Usackas: "The EU must become a mentor for Ukraine"

The interview of Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs Vygaudas Usackas to the daily Die Presse about his country's sensitive relations with Russia, about perspectives for Kiev and bad American PR in the antiballistic missile defence debate.

Die Presse: In one of your interviews in February, shortly after assuming office as foreign minister, you highlighted new intentions on Russia's side to resume constructive working relations with Lithuania. Then in August Russian customs started to discriminate against the Lithuanian carriers and, quite recently, the Russian and Belarusian armed forces engaged in defence manoeuvres in the Kaliningrad Region, which transformed into the exercises of an attack against the Baltic States. Do constructive working relations look like that?

Vygaudas Usackas: Russia's behaviour surprises me just as much as it surprises you. Next week in Moscow I will see Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (the meeting took place on 29 October 2009 - translator's remark) and I want to ask him the same question. About a year ago, when the new government of Lithuania started its duties, there were signs from Moscow that Russia wanted to turn over a new page in its relations with Lithuania. There were a few positive signals after two years of stagnation. This was followed by the events in August, which were clearly discriminatory against the Lithuanian carriers, and Russia's measures against the Lithuanian dairy producers started. We also found ourselves asking what was going on.

And how could one answer that question?

Usackas: Well, Russia is a very important and very complex partner, which at the same time is a very challenging partner. I am very glad that the European Commission immediately reacted to the discrimination of the Lithuanian carriers and addressed Moscow. This case illustrates how important it is to talk to Russia and not to lose patience. All this demonstrates how important it would be for Russia itself and its partners, if it joined the WTO and became open for the international competition and the rule of law. This was also stressed during the Asia-Europe Transport Ministers' Meeting that recently took place in Vilnius. For instance, transportation enterprises from China complained about the Russian customs regime, they especially stressed the corruption and constantly changing regulations on customs procedures in Russia.

Why is it so difficult for Moscow to communicate with Lithuania, as well as with the other two Baltic States? Can the burden of history be considered as the basic problem?

Usackas: Frankly speaking, this is a question to Russians. I travel to Russia every year, from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. Two years ago I travelled to Siberia with my son and visited the places where my father and my grandparents were deported to during the Stalin era. When you speak with people in over there, you see that they are the most generous and most warm-hearted people, who remember deportees from the Baltic States very sincerely. On the other hand, my father and my grandparents have the same kind of memories about ordinary Russians, who helped them to survive in the freezing climate of Siberia.

So what is the root of the problem?

Usackas: The problem is that the truth about the history, first of all about Stalinism, is disguised from ordinary Russians. We acknowledge the historic role of the Russian people during the Second World War and in the victory over the Nazism. At the same time, it is very important to distinguish between the suffering, sacrifice and heroism of Russians on the one hand, and the horrors of Stalinism on the other hand. The Stalinism equally committed crimes against Russians, as well as against Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Poles. We must help Russians to understand that we do not equate Russians with Stalinism. These things are absolutely different. As long as Russian leaders, institutions, elite and ordinary people will be afraid to speak openly about this issue, will hide the truth and the actual events that happened during Stalin's regime, neighbours will distrust Russia's intentions. This should be very clearly said also to Georgians. Over there, one can find an idealisation of Stalin and his terror regime.

There is another aspect: Russia's international position. I do not wish to blame Russia one-sidedly. There are also a few other major actors in Europe with a burden of responsibility. Just remember the story with the pipeline on the Baltic seabed, yet another example of two big states laying a decision at the door of small countries, when former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed with Russians, trampling on the national interests of other EU member states and NATO countries. Unfortunately, even several heads of Western states made the open wounds of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland hurt even more. My expectations are that in relations with Russia, the current government in Berlin would try to acknowledge the role of the Baltic States and would hear their voice, instead of turning a blind eye to us.

Have you noticed any changes in neighbouring Moscow's policy after Dmitry Medvedev assumed office in the Kremlin? Could you compare him with President Putin?

