Lithuania in The World News: Although at first they got off to a shaky start, diplomatic relations between the two countries have recently seen a series of major breakthroughs

Arnas Lazdauskas

The last couple of months have seen unprecedented activity in the history of relations between Lithuania and Russia.
The two countries have done what they could not do before.

They have made substantial progress on numerous tough and thorny issues. Both countries have signed and promptly ratified several important bilateral treaties. Both have tried hard to moderate the damaging rhetoric at home.

Yet what gives even more grounds for optimism is the fact that finally, after six years of delay, Russia has ratified two basic treaties, the Treaty on the State Border and the Treaty on the Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf in the Baltic Sea.

There has been an outpouring of goodwill. These achievements have also generated positive anticipation, even enthusiasm, for what is yet to come.

The Breakthrough

Several years ago, in view of the stiff Russian opposition to Nato enlargement and Lithuania’s inclusion, as well as the often unfriendly and provocative rhetoric on the part of Moscow, many people had doubts not only about Russia’s commitment to ratify the border treaties but also about the future of the two countries’ bilateral relations. Many people had also feared what the reaction would be if Lithuania joined Nato. They referred to the regular threats from Moscow that it would review its relations with Lithuania, the Baltic states and Nato should the Baltic states join the Alliance.

But the situation has changed dramatically since then.
The changes amount to a tectonic shift in reshaping the European and Euro-Atlantic political landscape. What is important is the fact that by the middle of next year the Baltic states, along with other Central European countries, will have joined both Nato and the EU.

And Russia hardly looks as if it is going to embark on the threatened “appropriate measures” in reply. To the contrary, Russia itself has contributed significantly to this change.

It started by developing a dialogue with the European Union, which is gaining momentum.

Finally, it chose to seek cooperation with Nato.
The establishment of the Nato-Russia Council in May 2002 provoked quite controversial reactions in some states. Some thought that by its rapprochement with Nato, Moscow was trying to gain control over the enlargement process. But the step could be seen as a reflection of both the interest of Nato states in developing relations with Russia, and, on the other hand, the readiness of Russia to finally accept the new global and regional realities.

That this transformation of Russia’s outlook has had a massive influence over Lithuanian-Russian bilateral cooperation is beyond doubt. The transformation is especially evident if looked at in a historical perspective.

The Beginning

Since Lithuania declared its independence in 1990, it has been widely understood that its top priority is to look for ways to normalise relations with Russia.

Two important points characterised the early phase in relations. These were the signing of the Treaty on the Foundations of Interstate Relations on 29 July 1991, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Lithuania.

In the treaty, Russia recognised Lithuania’s sovereignty and its status as defined in the 1990 Act on the Restoration of Independent Lithuania. Legally, it meant recognition of the state that was founded in 1918, and of the present state as the continuation of it.

Both parties agreed “to build inter-state relations on the principles of friendship, good neighbourliness, equality and mutual benefit, and according to the universally recognised norms of international law”.

The treaty also emphasised the need to deal with the consequences of the 1940 annexation by the Soviet Union, which infringed upon the sovereignty of Lithuania, as well as the right of the two sides to be free in their choice of membership of economic, political and collective security organisations.

On the same day, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperation in the economic, social and cultural development of the Kaliningrad region.

The treaty was seen as a massive victory for a 3.7-million-large nation. It meant that it had won political recognition from one of the world’s great powers. Its international recognition followed almost immediately afterwards.

Withdrawal of Troops

After the failure of the military putsch in Moscow in August 1991, and later the demise of the Soviet Union, Lithuanian-Russian relations entered a new phase. The two countries were entering a period when both started developing their relations as full members of the international community.

The issue of the withdrawal of Russian troops was given top priority during this time, first of all because the presence of foreign troops in Lithuania could have been a very serious cause of instability.

The position of the population was also clear on this issue. In the June 1992 referendum, the majority expressed their support for the withdrawal of Russian troops, thus giving a clear mandate to the government to seek a full and immediate withdrawal.

