Parliament points fingers at NATO and Russia

  • 2005-10-19
  • By Sven Becker
VILNIUS - Four weeks after the crash of the Russian Su-27 jet fighter in Lithuania's Sakiai district, the aftermath still ensnares the country's political scene.

Parliament passed a resolution on Oct. 13 urging Russia to demilitarize the Kaliningrad Oblast and asking the government to pressure NATO to make its air-policing mission in Lithuania permanent. The Foreign Ministry stated that it would seek compensation for damages caused by the incident.

Since March 2004, when Lithuania joined NATO, various member states have taken turns policing the Baltics' airspace. U.S. airmen, flying five F-16 fighters, are currently patrolling the skies. And although NATO extended the assignment for another year, it is still considered a temporary solution.

"I hope that Parliament's exhortation will not just be a mere declaration, but will be heard across the world," Parliamentary Speaker Arturas Paulauskas (above) told the National Radio on Oct. 14.

Apart from NATO's air-policing mission, authorities have taken further steps to ensure long-term security. After presenting their results, members of the interdepartmental commission that investigated the crash met with diplomats in Vilnius.

Lithuanian radar coverage, they said, did not work well enough, and the ground-staff were under-qualified. They also found that officers had been too slow in deciding to send German fighters to intercept the trespassing Russian aircraft.

Finally, Major General Vitalijus Vaiksnoras and Renatas Norkus, undersecretary of the Ministry of National Defense, who both attended the briefing, announced that a Single Command and Decision Center to control the airspace of all three Baltic states would have made a significant difference.

"It is obvious that authorities want to utilize the incident for their own purposes. Better ground staff and radar systems will not be possible without co-funding from NATO," said a European diplomat who participated in the briefings. "The Baltic states have discussed a Single Command and Decision Center for some time but could not agree on a location. The incident might hasten the decision making process."

The resolution also included a paragraph asking Russia to demilitarize the Kaliningrad oblast. Paulauskas argued that Lithuania must incessantly jawbone Russia on this issue. "This area has been a military bastion, but it is gradually becoming more and more a place for civil life. It provides more and more possibilities for business," he said. "So we may start talking about demilitarizing this area, [about] reducing the amount of weaponry there."

The parliamentary speaker added that this would not happen overnight.

"This resolution will not result in a withdrawal of all weapons and a liquidation of all military bases. To believe that would be naive. However, we may take the first steps in that direction," he said.

Chances that the resolution will affect Russia's future policies in the Kaliningrad region are rather small, said Algirdas Gricius, former MP and vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs.

"Moscow will use the oblast as a bargaining object. Whether Kaliningrad Oblast will stay a military outpost or become the so-called 'Russian Hong Kong' will be decided on a higher level, namely between Russia and Brussels," said Gricius.

Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis restated that the ministry would seek compensation for the downed jet. "They (Russia) pledge to pay all the damages. We are waiting for the amount of a civil claim calculated by our prosecutors. After that, today or tomorrow, depending on when the calculations are received, we will send a note on the real damage done and will ask Russia to pay the damages," Valionis said in an interview to national radio Oct. 18.

"We have no reason to doubt our partners' pledges to pay all the damages," he added.

The damages could amount to some 100,000 litas (29,000 euros).

He also touched upon the militarization of Kaliningrad. "The scheme of flights has to be changed. Russian ministers partly agree that heavily armed (planes) currently fly over neutral waters," the minister said.

Meanwhile, France has announced it would dispatch a contingent of its aviators to Lithuania to take part in the regional air policing mission in 2007.

"The French Armed Forces commander [General Henri Bentegeat] assured that his country understands our position that equal standards should apply to protecting the airspace of every NATO country and therefore is going to send its pilots and airplanes to Lithuania for a mission that is to commence in April 2007," Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas told the Baltic News Service on Oct. 18.

Bentegeat was in Vilnius this week.