By Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - On October 20, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite visited the capital city of Belarus to meet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who recently has had extremely tense relations with the Kremlin. It was the first ever visit of the head of the Lithuanian state to the Belarusian capital - maybe some Lithuanian grand duke visited Minsk before but then it was not a foreign visit. The message of Grybauskaite was as follows: the EU wants the Belarusian presidential elections on December 19 to be free and fair. Grybauskaite and Lukashenko also discussed energy supply issues which are vital for both countries. Grybauskaite's visit is the second visit of an EU member state leader to Belarus - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was the first EU state leader to visit authoritarian Belarus at the end of last year, after 10 years of an EU diplomatic blockade imposed on Minsk. Grybauskaite's visit was deemed a positive success by both Lukashenko and the Belarusian opposition.
The very beginning of the visit showed how different Lithuania and Belarus are. Grybauskaite went to Minsk by car. Traveling both in Vilnius and via the road towards the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, Grybauskaite's cortege was the same as all the other cars in normal traffic and stopping at every red light. When the cortege reached the border and was greeted by women dressed in Belarusian national costumes, the trip's tone changed - the entire road via Belarus to the presidential office in Minsk was reserved for use by Grybauskaite's cortege only.
Grybauskaite showed her skills in diplomacy by stating what the EU wants from Minsk and not insulting Lukashenko at the same time. Belarusian TV, strictly controlled by the regime, showed a lot of what Grybauskaite said during her meeting with Lukashenko as well as after the meeting, during the press conference of both presidents. Belarusian TV kept referring to Lithuania as "the lawyer of Belarus in the EU."
Lukashenko pointed out the Eastern Partnership and asked Grybauskaite's opinion about the direction this co-operation program might take in the future. "You are a member of the European Union; it has a certain influence on our meeting. I think you will recommend some fields of activity," Lukashenko said. After the Russian-Georgian war in August, 2008, the EU proposed a new Eastern Partnership program, which represented a steep change in the EU's relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This ambitious Partnership foresaw a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement, including the prospect of a new generation of Association Agreements, far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU for citizens of those six post-Soviet countries as well as enhanced energy security arrangements and increased financial assistance. Lukashenko refused to recognize the independence of the newly created pro-Russian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, partly due to the Eastern Partnership proposal, trying to please the EU.
"For some 10 years there was a Chinese wall, both real and virtual, in the relations between Europe and Belarus. Lithuania is ready to help Belarus defend its interests in Europe inasmuch as Belarus wants this help. We want to help Belarus to be more open to Europe. Lithuania is interested in improving and intensifying relations with Belarus. Lithuania is a member of the European Union and will be holding chairmanship in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe next year. Within this framework, we want to help Belarus, be there during the time of the elections. We want to help Belarus become more open and recognized in Europe," Grybauskaite said calling to allow observers to monitor the coming Belarusian presidential elections and to register all the candidates to the post of presidency who can be registered. Each candidate must collect 100,000 signatures from Belarusian citizens supporting his or her candidacy to be registered for participation in the presidential election campaign, according to Belarusian laws.
Lukashenko agreed with both demands of Grybauskaite. He guaranteed her that all local and foreign monitors will be allowed to observe the elections and stated that all of those who will collect 100,000 signatures will be registered as candidates. On October 20, after the meeting with Lukashenko, Grybauskaite and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis also had a meeting with five opposition candidates to the post of Belarusian president (for comparison, Berlusconi, during his visit in Minsk, showed no interest in meeting with the Belarusian opposition activists). All five opposition leaders were quite happy to find out about those guarantees regarding registration given by Lukashenko to Grybauskaite. At the end of last week, all five opposition participants of the meeting with Grybauskaite, i.e. Andrei Sannikov, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Vitaly Rymasheuski, Ryhor Kostuseu, and Yaraslau Ramanchuk stated that they had already collected 100,000 signatures each. During her meeting with the opposition, Grybauskaite also urged its leaders to have one common candidate for the opposition in the presidential elections, but taking into account the personal ambitions of the various opposition activists, it is unlikely that the Belarusian opposition is capable of uniting during the presidential campaign.
