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Updated: 22-Apr-2002 NATO Review

Web Edition
No. 1 - Feb 1993
Vol. 41 - pp. 7-11

 
p. 3-8

THE BALTIC REGION IN POST-COLD WAR EUROPE

Audrius Butkevicius
Minister of National Defence,
Republic of Lithuania

Usually, all that Europeans, North Americans and the rest of the world know about Lithuania is that it was occupied, proclaimed its independence, is seeking the withdrawal of the Russian army and that it is pursuing a balanced policy with regard to its neighbours. All this is true, but neither the restoration of an independent state, nor the withdrawal of a foreign army are our main goals - they are simply preconditions for the preservation of the way of life of our nation, of the indigenous inhabitants of this country and for ensuring its welfare. Today, our main task is to reduce inherited foreign political influences on our territory along lines beneficial to Lithuania, as well as the direct threats to our security.

Lithuania is at the geographical centre of Europe which ends at the Urals. At the same time, it lies on the shortest path between the countries of East and West Europe and at the crossroads between East, North and Central Europe. Many of its historical and cultural characteristics are the result of this geopolitical situation.

After the decline of the Roman Empire and with the spread of Christianity in Europe from the two main centres - Rome and Byzantium, the old European religion and culture started to concentrate on the centre. At that time, the old European gods were described as 'devils', but they were still alive in Lithuania until the end of the 16th century. This made for significant peculiarities of our culture: the late arrival of Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism demanded much more tolerance than in many other European countries. We had no Inquisition fires, nor the pogroms of people of another faith.

Situated along the most direct route from West to East and with good waterways, Lithuania attracted numerous merchants, manufacturers and scientists. Because of their obvious usefulness, their rights were protected by law, and tolerance towards different faiths was encouraged, all this being established in the oldest written East European legislative document - the Lithuanian Statute. Thus the geopolitical situation was decisive during times of peace for the rapid development and prosperity of the country.

However, throughout most of our history, Lithuania has been devastated by war and crises which were also due to the geopolitical situation. Up to the 12th century, Lithuania had to resist the Slavonic tribes advancing to the West, then tatar-mongol incursions and, from the 13th century, German knights coming from the West. The Lithuanian tribes also had to resist strong Czech-Polish-Hungarian pressure, and later, with the growth of Swedish power, the Swedish advances to the East.

These attempts to survive and defend our way of life resulted in rather early development of a centralised Lithuanian state and the evolution of distinctive Eastern and domestic policies, the influence of which can still be seen in our attitudes and policies.

Later in history, with the development of the polarization between East and West, Lithuania (or parts of it) became peripheral territory to the Russian and German empires. According to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, Lithuania was Russia's first window to the West; it was of prime importance for a Russia which sought to modernize its backward economy and to become more European. For Germany and other Western countries, it was the road to the undeveloped Eastern markets and to rich natural resources.

We inherited the status of a peripheral territory of the Russian and Western 'empires'. The status of an unprotected territory had resulted in the occupation, Sovietization and intensive militarization of our country which reduced the possibilities of economic development. This situation persisted until the end of the Cold War. Now, once again, whether desirable or not, the real but invisible internal border dividing Europe into East and West runs through Lithuania, or rather along the Nemunas (Neman) river. In a way, this has always been a cultural boundary which still influences our domestic policy. Yet, despite a relatively high percentage of other nationalities (up to 20 per cent), Lithuania has no serious problems with its ethnic minorities.

This historic evaluation is important since it has led us to conclude that now that we have created an independent state capable of controlling its borders and territory, its geopolitical situation will, providing we can maintain peace in Europe, ensure rapid political, social and economic development. But, in the event of a crisis or conflict, our geopolitical position makes our territory the most vulnerable in Europe. The loss of political control over our own territory in the event of a long-term crisis between East and West would block our economic development and turn the country into the 'front-line of defence', for one side or the other, just as it used to be described in the USSR's defence doctrine.

Thus, in Lithuania, we have lived under the constant influence of two power blocs - Eastern and Western. The struggle between them for dominance was in conflict with our interests as it impeded the development of our culture and economy. Only the status of an independent state will enable us to protect the interests of our people. That is why the main objective of our policy is to seek a balance in our relations with East and West, preserving a maximum of independence. This is also true of the economic, cultural and military influences. What possibilities do we have to realize this goal in the context most relevant to NATO, that is security policy?

We can divide the possible threats to our state into three groups.

The first is connected with the growing instability on the territory of the former Soviet Union: inter-regional, ethno-religious and territorial conflicts, as well as social conflicts provoked by the declining economy; we, too, can be drawn into these conflicts if they involve our neighbours.

