Vygaudas Ušackas
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis' musings on the need to improve relations with Russia have surprised many. Does Lithuania really, as the PM says, have absolutely no interactions with the neighbouring country? Do relations between the two need to change in any way?

This was discussed on the LRT television show Dėmesio Centre with Vygaudas Ušackas, former EU ambassador to Russia, Gitanas Nausėda, advisor to the SEB bank president and political scientist, VU TSPMI deputy director Margarita Šešelgytė, LRT.lt writes.

While V. Ušackas has been criticised for his statements regarding relations with Russia, he has also been critical of the latest statements by the prime minister. He explains his proposals were not about improving relations, but the need for dialogue to accompany targeted sanctions and support for Ukraine, unlike S. Skvernelis' recent statements. "I criticised Mr. Skvernelis for him playing solo in questions where a choir is needed, if not at least a duet with the president. You cannot dabble in self-expression, it is inappropriate," he says.

M. Šešelgytė finds the prime minister's statements to be unexpected both due to their content and due to it being the prime minister who made them. She points out that the PM is not the chief foreign policy maker of the country, with the foreign minister and president curating the matter instead and that his statements are to an extent opposing to the foreign policy line that has been developed by Lithuania so far where Lithuania has stated to Russia that normal dialogue will only be possible when Russia withdraws its military from occupied areas, relations with Ukraine stabilise and international law is upheld. The political scientist expressed confusion at what the purpose behind the statements was because it neither improved bilateral relations, the overall context or relations with partners.

Instead she observes that this is likely more related to domestic politics. With the PM having held a number of high level meetings with, for example, Polish officials, M. Šešelgytė sees two interpretations – either attempting to show the prime minister also has capacities in foreign relations or otherwise it is an allusion to the nearing presidential elections, the creation of a perception of foreign policy experience. The expert also guesses that it could just be that such statements are simply an effort to divert attention from various other issues such as strikes, unfulfilled reforms and such.

G. Nausėda finds that business relations with Russia have been surprisingly intensive despite S. Skvernelis claiming that other states gain economic benefits from relations with Russia, while Lithuania has been missing out. "We are even seeing that Russia is gaining increasing weight in our foreign trade recently. Data for the first three quarters of last year shows that Russia is hands down the primary Lithuanian foreign trade partner. It comprises 14.4% of the country's trade. And while in 2016-2017 we thought that Russia may lose the first position, it is nevertheless increasing the lead on Poland and Latvia. It was mentioned that the neighbouring countries are intensifying economic relations with Russia. Take the Estonian analogous metric of 7.1% or the Latvian – 8.7%. Yes, we can say that trade relations are very important, but they do not span the entirety of economic relations. Despite sanctions and the political situation, Lithuanian businessmen have established strong links and I believe that the trend will remain in 2018 and 2019. If we really want to improve relations, but say that the Minsk agreements and such must be upheld, then the other side will likely be content with what we have and that is all. What can we achieve with this? We will only achieve that we will no longer appear to be the most consistent defenders of Ukrainian interests in the European Union and are gradually yielding to confusion. I'm not certain that is foreign policy we should pursue," the economist said.

V. Ušackas finds that the intergovernmental group which S. Skvernelis has been urging to renew is a relic of Soviet diplomacy and for one, not just the economic, but also the political climate has changed and businesses have adapted to the new conditions, while V. Putin has no reason to seek normalisation as of yet. On the other hand he notes that where S. Skvernelis made a mistake is that we should maintain united rhetoric, rather than just talking about relations with Russia. "We have to outline Lithuanian national interests and at what level we will express them. I do not believe that an intergovernmental commission is that level. Primarily it is the duty of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to strengthen links with allies, understand, conceptualise enemies and deescalate the situation. This is the goal of diplomacy. And the only time it can be done is when positions are coordinated, which unfortunately did not happen this time. And now we are washing, rinsing and drying our laundry in front of both friend and foe," the former EU ambassador said.

To this, M. Šešelgytė adds that, "Overall all foreign policy statements are usually intended for foreign audiences. Thus it has to be a united statement by the country because this is how signals are sent to partners and friends, as well as enemies." She points out that under the current unfavourable context of Russian propaganda, the disconnect between the prime minister and foreign minister's stances on the matter can be used against Lithuania. Before the country had a very consistent foreign policy line, but now a turn of events occurs which displays contention because the president and foreign minister are holding to the previous line, while the PM has begun speaking as if about a wholly new one.

G. Nausėda concurs, observing that Russia can primarily make use of the fragmenting position toward Russia, with the presidential and prime minister's positions diverging and this could be used as a public relations advantage by Russia. The economist states that there is no doubt that a part of the domestic audience does want and will always want to hear of improvements in relations with Russia, but overall the outcome has been more negative than positive after the whole public reaction. "This is because core issues were reminded which clearly show that the decision was, to put it lightly, untimely and misplaced," G. Nausėda states.

"I believe that it is most important to talk of lessons. Just imagine if it were possible and where it would have taken us if such public debates of differences were held during our accession to the EU and NATO? We would still be on the periphery and would likely be in a similar situation to Ukraine. Thus it is very important to learn lessons. The prime minister should go to the president, has to sit down with the minister and needs to talk. Our strength, the strength of Lithuania is in our unity. Lacking that we will have neither a victorious, nor winning Lithuania," V. Ušackas concludes.

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