Saulius Skvernelis
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

The statement by Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis that there is a need to establish contacts with Russia turned heads – what has changed? After all quite recently he described Social Democrat chairman Gintautas Paluckas who spoke similarly as a "Kremlin loudspeaker".

Analysts and politicians are surprised by the PM's statement and are considering two possibilities: S. Skvernelis was unable to convey what he wanted to or he has started preparing for the presidential elections.

"We are a unique EU country in that we have absolutely no, let me stress – absolutely no contacts with that country while other countries, even neighbouring ones, are actively cooperating regarding economic questions," S. Skvernelis said in an interview at the LNK show Savaitės Panorama.

This statement has received reactions from politicians, political scientists and analysts because the PM's words are markedly different from the particularly strict line of D. Grybauskaitė in recent years.

"From the side it appears as if a test of a certain electoral message (it is after all a question regarding which the public sphere is very sensitive), however it could also be an accidental statement, such a possibility should not be dismissed," Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science lecturer Mažvydas Jastramskis says.

According to the political scientist it is early to say that the prime minister has made a mistake – it will depend on how this line will be developed further. According to M. Jastramskis, few voters care about foreign policy, but regarding Russia a part of the country's residents want more pragmatism.

"However S. Skvernelis or anyone else who develops this line can find it difficult due to the public sphere, more active part of the public's resistance," the political scientist said.

Unaware of geopolitical circumstance?

Analyst Rimvydas Valatka is considering two aspects. Firstly it could be that S. Skvernelis, lacking experience in foreign policy, was unable to convey exactly what he wanted.

"If S. Skvernelis had said "Yes, we have to interact with Russia, a big state and our neighbour, but primarily the embargo on Lithuanian produce is unresolved, aggression continues in Ukraine and so on and for things to be resolved, Lithuania is not enough, there is a need to Russia to want to interact", then it would all have been alright.

But the statement that was made can only lead to one conclusion – S. Skvernelis, realising that the right wing electorate will not be supportive of him, is seeking the support of those who are inclined very pro-Russian. Such a statement by the second official of the state raises real doubts if he realises the geopolitical situation at all," the analyst said.

However R. Valatka reminds that D. Grybauskaitė entered the presidential race prior to her first term with declarations of friendship with Russia, Belarus and stated that it is "enough associating with the poor" – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. The analyst points this was ideally fit for all sides since some in the right were very discontent with the policies of President Valdas Adamkus. During the presidential campaign the war in Georgia had just happened.

"If we say that S. Skvernelis is beginning presidential campaigning this way, there is no counter argument to this statement in principle," R. Valatka explains.

V. Ušackas: odd and unprofessional

S. Skvernelis has been met with criticism from former European Union ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Ušackas. He along with European Commissioner Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis have been criticised a number of times in Lithuania for their apparently lenient policy toward Russia.

For example several years ago V. Ušackas was criticised for playing basketball with the Russian president's chief of staff Sergey Ivanov a day after the bloody assault on Mariupol.

Meanwhile European Commissioner V. P. Andriukaitis raised tempers last December when he invited members of Seimas to visit a conference in Moscow at the behest of Russian politicians. He went on to call the MPs who did not go cowards.

"What do we look like in the eyes of our neighbours and foreign partners after S. Skvernelis' statement yesterday? At the very least odd and unprofessional.

The prime minister is as if expressing discontent with Lithuanian foreign policy and is sending a signal regarding the expected changes in the East front. However the two officials who have the constitutional right to form foreign policy are speaking very differently," V. Ušackas said on Facebook.

He explains that if the PM is actually interested in changes, the solution is not public statements, but coordinating positions with the foreign minister and president, followed by concrete actions. Otherwise, V. Ušackas says, Lithuania's positions are weakened – it becomes clear that we do not coordinate such sensitive questions internally.

G. Paluckas is surprised

Social Democrat Party chairman G. Paluckas has not forgotten how after statements about Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant several months ago, he was described by the PM as the "Kremlin's loudspeaker". At the time G. Paluckas spoke of the ineffective efforts by Lithuania to boycott electricity purchases from the upcoming Belarussian nuclear plant.

"In fact the prime minister should argument and expand his thought further or one would think he simply made a mistake in attempting to cardinally change our foreign policy direction," G. Paluckas believes.

According to the politician, in principle relations exist with Russia, diplomatic relations have not been cut off, economic processes are ongoing. At the same time intensive political contacts were and are consciously halted in pursuit of Lithuanian foreign policy goals – the geopolitical security of the state and in demonstrating solidarity, firmness of values in reflection of Russian actions toward its neighbours. This is a position consistently upheld by the Lithuanian president and foreign minister.

G. Paluckas asks the PM – what has changed that we must now suddenly make friends with Russia? "It does not happen this way because it raises great confusion in the public, various conspiracy theories arise, versions of who influences who, articles appear about borisovs and what have you. Strategic matters are not presented to the public this way," G. Paluckas explained.

At the same time he agrees that the cold relations with Russia are bringing no results – something must be done. He states he has raised the question in September during his statements about Astravyets when he was described the "Kremlin's loudspeaker".

G. Paluckas believes that S. Skvernelis statement may have certain calculations toward the presidential elections as well.

