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  Lithuanian-Belarusian relations: the choice between benefits and values

Vadim Volovoj, Doctor in Political Sciences
2013 05 20

Belarus has long time ago become one of the major Lithuanian policy priorities. The country is economically relevant and at the same time politically problematic partner. Importance of Belarus is determined by the dependence of the Klaipėda Seaport on Belarusian cargo transit; last year it accounted for 30,5 percent of the total cargo operations (handling). Yet, Alexander Lukashenko‘s regime which is still considered to be the last Europe‘s dictatorship hampers the improvement of the dialogue between the countries.   

Moreover, relations of Belarus and Lithuania are highly dependent on Moscow and Brussels. Russia is suspicious toward the EU Eastern Partnership Programme and keeps a close eye so as not to allow Minsk turn to the West. In its turn the EU is torn between the sanctions and pragmatism policy toward Minsk, and Lithuania cannot ignore the position of Brussels. On the other hand, Lithuania supports democratic changes in Belarus; Alexander Lukashenko is irritated and threatens to divert Belarusian goods to the ports of Russia or other Baltic States. Debates are still ongoing on the issue of possible construction of a nuclear power plant in Ostrovets.

In the above context the visit of Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich to Klaipėda has become a significant event. During the International Lithuanian-Belarusian Economic Forum several statements have attracted considerable attention.

Lithuania‘s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius said that he was assured by the Belarusian counterpart that Minsk has no plans to terminate services of the Klaipėda Seaport and is ready to improve cooperation with our country. He added that Belarusian manufacturer Belaruskali acquired 30 percent of shares in Lithuanian Company Bulk Cargoes Terminal (investment will amount to USD 30 million) and that Belarusian JSC Grodno Azot started negotiations with the Klaipėda Stevedoring Company Bega on acquisition of part of its shares. In their turn Lithuanian entrepreneurs are ready to invest in Belarus: the direct investment amounts to LTL 250 million and Lithuania‘s export to Belarus has also increased. 

It should be noted that the parties decided not to talk about politics during the Forum, but it was not possible to avoid it.    

Lithuania's Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius said he is expecting a thaw in the EU-Minsk relations. Lithuania‘s EU Presidency and invitation of Belarusian Prime Minister to participate in the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in November could also contribute to this. „During the presidency, the issue of improving EU-Belarusian relations might even be brought forward, but, naturally, Belarus has to complete those tasks named by the EU“, the Lithuanian Prime Minister said. 

Surely, Lukashenko wants to improve relations with the EU  - „persona non grata“ undermines his ambitions (backed by Moscow he is not afraid of the economic sanctions). But everything costs money: first of all Belarus must release political convicts and this was highlighted by Lithuania‘s Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius. On the other hand, both Minsk and Vilnius understand that Lithuania has no exceptional measures to influence Lukashenko. Entrepreneurs urging the Government not to aggravate relations with Belarus and Lithuania‘s resistance to the EU economic sanctions toward the country only confirm vulnerability of Lithuania‘s position.

Warmer relations could also help activate the dialogue concerning the Ostrovets NPP.  During the Forum Algirdas Butkevičius was told that Minsk is resolved to realise the Ostrovets project.  Moreover, Belarus had notified that it has worked out the answers pertaining to the environmental impact assessment (EIA)  and urged the minister of environment of both countries to discuss them. It is hardly convincing since all nuclear issues in Belarus are considered by Russia which does not care much about the position of Lithuania.

In summary it could be said that there is no simple answer concerning Lithuanian-Belarusian relations. For instance, when asked what is more important - human rights or cargoes- the minister Linas Linkevičius said that „everything matters. We are not going to put economic interests above human rights, but Klaipėda cargoes are also important for both, Lithuania and Belarus. Economic cooperation unites people, makes them talk more constructively and jointly think about the obstacles that restrict cooperation [...] Belarusians are partners, thus, Lithuania and the EU can and must talk to them“. 

In other words, the truth is somewhere in the middle although one side wants to be moral at the expense of the other, whereas the other side wants to sell democratic values in exchange for the increase of transit flows and favourable investment climate.

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