2020.12.18 17:00

Polish dilemma, Baltic unity, and China bullying: interview with Lithuania's new foreign minister

Vaidotas Beniušis, BNS2020.12.18 17:00

How will Lithuania balance between Brussels and Poland? What can Vilnius do for the Belarusian opposition, and why did the reference to Taiwan disappear from the government's programme? Vaidotas Beniušis from the Baltic News Service (BNS) presses Lithuania's new Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis on these and other issues.

What will you do differently from your predecessor Linas Linkevičius?

Lithuania's foreign policy is based on consensus, and no big leaps should be expected between elections. [...] The fundamental principles – the transatlantic partnership, good relations with neighbours that respect the rule of law – remain in place. So does our approach to the threats we continue to face – our neighbours to the east and [countries] further to the east.

The key difference is that we can name what we aim for in foreign policy. My understanding is that Lithuania's voice must be heard. In other words, possibilities for Lithuania's influence in foreign policy lie in proposing change, being heard and seeing that change happen. We need coalitions; we need friends; and perhaps we can look for friends where we have not before. We can expand the circle of friends and focus less on our relations with countries we see as threat.

A common question I get, [...] what is our relationship with Russia, will it change. [...] I don’t think we need to have an answer when nothing is changing [in Russia]. We can have a much stronger policy, for example, toward the future democratisation in Belarus, the revitalisation of the Eastern Partnership.

We can even turn a new policy page when it comes to East Asia, instead of trying to polish a very precise relationship with those countries that pose national security challenges.

Read more: After years of animosity, is Russia ready to talk with Lithuania?

Can you elaborate? You said that good relations with neighbours who respect the rule of law are important to you. Does Poland respect the rule of law?

I did not mean Poland when I spoke about the rule of law; I meant primarily the Belarusian regime. The EU is a union of democratic states. [...] And the border that lies to our east is very clear. Sometimes we wonder if there are similarities [between EU countries and their Eastern European neighbours] – perhaps Hungary whose decisions remind of a state that is not necessarily democratic.

However, we understand that the border to the east is a fairly marked cultural break. Lithuania is part of the union of democratic states and [...] contributes to making it stronger.

Still, I am going to ask you about Poland. The European Commission says the Polish government violates the independence of the judiciary, the media and non-governmental organisations. The Polish authorities categorically disagree with that. Which side do you think is right?

I wouldn't like to be an arbiter between the EU and Poland. As close friends of Poland, we are following the situation, sometimes with concern, and I am not saying that we should be happy with all the news from Warsaw.

But this does not change the fundamental principle that Poland is our closest friend. The strategic partnership that has been built over centuries cannot be scaled down in a year or even a decade. We are bound by more than just day-to-day politics; our historical relationship and spiritual ties are much deeper, they come from the depths of history.

Read more: Lithuania's new government in ‘dilemma’ over relations with Poland – analyst

That relationship is based on mutual responsibility for preserving, protecting and nurturing [those ties], but this does not mean that we should close our eyes to challenges that sometimes emerge in one or another country.

If you are faced with a choice between fostering European values and good relations with Poland when voting in the EU Council on sanctions, how will you vote – for, against or abstain?

Perhaps your question would sound sharper if the EU had not proven it can overcome challenges with compromise. A compromise that was found a few days ago helped both Brussels and Poland to come to the right agreement on the issue of the rule of law that worked for both sides.

Member-states will now have access to the Recovery Fund. It seems to me that we need to understand the fundamental principle, which is that the EU is an alliance based on compromise. Sometimes, [...] as in the case of Brexit or the Polish issue, discussions heat up [...] but then the morning comes and the institution that respects each of the parties involved in the discussion finds a compromise. Everyone emerges [from the talks] having lost a little, but more or less satisfied with the overall result. I count on that because I believe in an EU that is based on compromise.

You mentioned support for a democratic Belarus. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is calling for sanctions against Belaruskali, the Belarusian fertilizer company that is important for the port of Klaipėda. Do you intend to initiate the inclusion of Belaruskali in the European sanctions list?

