In a sign of how high tensions are running ahead of the planned signing of EU agreements with several former Soviet states later this month, Lithuania's foreign minister threatened that his country could, if it wanted, retaliate against Moscow's ongoing strong-arm tactics by blockading the enclave of Kaliningrad.
The rash statement from Linas Linkevicius came late on October 1 at a press conference as he discussed Russian pressure designed to prevent the likes of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signing or initialling association and trade pacts with Brussels at the November summit. Trade barriers and threatened gas cut-offs have been implemented as Moscow pushes them to join its Customs Union instead.
As holder of the rotating EU presidency, Lithuania will host the EU meetings and has been highly vocal in supporting the signing of the agreements, and Vilnius has found itself the target of pressure from Moscow. Lithuania is also attempting to leverage several points - including its control of gas pipelines serving Kaliningrad - to push Gazprom for improved conditions on a new gas contract.
Asked whether Lithuania might retaliate for the huge lines of trucks held at Russian customs by increased checks through the last month or so, Linkevicius was quoted by Reuters as saying: "We could also apply the same measures... As you know, the Kaliningrad region is isolated, geographically isolated, so we could apply some measures also to cut something. We could cut off trains, but not only trains, also the supply of goods, whatever."
Perhaps sensing quite how far he had overstepped the mark - his boss Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius has insisted on "pragmatic" relations with Russia - Linkevicius sought to add that he was only talking of Lithuania's physical potential to strike back, rather than any plan under consideration. "It is theoretically possible," he noted. "It was not discussed, it's not our way of thinking, it's not our methods."
If there was any thinking behind his comments, it seems most likely that Linkevicius was seeking to flag up the gas issue. Vilnius is in the midst of forcing Gazprom to sell it control of Lithuania's pipelines, which is another major point of negotiation in the gas contract talks. Harshly criticized by some for his softened stance towards Moscow, Butkevicius boasted in early September that he was about to seal a significant discount in the talks, but was driven to talk of an "economic war" when he received the Russian gas giant's offer.
The PM said on October 2 that he expects to receive a new offer imminently, and reach an agreement by mid-October. Opposition MPs claimed to BNS the same day that Vilnius has already got Gazprom's reply to its latest demands.
Meanwhile, reports on October 1 suggested that Russia's month-long regime of increased customs checks on Lithuanian trucks, which has caused huge losses to the country's vital transport industry, had been relaxed. However, the next day, haulers reported that the checks look to have been reinstated.
"It's difficult to say anything about the situation," Mecislavas Atroskevicius, vice-president of national road carriers' association Linava told BNS. "There are unfavourable signs at the border. They did not check the whole day [on Tuesday, October 1] and then, as we were notified, they resumed checks at night." It is not clear if the foreign minister's outburst was an element in that confusion.
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