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2021.10.28 18:00

Small countries, like the Baltics, have little room for mistakes – interview

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2021.10.28 18:00

Small countries, like the Baltic states, cannot afford to open too many many diplomatic war fronts, says Estonian MP and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson, commenting on Lithuania’s recent confrontation with China.

Mihkelson has previously criticised Lithuania’s moves to deepen ties with Taiwan, which have antagonised Beijing, saying Vilnius does not seem to have a long-term strategy.

In an interview with LRT.lt, he discusses Baltic and European policy toward Russia, the migration crisis on Lithuania-Belarus border, and how to approach China’s growing power.

From Lithuania‘s point of view, Estonia seems to be pursuing a different foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia. Your former president has met with Vladimir Putin a few years back; amid discussions about the Sputnik V vaccine, Estonia did not rule out using it. Do you believe that a dialogue is possible with Russia and will Estonia continue to engage in these contacts?

Let me start from your first argument that Lithuania and Estonia have different foreign policies or attitudes towards Russia. I disagree. I guess both in Lithuania and in Estonia, there are different kinds of aspects of how to pronounce the main strategic interests towards Russia.

Some politicians can be more critical, some a little bit less. But the general line has always been the same. [...] When I meet my colleagues in Lithuania, I don’t see that we are speaking differently. Our language is the same – we understand that Russia has not made peace with its own history. They try to reestablish something from the past, the Russian Empire, or at least impose their influence on countries that once belonged to their empire, both Russian and Soviet.

Second, while Russia is becoming a more and more authoritarian state, today the line between democracies and autocracies is seen ever more vividly. [...] And it is getting more and more difficult to have a substantive meaningful dialogue [with Russia]. I think Estonia, also Lithuania, is one of the first in the line who would like to have normal, predictable, peaceful relations with Russia. Your border with Russia is a bit different than ours, but we’re both directly influenced by their foreign policy. [...]

But we have to be able to at least have diplomatic contacts, and we do have embassies in Moscow. There are a number of issues where neighbouring countries need to have a conversation. But to give any hope that, today, we make can make any meaningful change through these kinds of meetings is not realistic. We all know very well that it will take time and strong unity of European nations. Not only the Baltic states, who have to be united in defending our interests against Russia’s assertive foreign policy, but also together with our allies.

You have mentioned our president’s meeting [with Putin], but we can go back in history and recall Grybauskaitė’s meeting and our Latvian colleagues who have met the Russians at different times. And to look at the results – the results are unfortunate – that this kind of confrontation of authoritarianism and democratic world is growing. The dividing line, unfortunately, is getting deeper.

Do you feel that big EU countries have a similar understand of the situation? Do French, German propositions to have a dialogue with Russia mean they view things differently?

I am a historian and I can understand that our history with Russia is a bit different than the French history with Russia or the Portuguese history. But we see that somehow we have managed to establish a quite coherent and united [EU] foreign policy towards Russia.

A common foreign and security policy only started in the early 1990. So it’s quite difficult to imagine that all these countries with all those experiences and interests can put together some solid strategy.

Then the most important question is – what kind of agenda we can create for these talks. If we go – like Mr Borrell went in February – to Moscow with a very honest offer for Russia to create ground for more trustworthy relations, what do we see? Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – we were all telling Brussels, please, consider seriously, perhaps don’t go this time to Moscow, because we’re not ready for this kind of meeting.

Unfortunately, during the press conference, everybody witnessed what Russia can do and how far they are from being ready to talk on a par with EU. Just a few days ago as I saw Mr Ryabkov, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, saying that it’s going to take a long time to create some trust between the West and Russia.

We have to understand that, unfortunately, Russia is waging a hybrid war against us, has been for years. It includes direct conventional attacks against neighbouring countries: Georgia, Ukraine, others. But also in a hybrid sphere, influencing through malign operations our electoral processes. Last but not least, their special operatives are working on our territories to either kill their opposition leaders, or create a situation like we saw in 2014 in the Czech Republic.

Knowing all this and that Russia is, to some extent, the closest existential threat to NATO members, this conversation about contacts with Russia should start among allies. We need first to create this proactive agenda with Russia. And then see if there’s a will from Moscow’s side to generate a dialogue process.

Let’s talk about Belarus – how do you see Lithuania’s foreign policy toward Belarus? Do you think that Lithuania, together with Poland and Latvia, are stuck in relations with Belarus and nobody knows how to move?

This is a very complicated issue, but very much linked to what we talked about earlier – to Russian foreign policy. We cannot distinguish between Lukashenko’s action and what Russia is aiming for, both in its relations with Belarus or with us. Lukashenko is a ‘useful idiot’ for the Russian leadership to launch these hybrid attacks against its neighbours.