The third package of sanctions is now being finalised; Lithuania has actively participated in the preparation of the list. I think we will not draw up this list unilaterally in the future, but we will take a really active part in seeking agreement in the EU [...].

(Note: the interview was conducted before the sanctions on Belarus were approved by Brussels on December 17 – LRT English).

There is some talk now about a fourth package of sanctions if the situation in Belarus does not change. At this stage, can I say anything about any specific company? It’s probably too early.

Read more: Can Lithuania become regional leader amid Belarus crisis?

What would determine your decision? What economic damage would be acceptable to Lithuania if it meant punishing the Alexander Lukashenko regime?

First, we must look at what effect we want to achieve. In my opinion, all the instruments that restrict the right of individuals to enter the EU must be used.

The European [sanctions] lists are now, to put it mildly, small; I think they could be expanded. The same holds true for the financial resources these individuals have in the EU and in Lithuania. We must not stop at introducing sanctions and leaving it to member states themselves to find out whether they hold these resources in their country.

I am urging our financial institutions – if they have not done so already – to simply check whether those on the sanctions lists have any financial resources in Lithuania. Likewise, Lithuania can turn to other member states with the same question, so that these sanctions do not remain on paper only [...], but become a functioning instrument that actually changes behaviour.

Have you already contacted other public authorities about freezing assets of blacklisted Belarusians?

This is one of the first things I am going to do. Since civil society is also engaged in this, several meetings have now been scheduled with representatives of the Belarusian opposition who are in Vilnius. We will ask them what they know [...]. I'm convinced that European sanctions are working effectively [...], but I'd like to know how they work and how this is done and by what institutions, because commercial banks that hold these resources must be involved, too.

To your knowledge, are there any Belarusian citizens whose assets and accounts have been frozen or seized in Lithuania due to the blacklisting?

I have not heard of such cases either in Lithuania or in the EU.

Will you yourself communicate with the foreign minister of Belarus?

At this stage, I don't see much need for that, but if urgent issues emerge, I think there is such a possibility.

Probably one of the urgent issues would be sending the Lithuanian ambassador back to Minsk. Isn't this a sufficient reason to try to resolve this issue at the ministerial level?

I'm not sure the ambassador should return to Minsk.

What is your position?

My position is that in a tense situation, the ambassador may stay in Vilnius for consultations, and the embassy may be headed by someone who has not presented their credentials to an illegitimate head of state, which is what Alexander Lukashenko is now.

The Lithuanian ambassador returned and the diplomatic staff at the embassy was reduced at Minsk's request. Is it now Lithuania's position that diplomatic representation can be maintained at a lower level than that of ambassadors?

Yes, in principle, I believe that it can remain below the level of the ambassador at this stage, and I see no reason for much change now.

Won't this frustrate Lithuania's efforts to follow the situation in Belarus and help Belarusian civil society there? The embassy is actively providing assistance, including logistical support.

I trust the staff of the embassy; ​​I trust the people in charge of the processes there now. I think their efforts are sufficient for now.

What will be your strategy regarding the Astravyets nuclear power plant?

The principled position we ran on in the election [...] is that there can be no commercial trade in Astravyets electricity. Our goal now is to ensure that the documents regulating trade and electricity supply are in line with this provision; in other words, that Lithuania's infrastructure, power lines and electricity storage facilities are not used to store commercial energy from Astravyets. An alternative methodology has been worked out for this; we will try to convince the other two Baltic states to accept our proposal.

Read more: Belarus nuclear plant – safety threat or Kremlin's tool to keep Baltics close?

What are the important points in the methodology that differ from the methodology agreed by Latvia, Estonia and former Energy Minister Žygimantas Vaičiūnas?