Soon afterwards followed complicated negotiations. Finally, in September 1992, the defence ministers of both countries agreed on a timetable for the departure of the troops. Exactly one year later, Russia withdrew all its military formations left over from the former Soviet army from Lithuania.

Although some issues have remained unresolved, such as the issue of indemnity for the damage incurred, the withdrawal of the troops amounted to no less than an immense breakthrough in the process of securing the country’s unstable statehood, and as an inestimable achievement in its young history. Indeed, Lithuania was the first country, before East Germany, Poland and the former Soviet Republics, from which Russia withdrew its troops.

It was also the end of an important period of relations between the two states.

Gathering Momentum

The new situation helped the country formulate clearly and voice internationally its new foreign policy objectives. Joining European and Euro-Atlantic structures, developing regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations and the intensification of its economic diplomacy were promptly defined as the main foreign policy objectives.

A vision emerged of Lithuania one day joining Nato and the EU as a full member. Then taken to be naive to say the least, it was a clear expression of the country’s resolve.

According to an updated version of Lithuania’s foreign policy, relations with Russia fell into three general categories: regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations, and an increase in economic diplomacy. All of these corresponded to the bilateral and multilateral obligations accepted by both countries.

After the withdrawal of Russian troops, several new priorities were identified. These were the development of economic relations, the need to ensure a smooth supply of natural gas, the need to regulate the transit system, and the need to set rules for military transit.

Lithuania also expressed clearly its interest in resolving issues like the ownership of its former embassy buildings in Paris and Rome, and the issue of compensation for deposits held by Lithuanian citizens in Soviet banks. These questions were discussed regularly at top-level meetings.

Important achievements were gained during this period. On 18 November 1993 the countries signed a trade and economic cooperation agreement. At the beginning of 1995 both agreed on the procedure for military transit through Lithuania to and from Kaliningrad.

The formation in 1996 of the bilateral Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical, Humanitarian and Cultural Cooperation also played an important role in strengthening relations. Most of the issues, as well as the agreements, that both countries faced have since been discussed within the framework of this commission.

On the Kaliningrad issue, the two sides established the Council for Long-Term Cooperation between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad Region. Ever since then, this has functioned as the primary body for Lithuanian-Russian discussions on the issue.

Finally, on 23–25 October 1997, Algirdas Brazauskas and Boris Yeltsin, the presidents of Lithuania and Russia, signed two agreements on borders. The first was the Treaty on the State Border, the second was the Treaty on the Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf in the Baltic Sea. This was seen internationally as a very important development and a considerable achievement for Lithuania.

It looked as if the countries had successfully completed a second stage in the history of their post-Soviet relations. By then, they had signed more than 25 bilateral treaties. Senior Russian officials used almost every opportunity to express their satisfaction with the development of relations with Lithuania, “the better guy” out of the three Baltic states.

But the success story did not go entirely as expected. There remained one step to be taken; but the massive international, as well as some internally characteristically Russian developments, delayed the process.

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Slowdown

Security has played a vital role in Lithuanian-Russian relations since 1991. However, security issues, and mainly Lithuania’s resolve to enter Nato, were exactly the issues that came between the two sides, putting long-hidden prejudices, stereotypes and mistrust back on the agenda.

At the same time, it should be noted that the issues, overt and covert, had never gone so far as to impede normal relations, even despite the fact that some political circles, and society at large, tried to do exactly the opposite.

At the beginning, from 1991 to 1995, Nato enlargement was not exactly at the top of the Russian foreign policy agenda. It did not have much influence on the Baltic states’ relationships with Russia either. Moscow, of course, watched the developments in Brussels, as well as in the capitals of Central European states.

On the issue of Lithuania’s aspiration to join Nato, however, Moscow did not try to hide its skepticism, viewing the membership bid as illusionary and unrealistic. This expression of confidence, self-assurance and sometimes ignorance on the part of the Russians naturally did little for relations, impeding those who wanted to move forwards with practical cooperation.

