Laima Andrikiene: “Lithuania alone is unable to deal with the magnitude of the migrant crisis – the EU and the US need to step in“

  • 2021-10-08
  • Linas Jegelevicius

In an exclusive interview for The Baltic Times Magazine, Laima Liucija Andrikiene, a Lithuanian member of the Parliament and a signatory of Lithuania’s March 11 1990 Independence Restoration Act, spoke not only about a deluge of illegal migrants, which is believed to be supported and instigated by the authoritarian Belarusian regime, at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, Lithuania’s big headache throughout the summer, but also about some major international developments, like the pro-EU parliamentary elections in Moldova.

What is your take on the escalating migrant crisis on the Belarusian- Lithuanian border? What else do you believe needs to be done to stem it?

The problem of migration, which other EU Member States have faced for many years and on a much larger scale, but which we have neither understood nor sympathized with, is much more often ridiculed for its inability to handle, the EU borders are 'through' and the European Union's border is guarded by Turkey. This year, the same problem has become a painful reality for us: the number of illegal migrants in Lithuania has reached three thousand and is growing rapidly; It is forecast that in August, if the number of flights from Iraq to Minsk increases as promised, the number of migrants in Lithuania will grow even faster.

Lukashenko, who was not elected president, is fighting a hybrid war against Lithuania, and tensions are felt not only on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, but throughout our country. However, the main problem is the lack of non-consertine barbed wire, which has finally led to the recognition that our eastern border, and thus the EU's eastern border, is poorly protected. 679 kilometers - this is the length of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, it takes both time and money to manage it properly. It is necessary to assess that much bigger problems await us in the future and they are related to the international situation, the situation in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia. The international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan is coming to an end, the last U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of August, and then the country will remain in the arms of the Taliban. A completely realistic scenario is a million refugees seeking asylum in Europe. In Tunisia, it is as worrying as in Iraq, whose citizens are, at least for the time being, most numerous among illegal migrants crossing the Lithuanian border. Iraq’s democracy, built with the help of the United States, is very fragile and will also be attacked.

Thus, fences need to be erected, tent camps or other places adapted to the lives of migrants need to be set up, but in doing this we need to see much further and wider. Lithuania alone is unable to deal with problems of this magnitude, and European solidarity and the active participation of the United States are necessary to overcome them.

In July, you observed the elections to the Moldovan Parliament, which produced a pro-EU party winner. Are you excited about that? Yet what caveats do you have for the Moldovans favoring the EU path?

Yes, I visited Moldova in June and in July with missions of the European Council Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am Vice-President; in July specifically to observe the elections. The election results were not unexpected: in recent months public opinion polls had forecast a victory for the center-right. However, in politics uncertainty and the possibility of a surprise remain until the results are announced.

The Moldovan parliament that was elected in February 2019 was dissolved in May of this year, and premature parliamentary elections took place in the country on 11 July. It is important to mention that, last November, Maia Sandu, a representative of the center-right, was elected President of Moldova. For the first time a young, at first glance as fragile as a porcelain statuette, woman became president in this most impoverished European state. However, that impression is only at first glance: the results of the premature parliamentary elections demonstrated that Maia Sandu is a political heavyweight, a shrewd political leader. Half a year’s work in the presidential post, her priorities and efforts to lead the country out of a long-lasting political crisis, it appears, helped most Moldovans make their decision also when voting in the parliamentary elections: the “Party of Action and Solidarity” (PAS), founded by Maia Sandu a few years ago, achieved a convincing victory which was acknowledged without any protests even by its political opponents on the day after the elections. On Election Day, after the polls closed, President Maia Sandu wrote on Twitter: the rule of thieves has ended.

Moldovans elected 101 members of parliament, and these were historic elections: for the first time in 30 years since the USSR’s collapse and Moldova’s declaration of independence, the center-ight won so many votes in a parliamentary election: the “Party of Action and Solidarity” – 63 mandates! Meanwhile, the pro-Russian “Election Bloc of Communists and Socialists” got 32, Ilan Shor’s party – 6. Two former presidents of Moldova, the communist Vladimir Voronin and socialist (and former communist) Igor Dodon, headed the list of the “Election Bloc of Communists and Socialists” coalition, which gained more votes than PAS only in Gagauzia, also in those constituencies where citizens of Moldova from Transnistria voted, also in some northern municipalities.

The third party sharing out the mandates was the one whose leader Ilan Shor is implicated in the disappearance of a billion US dollars from the Bank of Moldova banks in 2014 – this businessman has an arrest warrant against him, he is in hiding abroad, nevertheless denies his guilt.

To conclude, the citizens sent the government a very clear message: we want stability and more Europe and gave Maia Sandu and the political force led by her (though on becoming President she ceased being party leader) a powerful vote of confidence: in their hands, the presidency, majority in parliament, the same political force’s government being formed, and the Constitutional Court. We can only wish them success to achieve that which was promised: overcome corruption, guarantee independence of the courts, enact a wide-range program of investment and reforms (in health, education systems, etc.), and, finally, get membership in the EU.

