Opinion: Lithuania's hypocritical response to refugee crisis

Lithuania's foreign policy is not without some ambivalence. Vilnius aspires to be a regional leader and set an example to other small countries, Lithuania demands to be treated as a respected full-fledged member of the European Union, NATO and the international community. Its own actions, however, do not always live up to the standard.
Opinion: Lithuania's hypocritical response to refugee crisis
© AFP/Scanpix

If claims of regional leadership reek of self-delusion, Vilnius has had considerable success in taking up a role of consequence in the international arena and important organizations. In 2011, Lithuania presided over the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in 2013 it chaired the EU Council and in 2014 it took up a two-year seat at the United Nations Security Council. Lithuania proved capable of securing support from other countries.

By all accounts, Lithuania did a good job chairing EU Council meetings. Lithuania's Ambassador the the UN, Raimonda Murmokaitė, gives even Samantha Power of the US a run for her money, even though the American ambassador is known for her strong statements. This week, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius is chairing two Security Council debates in New York, one on security for reporters and the other on terrorist fighters.

But there's also the other side of the coin. Sometimes Lithuania behaves like a wretched loser unable to live up to its commitments and looking to other countries for sponsorship. An apt case in point is our decade-old refusal to properly fund our national defence all the while insisting that we are a front-line nation.

Most shameful of all has been Lithuania's response to the refugee crisis that mostly affects the EU's southern countries. In April, President Dalia Grybauskaitė declared that by sending one helicopter with a crew of ten to the Mediterranean for two months Lithuania was actively contributing to the rescue operation "according to its means". She said that, for Lithuania, it was a significant contribution. One helicopter! Obviously, the president has a rather sombre view on Lithuania's capacities. The helicopter will not be involved in rescue work per se, it will merely look over the borders. Lithuania will only pay the VAT, about 51,000 euros, the rest will be covered by "Frontex".

Even more puzzling was a remark from Interior Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who said that Lithuania could consider accepting up to 10 refugees, but not just any refugees, only those who "match our cultural characteristics, say, are Christians." Ten people! If other countries held themselves to the same standards as Lithuania, the entire EU would hardly accept more than 2,000 or 3,000 migrants. But there are hundreds of thousands of refugees out there and their ranks are swelling by hundreds, if not thousands, every day.

Kęstutis Girnius
Kęstutis Girnius
© DELFI (T.Vinicko nuotr.)

This week, as Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linkevičius is addressing the UN Security Council, the Migrant Integration Policy Index found that Lithuania lagging in the 34th spot among 38 nations in terms of how adequately it integrates migrants. More importantly, the European Commission announced a proposal on Wednesday, suggesting to relocate 207 refugees to Lithuania and have the country process 503 asylum applications (1.23 percent of the EU total) over two years.

Within hours after the EC's announcement, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius and Interior Minister Skvernelis commented that Lithuania was not ready to accept that many migrants and that "mobilizing all our resources, we could consider a group of 40-50 people". The president followed suit and declared that Lithuania did not agree with mandatory refugee relocation scheme. Surprising expeditiousness. And a true spirit of Christian charity.

Lithuania is not the only country to react thus. Britain, Ireland and Denmark have an option to opt out of the scheme. Poland, too, has expressed negative views and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the quota proposal "madness". Indifference of others, however, does not excuse Lithuania's. I am not a fan of the EC's orders from above either. Voluntary contribution would be a much better option, but what shall we do when there are no volunteers? I am also aware that parties and politicians who might support accepting more refugees would take a serious hit in their ratings. But it's also true that people who aspire to lead a nation must be able to actually lead and set an example for others, not merely follow the prevailing public moods. But I am a realist and do not expect genuine leadership from the current political elite.

As they say, we have what we have. Prevailing attitudes will not change any time soon. However, we should take an honest look at ourselves, our actions and avoid hypocrisy. We might have different views on the refugee crisis, but the refusal to accept more people shows our failure to act in solidarity with Italy, Greece and other EU countries that struggle with the wave of refugees. We simply turn away from them, saying that their problems are not our problems. But in that case, what right do we have to complain if other EU countries care less about Ukraine, if they are reluctant to finance this corruption-ridden country and if some NATO partners are sceptical about our pleas to deploy permanent forces in the Baltics?

This is exactly the indifference with which we treat their problems. President Grybauskaitė took pride in being the only EU leader to abstain in the vote on Italy's Federica Mogherini appointment as the high representative for foreign affairs. Grybauskaitė thought that Mogherini's position on Russia was too soft. I believe that Italy will repay the debt.

Lithuania will accept as few refugees as it can, despite never missing an opportunity to preach about the importance of values. Such is life. But Lithuania should at least financially support the countries that carry the burden Lithuania itself refuses to shoulder. Meanwhile the president and the prime minister should think what kind of a country they are building - a leader or a wretched loser.


Kęstutis Girnius is political scientist and he teaches at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

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