Usackas: Russian analysts have two theories: one says that they are two of a kind, the other states that there really is a difference between them. Personally, I do not see many differences between Putin and Medvedev. Russia has a lot of very clear interests, but so does the EU. It would be important for the EU to clearly name those interests and to represent them transparently with regard to Russia, while taking into consideration the sensitivities of the neighbours of Russia. That is exactly why the EU Eastern Partnership was conceived. Russia really should not be worried. The EU submits the proposal to the neighbours and it's up to them to decide what to do with that proposal. Recently we noticed a great interest of our neighbour Belarus.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko recently visited Lithuania. What was your impression? Does he have serious intentions with regard to drawing closer to the EU?

Usackas: It is important to speak with one's neighbours. Unfortunately, for a long time Lukashenko himself isolated his country. With the Eastern Partnerships we have gained a new possibility for a closer cooperation. At the same time we let the President know that we expect our neighbours to respect the fundamental freedoms and human rights. People should not fear to sit behind bars for expressing their opinion freely, as well as for organising themselves into a political unit or for an independent participation in political processes. The media should be granted the freedom of speech in its reports. One must acknowledge that recently Lukashenko's regime has taken positive steps in this direction - for example, the release of opposition representative Kozulin. That is exactly why Belarus was invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership. We want to help the country. But we cannot force others to accept our values - the citizens' freedoms, respect for democracy, and the rule of law - if there is no such a need in that country. This can take even more time. Therefore, Lithuania speaks up for a gradual, constructive engagement in Belarus, but not for its isolation.

Lithuania also has a third, very important and exciting neighbour, namely Ukraine. As an insider, how would you assess the current political situation there?

Usackas: Upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections brought much turmoil there. I have recently noticed that the feelings of enthusiasm and great excitement within Ukraine itself and the EU are fading away, and a more realistic position is gradually being assumed in the mutual relations. Ukrainians started to understand the challenges of the EU integration and its complexity better. Already in 1998, I was telling my Ukrainian friends that their expectations were unrealistic. Back then they already were speaking about Ukraine's EU accession in 2002. However, now they can see more clearly not only the benefits of the EU integration, but also its challenges. On the other hand, the EU acknowledges more and more that Ukraine is an important geopolitical partner, both in a positive and negative sense. Last year you also experienced this in Austria, when the gas supply from Ukraine was interrupted.

How should the EU deal with Ukraine?

Usackas: The EU has to be more open and more sensitive with regard to Ukraine. The EU has to provide the country with a European perspective. Why should the EU give an accession perspective to Turkey, but not to Ukraine? Geographically, Ukraine is closer. It is a European nation with deep Christian traditions. The EU fears to speak about it openly. After all, the EU Treaty foresees that every European country can join the EU. We have to clearly say this with regard to Ukraine and to avoid assuming a defensive position. We have to provide Ukraine with the perspective. We have to encourage Ukraine from the outside to do the right things and to move forward. The EU must become a mentor for Ukraine. The EU can fulfil a historical mission by helping Ukraine to become a country of a European model. Some people think that this should have an essential impact on Russia's position. If Ukraine changes, Russia will change too.

Is this what the EU lacks: a clear, measured Eastern policy?

Usackas: The EU's position with regard to the East needs a clearer vision and more focus on such countries as Ukraine. We must speak openly. Ukraine must know that it is welcomed in Europe. And we must help Ukraine to develop itself. If we do not do that, we will contribute to the country's stagnation. I expect from the future EU foreign minister that he will be very clear about the issue of Ukraine.

How does the fact that the U.S. President Obama cancelled the plans about anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland look like from Lithuania's perspective?

Usackas: As far as I know, this [announcement] should be followed by a new, more effective, and quickier placable U.S. missile defence system, which would satisfy the interests of America and its European allies' better. We believe in America's plans and intentions. The problem is that the whole thing was poorly thought-out and taken for sold out. For the whole week the media in Lithuania, Poland and other countries wrote about how America fooled us. The new strategy of the U.S.A. was very badly presented. After all, only with regard to the historical experience, the alarms echo very loudly in Central Europe, when people feel that the big countries started some trade with Russia behind their back.


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