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BICYCLIST VS. WRESTLER: On March 26, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, fan of pedal-pushing, met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, fan of judo and sambo.
VILNIUS - Something is going on in Lithuanian-Russian relations. On March 26, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The meeting took place in Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogariovo, 20 kilometers from Moscow. Just a month-and-a-half ago, on Feb. 10, Putin met with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in Helsinki. Both meetings were organized on the initiative of Putin, who occupies a very special position in Russia’s political life and who can be back at the post of Russian president in 2012. Both meetings were dominated by energy sector issues.
The meeting with Grybauskaite was described by media as a historic one - it was the first meeting of a Lithuanian president with one of Russia’s leaders since 2001, when President Valdas Adamkus visited then President Putin in Moscow. Five years ago, the Russian embassy in Vilnius refused to issue a Russian visa for Kubilius, who was then an opposition MP and chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s Committee on European Affairs. Letters by Gediminas Kirkilas, previous Lithuanian prime minister in the then Social Democrat-led government, written to the Kremlin regarding the blocked oil supplies to Lithuania via the Druzhba pipeline, remained unanswered. The last meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries, was between Algirdas Brazauskas and Mikhail Kasyanov, and took place in 2003. Putin inherited Kasyanov from previous Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s team - now Kasyanov is in the radical democratic opposition to the Kremlin and he was not allowed to be a candidate in the last Russian presidential election.
Putin’s meeting with Kubilius largely mirrored the previous meeting with Grybauskaite: there were the same questions asked and the same answers given by both sides. “Our bilateral relations are not bad but they could certainly be better,” Putin said pointing to the level of bilateral trade. According to the Lithuanian statistics department, in January 2010, Russia was Lithuania’s most important trade partner outside the European Union: in exports (10.6 percent of Lithuania’s total exports) as well as in imports (38.3 percent of Lithuania’s total imports). The rest of Lithuania’s trade is mostly done inside the EU’s internal market.
Kubilius told his counterpart that Lithuania is heading towards energy independence. That could be one of the main reasons for Putin’s recent activity in the Lithuanian direction. On March 25 - 26, the European Council, during its meeting in Brussels, agreed to include the Baltic’s two major issues into the EU 2020 strategy, i.e the development of the Baltics’ energy and transport links with the rest of the EU.
Recently, the EU provided financing for the construction of an electricity supply link between Sweden and the Baltics, a cable link under the Baltic Sea, which would connect Sweden and Lithuania (and the rest of the Baltics via Lithuania), to be built in several years. A similar project, launching electricity supply lines between Lithuania and Poland, also started to move from the level of political talk to the level of meetings of specialists discussing practical implementation when the EU promises its co-financing for such a project.
Kubilius rejected Putin’s proposal to build, together with the Russians, a nuclear power plant in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and informed about the plans to build a new modern nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian town of Ignalina.
Putin told Kubilius about Russian oil companies’ negotiations over the purchase of the Lithuanian oil refinery in the northern Lithuanian town of Mazeikiai. After the meeting, Kubilius said that the refinery is owned by the Polish company Orlen and the Polish government denies the existence of such negotiation talks with the Russians.
Kubilius complained to Putin that Lithuania pays a higher price for Russian gas than the rest of the EU countries. Kubilius put it in a diplomatic way: Putin could talk to Gazprom, Russia’s gas giant, about price modernization responding to the developments in the global gas market when liquefied natural gas (LNG) became cheap and available. Kubilius said that the LNG storage will be built near Klaipeda with EU co-financing. The storage would be an alternative for the Russian gas supplies for Lithuania, and it would be in the interest of Moscow to lower the price to withstand its future competition with LNG supplies. Putin said that “the pipe is better than the storage.”
Kubilius also mentioned Lithuania’s demand to Russia to compensate for the USSR’s 46-year long occupation of Lithuania. The Lithuanians voted in favor of such demand in the referendum of June 14, 1992. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia announced that it is the successor of the rights and commitments of the USSR. During the Kubilius-Putin meeting both sides agreed to form the so-called confidence forum, where historians of both sides would try to find consensus on the issues of history. Russia already has similar forums with Poland and Czech Republic. Kubilius said that recent Moscow moves regarding the massacre of 1940 in the Katyn Forest, near the Russian town of Smolensk, could be a breakthrough in Russia’s official vision of history. Putin has invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. It is the first Russian ceremony to mark the murder, by Soviet secret police, of more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war in April, 1940. For half a century Moscow blamed the killings on the Nazis. Now Russia recognizes that those thousands of Polish army officers were killed by the Soviets during WWII.
Kubilius invited Putin to visit Vilnius on June 1 and 2, when the sitting of the Council of Baltic Sea States will be held in Vilnius. The Council of the Baltic Sea States is a political forum for regional inter-governmental cooperation. The members of the Council are Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden and a representative from the European Commission. Lithuania holds the presidency in 2010 for this organization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel already stated that she will arrive at the sitting of the Council in Vilnius on June 1 - 2.
Before TV reporters left the residence building, Putin said that he happened to be a champion of Lithuania in Soviet times. “I became the champion of Lithuania during Lithuania’s Open Championship in Sambo Wrestling,” Putin said. The sambo martial art was invented in the USSR in 1938. In response, Kubilius started to murmur that he is not sure about organizing some special sambo championship for Putin, but he would be happy to compete on a bicycle track if Putin comes to visit Lithuania in June. Putin said nothing to the proposition about bicycles. Kubilius is known as a fan of bicycling.
On March 27, the daily Lietuvos Rytas published an interview with Petras Jukonis, who is now a judo coach in the northern Lithuanian town of Birzai. In 1977, he defeated Putin in judo by throwing the future Russian president on the tatami mat during the Baltic Judo Championship in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). “As much as I know, he never competed in Lithuania. I am a master of sport, not only in judo but also in sambo. It is why I would know if he would ever take part in some competition in Lithuania. Maybe he could compete in Riga because sometimes the Russians are mixing up Vilnius with the capital city of Latvia,” Jukonis said.