The election of a right wing government in Poland just a few months ago is already sending ripples of anxiety across the region — and through the offices of the EU’s governing institutions. Crackdowns on state broadcasters and a spate of repressive laws have sparked protests on the streets of Warsaw. But for Laurynas Kasciunas, acting director of the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center, a nationalist Poland is a potential ally for the Baltics and has the clout to bring Central and Eastern Europe closer together. The Baltic Times sat down with Kasciunas for interview.
Speaking of the New Year, what new possibilities do you believe it gives to Lithuania?
Well, perhaps I can repeat what has been already emphasized by many: the achievements in the energy sector — I mean the launch of new grid interconnections with Poland and Sweden and the capacities of the liquefied natural gas terminal in the seaport of Klaipeda — are opening up quite new possibilities to Lithuania, geopolitically, too. I’d perhaps note that we sometimes tend to be too demure instead of taking pride in what we’ve done in the field. In terms of energy security, we would be all set if we had the grid’s synchronization with Western Europe completed. It is not what we will get done in 2016, but, this year, we will have to draw up the plan laying out the steps towards that end.
What about Lithuania’s challenges in 2016?
I’m not sure whether it could be called a “challenge”, but I believe that stepping up relationships with Poland, our closest neighbor, will be crucial.
Although many — perhaps justifiably — raise doubts and questions over the legitimacy of the new Polish Government’s regulations on the Constitutional Tribunal and its Public Broadcaster, I’m convinced the Polish Government opens up for Lithuania quite new possibilities to recharge and renew the spectrum of mutual relations. Lithuania must take advantage of the new situation and also help Poles to shun isolation within the European Union if this ever will be the case.
You have to agree it is hard to imagine the Social Democratic Lithuanian Government embracing the right wing Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party…
We’ve had somehow a similar situation eight years ago, when the two Kaczynski brothers were in charge of Poland, and the country had to deal with what I call a political pariah’s role in its dealings with Germany, for example. But the-then Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus was very helpful to the Poles, embarking on the role of mediator between Warsaw and the West. So I believe we might see a similar situation today as well. For Lithuania, I think it would be a right thing, for the sake of national interests, to come closer to this Poland.
Judging from the initial reactions of the Lithuanian political establishment, there’s a certain uneasiness among the aisles as to how react on the new Polish Government’s start in power. Only the Conservatives (Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, HU-LCD) are seemingly downplaying the concerns and asking all to give the new Polish Government “more time.” Will the stance not backfire against the Homeland Union in the long term?
I really do not see problem of that kind. As long as the Poles do not start flirting with Vladimir Putin, which happened with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, I do not see any reason to be worried about the right wing government in Poland as far as Lithuania is concerned. Frankly, I cannot imagine seeing Kaczynski’s Poland flirting with Russia. It is impossible. I’d rather call Kaczynski a strong outpost of the European Union, who, believe me or not, is capable of defending all of us from the lonely wolf, Putin. I also do not see a reason for any worry that Poland’s foreign policy can be tarnished with any “Orbanization.” However, the Polish government should be exercising all their powers subtly. Otherwise they risk losing elections in four years from now — to say nothing about the backlash from Brussels.
One of the first big tests for the Polish Government will be a NATO summit next July in Poland. It is very important that in July Warsaw sends NATO and, especially, the Anglo-Saxon allies, a right message. Moreover: we have to be standing along with the Poles when writing it up. I think the message has to be written so that all our allies come up with such a Russia deterrence plan that would keep it at bay forever.
What kind of measures are you talking about?
A bunch of them, but key for our interests is having our NATO allies committing to a sustainable, consistent and capable NATO military force in the Baltic region, and Poland, too; one able to defend us round-the-clock. I stop short of calling it a permanent NATO military base, however, but anything like that would be what we need here.
I think a range of extra defense measures have to be discussed with NATO, including the idea of a missile shield, which has been left by the wayside.
To reiterate: Poland with Kaszynski can stand up not only for the region, but all Central and Eastern Europe, too. Unfortunately, we already start hearing stronger voices within NATO that, with tougher Russia deterrence plans scrapped, the tensions will ostensibly fizzle out, which effectively means letting our guard down. It would be a big blunder, but such a way of thinking, alas, is getting louder in some pacifist German and French political circles. So to wrap it up, if we stand next to Poland, and for it, we will be all right.
