By Grigory Ioffe
November 21, 2012
On November 6, two unknown perpetrators threw two bottles with a flammable substance into the Lithuanian embassy compound in Minsk. The Investigating Committee of Belarus launched a criminal investigation; the Belarusian ambassador to Vilnius was handed a note of protest; and the Lithuanian ambassador to Minsk went home for consultations amidst the allusions by some Lithuanian MPs that the incident may have ideological motivations If only in part due to mounting speculations of this kind, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced his plan to reorient the cargo flows of Belarusian export goods (mainly potash) from the Baltic ports of Klaipeda (Lithuania) and Ventspils (Latvia) to the Baltic ports of Russia’s Leningrad Oblast.
At a meeting with the students of the State Economic University in Minsk on November 12, Lukashenka said the attack on the Lithuanian embassy was probably not at act of terrorism but rather hooliganism), and the criminal proceeding qualifies the attack as “harsh hooliganism” (zlostnoe khuliganstvo). However, the Lithuanian authorities were skeptical about that pronouncement and still believe this was a terrorist act. To date, no further details on the incident, the background of the attackers or their motivations has surfaced.
The growing tension between Belarus and Lithuania is colored by the overall scope and history of their relationships. Both Belarusians and Lithuanians were subjects of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1253-1569), a quintessentially “European” entity that used what some experts call Old Belarusian as its official language. Today, the importance of the Duchy is second to none in the historical narrative of Lithuania and is therefore pivotal for Lithuanian identity. Unlike Lithuanians, Belarusians have at least two historical narratives in conflict with each other. And for one of them–embraced by the Belarusian opposition–Belarus is also the successor to the Grand Duchy. Laying claims to succession from the same pre-national hearth parallels arguments between Russian and Ukrainian historians about the role of Kievan Rus as the antecedent of Russia and/or Ukraine. In the case of Belarus, however, a belief in the Grand Duchy lineage is not embraced by a larger society for which historical ties with Russia come across as more natural and meaningful. Hence, whereas for Lithuanians the demise of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of their “return to Europe,” Belarusians en masse were more concerned with retaining their ties with Mother Russia. So geopolitically, the former subjects of the Grand Duchy parted ways.
In the early 1990s, however, this development did not look preordained. After criminal proceedings in the Lithuanian courts were initiated against domestic collaborators of the January 13, 1991, assault of the Soviet military on the TV center in Vilnius–resulting in 14 deaths–Belarus extradited to Vilnius the First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party Mykolas Burokevicius and the party’s ideological secretary Juozas Jermalavicius. The extradition was abetted by Stanislaw Shushkevich, the Speaker of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus and the official leader of the country from 1991 to 1994. The communist majority in the Supreme Soviet was infuriated, and according to some sources, it is this, not the alleged embezzlement of public funds (on his own dacha) that cost Shushkevich his post.
In contrast to Shushkevich, his successor Alyaksandr Lukashenka rejected multiple Lithuanian demands to extradite General Vladimir Uskhopchik who commanded the Soviet garrison that assaulted the Lithuanian TV Center in 1991. Uskhopchik was not only granted Belarusian citizenship–from 2000 to 2004 he served as Belarus’s deputy minister of defense.
During the tenures of President Valdas Adamkus (1998 to 2003 and again from 2004 to 2009), Vilnius, which is only a three-hour train ride away from Minsk, became the primary meeting place of the Belarusian opposition and its Western sponsors. It was also in Vilnius where, in 2005, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Lukashenka the “last dictator of Europe,” a cliché that became a PR success but had little, if any, practical implication. Only after Dalia Grybauskaite became president of Lithuania (2009) did Belarusian-Lithuanian relations somewhat improve. In 2009, Lukashenka made an official visit to Vilnius (for the first time since 1997), and in 2010 Grybauskaite visited Minsk.
On several occasions President Grybauskaite and her advisors made statements that ran against the European Union’s official policy of democracy promotion, punitive sanctions and expensive visas for Belarusian citizens. Thus, in November 2010, one month prior to the presidential elections in Minsk that ended in violence, Grybauskaite stated at a meeting with European ambassadors to Lithuania that “Lukashenka is the guarantor of economic and political stability in Belarus and of its independence. We would not like our neighbor to become a second Russia” . Seven days before the elections, Grybauskaite averred that “Mr. Lukashenka could win with a 99-percent result, but he will obtain only 75 percent of the vote to please the EU”. Actually, the official result was 79.65 percent, but it was challenged by, among others, the Vilnius-based (after it was denied registration in Minsk) Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, according to which Lukashenka received only 58 percent of the vote–still enough to win in the first round. In January 2011, Grybauskaite called upon the EU to begin granting cheaper visas for Belarusians. Currently, Belarusians pay 60 euros for Schengen visas. Even so, the Lithuanian consulates in Belarus issue about 160,000 visas a year. In May and June 2011, the Lithuanian president repeatedly warned the EU not to impose economic sanctions on Belarus on the grounds that such sanctions never achieve their goals and that under a difficult financial situation in Belarus, economic sanctions would be like a strike below the belt. In September 2012, Grybauskaite strongly criticized the actions of a small Swedish plane that took off from a Lithuanian airport and violated Belarus’s air space to drop plush teddy bears with human rights slogans attached to them.
Earlier, in July 2012, Darius Jonas Semaska, President Grybauskaite’s advisor, criticized the EU for Brussels’ lack of strategic patience in its dealings with Belarus. According to Semaska, the EU shut the door first. “If there had been less arrogance on the EU’s part, it could have achieved a dialogue with Lukashenka. But the EU wanted everything, and at once. And Lukashenka got scared, he went to Russia, sold some property, and he is now more dependent on Russia than before. And we are now replaying the same fateful scenario in our dealings with Ukraine,” warned Mr. Semaska.
In summary, Lithuania tries to position itself in the EU and other Western structures as the principal expert on Belarus, ready to pursue a realpolitik approach to it. Such claim may well be justified, but first the current deterioration in Vilnius’s relations with Minsk will need to be overcome.