And I must very much argue that what Lithuania has done since August 2020, when Belarus had its presidential election, and the support it gave to Tsikhanovskaya’s team and others, who have found a safe haven in Vilnius and in Lithuania, is an enormous and extremely important job. [...]

Unfortunately, what has happened is a crackdown of every single cell of civil society within Belarus. Basically, Lukashenko’s current regime has created a concentration camp in one sovereign country. [...]

Your defence starts from Estonia, our defence starts from Lithuania, this is where we have to work together closely, both among Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, but also together with our allies in Europe.

We know perfectly well how this machinery works, people are used as hybrid tools against us and our societies, therefore we have to exert pressure through an additional round of sanctions against the regime on the EU level. But also work together with our allies in Western Europe to really keep their eyes open – why and what is happening on the border. It is not because Lithuanian, or Polish, or Latvian governments did something wrong. No, we all imposed sanctions on a regime that did not accept the people’s will to change the government. And we can’t step back.

Some Estonian NGOs have criticised conditions in the migrants camps in Lithuania, the country has been criticized for pushbacks, which Poland also does. We’re one of the countries now suggesting to revise the EU’s migration policy. So what’s your position both on the migrant situation and the revision of EU migration policy?

There are lessons to be learned for everyone. You are getting through this with much better handling of the whole situation. And every criticism is welcome in an open and democratic society. This is the normal way to handle this kind of situations. If there are mishandlings, this must be publicised and handled.

I don’t have these kind of reports right now to specifically go into it, but it’s a complicated situation and we have to understand that those who bring those migrants to Belarus and then push them across the border have as one of their aims to draw division lines within our open societies. We all know and remember from 2015 how sensitive the topic of immigration was for political environment in Europe. This is why whatever strategies and policies we put in place, we have to take into account that migration can be weaponised.

Lithuania is in a diplomatic spat with China. Do you see that Estonia might follow Lithuania’s lead and leave the 16+1 format, limit Chinese investments or do something of the sort?

The growth of China has been imminent for years. Ever since they declared the policy of openness, coming out from isolation in 1979, China has been on the path to become a major player in the world economy, politics, in terms of military might, innovation, don’t forget the recent debates about the 5G and Huawei’s capabilities to offer on-par solutions with Western companies.

But what is important to understand is that China will become and already has become part of every serious global political debate. Sometimes much more than Russia. And the focus of many of our friends and allies, first and foremost the US, is on China. […]

And knowing that China’s influence in world politics is growing, the major question is – how can we balance today and, most importantly, in the future, the assertiveness of China. The only answer here is – not each of us alone, but only together.

It is important that the EU stands together and works together on China. Before we talked about Russia, do we have a European-level Russian strategy. I argue that we don’t yet have a comprehensive long-term Russia strategy. And we unfortunately don’t have a China strategy. […]

This is why even before Lithuania made the public announcement to step out of this format 17+1, there were consultations among like-minded countries. And those consultations are going on right now as well – how to handle the growth of China’s influence and interests in Europe. [...]

The only way how we can manage it or get to the point of it – we have to coordinate our actions. This is the key word here – coordination. Every country has the sovereign right to make their own foreign policy decisions, but for us, small countries in a critical geostrategic location, we have to handle our wishes and wills very carefully. [...]

My personal view is that this format, 16+1, [...] has not brought the results that were promised ten years ago. [...] Most importantly, some tend to think that we can somehow contain China, using some old tools used against the Soviet Union or something. We are living in a different world, this is the 21st century, we are just minutes from major change in AI, quantum computing. In those sectors China is much far ahead than us here in Europe. [...]

In an interview for Estonian media, you criticised Lithuania’s China policy, saying that there is no clear plan. Have you heard anything about strategies from your Lithuanian counterparts – or has this diplomatic spat been caused in part by a lack of a broader coordination that you’ve just mentioned?

We, as the chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committees, expressed strong solidarity with Lithuania back in August. But again, its an ongoing process of coordination and, like I said in my previous interview, we, small countries, have to be very strategic and careful. We don’t have that much room for making mistakes or tactical errors. Because our security is always on the frontline, because we are bordering Russia. And this is why opening too many diplomatic war fronts [is a bad idea] – it is, of course, a sovereign choice, but can you handle everything at the same time?

I’m saying that we probably need, on a diplomatic level, a much more forward-looking coordination than we had so far. But again, I’m not arguing that countries can’t make their own political choices.

How in Estonia we work on foreign policy, we try to always build a strong consensus. In my committee, we work on all different topics and whichever parties are in the opposition or in the position, we try to debate through to the point that we have a strong common understanding of what we do and why we do it.

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