Financial Times
May 4, 2006

President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania has called for a common European Union front in response to Russia’s willingness to use its energy supplies to secure political influence over its neighbours.

Speaking to the Financial Times on the eve of an international pro-democracy conference in Vilnius, Mr Adamkus condemned Germany for backing Russia’s controversial planned Baltic Sea gas pipeline, which will circumvent transit countries including the Baltic states, Ukraine and Poland.

He said: “I believe I can understand the Russian position but I can’t understand Germany’s position. As a member of the EU, they acted without even extending the courtesy of advising the Baltic states [about their plans].”

Mr Adamkus’s comments echoed those of Polish officials including Radek Sikorski, defence minister, who earlier this week compared the Baltic pipeline deal with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – the secret German-Soviet agreement dividing up eastern Europe signed just before the second world war.

Although the 79-year-old Lithuanian president distanced himself from Mr Sikorski’s rhetoric, he left no doubt that Warsaw’s concerns are shared by Vilnius, as they are by the EU’s other new member states in central Europe. “I don’t want to use the word blackmail,” said Mr Adamkus in referring to Moscow’s efforts to extend its influence through energy policy, but he made clear he was very concerned about Russia’s economic and political pressure.

Mr Adamkus is due today to host a summit attended by Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, and more than 20 European political leaders, including nine presidents of east European states. The conspicuous absentee is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who was invited but – to nobody’s surprise in Vilnius – declined to accept. His absence will give Russia’s critics a chance to voice their complaints unhindered.

Mr Adamkus, a former US government official who returned to his native Lithuania in the 1990s, said the conference would highlight the region’s shared democratic values and emphasise the fact that this ideology extended much further than was often supposed – as far as the south Caucasus.

Mr Adamkus said there were differences in interpreting democratic values between Russia and the west but he avoided any direct comment on what is widely seen in the west as Russia’s growing authoritarianism.

He urged EU leaders to support Lithuania’s bid to join the euro next year, saying the application should not be blocked because the country’s inflation rate missed the entry criteria by a “fraction of a percentage point”.

Vilnius is lobbying to be admitted alongside Slovenia on January 1. But the European Commission and the European Central Bank have vowed to interpret the admission rules strictly, including the inflation criteria. Under the latest (March) data, Lithuania’s rate stands at 2.7 per cent, just above the required 2.63 per cent.

Mr Adamkus expressed hopes that Vilnius would soon settle the future of the Mazeikiu oil refinery – the largest industrial enterprise in the Baltics – in which Yukos, the stricken Russian oil group, has a 53.7 per cent stake worth an estimated $1bn (€790m, £550m). Yukos, which runs the refinery in partnership with the Lithuanian government, which owns 41 per cent, has been in talks with Vilnius about selling its stake back to the state. Lithuania would then resell a majority interest to another large oil group, such as Kazakhstan’s KazMunaiGaz.

However, the Russian authorities, which are pursuing debt claims against Yukos, last month won a US court injunction banning asset sales. Lithuanian officials are concerned that Moscow plans to secure a big stake in Mazeikiu for a Russian state-controlled group such as Rosneft. Mr Adamkus said: “Lithuanians are still sensitive that their economic dependence [on Russia] should not turn into political dependence.”