Vytis Jurkonis: Kaliningrad has been among the most important issues in Lithuanian foreign affairs

Exclusive interview of the lecturer Institute of International Relations and Political Science (Vilnius University) Mr. Vytis Jurkonis.

 

1. To your mind what is the contribution of Lithuania into NATO's activity?

 

Cooperation with NATO is like a two way street, so sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish the contribution from the benefit. Would you call the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence a contribution or a benefit? Or, for instance, defence exercises like Steadfast Jazz hosted by Poland and the Baltic States in 2013? I would argue it entails both – contribution and collective benefit.

 

The same would apply to Lithuania’s involvement in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan, when Lithuania was in charge of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the Ghor province. Many thought such a small country like Lithuania was punching above its weight, but in terms of international cooperation and experience gained that was again no less important for us. I believe you also know that Baltic battalion (around 1000 troops) will join NATO response force in 2016.  

 

Finally, Lithuania was always promoting NATO cooperation with Eastern partners, starting with 2005, when Vilnius hosted high-level NATO-Ukraine consultations. The decisions made during the Summit in Wales wer also partly because of the active role of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. So, ISAF and NATO Response Force , energy security and Eastern neighbours would be the first three things to mention.

 

2. What is the most important within bilateral relations of Lithuania with the CSTO member-states?

 

CSTO is basically a one country show, meaning the Russian Federation. As Kremlin lately is all about self-isolation of Russia, aggression in Ukraine, information war in Europe, any bilateral relations are extremely limited. Naturally, security becomes a top priority.

 

Obviously, energy security issues, economic cooperation and trade are not going away. For many years, tourism, the cultural exchange and people to people contacts was the niche, where cooperation was rather normal, but even that became politicized.

 

However, it is crucial not to be distracted from things happening inside Russia. Kremlin’s policies are trying to wash out any critical thinking inside the country and Russia is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live for civil society activists and independent journalists. We should find the ways to open up to them, express our solidarity and assist them whenever possible. Driven by the illusions of the ‘reset’, Europe has been rather ignorant to the human rights agenda inside Russia and it would be a mistake to forget it now, even if security considerations dominate.

 

3. What new can we expect in the Eastern Partnership project after the Summit of its participants in Riga?

 

The key word for EaP Summit in Riga is mobility. Nonetheless, this Summit seems to be less ambitious than previous ones. Hard decisions need to be made as the formula ‘more for more’ is not effective for the unwilling. Neither should EaP initiative become the hostage of the unwilling three. Azerbaijan is oppressive as ever, human rights situation in Belarus remains to be stably critical, Armenia dropped out the moment when the situation got a little intense.

 

While the A.B.A. three were never perceived as the frontrunners of Eastern Partnership, Ukraine was considered to be a game changer for the entire region and Georgia with Moldova were almost taken for granted. We were simply overoptimistic, as the designers of EaP initiative did not expect EaP to become a target of Kremlin’s aggression.

 

Situation is complicated enough even without Moscow’s bullying and attacks. Transparency, rule of law, human rights remain a concern in Ukraine, but the war is delaying the much needed reforms. The Ukrainian authorities should not use war as an excuse for the lack of political will. Georgia is very polarized, independent media and judiciary should be monitored closely there. Meanwhile, the ownership of media by oligarchs as well as endemic corruption in Moldova might jeopardize all the international Chisinau.

 

All these challenges are not new, but EU needs to seriously prioritize the engagement with authorities and be much more consistent and principled regarding the human rights agenda in order to achieve sustainable change.

 

4. How would you evaluate the current situation in the neighboring Kaliningrad enclave of the Russian Federation for the national security of Lithuania?

 

Kaliningrad has been among the most important issues in Lithuanian foreign affairs especially during the negotiations regarding the Kaliningrad transit program. Kaliningrad was and remains to be a matter of national security and Lithuanian public is constantly reminded about that by a large military exercises like ‘Zapad’ which is quite a regular thing.

 

Given the overall situation in the region, the dynamics in Kaliningrad are also changing. Russian authorities announced recently the bigger presence of the ground troops, it is sending additional fighter and bomber aviation, increasing number of ships in the Baltic fleet not to mention the Iskander missiles. And this is happening in an already heavily militarized region.

 

Moscow unilaterally suspended the bilateral agreement with Lithuania in May 2014 on the exchange of information regarding the armed forces and military inspections, which doesn’t contribute to the mutual trust either. And, certainly, there are other not only military means to test the readiness of the neighbouring countries, their reaction to provocations of various kinds.

 

 

30.03.2015

 

 

 

 

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