Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius is among the most popular politicians in the country, but says he will take part in next year's general election as a voter only. In an exclusive interview with LRT.lt, Linkevičius talks Belarus, working with President Nausėda, and Lithuania's place in the world.
Was 2019 a good year for Lithuanian diplomacy? What were the main successes and failures?
Lithuania's situation in Europe and the world is not at all bad.
When it comes to security, our joint effort – diplomatic, political and otherwise – has helped secure more focus on the security of our region from our allies. And that's a real situation, not slogans. Next year, we're holding probably the biggest war games in Europe's history [Defender 2020].
We have over 1,000 troops of Enhanced Forward Presence [in Lithuania] thanks to NATO decisions and Germany is the main country. We've already gotten used to that, but there will also be some 500 US troops, with tanks and armoured vehicles, until spring for organising the drill. That hasn't happened before. [...]
Next year, we're hosting a very important Ukraine reform conference that we had to fight for, to convince our partners that we can and should do it. [...]
When it comes to our close neighbour, geographically if not politically, Russia, we are among the few who underscore the importance of approaching the dialogue with Russia comprehensively, including the civil society. Few European countries can boast such regular, consistent, intense and truly excellent contacts with Russia's civil society. [...]
Finally, we are very proud to have revived, in cooperation with NGOs, the Sakharov human rights hearings that will take place next May after a 35-year break.
Gitanas Nausėda was elected president this year. Have there been any changes in Lithuania's foreign policy, any reshuffling of priorities?
Lithuania's [foreign] policy has always been predictable and consistent – and there haven't been any essential changes in how we see our situation and threats or in our choice of partners. There's clear continuity, but if one can see a change in nuance, that's only natural, every person has their style.
One of the more significant changes in Lithuania's foreign policy is starting a dialogue with Belarus, the meeting you had with your counterpart Vladimir Makei at the UN. Who initiated the meeting and can we expect warmer relations with Belarus, perhaps even leadership visits?
There's a difference between warm relations and pragmatic or practical ones – warm relations are between allies, like-minded countries with which we partake in organisations like NATO and the EU. That is unfortunately impossible [with Belarus], because there are many differences in our approaches, in geopolitics, etc. So what we have is not warm relations, but pragmatic and practical ones.
The significance of the meeting [with Makei] was overstated, it wasn't my first, second or third. I meet my counterpart quite often, particularly in New York.
[The dialogue with Belarus] is one of the tactical changes in the president's approach which, I think, is justified. We can achieve more in all areas by speaking with this country: moderating threats stemming from our biggest sore point, the Astravyets nuclear plant, which is already standing at our side despite all the protests and emotional statements.
It has been in construction for ten years, in fact, and we must see that as a reality. Not accept it, let me note, because accepting would mean agreeing with what happened. The president himself has emphasised many times that we do not agree and we will do all we can to make sure that the plant wasn't there anymore. But at the same time, we'll work to minimise the potential harm if it does come online.
We must see the geopolitical context, too, the pressure that this country feels from its eastern neighbour [Russia], the process of integration it has been subjected to for two decades. In this respect, we have common interests, we want to see the country remain independent and sovereign as much as possible, that is part of our national interest, too.
On the issue of the Astravyets nuclear power plant, Lithuania is struggling to convince its allies not to buy nuclear electricity from Belarus. Is that a failure of Lithuania's diplomacy?
We shouldn't put all the blame on diplomats. It's always easy to do it – say that successes are everyone's, but failures are only the diplomats' doing.
No, it is our collective concern and headache. In fact, I wouldn't agree that it's such a failure. The Poles have stated clearly they won't buy the electricity to the extent that they can. We, too, have passed laws about it and are not changing course.
We are working closely with EU institutions and we want to develop an approach that would be comprehensible to our allies. Let me emphasise: if it is too radical, practically unenforceable, we will not find support among our allies. And we want to involve them as much as possible. To make it truly and not just rhetorically an EU concern: about safety, application of standards, sticking to the law. This is what we are aiming for and I don't think that we're doing so bad.
