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William Nattrass

Lithuania versus the world

The country’s “values-based” foreign policy has set it on a collision course with Minsk, Moscow and Beijing.

In the struggle against authoritarianism, an unlikely champion has emerged on the EU’s eastern fringe. Since taking power in October 2020, Lithuania’s government, led by the Homeland Union party, has implemented what it calls a “values-based” foreign policy aiming to promote democratic values around the world. Yet in doing so, it has also made Lithuania an example of the inevitable sacrifices resulting from an uncompromising stance towards powers such as China and Russia.   

The term “values-based” is a loaded one, bearing the implication that most countries are all too ready to sacrifice their values for the sake of more pragmatic concerns when dealing with other nations. This latent sense of criticism became stronger throughout 2021, as the West’s appetite for conflict with Eastern authoritarian regimes was put to the test on multiple fronts.   

As most in Europe tiptoed around delicate geopolitical issues such as energy dependence on Russia and the question of Taiwanese sovereignty, Lithuania hurled itself into the debates with little apparent heed for the diplomatic or economic consequences.  

Relations with China deteriorated particularly dramatically, reaching a new low in November when an official “Taiwanese Representative Office” was opened in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The move was incendiary: countries around the world with Taiwanese diplomatic offices tend to name them after the city of Taipei to avoid ruffling feathers in Beijing.  

Such “diplomatically” named offices embody the balance which most Western countries strike in their relations with China: conscious of their responsibility towards promoting democracy and human rights, yet careful to avoid moves which would lead to a significant diplomatic rift. Indeed, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has noted how China’s enormous sensitivity on such issues often leaves foreign governments with a sense that a “sword of Damocles” is hanging over their heads, ready to drop at the slightest misstep harmful to the international reputation of the Chinese Communist Party.  

While Lithuania’s stance against the Eastern powers is certainly bold, without stronger support from abroad it may come to appear quixotic.

True to form, Beijing responded to Lithuania’s move by drastically cutting trade links with the country. For other nations this would have spelt catastrophe. But Lithuania is in a unique position to resist the deterrent effects of China’s economic might. Unlike other EU countries, Lithuanian trade with China has remained largely undeveloped – before relations plummeted in 2021, China accounted for only 2.5% of Lithuanian exports, compared to a whopping 16.8% in Germany.  

Of far greater significance to the domestic economy are authoritarian regimes much closer to home, in Minsk and Moscow. Negative relations with Belarus and Russia carry far greater risk to Lithuania – and as such, it’s here that the values-based approach is at its most admirable.   

Lithuania refuses to engage with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, while playing host to the Belarusian opposition in exile led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. When the migrant crisis at the Polish and Lithuanian borders in the second half of 2021 brought relations to a dramatic new low, Foreign Minister Landsbergis said free and fair elections in Belarus were a precondition for dialogue to begin on the matter.   

The Lithuanian government has been quite clear in suggesting patience is the best bet when it comes to Belarus, arguing that growing civil unrest against Lukashenko will eventually make his rule impossible to sustain. Yet until that day Lithuania will be among the states bearing the most significant consequences of the present confrontational atmosphere: as a large market on Lithuania’s doorstep, Belarus was for a long time a key economic partner with cross-border travel and trade forming an integral part of the Lithuanian economy.  

There is a paradox in that, while unilaterally ending dialogue with the Belarusian regime and encouraging the EU to cut its remaining economic ties with Minsk, Lithuania laments Lukashenko’s drift further into the arms of Vladimir Putin. As an ex-Soviet state, Lithuania is keenly attuned to any increase in the Kremlin’s influence in Europe. It was one of the loudest voices in opposition to the German-US deal on the Nord Stream 2 project, pushed through with almost brutal pragmatism by Angela Merkel in her final weeks as German Chancellor. As Europe looked set to become even more dependent on Moscow for gas, cutting back on imports from Russia became a key policy priority for Lithuania.

This stance on Belarus and Russia is causing an economic headache for Lithuania. And while not calamitous at present, the rift with China could also turn into a significant handicap if other nations pursue a more pragmatic course in their relations with Beijing (some, such as Hungary’s Fidesz government, have already expressed a desire to do so) and little Lithuania is left making a lonely stand against the Chinese giant.

As Europe looked set to become even more dependent on Moscow for gas, cutting back on imports from Russia became a key policy priority for Lithuania.

Lithuania’s government is driven by a visionary impulse. Yet the economic sacrifices inherent in Lithuania’s uncompromising stance could become political ones too. Without stronger support from abroad, many Lithuanians may start to wonder why their country is taking an economic hit for the sake of values which are not being promoted with the same zeal by other EU members.   

The political difficulties of putting principle above prosperity have already been foreshadowed by a dramatic fall in support for the ruling party as international tensions built in the second half of 2021, dropping an average of 9% in opinion polls from its 25% vote share in the 2020 election.

The long-term success of its values-based policy also depends to a large extent on support from allies which is far from guaranteed. Calls for the diversification of supply chains to reduce dependence on Beijing will likely receive short shrift in countries where high levels of trade with China are already entrenched – while moves to offset Russian energy influence will be a drop in the ocean if Nord Stream 2 finally becomes operational.     

While Lithuania’s stance against the Eastern powers is certainly bold, without stronger support from abroad it may come to appear quixotic. The short-term economic and political sacrifices now being faced by the country show why this support is desperately needed. Yet the same ill winds are also deterring other nations from charting the same brave course.

 

William Nattrass is a Prague-based Visegrád Four current affairs commentator.