Are you worried that Russia could act with Moldova's Transnistria the way it acted with Ukraine following the 2015 revolution, occupying the Crimea and igniting military conflagrations in Eastern Ukraine?

Transnistria – one of those so-called frozen conflicts – is an example of a well-known tactics- when the Russians come as peace keepers, they forget to leave… The marionette government of Tiraspol is manipulated by the Kremlin, from there or through there comes smuggling of arms and people, corruption schemes, attempts to destabilize the situation in Moldova, and in Ukraine. The withdrawal of the Kremlin would also mean the end of the conflict, but V Putin continues to hold this lever of influence over Moldova. President Maia Sandu hopes that constructive and consistent action respectful of Russia will help to find a solution.

We have already witnessed many cases of Russia crossing ‘red lines’ in our neighborhood: Russian military aggression against sovereign Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, ongoing fighting in Donbass, Georgia and its torn-away South Ossetia and Abkhazia, expansionist policy in Belarus, Russian state terrorism acts in foreign countries – who can tell what else to expect from V Putin’s Russia, from the Kremlin in the near future? Can parliamentary elections in Russia change the situation in Russia for the better? Can Russia be on a democratic path? It is not worth expecting. Arrests, closures, intimidation, poisoning – all these tools and many more are used by the Kremlin to clear the political field in Russia before elections. On 26 July Russia’s state internet watchdog blocked 49 websites linked to the jailed Alexei Navalny, including his personal website.

Though, I had occasion to see another Russia – President Boris Jelcin’s Russia, with which 30 years ago, on 29 July 1991 we signed a Lithuania-Russia Treaty on fundamentals of interstate relations. I was a member of the Republic of Lithuania’s state delegation to negotiate this treaty, I took part in the negotiations, and the atmosphere of those negotiations has stayed in my memory: they were not easy negotiations, trust had to be created, but they were negotiations between two parties that respected each other and were seeking to reach a solution and agreement – and not a conflict. How much the Kremlin’s host lacks such an attitude today!

You're chairperson of the Group for Interparliamentary Relations with Western Balkan countries. How are North Macedonia and Albania doing in the pursuit? Is there anything you'd like to recommend to them?

Until 2020, the Western Balkans, the whole region, was a footnote in our country’s foreign policy. When, back in 2014, the EU named the Western Balkans among its enlargement priorities and support for the euro-integrationist goals of the region’s countries, the Baltic states, Lithuania among them, stressed the importance and priority of the Eastern Partner-ship, seeing countries in the Balkan region as competitors for the EU’s attention and support. That was not a farsighted policy, more likely the opposite, and had its consequences: we did not support our potential EU allies in respecting the Western Balkans, they supported us in respecting the Eastern Partnership policy, its importance.

It’s good that one learns from mistakes, although I still notice traces of the old view in the Lithuanian Seimas and in the European Parliament – a cauldron of nationalities, never a lack of tension there. But those who know the histories of the region and the wars in Europe will never overvalue the region’s strategic importance. We also all know that it is possible to prevent serious and extensive crises, but to do so, targeted and coordinated action is necessary in peace time. The countries of the Western Balkans: Croatia (the only full member of the EU), North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Kosovo, is that “bunch” of states with which we have dealings. Serbia and Montenegro are already in the process of negotiating EU membership, North Macedonia and Albania are striving to start negotiations (for which consensus of all EU Member States is essential). Four countries are in NATO: Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania.

The 2020 and 2021 elections in North Macedonia and Albania, respectively, were democratic, conforming to international standards – I personally observed both of them, while in particular, in North Macedonia I was leading the international observers, the OSCE/ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission. That was an examination that both countries successfully completed, no obstacles remained for starting negotiations. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is blocking the start of EU negotiations with North Macedonia by raising, to be honest, artificial claims. The problems raised by Bulgaria can be resolved by the two countries’ historians working together; to delay negotiations because of that is a mistake.

The mission of Lithuanian diplomacy, and that of our Seimas is, within their capabilities, to help overcome those obstacles, because stable and secure Western Balkans, more precisely a wave of EU expansion in the region, EU membership for Albania and North Macedonia, are in Lithuania’s interest. If because of shortsightedness, which may happen in politics, we fail to achieve this, we’ll have a Western Balkans where Russia, already seeking to exert its influence, will succeed, with all the resulting consequences. In addition, China, already very active in the region with its policy of economic expansion, will strengthen its influence.

Perhaps by 2027, when Lithuania chairs the EU Council, we, the EU, will have finished negotiations with these candidate countries and Albania and North Macedonia will become part of the new wave of EU expansion in the Western Balkans.

Croatia is undoubtedly the leader in the Western Balkan region, a member of NATO and the EU. This year is the 30th anniversary of Lithuania and Croatia recognizing each other’s independence and establishing diplomatic relations. An important goal of our cooperation is to help the other Western Balkan states achieve their aim of becoming EU members, seeking the consolidation of NATO and EU space in the region.

Speaking of Taiwan, when will the Taiwan representation in Vilnius be opened? And Lithuania's mission in Taipei? Are you part of the decision-making?

