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2020.10.01 08:00

Can Lithuania become regional leader amid Belarus crisis?

Monika Bičkauskaite2020.10.01 08:00

The crisis in Belarus has become a test case for Lithuania's role as a mediator and a regional leader, writes Monika Bičkauskaitė from the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.

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In 1989, two million people formed a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius to demand their independence. In 2020, the Baltic Way was recreated as the Freedom Way to express solidarity with the people of Belarus. The initiative was organised and led by Lithuania and its diaspora, which have a vivid memory of the hardships of an authoritarian regime. The country has become the most vocal and active defender of Belarusians’ rights and freedoms.

Read more: People in Lithuania form human chain from Vilnius to Belarusian border

Lithuania has denounced last month’s fraudulent presidential election and welcomed the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to reside in Vilnius. Its parliament was the first international body to officially recognise her as president-elect of Belarus.

Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius has been urging the EU to move faster in its support for Belarusians, including in their call for new elections and the release of political prisoners. Lithuania has also offered unrestricted entry to Belarusians for humanitarian purposes. Additionally, Vilnius University has promised free studies and scholarships to Belarusian students under a newly established Grand Duchy of Lithuania Scholarship Programme.

Read more: Lithuanian government to fund studies for 100 Belarusians

The reasons for Lithuania advocating for a free Belarus might be rooted deeper than its wish to become a regional player. According to the Belarusian Yearbook 2019 , 30.4 percent of Belarusians says that their country’s statehood originates from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the medieval state that Belarus was once part of.

Given that Lithuania supports such sentiment, its help could be perceived as almost paternalistic, rather than strategic. But, nonetheless, by showing its leadership and faith in freedom, it is paving its way toward a greater presence in European politics.

Lithuania has struggled to find its place in the European political landscape since independence. Due to its geopolitical position, it was long thought that the largest Baltic state could become a potent mediator, connecting Europe’s east to its center and west. The crisis in Belarus has become a test case for its role as a mediator and a regional leader.

Lithuania’s growing importance is further confirmed by the visit of France’s President Emmanuel Macron this week. In the first such visit in 19 years, the two countries [discussed] cooperation in defense, economic matters, and cyber space. Macron’s visit opens a window of opportunity for Lithuania to promote its foreign policy strategy.

A greater role in the EU?

Ever since independence, Lithuania has tried to detach the Baltic states from the Russia-controlled energy grid, which Moscow uses as a powerful source of international leverage. For the past few years, it has opposed the construction of the Astravyets nuclear power plant in Belarus, less than 50 kilometers away from Vilnius.

Yet, its objections were to no avail, either on the European level or on the Baltic level, with Latvia aiming to buy electricity from Astravyets. Now, as Linkevičius has said, Lithuania’s position and the political crisis in Belarus has convinced Latvia to support its neighbour in the nuclear dispute and to refuse energy trading with Belarus. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda tweeted – “The Baltic Way 2020: no Baltic country will buy unsafe electricity from the Astravyets NPP.”

This instance shows that Lithuania can galvanise solidarity and unity in the region. Assuming regional leadership is exactly the future role Lithuania should aim for in the EU. Conventionally, Poland is seen as the prime candidate to lead the EU’s Central and Eastern members, given its size and geopolitical position. However, with the current misalignment between Warsaw’s and Brussels’ values, it is unlikely for it to assume such a role.

Read more: Vilnius hosts international forum to discuss ‘democratic’ future of Belarus

Lithuania, on the other hand, is suited for it. A firm supporter of the EU, it has shown its ability to lead the region and create unity between its states. It is this type of unity that the EU needs, and that Lithuania can facilitate – be it by finding compromise between Poland and other EU members or by becoming a mediator between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries.

However, too often the perspectives of the Baltic region get overlooked in a greater EU agenda set by its dominant members. Thus, while Lithuania has been speaking up for Belarusians in the EU, countries like Germany and France have been more cautious about helping them, partly with relations with Russia in mind.

And yet, Lithuania’s stance toward Belarus is supported by another key player – the United States. Trying to better understand the situation in Minsk, Washington turned to Vilnius. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun visited the capital as part of his recent trip to Europe, which took in also Moscow and Kyiv. Biegun met with Linkevičius and Tikhanovskaya to discuss Belarus, and expressed Washington’s appreciation for the role that Lithuania has undertaken during the crisis.

Lithuanian elves in the EU’s cyber forest

To have more weight on the European political arena, however, Lithuania needs to develop a strong value proposition. Only by becoming a capable partner to other member states can it build up its credibility within the EU.

To do so, Lithuania can draw on its expertise in multiple policy areas that are pertinent to the EU. It excels in countering disinformation and cyberattacks, and it is developing its capacity in battling foreign interference. The country’s efforts are notable on the governmental and societal levels as its counter-disinformation campaign stretches into wider society with 'elves movement' – volunteers that combat Russian trolls.

Read more: Lithuania’s support for Belarusians prompt disinformation attacks, says ministry

By driving the fight against emerging threats, Lithuania can leverage its strengths to add powerful mechanisms to EU’s toolbox and hence assume a more important role. Lithuania can also punch above its weight when its diplomacy balances moral signaling with multilateral engagement to expand the number of avenues for influence, suggests Dominykas Milašius, a geopolitical risk consultant:

“Contributing expertise in emerging threats is one strategic niche. Lithuanian politicians and institutions can assume a more active role in policing disinformation and political micro-targeting, as well as drafting a playbook to counter foreign meddling. Prospective opportunities include engagement with Commission’s monitoring cooperation with social media platforms, the European Digital Media Observatory and a newly-formed special European Parliament committee on foreign interference.”

Leaving past trauma behind

Lithuania has taken an unexpected policy angle by trying to position itself as a post-traumatic state, well-suited to help others deal with their problematic past. In an unprecedented conference, held in Vilnius, on Dealing with the Trauma of an Undigested Past, experts and politicians urged the international community to provide traumatised societies with means to heal their wounds.

Lithuania’s state has acknowledged the effects of historic trauma on society, including mental-health problems, violence and soaring suicide rates. Importantly, it has emphasised the impact of historic trauma on its international relations – an aspect that has to be overcome for the country to become a future leader.

Read more: What is wrong with us? – opinion

Taking a step forward to recover from its past, Lithuania is moving into a new stage of its statehood. Once an occupied country, striving to replace the chains of oppression with the freedoms of democracy, today it can serve as a catalyst for change itself in other countries.

If Belarus is to move towards democracy, it is bound to turn to Lithuania for an example due to their historic ties, Lithuania’s support during the current crisis, and its ability to overcome problematic past of its own. In a way, Lithuania would even one day become a broker for closer Belarusian integration with the EU.

However, while the Belarus crisis shows Lithuania’s potential, the country should not limit itself to being a channel between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries. On the contrary, it should fist develop its own capabilities and become a valuable player in the EU, before assuming its role as a mediator and a regional leader.

Monika Bičkauskaitė is a programme assistant in the GMF's Warsaw office, where she coordinates numerous German Marshall Fund activities in Warsaw, the Baltic states, and the V4 countries. She writes on NATO, transatlantic relations, the Eastern Flank, and France. Before joining GMF, she gained experience at organisations such as the LA Area Chamber of Commerce and the OECD. She holds a master’s degree in international security from L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris), a BA in transatlantic relations from Sciences Po Paris Campus de Reims, and she has studied at the University of Southern California (USC) in the United States. A proud Lithuanian, Monika closely monitors issues related to the Baltic States and is part of civil initiatives such as those of Global Lithuanian Leaders.

This story was originally published by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.