The second is related to the growing tendencies of authoritarianism and nationalism in the territory of the former Soviet Union, above all in Russia. These issues were considered by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Kozyrev in his now famous speech delivered in Stockholm last December. Instability and a turning-away from democracy in Russia would not, perhaps, be perceived as directly threatening in Western Europe and North America but merely as alarming. But to us in Lithuania they would definitely appear to threaten us in a most direct way.

The third threat, which has evolved because of the growth of the crime rate and possible disasters at industrial and energy facilities, includes the smuggling of drugs, guns and radioactive materials, and the illegal transportation of certain other goods. There are also many people from the former Soviet Union, with a number of criminals among them, who are trying to emigrate illegally to Western countries. Finally, there is the threat posed by the transit of dangerous and radioactive materials through our territory. This threat is on a massive and growing scale and has yet to be properly recognized by the West. It constitutes our most immediate and pressing problem in this sphere.

In our search for ways of neutralizing these threats, we are seeking to develop our security policy in several directions:

I. International relations

Our main goal is to increase political and economic stability on the territory of the Baltic states and to achieve a balance of influences from East and West. We are trying to do this by:

  1. Participating in the European integration process - in the economic, political and security spheres. Having been territories of constant confrontation for so long and latterly playing the role of the front line, Lithuania and other Baltic states should become territories of intensive cooperation in the future.

    The geopolitical situation, the historical economic relations, the road network which is oriented East-West, as well as the industrial infrastructure of the Baltic states, enable these countries to assist the integration of Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union into Europe. Reducing the isolation of the new states emerging on the territory of the former Soviet Union can help to lower tension and support democratic processes and economic reforms there. At the same time, the Baltic countries could temporarily play the role of a buffer-zone - inevitable andindeed necessary at this stage of international relations - thus minimizing the friction between the different economic, cultural and security policies.

    Of crucial importance to the task of neutralizing threats to Lithuania are the common European mechanisms designed to increase security and stability, and the activities of NATO as a transatlantic organization. Our participation in the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) is therefore absolutely essential. I think that Lithuania would also benefit from associate membership of the WEU. We intend to be active participants in the CSCE Vienna process, in conflict prevention and confidence building. We are also planning to participate in UN peacekeeping actions in the near future.

  2. Consolidating relations with our neighbours. Lithuania has established good neighbourly relations with all its bordering countries.

    Lithuanian-Polish relations are enshrined in the Lithuanian-Polish Declaration which proclaimed the principle of the inviolability of borders. An agreement has been signed on the functioning of border controls and on customs procedures, and a treaty between the Defence Ministries of Lithuania and Poland is under preparation. Both countries have a joint programme on the construction of the Via Baltica highway which will run from Helsinki to Warsaw and is of international importance.

    • Lithuania and Belarus are negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations, border demarcation and border controls. This is our longest border, stretching for 740 kms, and it has never been properly demarcated. Neither country has any territorial claim on the other and both share common interests in economic and transit issues.

    • Lithuanian-Russian relations are regulated by the Lithuanian-Russian State Agreement and a special agreement on the Kaliningrad region. The withdrawal of the Russian army from Lithuanian territory is regulated by the agreement of 8 September 1992, which sets a time-table for the withdrawal. Neither country has territorial claims on the other. At the moment, Russia is proposing to hold negotiations on the coordination of military transits to the Kaliningrad region through Lithuanian territory. Our position is that negotiations on this kind of agreement, as well as on other documents which determine security policy, are only possible after the complete withdrawal of the Russian army from all three Baltic states.

    • Lithuanian-Latvian relations are based on the experience of friendly relations of many years standing; they are regulated by several treaties and a common policy, which includes Estonia, coordinated by the Council of the Baltic States. One of the main joint projects is the construction of the Via Baltica. The work of the defence Ministries is regulated by the Parnu Treaty of 1992.

  3. Strengthening the mechanisms of regional security.

    Having assessed our geopolitical situation and the impact of relations and political influences built up over many years, I would like to single out several priority directions to be taken by Lithuania on the way to security and stability:

    • The coordination of foreign and economic policies between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; the consolidation of relations with the Scandinavian countries - members of the Nordic Council; the search for, and establishment of, mechanisms to increase stability and security in the Baltic Sea region.

    • The expansion of relations between Lithuania (possibly including Latvia and Estonia) with the countries of Central Europe, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak states, to foster economic cooperation, coordinate integration into the European structures, and strengthen stability and security in this region.

    • The promotion of economic relations between Lithuania (and possibly Latvia and Estonia), and Belarus and the Ukraine, coupled with a search for stability in the regions. Along with these priorities, of course, should be included the establishment of stable and peaceful relations with Russia, and the development of Lithuania as fully part of the Western family of nations.