The cardinal change of D. Grybauskaitė's position

In recent years D. Grybauskaitė has been notable among EU heads of state for her acute rhetoric toward Russia. In 2014 she even called Russia a terrorist state enacting aggression against Ukraine.

In an exclusive interview to Delfi last year she stated that Lithuania is prepared to maintain equal relations with all neighbours, however from her very first meeting with V. Putin she was presented with demands of what Lithuania must do.

"From the very first meeting with Mr. Putin I received a list of demands of what Lithuania must do: not build a nuclear power plant, compulsory cooperation with them, this and that. It was not an offer of friendship or cooperation, it was either you kneel and obey or you are an enemy. I could not accept such relations," the head of state said.

D. Grybauskaitė met with the then Russian Prime Minister V. Putin just once – in Finland in 2010. The bilateral meeting was held then at the request of the Russian PM.

However in her campaigning for the first term she entered with completely different rhetoric.

At the time she was speaking against the Lithuanian move to block EU-Russian negotiations over strategic partnership. Back then D. Grybauskaitė spoke of constructive relations with Russia, was critical of pursuits of leadership in the East Europe region and instead attempted to establish friendly relations with the major European states – France and Germany, as well as the Northern countries.

May 11, 2009. "In every case when we attempt a demarche, we should at least consider what we are aiming for. If we are aiming to appear as major heroes in Vilnius, that's fine, but it isn't enough. When our delegation is asked in Brussels, why we are blocking the decision, they are answered that "We need it that way." So how can we talk with partners in Western Europe when they do not even understand the logic why we are blocking certain decisions," D. Grybauskaitė said when Lithuania blocked the EU-Russian negotiations over strategic partnership.

September 7, 2009. "I was fairly dissatisfied that over the past five years Lithuania was unable to find friends in the EU and was something of an outsider with its policy and strict conditions against Russia and other neighbours."

February 10, 2010. "I have long said that we need constructive high level dialogue with Russia. Of course our economic relations are very important to us."

February 18, 2010. "I believe that the Russian side is acting very correctly. They are offering to cooperate, offering to develop relations and discuss bilateral meetings, but are not placing us into a position where we would find it inconvenient to refuse," the head of state said when answering questions why Russia is inviting the Latvian president to commemorate May 9th, but not the Lithuanian president.

March 19, 2010. "Lithuania and I myself am trying to have constructive dialogue with all our neighbours including Russia. We are enacting an open policy based on our principles, but trusting one another and beneficially for all sides.

However already in October 2013, when asked whether she will attempt to contact Vladimir Putin over a food import restriction applied to Lithuania, D. Grybauskaitė stated that she is working with the West, while the cabinet – with the East: "Each of us have to do that which brings the best results. As such I believe that such a division of labour when I work with the West and the cabinet – with the East will likely bring the best results."

Explaining himself

Meanwhile S. Skvernelis himself released a statement on Facebook on Wednesday where he explained his earlier phrase.

"Lithuania is the only EU country which does not maintain any working level contacts at the political level with Russia. None.

Russia is a difficult neighbour. However for effective policy we need communication channels. There are essentially none now. We say that they should be created. Bilateral dialogue is needed. We should not fear to say the truth and say it outright. Courageous and open expression of position is our strength.

All other EU countries have communication channels with Russia. A rhetorical question: are the contacts of German, UK, French, Polish, Estonian and Latvian officials with Russian politicians interpreted as a sort of review of relations with Russia? No.

Direct and principled interaction is better than none at all. This is the position held by the NATO organisation while it strengthens the Eastern flank of the Alliance, at the same time it maintains communications channels with Russia," the prime minister explained.

S. Skvernelis: we are and will continue to express our principle stance without belittling the Russian state and its people

According to him, it is not a policy of silence that Russia understands best, but specific actions with which we strengthen the security of our state and ensure our citizen's will to defend if the need arises.

"Lithuania has not recognised and will not recognise the illegal occupation of Crimea. The Minsk agreements await implementation. We are not considering, nor are we talking about the review of sanctions to Russia. This is a joint EU position and until the justification remains for the sanctions, there can be no talk of softening or removing them. Respect for international law, territorial sovereignty and their sovereign right to choose where to accede, with who to interact are the cornerstones of our foreign policy. We stand and will continue to stand by them.

Openly and with dignity we are and will continue to express our principle stance without belittling the Russian state and its people. We are not Russophobes. Russians are traditionally a strong and essentially well integrated community in Lithuania, it has all civic and economic rights, opportunities for cultural, religious and language self-expression. We hope for the same respect for our state and our history from the Russian side.

And also regarding Ukraine. This country remains our most important partner. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be restored. The success of Ukraine is our success. The success of Ukraine could become an example for Russia. Lithuania supports and will continue to support, based on its abilities, our important strategic partner. One of the best examples of this is the cabinet ruling at the end of last year to donate weaponry and ammunition to Ukraine worth more than 2 million euro.

We support Ukraine in various international organisations, speak for the country's European prospects, provide support, including weaponry. The cabinet passed a ruling as such at the end of December. Lithuania initiated the so-called Marshall Plan for Ukraine, which seeks to encourage structural reforms in the country," S. Skvernelis explained.

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