What results it will bring – that's another issue. We're trying, though it's not easy. The facility is being built in another country, one that is not subject to Lithuanian laws and, to be honest, one that applies any other laws and international rules quite selectively.
Meanwhile relations with Poland seem warm enough. How much is it down to good personal ties between the leaders and will they not be burdened again by old problems, like the name spelling issue?
These problems haven't gone away. Whether they'll come to the fore again is difficult to say, but unless we do something, they will linger. At the moment, our relations [with Poland] are as good as ever. A significant example was the funeral of [the 1863 January Uprising leaders] Sierakauskas and Kalinauskas that we organised together with Poland. We had three Polish government planes in Vilnius Airport, the Guard of Honour Company, etc. It had never happened before.
We can and must use the moment. When relations are that good, we can tackle other problems, too, ones that are old and difficult to move.
That, I think, is up to both sides. When it comes to the situation with ethnic minorities, we consistently bear in mind that there is a Lithuanian community in Poland too – in Sejny, Punsk – albeit not as big, and they also face problems in the areas of culture, education.
After the summit in December, NATO released a declaration identifying Russia as a threat for the first time, something that Lithuania contributed to. On the other hand, we've had a first Lithuanian-Russian spy swap this year. Meanwhile, leaders of some NATO countries spoke before the summit about the need for closer relations with Russia.
Warmer relations are always touted as an aspiration. And it's hard to argue otherwise, everyone wants better relations [with Russia], but that needs to have a price and preconditions. The other side must also show real signs, and not just say, that it is willing to improve the relations.
If policies in Crimea, Donbass continue, improving the relations will be difficult. This is why the NATO declaration – which is short, but every word has been thoroughly discussed – is the opinion of the entire Alliance. And it's of great value that Lithuania's opinion was well considered.
The declaration also names China and its growing power. China has been more visible in Lithuania as well this year, we had an incident in autumn over which the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry even presented a note to the Chinese ambassador [The Embassy was reportedly involved in a counter-protest during a Hong Kong support rally]. What are the Chinese-Lithuanian relations like?
We have recently started discussing the issue [of China's power] intensely in all organisations, which we hadn't been doing before. And that wasn't normal, since that country has great ambition and a huge potential across the globe: in economy, security, smart technologies, etc. Which is why we're paying attention.
For Lithuania, China is not the main trading partner, not even among Asian countries. But it doesn't mean we should ignore this issue.
We have a pragmatic, balanced relation [with China]. It is respectful, but we remind that there are rules and laws that must be respected, even by a country as big as China. There have been all kinds of things lately and we presented the note when the line was crossed for how diplomats should behave in our public space. And we'll do that again in the future, if need be.
When it comes to economy, we cooperate in trade and agriculture. But concerning strategic objects, we have a law putting certain restrictions, you cannot just freely come with investment into infrastructure, transport, ports. Our partners and the Chinese know it well.
As you've said, NATO is holding its biggest war games in the region next year, headed by the US. How are Lithuania's relations with the US developing, are there any challenges there?
We must first look at ourselves. We used to think – but perhaps no longer do – that someone owes us something, that they must come and defend us.
Defence is like the foundation or the roof of a building. You can do what you like inside, but if the building collapses, that will be meaningless. We must take defence and security very seriously. Which we do, all political parties agree.
We are now on the right side. If the leader of the world's biggest economy and military power, President Trump – whom some may criticise, some may like – invites nine presidents for lunch to talk about security – not 29, only nine, and we are among them – that is a good thing. We must stay in that club and continue what we have committed to do. Then others will contribute to what we need.
I'd prefer that issues like defence, security, foreign policy weren't part of election campaigns. That politicians didn't sacrifice the state's strategic goals for short-term popularity. That has never been the case, we've traditionally avoided it. Continuity and predictability has always been a feature of our policy. I wish it stayed that way.
We're heading for an election year in 2020 and polls put you among the most popular politicians in the country. What are your plans?
My plans are to continue with what we're doing. We've got things to do, ambitious plans, events. [...] All else is secondary.
Will you take part in the election?
As a voter, yes. In any other capacity, I cannot say.