Ambassador tells Balts to stay alert against terror

  • 2001-10-18
  • Bryan Bradley
Britain has taken a high-profile role in the international fight against terror. Christopher Robbins, British ambassador to Lithuania since 1998, has a good sense of how the developing situation could impact the Baltic countries. Interview by Bryan Bradley.

TBT: Is there any reason for people in the Baltic countries to feel a particular threat of terrorism? Could participation by these countries in the war against terrorism increase the risk?

Robbins: No country can afford to ignore basic security measures. We're all at risk because we all represent exactly what the terrorists detest. We represent a sort of secular, pluralist, democratic way of life, which they explicitly reject.

We've got to anticipate that the terrorists will be looking for weak points in the West and wondering how they can strike those weak points. So no country can let its guard down.

That said, I don't think Lithuania is at the top of the terrorists' list. It would be technically quite hard for the terrorists to mount an attack in Lithuania. Major operations like the ones of Sept. 11 require significant preparation and pre-existing networks of terrorists. I understand from the reports we've all seen, that the security services here do not believe there is such a network.

TBT: How important is the moral support the Baltic states have offered for the war on terrorism?

Robbins: I think actually it amounts to much more than moral support. I very much welcome the president's immediate personal concern and the prime minister's immediate action. Within a few hours he was considering what security measures Lithuania should take.

I welcome the resolution passed by the Seimas (Parliament) on Oct. 9. The Seimas has held a thorough debate and has come to a very positive and supportive conclusion. We are very glad to hear it wasn't simply passed on the nod, that it was very much a considered resolution with people speaking up on both sides - as should happen in a democracy.

So it goes beyond lip service. There's a sincere reaction by the politicians and the opinion formers in Lithuania in favor of what the coalition of countries is trying to do.

The Lithuanian government will shortly be considering a package of anti-terrorism measures. Some of these will of course deal with the security of Lithuania itself, but it is also an important contribution to the security of Europe as a whole.

The most important role Lithuania can play today is to strengthen her own security. And if she gets intelligence about terrorists in Lithuania or people associated with them, it is of course routine to pass that on.

TBT: As all this drags on, besides the domestic security issues, what could be expected of the Baltic countries in the international effort?

Robbins: According to some very sensible suggestions I have seen in the press, it wouldn't be so much a matter of Lithuania intervening directly in the Gulf or anything like that, but more that she would continue her excellent support for peacekeeping in the Balkans. There we may find that we need extra resources to replace people we are sending elsewhere in the world.

I have always thought that Lithuania's future contribution to Western security will be a specialized one. For example, she might mount a medical team that would be available for assistance in any theater of operations in the world.

Lithuania is not necessarily ready to provide this assistance tomorrow, but that's the kind of thinking that is current.

TBT: On a terminological level, what is the relationship of the Baltic countries to the international coalition?

Robbins: I think the Lithuanian government will carry on doing what it is doing, which is to take measures in line with United Nations recommendations, the action of the European Union and indeed the action of NATO. In all those cases Lithuania will effectively be a member of the coalition of countries.

I don't however want to prejudge or pre-empt the government's own decisions on this. They will, as I say, be considering a package of measures and we will wait to see what they amount to.

TBT: So that package of measures could be something that more or less brings them officially into the coalition?

Robbins: Yes. As you know the U.N. and the European Central Bank are both very concerned with the finances of terrorism. That's an area where every country has something to contribute.

It may mean that some banking regulations have to be changed or some procedures amended. It could be simple, it could be complicated. That is very valuable, because if you put pressure on one banking system, the terrorists soon find another to use to launder their money. So it is very important to have the whole world facing in the same direction on this.

TBT: With the debate about NATO enlargement coming up, do you think Lithuania's active reaction to the terrorist crisis has influenced its image in the eyes of NATO member countries?

Robbins: NATO member states have a whole raft of criteria they will be considering for whether countries like Lithuania join NATO or not. It would be wrong to single out one of those criteria, namely the readiness to respond to situations like this. There will be a whole host of things that have to be considered.

But let's put it this way, it certainly can't do any harm. NATO membership rests on, among others, some political criteria. And what Lithuania has shown is a foreign policy that is not just in tune with what NATO members are thinking, but is adaptable and flexible enough to deal with different emergencies as they arise.

TBT: What are the highest priority issues in British-Lithuanian relations?

Robbins: We want to continue helping Lithuania integrate with the Western structures. We are very keen to see Lithuania in the first group of new countries in the European Union. We think the penalties of being left out of that first group are very grave. Flows of investment and flows of general political support will go more to the new countries in the European Union than the ones that haven't quite made the grade. So I really have been stressing to everybody that it's vital to do everything to get into that first wave.

Joining the EU is no picnic. And once you're in, the problems are only just beginning. There will always be matters where your national interests are engaged, and it's very difficult always to manage the process of decision making in the EU so that you get what you want. That will be a big challenge for Lithuania. But on balance, EU membership is essential.

The second priority will be to carry on helping Lithuania develop her defense forces. We are not quite as insistent on early NATO membership as we are on early EU membership. The reason is that there are still some political steps to be taken on NATO enlargement that haven't yet been taken - by NATO herself, not just by Lithuania.

The third priority is to thicken up economic relations between our two countries.

Robbins finishes his work in Lithuania on Nov. 11, and will be moved on to South Korea. He will be succeeded by Jeremy Hill, presently head of the Southern European Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.