How do you see the Ukraine-Russia conflict evolving in 2016? Especially against the backdrop of the murkier geopolitical landscape in Middle East? And, importantly, how will the European Union be likely dealing with Russia amid its ever more active role in the Middle East?
I believe that, speaking about the next half-year, with France, to some extent, collaborating with Russia in what is going on in Syria, we will be seeing increasing efforts not to extend EU sanctions against Russia. The first among the heralds will be French, followed by Italians and the southerners, no doubt. Should Russia give a reason to the union to consider alleviation of the sanctions, they will be the first clamoring for the removal of them, although none of the Minsk agreement provisions has been enacted by the Russian side.
What kind of rhetoric with Russia do you believe we can expect from the different Lithuanian political forces ahead of Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) election in late 2016?
I believe that today the stance on Russia is not a defining moment for any Lithuanian political party. But it had been a vivid divide in the past, however. Needless to remind perhaps that Lithuanian Conservatives, for example, would often hinge their entire election strategy on approach to Russia and issues stemming from it. Not anymore, however. Look, Liberals rally all, rolling on the patriotic wave, for Ukraine amidst the peak of conflict and even succeed in luring part of the Conservative electorate onto their side. In other words, geopolitics stopped being a defining factor in elections in Lithuania. Notwithstanding, we might see some new tunes in Russia-addressed rhetoric from some parties, I believe. No from the Conservatives, certainly, more likely from the Social Democrats.
By the way, you are a member of the HU-LCD, aren’t you? Will you be vying for a Seimas seat?
I am, indeed. And, yes, I am on the party’s Seimas candidate list.
With little for the Government left to go, the ruling Social Democrats bask in record-high support polls. Who do you attribute for the enviable achievement? Are the Social Democrats too hard for others to crack? Or is the opposition, headed by former HU-LCD leader Andrius Kubilius, too weak?
I think much of the popularity is hinged on the Social Democrats’ Prime Minister and also their chairman, Algirdas Butkevicius. I think the popularity is about his human virtues and down-to-earth character. Unlike some of his predecessors, he is not fearful of mistakes and if he commits one, he admits it and excuses himself. He’s not arrogant, obviously, all of which combined, makes him a very likeable person and politician.
Quite a contrast to former HU-LCD leader Kubilius, isn’t he?
(Grins). I’d rather use the other word, alternative. Kubilius was known for his scholar-like approach and analytical mind, as well as willingness to delve deep into things and induce patriotism in the nation.
In the larger picture, I believe the majority of Middle European countries, with exception of Poland perhaps, have been nearing to politics which is marked with absence of clear ideology and political thought.
Most of the new generation politicians are good at rhetorical skills, but they, alas, are missing values and ideology.
I believe that this is something that the Homeland Union, like Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, can turn around filling up the ideological gap with the appropriate ideological content. I mean through the reinforcement of nation’s identity, institute of family and et cetera.
Speaking of the polls, remember that Social Democrats were also on top of them before the European Parliament election, but it was the Homeland Union that snatched most of the mandates. I believe the history can repeat itself in the coming Seimas election, too.
We may see situation that, with Butkevicius’ ratings very high, the support for his party may be dwindling, although this is hardly possible as there are no major political upheavals or shake-ups in the country. There’s still a lot to be seen, though.
What can Lithuanian Conservatives learn from the sister party in Poland?
A lot. In Lithuania, some parties —except Homeland Union — before an election tend to wrap up their core values in shiny candy paper in order not to shoo away voters.
Kaczynski’s party has done the opposite — voiced strong support for the institute of family and traditional Conservative values. And they saw a landslide victory at the end of the day. So the notion that Europe — and Lithuania — is getting more liberal and the traditional values are dwindling is wrong.The Poles have proved the opposite.
I think what Kaczynski’s party had done before the election sets a very good example for the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Just a year ago, no one believed that Law and Justice Party can go so far. The naysayers proved to be totally wrong. There’s much we can learn from the Polish party’s election strategy, but, now, I’d rather scrutinize its decisions in power.
I am particularly fascinated by its take on family politics. The idea of introducing a family card, which, if implemented, would give families discounted tickets for public transport, for example, is nice and worth following for all.