  4. Enhancing the prospects for the development of the former East Prussia - the Kaliningrad region.

    The Lithuanian Republic is greatly concerned about the presence and reinforcement of enormous Russian military contingents on this territory which surpass defence needs by far and hinder a peaceful development of this territory. The Lithuanian Republic, together with other neighbouring countries, is interested in the growth of economic relations and new possibilities for the promotion of this Russian territory.

II. Defence and security

The direction of our security policy is basic to the development of the Lithuanian defence system. Historical experience and the analysis of dangers show that, at the present time, it is crises which are the most likely to occur in our region rather than conflicts. The preconditions for these crises lie, first of all, in the instability of Lithuania's domestic political situation. This is linked to our internal political confrontation, a long economic depression, a rise in the crime rate, and insufficient control of our territory. Seeking to minimize these threats, the Lithuanian Republic is organizing the following:

  1. Border control personnel - some 5,200 strong - which at present consist of customs and military border protection forces. As far as the border with Poland is concerned, this is controlled by the Lithuanian border guards following a procedure similar to that which existed on the borders with the former Soviet Union and Poland. Border crossing procedures in specific locations have been established by a temporary Lithuanian-Polish agreement. Other Lithuanian borders are guarded in conformity with a regime established unilaterally which suits the economic needs of the Lithuanian Republic.

  2. In order to ensure the protection of key facilities and reserves in Lithuania, as well as the territory itself, territorial guard units and groups of volunteers for national defence have been set up, acting on principles which are similar to those of the Scandinavian 'home guard' groups. The territorial guards are 3,000 strong while the number of home guards is 12,000.

  3. The armed forces of the Lithuanian Republic were re-established by a special Act on 19 November 1992. The armed forces currently consist of:

    • land forces - one rapid reaction brigade, 5,000 strong, formed on the mixed principle of contract and conscription;
    • the coast guard - one flotilla consisting of two light frigates (recentlypurchased from Russia) and four sea-port security boats;
    • the air control force - which is just being formed.

  4. Civil defence forces are being set up to ensure the security of Lithuanian citizens in case of disasters and catastrophes in peace time. They consist of a department for the administrative control of dangerous facilities and the transportation of dangerous goods; and special rescue units formed on a territorial basis. The Lithuanian Republic is striving to integrate into the civil security system of European countries. At the present time, agreements with Germany and Poland are being finalized and we are seeking to sign agreements between the Lithuanian Civil Defence and that of the Scandinavian countries.

  5. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Security Service are responsible for the control and prevention of crime.

Looking at the current security situation in Lithuania, one of the main tasks at this stage, if we are to increase stability and security, is to achieve a complete and orderly withdrawal of the Russian army, not only from Lithuanian territory, but also from Latvia and Estonia. The presence of a foreign army hampers the economic development of the Baltic states and, in particular, hinders good state relations with the Russian Federation which are so essential not only to our peaceful and prosperous development, but to East-West stability in general.

It also hinders the region's integration into European structures. The Lithuanian Republic has been concerned about the attempts of the Russian government to link the issue of troop withdrawals to the rights of ethnic minorities and the so-called "violation of human rights" in Latvia and Estonia. The statements of Russian military authorities regarding Russian defence interests in the Baltic states, and the tolerant attitude of the same authorities towards Russian officers' wilful statements about their possible refusal to obey commands, are also a cause for great concern.

Another problem which is no less important is the wide scale sale of Russian army materiel (weapons, ammunition, equipment) to civilians, and the illegal transportation of goods using military vehicles. Our takeover of facilities left by the Russian army presents yet another problem since these facilities are handed over in a dreadful state, devastated and plundered and ecologically dangerous.

Among the former Soviet Union's republics, Lithuania was the first to proclaim its independence. Many of the democratic reforms begun in Lithuania later spread to Russia itself. It is not surprising, therefore, that the results of the recent elections to the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) which were so unexpected for many of us, made many think about the possibility of the process of decommunization going into reverse and the return of former Communist leaders and a pro-Moscow policy. What does the present situation in Lithuania mean? Is it a shift backwards or, on the contrary, a new stage in democratic development? In my opinion, we should view this situation in a positive light. The fact that we were able to live calmly through the period of a change-over of power, to respect existing legislation, and that we could continue working together, shows that we have made a great step forward towards political maturity and therefore towards a permanent democracy.

Thus Lithuania is once again leading the way. Today, I can say with confidence that our security policy will not change and will continue with a view to joining the common European or Euro-Atlantic security and defence systems.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.