The Russian position changed in 1997 once Nato had decided to invite the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary to join.
The three countries became full members in 1999 at the Nato Summit in Washington. The summit also had a symbolic significance, because it was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the famous Washington Treaty.

What was thought impossible just a couple of years before became a reality. What was even more important was the fact that governments in the West sent a signal to the East that enlargement would not stop there.

Moscow received the signal. It suddenly understood that the prospect of the Baltic states joining the North Atlantic defense community was not so unrealistic or remote. The Russian reaction was quick. Opposition intensified. It was now a question of what means Russia would employ.

Russia chose to protest. Bilaterally, however, it tried to pressure the Baltic states and to use all the means of leverage it had, namely, their dependence on natural gas, oil and trade with Russia.

Prior to that, Moscow had also chosen to reshuffle some of its foreign policy cadres. The appointment of Yevgeny Prima-kov as the new foreign minister was to lead to a re-conceptualization and a consolidation of Russian foreign and security policy. The policy had first of all to serve Russian interests, and to protect it from threatening developments on its borders.

Primakov had been head of the Russian Central Intelligence Service since 1991. The appointment put a different slant on Russian foreign policy, first of all on a strategic level. To put it simply, Russia chose to play this card in international relations. The Baltic states feared that this card could turn into a trump card.

Lithuania always paid close attention to developments taking place in Moscow. Faced with stiff Russian opposition to Nato enlargement, it naturally had to decide how to react to this. It took a decision that later turned out to be right.

The country emphasized consistently that its integration into the EU and Nato was not a substitute for good relations with its neighbors, including Russia. On the contrary, it said that its integration into Euro-Atlantic structures would facilitate the strengthening of bilateral cooperation.

It was also understood that membership of the EU and Nato would provide “additional psychological guarantees”, establishing Lithuania as a fully-fledged partner in her relations with Russia, a country with which it has had an uneasy relationship over the centuries.

Lithuania said and believed that, in view of the still fresh memories of the recent occupation, becoming a part of the Alliance, and thus gaining recognition as an inalienable part of the Western democratic world, would mean an even stronger commitment to the pursuit of an open and mutually beneficial partnership with Russia. Such a partnership, it emphasized, was in Russia’s own interest.

It was evident, though, that unilateral assurances were just not enough, especially after, together with the other Baltic states, Lithuania rejected peremptorily Russia’s proposed security guarantees (the last proposal was tabled in 1997).

Nevertheless, despite all the sharp rhetoric that emerged on the pages of the newspapers and on television, and the general slowdown in cooperation, Russia and Lithuania have achieved important progress in many fields. For example, in 1999 both countries signed the Treaty on the Promotion of Investment and the Treaty on the Avoidance of Double Taxation.

Another major breakthrough was reflected in the increased activity in and around Kaliningrad, the region that would be affected the most by the entry of Lithuania into the EU and Nato. Under the joint Lithuanian-Russian Nida Initiative, a bilateral contribution to the EU’s Northern Dimension Initiative, specific projects were made available for interested states and companies to participate in.

Most of the Nida Initiative projects were reflected in the Northern Dimension Action Plan, approved in June 2002 by EU heads of state in Feira.

Back on Track

There are several factors behind the breakthrough in bilateral relations. Along with the improving and intensifying relations between Russia and Nato and the EU, on the one hand, and general international developments on the other, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States contributed to a major shift in terms of how closely Russia started cooperating with the West.

Terrorism was a threat which the West was not alone in facing. Russia shared the same fears. Even those who were against close cooperation understood the necessity to take such a step.

The cooperation in security intensified. Russia moved closer to the Western security community. In May 2002, Russia and Nato signed an agreement to establish the Nato-Russia Council. This brought together the 19 Nato members and Russia in identifying and pursuing opportunities for joint action, with all 20 as equal partners.

