How Belarus keeps Lithuania onside

How Belarus keeps Lithuania onside
By Linas Jegelevicius November 19, 2015

Lithuania never misses an opportunity to slam Russia, but very rarely – if ever – does it scold the authoritarian Belarus over the border. Moreover, after Belarus released six political prisoners ahead of the presidential election in October, Lithuania was quick to exhort the rest of the EU to lift the bloc’s sanctions on Belarus, which it did on October 29. Why? Trade and a misplaced idea that carrot with no stick will be enough to spur change, say critics.

Lithunia’s stance is all the more surprising given that Vilnius plays host to key segments of the hounded Belarusian opposition. Not that Lithuania’s Belarusian expat community is all anti-regime. In Vilnius, 490 out of the 653 (75%) Belarusian voters allowed to vote did so for incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 20 years now. This was not much more than the suspiciously high 83% that Lukashenko won in Belarus itself.

Arvydas Anusauskas, a Conservative MP in the Lithuanian parliament, says this is telling and alarming. “All those resources that we have invested in the Belarusian opposition and dissemination of European values through the European Humanities University seems not to have returned any dividends,” Anusauskas tells bne IntelliNews.

The primary mission of the European Humanities University (EHU), which once operated in Minsk but moved to Vilnius after the Belarusian authorities clamped down on the European spirit of the studies, is “to contribute to Belarus and its integration into the European and global community”. The ‘university in exile’ intends to return to Belarus when it is convinced that academic freedom and its independence can be assured, its website states.

But many local politicians and analysts point out that the stance of Lithuania’s political elite, which has traditionally done little to nudge Belarus towards making any political reforms, make that more likely to be later rather than sooner.

“Unlike with Russia, Lithuania has always tried to have exceptionally good relations with Belarus,” Kestutis Girnius, a US-born analyst, tells bne IntelliNews. “Although some Lithuanian politicians and political analysts call for a tougher stance, the Lithuanian establishment – from the first president, Algirdas Brazauskas, to the incumbent president, Dalia Grybauskaite – emphasizes the importance of the practicality of the relations.”

Vytautas Landsbergis, patriarch of Lithuanian Conservatives, remarks insightfully on the EU’s recent suspension of sanctions: “Both the EU and Vilnius wanted nothing from the Minsk authorities and were not demanding anything from it. They gave Minsk a candy and now we are all watching it sucking it. I don’t understand why Lithuania has not raised the issue of a nuclear power plant being built in Astrav”, which is located just 20 kilometres from the Lithuanian border.

MP Anusauskas agrees. “The lifting of sanctions is a two-way street, but Belarus has not committed to anything and the favourable decision was handed to them on a plate. Since it was a one-way thing, no changes will follow in Belarus.”

Most analysts agree that by suspending sanctions, both Brussels and Lithuania have sent a message of acceptance of the Belarusian regime, and by extension of the president. “Lukashenko’s opponents, who until now expected that the EU would keep pressing the authoritarian ruler, must be very disappointed, as now Lukashenko can proudly tell them: ‘Hey you, stop nagging. All is okay with democracy in Belarus, even in the eyes of the EU’,” says Vytautas Bruveris, a political analyst. “In short, we’ve bolstered the regime with this decision.”

Trading places

Lying at the heart of Lithuania’s stance is, of course, money. Trade between the two neighbours has risen three and a half times over the last ten years with Lithuanian exports soaring four times and Belarusian imports three times. The two countries’ trade volume reached an impressive €1.3bn last year. “Lithuania obediently accepted the EU motion because of economics. As its closest neighbour, Belarus is a very important trade partner,” points out Bruveris.

Naglis Puteikis, another Lithuanian MP, reveals the clout that Belarus has on policymakers’ decisions. “As a native of the seaport city of Klaipeda, where Belarusian cargo prevails and where Belarus has a big stake in several seaport-based marine companies, I would not perhaps dare even to scold Belarus publicly,” Puteikis tells bne IntelliNews. “As a politician, though, I feel we have to do a whole lot more to resist the regime. Now it’s all about the economics, not politics.”

Some also argue that the suspension of EU sanctions against Belarus could serve the cause of democracy and keep Belarus from turning away from Europe and toward Russia. “I think we can interpret [the sanctions suspension] another way,” says Girnius. “I’d see it as an incentive for Lukashenko not to fully link Belarus’ fate with Russia, but give it a chance to retain its ties with the West, or even expand them. The decision on its own already helps Lukashenko to resist Russia’s traction. Imagine if the European Union turned its back on Belarus; then Belarus would certainly be drifting towards Russia, which we do not want here.”

Indeed, as much as Lukashenko sometimes seems to be a close ally of Vladimir Putin, he has distanced himself from the Russian president on several critical issues, like the annexation of Crimea or the war in Ukraine, he notes. “Such a stance must vex Putin a lot… We cannot expect [Lukashenko] to turn into a Western-type politician all of a sudden,” Girnius says.

And ironically, the nastier and more malign Putin becomes, the brighter Lukashenko shines in comparison. “The more Putin is violent, the better it is for Lukashenko, who can burnish his image effectively doing nothing – just occasionally frowning at one or other of Putin’s actions,” the MP Anusauskas says.

Girnius believes that the next litmus paper for Lukashenko will be Belarus’ decision on whether to allow Russia to build a military base in Belarus. “Even if he gives in to Putin on this issue, it doesn’t mean that Belarus will be again shifting toward Russia. Lukashenko is a good player and he always thinks what is best for him first of all,” Girnius says.

However, Bruveris warns that lifting the sanctions on Belarus is doing Russia a favour. “Russia will try to use Belarus, its century-long ally, as a mediator in its relations with the West and for the ultimate goal of getting the EU sanctions [on Russia] lifted,” Bruveris says.