein via the Baltics.

The freight from Belarus is also due to increase following China’s growing investments across the border from Lithuania.

While in Belarus, Lithuanian Transport and Communications Minister Jaroslavas Narkevičius visited the Great Stone industrial park, a Chinese-Belarusian project under construction near Minsk. The industry park is one of the cornerstones of China’s Belt and Road Initiative stretching into Belarus. The Lithuanian port of Klaipėda, Lithuanian Railways and Kaunas Free Economic Zone have also signed letters of intent with the enterprise.

Narkevič said the talks focused on “channeling the stream from [China’s] ‘Silk Road’ to our port in Klaipėda” via Lithuanian businesses.

While China’s soft power approaches the Baltics, Lithuanian intelligence agencies are raising alarm that “China’s intelligence and security services are becoming more aggressive,” and have warned citizens about China’s attempts to recruit them. The Chinese embassy denies the allegations.

Read more: China's Belt and Road grip reaches the Baltics – Investigation

Klaipėdos Nafta (Klaipėda Oil) has already extended its contract with Belarusian oil companies, Belaruskaja neftenaja kampanija, Grodno-Azot, and the Belarusian fertilizer manufacturer Belaruskali.

The latter co-owns the company Birių Krovinių Terminalas (Bulk Cargo Terminal, or BKT) in Klaipėda jointly with Lithuanian national Igor Udovickij, who supported the Lithuanian ruling party – the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union – during the last local elections.

And in a closed-door meeting on September 30, the Lithuanian government greenlighted Belaruskali's investment into Klaipėda port, which the opposition in the Lithuanian parliament claims will increase Balarus’ grip on the strategic enterprise.

They have asked the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defence to look into why the positive decision was made despite a negative recommendation from the parliamentary Coordinating Committee on National Security of Strategic Objects.

Lithuanian Transport and Communications Minister Jaroslavas Narkevičius, who was present in the meeting, declined to comment.

Belarusian investments in Lithuania may also hide Chinese interests, as “it would be in China’s interest for Belarus to get closer with the EU, which would provide [Beijing] an easier entrance to the European market,” according to a lecturer at Vilnius University, Vytis Jurkonis.

Lithuania is now the only country blocking Belarus’ talks with the EU on partnership priorities, objecting to the Astravyets nuclear plant under construction around 50 kilometers from Vilnius.

Europe’s nuclear front

As the day approaches when the nuclear plant becomes operational, Lithuanian politicians are divided on how to address the project it deems to be a major security hazard.

President Gitanas Nausėda and Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis agree that the nuclear facility 50 kilometer from Vilnius fails to meet international standards and poses a threat to Lithuania’s national security. Regardless, they say, a dialogue between neighbours is necessary.

Tomas Janeliūnas from Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science says that the dialogue cannot contradict the country’s interests: “I don’t think Nausėda and Linkevičius are trying to change our national interests regarding Belarus, but would like to change tactics on how to achieve them.”

Another political analyst, Marius Laurinavičius, says that the recent push by Nausėda and Linkevičius breaks from the “by-now traditional search for consensus in Lithuania for the main foreign politicy questions”. The reaction from the opposition is because “not enough effort was made [...] to clearly state where the red lines are”.

According to Andrei Dyńko, the chief editor at the opposition newspaper in Belarus, Nasha Niva, “[Lukashenko] tried to build an electricity connection to Ignalina [in Lithuania], so that Belarus could export electricity for hard currency.”

“[He] hoped that politicians in Lithuania would come and go [and] the position will change when a new government comes along.” That, it seems, failed to materialise.

The biggest opposition party in Lithuania, the conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, is pushing the government to maintain a hardline on Belarus.

“I oppose any dialogue if it threatens the country and its people,” said conservative MP Audronius Ažubalis, part of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas.

“For ten years, Lithuania had tried to open a dialogue with Belarus [but] they don't speak with us or they send us documents, such as environmental impact studies or stress tests, which are worthless.”