Russia’s rapprochement with Nato and the EU, especially on Kaliningrad, also contributed to the development of Lithuanian-Russian relations. A major obstacle to the development of relations had been removed. In 2002, Lithuania and Russia agreed on a mechanism regulating the transit of Russian citizens to and from Kaliningrad.

A number of treaties have since been completed.
First, an agreement on travel by nationals of both states was signed in Moscow in the last days of 2002. In May 2003, it was followed by the signature of the Readmission Treaty.
This was followed by the signing of an agreement on the Mechanism for the Distribution of Facilitated Transit Documents in June 2003.

From today’s perspective, it seems that Russia will ratify the Treaty on the Mutual Protection of Investment and the Treaty on the Avoidance of Double Taxation in the near future.

In May 2003 the Russian Duma ratified two fundamental bilateral treaties that had been signed in 1997, the Treaty on the State Border and the Treaty on the Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf in the Baltic Sea.

In the Duma, 268 members supported the ratification of the state border treaty, 138 voted against it. At the same time, 269 members backed that on the economic zone and continental shelf, whereas 144 said no to it.

Both treaties came into force in August 2003.
These international and bilateral developments, one reinforced by the other, helped Lithuania and Russia to finally rise above the usual level of relations, and to step on to a qualitatively new level of cooperation.

This leap forward, beyond doubt, signifies the end of an entire era of relations, and the beginning of a new one. It was a period that began in March 1990. Although a number of important issues still remain to be resolved, new plans and cooperation projects are already in place.

What Next?

The fact that Russia has finally ratified the border treaties has been well received in Lithuania. The president, Rolandas Paksas, said that the news was “very good”. Emphasizing that these treaties served as the cornerstone of Lithuanian-Russian relations, he said: “This will contribute to the better development of economic, political, social and cultural relations.”

He also added that the news made him feel very optimistic. He said that the decision of the Russian Duma to ratify the treaty would give a new impetus to bilateral relations, putting fresh energy into the preparations to enforce the new transit regime for the Kaliningrad region, as well as to create more opportunities to resolve issues faced by Lithuania, Russia and the region more effectively.

Paksas stated that the ratification demonstrated Russia’s readiness to honour its November 2002 commitments to the European Union.

Artûras Paulauskas, the chairman of the Seimas, also welcomed the ratification of the treaties. He said: “This is yet another important contribution to the development of Lithuanian-Russian relations.”

Lithuania’s ambassador to Russia, Rimantas Ðidlauskas, who is the former head of the border negotiations delegation to Russia, said he was particularly pleased about the achievement.

“It is a formidable step in normalizing difficult Lithuanian-Russian relations, and in building up mutual confidence.”

The media recently announced that Lithuania and Russia are trying to do everything possible to invite the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to Lithuania on an official visit. Although the visit was initially planned for the beginning of next year, many factors indicate that it is more likely to take place in the second half of the year. It also looks more expedient.

By then a completely new agenda of bilateral relations, one that reflects the increased role of Lithuania as a member of Nato and the EU, will have been formulated. The visit would certainly be more than an ordinary visit by a head of state to an ordinary nation.

Besides many practical questions, it would also have a huge symbolic meaning. It would be the first visit to Lithuania by a president of the Russian Federation.

What is even more important is that the visit would take place after Lithuania has become a full member of the Western family of nations. It would mean a kind of de facto recognition by Russia that it has lost control over former Soviet states, a fact that Moscow has long been hesitant to acknowledge, and a major breakthrough in mutual confidence building.

Concluding Remarks

Russia, it seems, has learned the lesson history has given. This says that when you find yourself isolated you need to change your tactics. Forced by new international realities, Russia has done that. But not only in the sense that it was forced to. Russia has found its own interests in adapting to the changes, a fact it has long refused to admit.

That the future of Lithuanian-Russian relations is promising is not in doubt. That both countries can benefit is also undeniable. In view of this, both parties have already laid the foundations for future cooperation that also takes account of the new Geo-strategic realities. These are Lithuania’s membership of the EU and Nato, and increasing Russian cooperation with the West.

