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LONG HAUL: Trade with Belarus remains one of the strong points in Lithuania’s economy.
If on a weekend you were to take a closer look at the cars in the vast parking lots at Vilnius Akropolis, the Lithuanian capital’s largest mall, you’ll see that nearly every fifth vehicle - mostly luxurious BMW, Mercedes and Lexus SUVs - carries a red-green-and-ornamented-strip license plate, attributing the vehicle to Belarus. The well-to-do Belarusians’ invasion to the main Vilnius mall has been surging exponentially, competing in growth only with the Russians.
Doubling every year
“Incredibly, the 2011 Belarusian ruble’s meltdown, when the currency lost nearly half its value, has not effectively affected the Belarusian customer influx. We’ve been seeing a doubling of Belarusian shoppers from the previous year, for the fifth consecutive year. That’s impressive, particularly considering that they usually sweep up luxury items and pricey foods,” said Ceslovas Urbanavicius, the Vilnius Akropolis administrator.
“And large-sized toy teddy bears as well?” I asked.
His increasing chortling turns quite wild as he slights the quip: “Every Belarusian is very valued in Akropolis.”
According to the mall’s stats, Belarusians make up to five percent of the flow, and the number is steadily increasing.
More brands on show
In the mall, eavesdropping on passers-by conversations, I didn’t have a hard time quickly spotting a Belarusian couple, probably in their late 30s. He a sharp, goatee-wielding and crew cut-sporting beefy man in a swanky leather jacket with a massive golden necklace. His booby mistress caught my eyes with her “wet-look” curls, dripping recklessly, a wasp-like waist and, perhaps characteristically to the Slavic female shopper, stiletto heel shoes.
I mustered my best Russian for a short on-spot interview. Though being cast over by incredulous exploring glances, I was lucky to make the shopping-occupied couple squeeze out brief grins by sincerely admitting that I intend to show Belarus in a positive light, quite a rarity in the Lithuanian media.
“No politics!” I promised, and they nodded, agreeing.
“We have plenty of luxury stores back home, but they mostly cater to very upscale clientele and lack many of the brands we are seeing in the Vilnius mall. Besides, price-wise, most goods are cheaper here,” said the guy, who agreed to be quoted as “Ruslan from Minsk.”
“What I really enjoy here is the relaxed sauntering and a nice-mix up of unpretentious people,” noted the girl, introducing herself as “Oksana.” Also from Minsk. “Anyway, you are in the Union, so Lithuania for us means an escape to the West. Still a hard one, bearing in mind the lengthy visa procedures.”
Several recent Lithuanian governments have been resolute in easing up the visa regime with Belarus, lifting it for the inhabitants within a 50-kilometer space on both sides of the border to rev up trade, but the initiative has stalled.
Social Democrats lambast Conservatives in dealing with Belarus
But the influential Social Democrat and former Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, with whom I spoke with, was terse and assertive on the new Lithuanian government. The ruling Social Democrat are resolute in putting the draft law into effect as soon as possible: “The 50-kilometer free movement thing is in our core interests and it may lead to a thaw in the Belarusian and Lithuanian relationship. We really need that. The former Conservatives-led government was intimidated by the EU sanctions against Belarus and has frozen this good initiative.”
Ironically, neither Oksana and Ruslan, nor the former Lithuanian PM approves of Lithuania’s stance in the teddy-bear-dropping-from-the-skies scandal. “You deliberately let your airspace be used for the toy-laden foreign plane, to play those shady political tricks in our territory. It didn’t sound very friendly to us and, in this case we stood behind our president,” Oksana said, stirring her neatly trimmed eyebrows as she yanked her shopping bags up in a sign that my time is up.
“It’s quite shameful that those EU sky-controlling NATO base radars missed the plane. And instead of acknowledging the major airspace security lapse, we join the EU-led drum beating against Belarus,” noted Kirkilas. “Not very smart of us. Particularly, taking into account that Belarus’ cargo transit through the Klaipeda State Seaport makes up half its trade volume.”
