The travels of Westerwelle

  • 2010-11-10
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis (right) with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

VILNIUS - On Nov. 2, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived in Vilnius to talk about EU and NATO issues. About the latter he talked a day earlier with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. Westerwelle also consulted in Vilnius about the situation in Belarus - he was leaving for that country on the same day. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis visited Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the opposition leaders in Minsk on Oct. 20, bringing the EU message: the presidential elections in Belarus on Dec. 19 should be free and fair.

“It is the interest of the Belarusian government to act as transparently as possible – then progress would be possible,” Azubalis said in the joint press conference with Westerwelle in the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.
On the same day, Westerwelle and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski visited Minsk, promising to Lukashenko 3 billion euros in three years via the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, in exchange for free and fair presidential elections on Dec. 19.

Sikorski did not come to Vilnius to consult before visiting Minsk. He said that he will not come to Vilnius until Polish letters, such as ‘l’ with a diagonal and similar Polish letters will be allowed in Lithuanian passports of Polish-speaking people. Poland has no such demands regarding the Polish minority in Latvia or Belarus (1 million Polish-origin people live there) or Ukraine (400,000 Polish-origin people live there).

The rural areas of the Vilnius region, which historically also included vast territories of present day Belarus, were dominated by Lithuanian-speakers until the beginning of the 19th century but later, partly due to the ban of the Lithuanian language by czarist Russia, the locals turned to Slavic languages. A big part of them, after the 17-year long Polish rule in Vilnius in the beginning of the 20th century, started to consider themselves Poles.

The Lithuanian Constitutional Court, despite the wishes of the highest Lithuanian political elite, stated that l with a diagonal and other letters, which do not exist in the Lithuanian alphabet, can only be written on the second page of a passport, not on the main page. This issue could be of some importance only to several hundred Lithuanian citizens but Warsaw makes big politics out of it. The reason for this could be the change of Warsaw’s policy towards Russia – it means that nationalistic feelings in Poland should be channeled by politicians in some other way, and small Lithuania can be suitable for such purpose.

Another reason for the hysterics in Warsaw is the Polish PKN Orlen-owned oil refinery in the town of Mazeikiai. The Lithuanian state- owned Klaipedos Nafta oil terminal is a strategic asset for Lithuania’s security interests, while PKN Orlen was wishing to buy the terminal, but got a refusal from the Lithuanian government. The latter has suspicions that PKN Orlen wants to buy Klaipedos Nafta only because Orlen wants to sell (maybe to the Russians) the Mazeikiai refinery and Klaipedos Nafta as a package.

While Lithuania had perfect relations with former Polish presidents, leftist Aleksander Kwasniewski (the only Polish president who could speak English) and rightist Lech Kaczynski, the situation with a weak President Bronislaw Komorowski is different. Now Sikorski, who is quite a chauvinist and who is considered a pro-Russian and pro-German politician by the main opposition Polish political party named PiS, is the main player in Polish foreign policy.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of PiS, states that Sikorski and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk degraded Poland to the status of a “German-Russian condominium.” Indeed, Sikorski’s current deal with Russian Gazprom, strengthening the position of the latter in Poland, raised eyebrows even to members of the European Commission. Despite constant talks about the Polish-Lithuanian strategic partnership, Poland showed no interest in the strategic road, rail and electricity connections with Lithuania. This is why Lithuanian President Grybauskaite chose to break with tradition and went on her first visit to Stockholm and Riga, not Warsaw, showing that she gives priority for relations with Scandinavia and the Baltics. The other main priority for Grybauskaite is in EU affairs. She is rumored to be a candidate for the highest EU posts in the future.

Visiting Minsk, Sikorski and Westerwelle promised legalization of Lukashenko’s rule in case he is smart enough to organize something that would look like a free election, which he is expected to win anyway. The opposition in Belarus is weak, unpopular and deeply concerned about language and history issues (history and linguistics for them are not just sciences, but rather tools for ideology). Some danger for Lukashenko’s popularity is made by the Kremlin’s propaganda attacks. The major industries in Belarus are still not privatized and are interesting for Kremlin-related businesses as well as for German and other EU states’ businesses. For Lithuania, Belarus is also an area for a future labor force because some 500,000 Lithuanians have left to other EU countries. The high emigration level even caused the decision of the Lithuanian parliament of Nov. 4, to allow dual citizenship for those Lithuanian emigrants to EU and NATO countries (the decision should still be signed by Grybauskaite and confirmed by the Constitutional Court). A worker living on the Belarusian side of the border and working in Vilnius could soon be a dream for Lithuanian businessmen.

Westerwelle also tried to convince Vilnius to agree to the participation of Russia in NATO’s anti-missile shield, and other NATO cooperation with Russia. “The most important thing is that we gave an invitation to Russia,” Westerwelle said in the joint press conference with Azubalis. Recently, Moscow talks about its cooperation with EU and NATO as never before. The Kremlin understands that various threats could come to Russia from China and the Muslim world. However, of course, full integration of the democratic West with Russia, which is now ruled by one-and-a-half men, is impossible.
“We would like to have a Russia which would be more understandable and which would understand the goals of Europe and NATO,” Azubalis said, answering Westerwelle’s enthusiasm about the possible strengthening of ties with Russia.

Westerwelle promised in Vilnius that no deals with Russia will be made without consulting EU and NATO partners.
During Westerwelle’s visit to Vilnius, the recently NATO-adopted plans for NATO’s common defense of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were probably discussed as well, but it was not mentioned in public. The existence of such plans was confirmed by Grybauskaite during her briefing on Nov. 4. The adoption of NATO defense plans for the Baltics was an issue of high importance for Grybauskaite, who demanded it in public during her meetings with the NATO secretary general and on other occasions – the two other Baltic presidents were somewhat shy to talk about it loudly.

The plan considers Russia as a possible danger and, therefore, it is a delicate case. Until now, NATO had such defense plans only for Norway, Poland, Turkey, and Greece. Until recently, the position of the Kremlin-friendly Germany was the main obstacle for adoption of the NATO defense plan for the Baltics. However, Germany managed to re-think this position. Due to such re-thinking, Grybauskaite gave special thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the latter was visiting Vilnius on Sept. 6, though the biggest thanks should go to U.S. President Barack Obama – his word was decisive in this case.