VILNIUS - Vilnius is full of speculation about the possible visit of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sept. 16, when an economic forum between Lithuania and Belarus will be held in the Lithuanian capital. It would be the first visit of the Belarusian strongman to Lithuania after a period of several years, when he was banned from entering the EU because of the authoritarian character of his regime.
"If such a request will be expressed, I'll meet him," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said about a possible meeting with Lukashenko, during a short briefing on Sept. 2.
It was a lot of semi-official diplomatic activity by the EU and the U.S., in the direction of Belarus via Lithuania, in August. Washington and Brussels realize that Lithuania could be a useful channel of communication with Lukashenko. In August, American Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, went to Minsk via Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas' villa near Vilnius, where Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius also joined for a barbeque party.
Later in August, Usackas went on a trip to Belarus. The official purpose of his trip was to visit Lithuanian ethnic regions and Lithuanian-speaking villagers in the countryside of Belarus, as well as sightseeing the castles and manors of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. He was accompanied by his Belarusian counterpart, Sergei Martynov, on this trip.
During the trip, the two foreign ministers announced that Lithuania and Belarus are ready to sign an agreement easing the visa regime for residents of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border zone. Everybody living within a radius of 50 kilometers from this border (city of Vilnius included) will be entitled to receive special cards which, for the period of some five years, would entitle them to long-term visas. It would mean that 850,000 Lithuanians and 650,000 Belarusians will be able to cross the Lithuanian-Belarusian border more frequently, though customs and passport control for them would not be lifted.
The EU allows such practices on its external borders. Lithuania has a 679-kilometer border with Belarus. Raimondas Kuodis, director of the economic department of Lithuania's Central Bank, described such a plan as an "economic diversion" against Lithuania because prices of many commodities in the Soviet-style, state-subsidized Belarusian market are lower. However, such speculation did not lower Usackas' enthusiasm. After his return to Lithuania, he started to speak about the possibility of a "strategic partnership" between Vilnius and Minsk.
On Sept. 3 and 4, Gunter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, was visiting Vilnius. After his meeting with Grybauskaite, he praised her wish to have more active relations with Western partners inside the EU, but he also urged Lithuania to continue its pro-active policy in the post-Soviet area, and to remain an EU expert on relations with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
"Lithuania can be a bridge between Belarus and the EU," Usackas said during a joint press conference with Verheugen in the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry on Sept. 3. Verheugen also urged not to forget democracy issues. "A lot should still be done in Belarus," he said.
After the Russian-Georgian war in August, 2008, the EU proposed a new Eastern Partnership program, which represents a step change in the EU's relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. This ambitious Partnership foresees a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement, including the prospect of a new generation of Association Agreements, far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU for citizens of those six post-Soviet countries as well as enhanced energy security arrangements, and increased financial assistance.