It is clear that I, as a member of the Lithuanian parliament and its Foreign Affairs Committee, participate in the decision-making process, I am a part of it. At the start of this Seimas term of office late last year, the Government having begun its work, in the first meetings of the Seimas Foreign Affairs Committee at which the strategic directions and priorities of Lithuanian foreign policy were discussed, we included the subject of Taiwan, the question of having a Lithuanian representation there: should we open one, and if so when; what will the nature of the representation be, what should it be called; what laws do we need to change urgently in order to realize that plan, in addition we also had to decide very practical questions: how many staff will work there, estimate the allocation of finances for its successful operation, etc.

Half a year on we can be pleased that the larger part of the task is accomplished and a Lithuanian Trade Mission will start operations in Taiwan this autumn. This was announced by the Lithuanian Government in March this year, noting that by this move we seek to expand Lithuanian Lithuania’s economic diplomacy in Asia.

Taiwan also made a decision which was announced on 20 July by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu: a Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania is to be opened. An important message is coded in the name of the office, at the same time signaling that this name is acceptable to both sides. The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed this step by Taiwan.

The Lithuanian parliament finds itself in a vortex of events: on 20 May Seimas passed the resolution “Regarding the massive, systematic and serious Chinese infringements of human rights and genocide of the Uigurs”, which was met with an angry attack from the CPR PRC Embassy in Vilnius. Whereas on 25 May, an international conference “EU-USA & China: Where We Stand”, initiated by yourself, was held in Seimas and online. What were its results?

Correct, in this context on my initiative the Seimas European Affairs Committee, of which I am Vice-Chairperson, organized an important international conference “EU-USA & China: Where We Stand”. It was welcomed by the Foreign Ministers of Lithuania and Taiwan, while members of Lithuania’s Seimas and the European Parliament (Chairman of the EP Foreign Affairs Committee David McAllister, representative of the Greens Group Reinhard Buetikofer - Germany), Deputy Ministers for of Foreign Affairs and Economics and Innovation Mantas Adomenas and Jovita Neliupsiene respectively (Lithuania), NATO Secretary General (2009-2014) and founder of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation Anders Fogh Rasmussen, representatives of the US State Department, members of the US Senate and the House of Representatives, leaders of the Lithuanian business associations, Lithuanian and foreign experts made presentations and joined in the discussions.

The conference attracted a lot of interest, and one should not be surprised why: since 2013, when the European Commission was given the mandate to negotiate an Investment agreement with China (CAI), China’s policy and China–EU relations have changed significantly. In particular, several years ago, the Lithuanian State Security Department identified China as a threat to the national security of Lithuania. Moreover, China is seen neither as a strategic partner nor an economic competitor by the European Union, but rather as a systematic challenger trying to impose an alternative world order.

It is for this reason that we wanted the conference: firstly, to discuss and evaluate, in the presence of US representatives, the ways and means to strengthen transatlantic cooperation with a view to countering the efforts of China and Russia to dominate the world and with the intention of preventing the destruction of the current world order on both sides of the Atlantic based on the values of liberal democracy; secondly, to discuss, building on the experience of the EU and its Member States, the scope and priorities of the representation offices, due to be launched in Vilnius and Taipei, with representatives of Taiwan, and the European Parliament, EU Member States, etc.

Lithuania has left China's 17+1 format, but other countries did not follow our suit. What do you make of it?

That is right, Lithuania officially left the 17+1 format, that format no longer exists; it is now 16+1. Lithuania left because this format did not deliver the expected benefit. To my knowledge, another country is about to leave, consequently there will not be a 16+1 either.

China is an important country and we, Lithuania, believe that a more productive format for cooperation would be 27+1, i.e. all – I stress: all! – EU Member States plus China. That would be an EU unifying format, not a dividing one, which is what 16+1 is. Only an all-EU format allows us to effectively defend our common interests, develop relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China, and at the same time protects our values and safeguards our strategic sectors from insecure investments – that, briefly, is the Lithuanian position today.

Don’t forget the context either: in May this year the European Parliament adopted a resolution that all debates and discussions about the ratification of the EU-China Investment Agreement reached late last year be frozen for an unlimited time, more precisely: until China withdraws its sanctions against EU corporate and individual persons, among whom are well known politicians and diplomats from various EU Member States, including my former colleagues in the European Parliament, and my current colleague in the Seimas Dovilė Sakaliene. The European Commission maintains the same policy regarding the freezing of the above-mentioned agreement’s ratification.

It is particularly important to underline the necessity to coordinate our actions with the USA – this applies to Lithuania and to the entire EU. The need for, and importance of, reviving and strengthening transatlantic EU-USA ties was also emphasized in the resolution of the European Parliament.

I should mention that in July our President Gitanas Nauseda, in his letters to Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and to Janez Jansa, Slovenian Prime Minister and incoming President of the EU Council, proposed and asked to consolidate EU positions regarding EU-China relations, noting that it is imperative to take joint actions at the highest level with this global partner.

A proactive Lithuanian policy for relations with China, that’s a really a new phenomenon in Lithuanian politics. It did not pass unnoticed: in some places it was met with admiration, Lithuania being set as an example to follow, elsewhere with surprise and displeasure.