President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko meets President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė under European format
Alexander Lukashenko’s arrival in Vilnius on September 16th is already being called a major event of recent months by Lithuania’s political circles. The city — known for its famous historical Ostra Brama — is the epitome of embracing European policy, owing to this visit. Colleagues who were covering the President’s visit told me that they have not seen so many journalists attending an official event for a long time.
The programme of the presidential visit was intense, covering policy and trade. No doubt, the President’s speech and his answers to journalists’ questions created a good impression — moving the topic of the economy slightly aside. However, Mr. Lukashenko’s words were especially convincing regarding the economic background (which advantageously underlines Belarus’ attractiveness).
Nevertheless, we’ll first look at the political component of his visit. Clearly, the visit’s format was all-European. Prior to Mr. Lukashenko’s visit, Ms. Grybauskaitė was speaking to the Vice-President of the European Commission, Gьnter Verheugen. This top European official has called Lithuania ‘an outpost of good neighbourly relations between Western Europe and its Eastern partners’. He wished Ms. Grybauskaitė success in achieving the common EU ‘pragmatic goal’ of relations with Belarus.
Minsk has previously been visited by several top representatives from the EU — Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Dialogue continued in Lithuania — now an EU member, as mentioned by Ms. Grybauskaitė. “Our political and economic position is co-ordinated with the EU and that is why our statements are the voice of the European community,” stressed the Lithuanian President. Ms. Grybauskaitė expressed her hope of strengthening economic relations and that ‘we shall gradually move towards political rapprochement’. The Belarusian President replied with his usual frankness, “We are reasonable people and are able to listen, but we won’t accept any pressure.”
Mr. Lukashenko confirmed the country’s readiness to engage in dialogue with the West ‘in the interests of the Belarusian people, without bringing harm to our neighbours’. “To be the linking bridge between the East and the West is our cornerstone,” stressed the Belarusian President, noting that it’s unacceptable to be asked to choose between Europe and Russia. Later, during his speech at the Belarusian-Lithuanian Economic Forum, he more openly voiced this idea, saying, “Belarus has clearly determined international priorities, taking into account national interests, and will not change them in order to gain brief and disputable advantages.”
In his speech, Mr. Lukashenko mentioned that, recently, relations with Europe have significantly improved. He believes this is in some part due to ‘Lithuania’s active position’. Nevertheless, the President feels that Europe often reminds Belarus that it, allegedly, owes something to Europe. He then surprised those who were expecting him to behave humbly by saying, “I want to set the record straight on this issue today. Firstly, if we owe anything to anyone, it is to our Belarusian people. To our neighbours gathered here today, we say that our interests cannot contradict yours.” He continued, “On the eve of some important decisions, we won’t fuss or take illogical actions to impress anyone. We want to normalise political relations with the European Union, with a calm outlook. I want Europeans to understand that I’m saying this while visiting an EU member state. We will not be pressured into doing anything. We are reasonable people and know what we need to do and what we can do. We won’t pose on the eve of certain events, or make last-minute decisions.”
Many of the Lithuanian and European newspapers covering the visit were disappointed on not finding that ‘being friends with the West’ is only possible to the injury of relations with the East, or Russia. Nevertheless, their headings were pompous: ‘Lukashenko opens gates to Europe!’ or ‘Belarus can do without mentors!’
It seems that, for many of my colleagues, Mr. Lukashenko’s words were a revelation, showing again a deficiency of information about our country, even in neighbouring states. In fact, nothing the President said during his meeting with Ms. Grybauskaitė, and at the opening of the Belarusian-Lithuanian forum, was sensational or improvised. On the contrary, Mr. Lukashenko quite clearly outlined well-known principles. Belarus wishes to be dependant only on its own national interests, without pressure from West or East. The novelty of his message was only in who he was addressing. He laid out strategic issues while calmly looking into the eyes of Western partners. The BBC brightly defined his style as ‘strategy without fuss’.
MUTUAL INTEREST OF TWO COUNTRIES. There are lots of them. Mr. Bronislav Lubys is one of the richest men in Lithuania, the owner of Achema Group, who noted, “Lithuanians are interested in everything in Belarus!” He was expressing not only his own personal opinion. As one of the forum’s organisers and the Chairman of Lithuania’s Confederation of Industrialists, he spoke on behalf of 374 companies registered in Belarus and operating using Lithuanian capital. Naturally, the politics of a democratic state — such as Lithuania — proceed from business interests. The latter are now on the side of Belarus.
Klaipeda is the major national wealth of Lithuania and it’s no secret that Baltic ports are competing for transit cargo — including that from Belarus. Latvia alone has ten ports, including three large ones at Ventspils, Riga and Liepaja. Local billionaires have invested huge amounts of money into their modernisation, without hiding their intention of taking a share of ‘transit pie’ from Lithuanian barons.
In this economic struggle, politicians — such as Ms. Grybauskaitė — are lobbyists. Not in vain did Mr. Lubys instruct her ‘to normalise state relations’, at the LitExpo hall. “These already exist — we just need to make them friendlier,” he stressed.
Anyone who has followed TV reports on the two presidents’ meeting will have noticed that Ms. Grybauskaitė was a hospitable host, welcoming her guest. I think her hospitality is explained not only by Mr. Verheugen’s request to act as ‘an outpost of good neighbourly relations between Western Europe and its Eastern partners’. It’s important for a politician to preserve their own office; to achieve this, they must follow voters’ expectations — as seen at the Belarusian-Lithuanian forum.
Ostra Brama of Europe. Ostra Brama is one of Vilnius’ sights, with tourists coming to admire the ancient gates. I would have invited European officials to visit the site — to realise that, even in the Middle Ages, when a fortress wall circled the city, people could pass through freely…
In the 21st century, Belarusians are seeking to overcome visa barriers in order to visit sites relating to their history: Ostra Brama is our joint legacy, shared with the Lithuanians. Discrimination contradicts assertions
that interpersonal contacts are a priority for Europe. Mr. Lukashenko gave the issue special attention, noting, “It is the most absurd decision of the European Union to increase the Schengen visa price by two or even three times for Belarusians, in comparison to applications from Ukraine and Russia. You are always saying that Belarusians are the most tolerant nation, and most close to you in psyche — being sensible, hard-working and good-natured. Why then are you treating them this way? If you don’t like Lukashenko then take measures against Lukashenko, rather than against the Belarusian people. Generally, it’s not a problem to ask Lukashenko to pay 60 euros for a visa,” he joked, causing a ripple of laughter and applause among those present.
An expensive visa is only half of the problem. The tiresome application procedure is also humiliating, with lengthy queuing and interviews. Some questions seem quite obtrusive — such as: ‘What are you going to do in Vilnius (Berlin, Paris, etc)?’ If the European Union accepts freedom of movement as a fundamental right, then why do we need to answer so many questions?
The admission of ten states as new EU members in 2004 has brought changes to the Union’s external borders. Surely, it would make sense for the new frontier to bring us closer, rather than further apart. We have no wish for a new Iron Curtain. The European Neighbourhood Policy responds to this new situation and Mr. Lukashenko’s visit to Lithuania is a step forward.
By Nina Romanova