Frankly, quite straightforward and blunt assessments from somebody who will, no doubt, be the ears and eyes for the new Social Democrat Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius.
Does this hint that the rift-on rift-off Lithuanian and Belarusian relationship will move onto a smoother and more predictable path? The thawing between the countries would certainly irritate the political right-wing, which in “defense of democracy” had taken a hawkish stance against Belarus, though most political analysts deem the efforts “mostly declarative.”
Druskininkai depends heavily on Belarusian guests
In anticipation of a political thaw, hopes for the resort of Druskininkai, 140 kilometers south of Vilnius, are also high. Located just a mere 10 kilometers from the Belarusian-Lithuanian border and 40 kilometers from the 325,000-inhabitant Grodno, the resort tries to get the best of the proximity.
And despite the movement constraints at the border, Druskininkai are doing well. The Belarusian presence in the town has been so ubiquitous that one of the resort’s senior heads I spoke to called, jokingly, Druskininkai’s eastern neighbor Saudi Arabia, stressing its massive economic impact on the report and perhaps also its still narrow doors to the West.
When asked about Belarus, I heard exaltation in the voice of director of Druskininkai Tourism and Information Center (DTIC) Rimantas Palionis.
“We really need to build a monument for our Belarusian guests in acknowledgment of their massive contribution to the Druskininkai wellbeing. Just with the 400-bed sanatorium is Belarus alone, constantly filling 90 percent as their flow into our resort has soared 33 percent in this year’s first nine months against the same period last year. And we’ve been seeing another joyful trend: a rampant increase from the commercial Belarusian side in the resort’s other hotels and sanatoriums,” the DTIC director said.
With the Belarus soil at arm’s reach and the new center-left government’s pledge to “open up” more with the neighbor, the future can perhaps be even more promising to Druskininkai.
“If the 50-kilometer free transition thing will be enacted, I reckon Druskininkai will have to take on a rapid expansion to accommodate all those folks from over the border. No exaggeration,” said a confident Palionis.
Belarusian cargo transit feeds Lithuanian seaport
But no other sector, in terms of money-making, is as important to the Lithuanian economy as the Belarusian cargo transit through the Klaipeda State Seaport. Today some 40 percent of the cargo flow from Belarus goes through Klaipeda. In monetary terms, the turnover translates into a whopping 2 billion euros a year. In 2011 alone, out of 36.6 million tons of shipments, nearly one-third, 11.5 million tons, were from Belarus. Another state enterprise, Lietuvos gelezinkeliai (Lithuanian Trains), last year hauled six million tons of Belarusian potassium fertilizer and two million tons of its oil products, for $100 million in total.
Lukashenko may sound very belligerent and assertive, but, thank God, he has not fulfilled his threats to take away the golden egg-laying hen from Lithuania.
Loss would be massive
The last time the sultry Belarusian leader’s threat to move the Lithuania-bound cargo to Saint-Petersburg seaports came in November during his meeting with the Leningrad region’s governor, Alexander Drozdenka.
“If that happened, the seaport would be crippled for quite some time and the loss to other sectors would amount to some 300 million euros,” a high-ranking official in the Klaipeda Seaport Authority said on the condition of anonymity.
Lithuania has been hearing many resentful statements from Belarus and its president. And every time a new threat to cut the cargo flow shows up, Lithuanian stevedores feel uneasy. “Lithuania cannot afford to have animosity with Belarus. Regardless of the politics and policies. Diplomacy has first to serve the economy, not vice versa,” said a convinced Viktoras Krolis, president of Klaipeda Trade, Industry and Craft Chamber.
And the stevedores praise the Belarusian cargo haulers as sincere, reliable and schedule-savvy. “We’re really happy about the work with our Belarusian partners, and I can just hope that our new government will perceive our urgency to continue working with our Eastern neighbors,” said Audrius Pauza, director general of KLASCO, a Klaipeda stevedoring company mostly serving the Belarusian shipment haulers. He added: “It is just not smart to be proud, but naked.”