Diplomatic expulsions highlight uneasy relations

  • 2004-08-12
  • By Steven Paulikas
VILNIUS - Relations between Lithuania and Russia were shaken once again when the two countries engaged in a round of diplomatic expulsions in late July and early August, the second such incident this year.

News of Lithuania's decision to deport three employees of the Russian Embassy in Vilnius was kept quiet by the foreign ministries of both countries until the first week of August, when Russia took retaliatory measures.
The diplomatic tit-for-tat began when Lithuanian officials revoked the diplomatic accreditations of Russian defense attache Colonel Viktor Teleshev, deputy attache Colonel Valery Volkov and one other unnamed diplomat.
Within one week, reports were leaked that Russia had dismissed Colonel Sigitas Butkus, Lithuania's defense attache in Moscow who had filled the post for almost three years.
Butkus was given 24 hours to remove himself from Russian territory.
According to the Foreign Ministry, the Russian diplomats were expelled from Lithuania due to activities "incompatible with their diplomatic status," a phrase often used to imply espionage.
In late February, Lithuania became the first post-Soviet state to revoke the diplomatic status of Russian envoys when it threw out three embassy employees.
The Foreign Ministry took the action after the State Security Department reportedly concluded that the diplomats had been employing spying techniques to gather information on Lithuanian political and economic secrets.
The Russian diplomats were also accused of attempting to bribe a number of officials from a number of social organizations in return for sensitive data related to the Lithuanian government and the European Union.
Two weeks after the February expulsions, Russia withdrew its accreditation for three Lithuanian diplomats serving in similar posts at the Moscow Embassy.
Several officials, including Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis and presidential diplomatic adviser Edminas Bagdonas, expressed official regret over Russia's decision to oust Butkus, yet all three emphasized the government's intention to rout attempts by Russian diplomats to engage in actions "incompatible with their status."
In an interview with the Baltic News Service, Linkevicius hinted that Teleshev and Volkov could have been gathering secret information for GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.
In spite of the apparent exchange of ill will between Lithuania and its neighbor, both countries insist that diplomatic relations have remained stable throughout the ordeal.
"I wouldn't say that this is a symbol or sign of worsening relations," said Arunas Vinciunas, head of the Russia division at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry."It's unfortunate that these unpleasant events have happened, but our relations are still good."
In its official press release that addressed Butkus' expulsion, the Russian Foreign Ministry likewise expressed regret.
Nonetheless, there are signs that negative feelings between the two sides have yet to fade away.
On Aug. 10 the daily Lietuvos rytas reported that Foreign Ministry Secretary Albinas Januska and Raimondas Lopata, director of Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science, were denied on-the-spot visas to the Kaliningrad exclave. The two had been planning to examine Lithuania's method of issuing transit visas to Russian citizens traveling across Lithuanian territory.
While Lithuanian citizens are normally eligible to receive visas to Kaliningrad the day their application is submitted and Januska's application was supported by a diplomatic letter, the consular section of the Russian Embassy claimed it did not receive the applications in time to issue the visas.
"The visas were not given out on the same day. Our consular officers have explained the situation," said Mikhail Kalugin, the embassy's press attache.
Januska and Lopata were forced to cancel their trip when they did not receive their documents as expected.