Certain areas for cooperation have already been identified. It involves mainly Kaliningrad.

Over the last couple of years, Lithuania, Russia and the European Union have tried to find a solution to the issue of the transit of Russian citizens to and from Kaliningrad once Lithuania enters the Schengen regime. A solution has been found.

This was the first occasion when the three parties have gathered to resolve a definite issue. The EU had never had to deal with an issue like it, and the result shows how successful it has been. Both countries show a significant interest in further developing the legal framework of cooperation.

Two treaties, on the avoidance of double taxation and on the protection of investment, still await ratification. Many more are in the pipeline. Cooperation in areas such as trade and investment, energy, transport, the border control infrastructure, the environment, culture, science and education, and, of course, the further development of cooperation with the Kaliningrad region, has been planned and is already being carried out.

The recent achievements bolster hopes that Lithuania and Russia have finally overcome the burdens of the past. Now that a new partnership framework has been set and major areas identified, let us hope that both states will continue building a genuine partnership for the future.

  • Three questions To the Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis
    This year Russia ratified the agreements on the Lithuanian-Russian state border and on the delineation of the continental waters in the Baltic Sea, which were signed by the two countries’ leaders in 1997. Lithuania ratified these agreements in 1999. What importance do you attach to this fact?

With the ratification of the border agreements with Lithuania by the Russian Duma, and with these agreements coming into force on 12 August 2003, Lithuania became the first state in the post-Soviet world to attain fully a legal solution to border issues with Russia. In effect, we have completed an important phase in the development of the foundations for bilateral relations.

I would also like to mention another important agreement with Russia, that of readmission, which became effective on 21 August 2003. We hope that, being the first to conclude an agreement of this type with Russia, Lithuania has paved the way for other states, and for the European Union, to sign appropriate readmission agreements with Moscow.

The facts I have mentioned are yet more proof that Lithuanian-Russian relations are based on constructive and businesslike cooperation.

Can you describe and comment briefly on the negotiation process for the agreement. How was the agreement reached, what problems arose, what key disagreements emerged, and how were they solved?

The delineation of the borders was taken care of immediately after international recognition of the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

Although most of the border with Russia, about eighty per cent, follows a natural boundary along bodies of water, disputes were still not avoided. Issues on which the state border had to be delineated anew included the demarcation line in Lake Viðtytis, imposed by Germany in 1928, which gave only forty hectares of the shore of the lake to Lithuania, the dramatically changed situation in the Nemunas Delta, and the Curonian Lagoon.

Negotiations with Russia on the delineation of the sea border and the economic zone in the Baltic Sea were also not easy, because Lithuania had practically no specialists in maritime law. We are grateful to professors at the Sorbonne and at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the assistance and advice they gave our negotiators.

The negotiations were based on the requirement by the Lithuanian Seimas to follow the 1982 International UN Convention on Maritime Law, which Lithuania had not yet ratified. A pragmatic approach, compliance with international law and a favorable political situation allowed us to achieve legally justified solutions.

How do you see the future of Lithuanian-Russian relations, especially after Lithuania becomes a member of the EU and Nato? What might Lithuania’s contribution be to the development of cooperation between Russia and the EU? What are the immediate goals to be resolved by Lithuania and Russia?

Lithuanian-Russian relations are entering a new phase. Apart from routine issues on a bilateral level, we will become involved in the joint formulation of EU and Nato policy towards Russia.

I’d like to point out that Lithuania is already taking part in this process. We are not only making proposals for EU relations with Russia, primarily on the Kaliningrad region. We are also participating in shaping EU policy towards all East European neighbors.

In our bilateral relations with Russia, we will seek to preserve the constructive spirit of cooperation, by focusing on the development of economic and trading ties, cooperation in the fields of energy and transport and the border infrastructure, and by developing cooperation on cultural and social issues. Special attention will be paid to environmental issues such as the ecological protection of the Baltic Sea, the Curonian Lagoon and the Nemunas.

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