During Grybauskaite's visit, Azubalis and Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov signed an agreement easing travel for inhabitants of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border zone. Everybody living within a 50 kilometers radius from this border (Vilnius included) will be entitled to a special card which for a period of up to five years would entitle them to cross the border without a visa. The EU allows such practice on its external borders. Lithuania has a 660 kilometer-long border with Belarus. Raimondas Kuodis, director of the economic department of Lithuania's Central Bank, described such a plan as "economic diversion" against Lithuania because the price of many commodities (especially cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline) in Belarus is lower. However, Vilnius officials decided that the humanitarian aspect of such an agreement is more important than possible harm to the economy.
Grybauskaite and Lukashenko also discussed energy issues. "In terms of energy supplies, we are suffering unfavorable conditions, and it is an issue of our independence. We can resolve many issues by reaching agreements with the Baltic States. We would like to reach an agreement with Lithuania," Lukashenko said.
"This is of course the entire Baltic Sea region where we can be of use to you from the point of view of access to the sea. Both Belarus and Lithuania are interested in energy independence or at least in having an opportunity to choose on the matter concerning energy supplies. I have heard a very rational reasoning of the situation, and I am very glad that we can find a common language with the president of Belarus regarding the ensuring of energy independence for both states. The EU is interested in energy independence and in diversifying its energy supplies as much as possible," Grybauskaite said.
On October 16, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited Lukashenko. An oil delivery contract was signed between the Belarusian Oil Company and Petroleos de Venezuela for the years 2011-2013. Under the contract, every year Belarus will receive up to 10 million tons of Venezuelan oil out of which 2.5 million tons will go to landlocked Belarus probably via the Lithuanian state-owned oil terminal Klaipedos Nafta in the Klaipeda seaport. Lukashenko also proposed to Lithuania to participate in constructing a nuclear plant in Belarus but this proposition was rejected by Lithuania immediately.
According to the Belarusian-language service of the Prague-based U.S.-sponsored Radio Freedom, other energy issues could be discussed as well. The EU wants to build a gas pipeline Norway-Denmark-Poland. The EU decision regarding financing of this pipeline's extension, called Amber Stream, delivering Norwegian gas and gas from the liquefied gas terminal in the Polish port of Swinoujscie to Lithuania should be made by 2012. Amber Stream would satisfy all the needs of gas supplies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It would be an alternative for current monopolistic supplies by the Russian Gazprom. However, to make Amber Stream profitable, the Baltic States' consumption of gas is not enough. The pipeline's extension from Lithuania to Belarus is needed to make it profitable. Then Amber Stream would be able to satisfy 100 percent of the Baltic States' needs and 50 percent of Belarusian needs. To build an extension to Belarus, the EU needs Belarus to hold a presidential election which the EU would be capable of recognizing as legal, Radio Freedom said.
It seems that Lukashenko is really going to try to hold the presidential election as free as possible to his understanding because he expects to win it regardless and because he wants EU recognition of the election. Opposition candidates will be registered and maybe observers will be allowed to participate in counting votes. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the main fraud in Belarus, according to the opposition, is usually done with votes which are cast before the date of election (they make up some 30 percent of the vote). It is also worth knowing that on the day of Grybauskaite's visit to Minsk, the Reporters Without Borders published the Press Freedom Index of 2010, which evaluated freedom of the media in 178 countries. According to the index, Belarus is No. 154 while Lithuania shares 11th-13th places with Denmark and Japan (for comparison, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland share the 1st-6th places. This means that the Belarusian presidential election campaign will not be covered by the local media as it is done in the free world. On the other hand, the same Belarusian-style election fairness story goes with Russia and it was not an obstacle for the EU to recognize the Russian presidents as legal Russian rulers.