Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 3

Lithuania in search of a geopolitical vision

by Raimundas Lopata and Vytautas Zalys

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR transformedthe geopolitical order of the world. The old bipolar world whichprovided stability and security has been replaced by a more complicatedand less definable geopolitical disorder. In a multipolar environment,there are more "gray" zones between established securitystructures. And thus it is entirely natural that both great powersand smaller states are redefining their geopolitical visions.Such reexaminations dominate political discourse in the smallstates that are caught in these "gray" areas.

Finding itself precisely there, Lithuania too is seeking to define its place in the new environment. In its considerationof these questions, Vilnius looks back to the interwar periodwhen,

as now, Lithuania found itself confined in a force field between the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany. At that time, and because of historical traditions, Lithuania tried to tack between Berlin and Moscow rather than work closely with Poland. As a result,we paid dearly as a country.

One aspect of that approach was Lithuania’s involvement with the Baltic Entente. Like other regional security structures in Europe at that time, the Baltic Entente was weak and did not measure up to the principles then proclaimed by the League of Nations. Cooperation among the three Baltic states gave few results whereas a broader Baltic alliance from Helsinki to Warsaw might have been more fruitful. If Paris and London had backed such an alliance, security in the troubled region between the Soviet Union and Moscow might have been enhanced.

But for that to happen, Lithuania and Poland had to improve their ties. During the 1930s, Stasys Lozoraitis, Sr., attempted to find a modus vivendi with Poland, without at any point renouncingLithuanian claims to Vilnius. It was not his fault that thisapproach remained on paper, and we note that Lithuanian officialswere more farsighted than Polish ones.

Now Lithuania finds itself in an entirely new environmentbut with the almost the same geography. There is no lack of good will and there are frequent discussions about the constructionof a common European home. But how will this home be built? There are three broad sets of ideas:

–The Eurocentric view, which represents a revival of the ideas of de Gaulle, seeks a Europeanization of NATO, a reduction in American influence in Europe, and an accommodating stance toward Russia as well as a favorable attitude toward Central Europe.

–The Euroatlantic view, which holds that only an American-Europeanlinkage through NATO can provide security. This Anglo-Saxon approachdominates the foreign policy of the US and the UK and can beseen in Germany as well. But growing isolationism in the UnitedStates itself, and West European efforts to redefine their ownsecurity interests in the post-Cold War environment, are underminingthis traditional pillar of the past.

–The Eurasian view, propagated by Russia, which holds that entirely new security arrangements should be made for Europe, that NATO should be reduced in importance and subordinated or supplanted by the OSCE. While such a view is often discussed, the discussions themselves highlight an important reality: everyonein Europe knows whose voice would be the loudest in such a securitysystem, a development few in Europe are prepared to accept.

In all three cases, Central Europe is a focal point for conflict,whether as the result of NATO’s expansion or of NATO’s demise.This is nothing new. The states in the region between Berlinand Moscow have been at the center of geopolitical discussionsfor more than two centuries. Only the terms used about them–cordonsanitaire, buffer, barrier, and so on–have changed. But in allthese discussions there has been no answer to what would seemto be the fundamental question: where does Central Europe beginand where does it end?

We Lithuanians consider ourselves to be in the center of Central Europe, but many including many Western governments are less sure where the Baltic states belong. Sometimes, Lithuania and its neighbors are treated like East Europeans, sometimeslike Scandinavians, and sometimes like "former republicsof the USSR."

In Washington, fortunately, there is a growing recognition that the Baltic countries are increasingly separate from the former Soviet states. Thus, the US State Department recently moved us into the Nordic and Baltic States Office. While the Baltic subregionis not part of Eastern Europe, it is not entirely "formerSoviet" or Nordic either.

The sources of this ambiguity are not yet clarified, but they collectively highlight an important fact: we Lithuanians arein the "gray" zone dividing West and East. Our onlyoptions are NATO or the CIS. Any third option is clearly unrealisticat this time.

Following the restoration of independence, the most important goals of Lithuanian foreign policy were the integration of the country into the political, economic and military structuresof Europe. We believed that there were two routes for this: the northern via Scandinavia, or the southern via Poland. Initially, some Lithuanians believed that there was a third route–marching alone. This third view drew support from the traditional Lithuanianantagonism toward Poland as well as Lithuania’s sense of itsown uniqueness, an attitude which often surfaces in our relationswith Estonia and Latvia. But this road quickly came to a deadend even though some continue to talk about it. The overwhelmingmajority of politicians however, from Vytautas Landsbergis toAlgirdas Brazauskas, understood that the choice between the northernand southern routes to Europe was the only realistic one.

For historical reasons, the "southern" route hasbeen fraught with difficulties. Moscow sought to exploit Polishminority concerns against Lithuania’s drive toward independence.Vytautas Landsbergis clearly plumped for the "northern"route and his defense minister A. Butkevicius even said in 1991that Poland was a greater threat to Lithuanian security thanwas Russia. And shortly thereafter, Polish President Lech Walesasent a message to Vilnius describing relations as being "neara crisis."

That coolness continued up to the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Lithuania and Poland in 1994. In our view, the period from 1990 to 1994 was one of lost opportunities.Without commenting on Polish actions but taking a pragmatic viewof our own. we Lithuanians must recognize that we were not capableduring that period of reconciling our internal and foreign policeswith our geopolitical position. And although

we did not exploit the possibiliities of the southern route to Europe, neither did we exploit those to the north. Once again our ties with Latvia and Estonia have been less than productive, and do not in any case guarantee our security. Indeed, it has become obvious to all that the three Baltic states are more likely to be competitors than to engage in close collaboration.

Latvia and Estonia have only the northern route to Europe through Scandinavia and have gained entrance to the Nordic Club; Lithuania is not even considered for membership. Consequently, although we should never reject the northern route a priori,we must recognize that it will not provide us with any security gurantees in the future. The situation on the southern routeis completely different. Indeed, today, the interests of Polandare practically identical to those of Lithuania. Both of us are threatened from the same place and both of us are seeking the same protection–namely, entrance into NATO.

Many in Lithuania still do not want to understand the needto travel the southern route to Europe. But we will soon haveto pass an exam of maturity for our state. In the near term,we must recognize that Polish membership in NATO would initially undermine our ties with Warsaw. But that will be a short term phenomenon if Vilnius adopts the right approach. During this transition, we believe Vilnius should argue that Polish membershipin the Western alliance is in Lithuania’s best interests. Directcontact with NATO will help us, and bring us closer to an areaof stability. In return, Poland will need to support Baltic membershipin NATO and that will raise the issue of Kaliningrad to the centerof world political discussions.

Raimundas Lopata and Vytautas Zalys are senior researchersat the Institute of International Studies in Vilnius.