The key point is that Latvia, which gets electricity from Russia should be able to trade that electricity on its power exchange. That is [Latvia's] legitimate demand. However, the electricity that comes through Lithuania is, essentially, only that of Astravyets. The previous methodology made it possible to sell a considerable part of the electricity flow coming to Latvia through Lithuania. What we want is to restrict the trade on the exchange to volumes that come via channels other than through Lithuania.

Read more: Lithuania's feud with Baltic states over energy trade – explainer

Have you already presented this proposal to the Latvians?

I can't speak for the Energy Ministry. I haven’t had that opportunity yet.

In the coalition agreement, you committed to support those fighting for freedom, and I'll quote, “from Belarus to Taiwan”. Why is there no longer a reference to Taiwan in the government programme?

It’s a value-based position. We have agreed with the coalition partners that value-based issues important for the coalition partners will be decided in parliament, be it [same-sex] partnership, or some other issues. We have to bear in mind that parliamentary diplomacy might appear in a new light.

On the Taiwan issue?

On that issue as well, but speaking in general, on wider possibilities to defend values.

Still, the government has received Taiwan's proposal to open a representation, that would not be an embassy, similar to what they have in Riga. Based on unofficial information, China has warned the Lithuanian government this might lead to serious consequences. What would be your decision? Will Taiwan be able to open its representation in Lithuania?

I would definitely not rule out such a possibility for the fact that it’s a business representation. If I'm not mistaken, [...] Lithuania is one of two EU member states that do no have such representations.

I would be surprised by any retaliatory measures, they would bear an element of blackmail, which is not acceptable in bilateral relations. Especially since it's a well-established European diplomatic norm for boosting business relations between member states and Taiwan, by opening a representation.

I would say this issue might really be included into the government's agenda, if not at the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then at the initiative of the Ministry of Economy and Innovation. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be ready to assist, if such assistance were necessary.

Please, elaborate on your position on Lithuanian–Chinese relations.

China's power is growing both in the Asian region and across the world, and we need to look at how that power is used, what message it is bringing. Whether there is benefit from cooperation, mutually-beneficial friendships [...], or does it pose some sort of threat.

Our partners, especially the United States, have over the course of the last administration very clearly warned the world that [China's] growing power is a threat both in terms of national security and commercial leverage. We cannot ignore this. And in this interview you said that opening a business representation [of Taiwan] might lead to some sort of sanctions, and that means we have relations that might restrict space for Lithuania's diplomatic action, which is a non-friendly way of acting.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should set a clear goal over the coming four years, what I would call strategic diversification. We should remember 1999 when Lithuania was very much dependent on commercial ties with Russia. A crisis led to economic losses, but we learned the lesson and we had to diversify and we chose trade partners from the West. [...]

Therefore, we need to look for additional business and economic possibilities, new contacts in the Asian region. [...] We have our embassy in Japan, we have economic connections with countries in the region, but we could really bolster that. We could plan to open a diplomatic representation in South Korea. [...] We should strengthen our relations with Singapore as well, both administrative and business ties.

Chinese cargoes play some role, albeit small, in Lithuania's economy, and Lithuania has recently seen an increase in the volumes of Chinese shipments transported by rail. There are also investments into Lietuvos Paštas (Lithuanian Post) as a regional centre. Where is the red line in terms of Chinese investments in Lithuania?

When it comes to strategic investments, we have fairly effective instruments at both the government and parliament level. [...] We have a fairly well-operating assessment system on where our national security lines are. We control that.

Read more: Lithuania becomes China’s postal hub in Europe. Strings may come attached

Regarding investments outside our strategically crucial sectors, I don't see any major risk yet. [...] Still, if we do not set any strategic tasks for ourselves and just let everything go, naturally, an economy the size of China's would have a big interest and eventually come and assume positions leaving less of that space to others. [...] We just want Lithuania to attract investments from more than one country. That would ensure our national security.

Read more: ‘First ever’ Europe-bound postal train from China arrives in Lithuania

Can the port of Klaipėda have at least some Chinese investment? Or would that be a national security issue?

I believe it’s a security issue.

Read more: China's push for Lithuanian port poses risk to NATO