The president of the Republic of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, joined her counterparts from across Central-Eastern Europe to attend a summit of the Three Seas Initiatives (3SI) in Bucharest, Romania, on September 17–18. At this grouping’s latest top-level meeting, the 12 participating leaders from the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Sea regions collectively approved a priority list of infrastructure projects designed to improve connections among their countries via modern energy, transport and digital links (Three-seas.eu, September 18).
The 3SI, initially spearheaded by Poland and Croatia, was launched to address the relative lack of north-south infrastructural corridors across Central-Eastern Europe. In particular, compared to Western Europe and in contrast to the relative prevalence of east-west links across the continent, the region continues to lack rail, road, pipeline, electric cable and other strategic infrastructure connections along the north-south axis. The main objective of the initiative—which brings together all of the former-Communist members of the European Union plus EU-member Austria—is to address these infrastructure shortcomings by supporting new and ongoing projects. Though, geopolitical issues certainly also hover in the background for most of the 3SI participants.
Not coincidentally, during the Bucharest meeting, special attention was paid to the development of energy (electricity, gas) and transportation (road, rail) connections. The priority list approved by the heads of state included such projects important to Lithuania as the synchronization of the Baltic States’ electricity networks with the continental European grid; a natural gas pipeline link with Poland (Gas Interconnector Poland–Lithuania, or GIPL); the Baltic highway “Via Baltica”; and the Polish-Baltic freight/passenger railway “Rail Baltica.”
At the summit, President Grybauskaitė underscored that the connections developed between Lithuania and the broader region will help diversify energy sources and supply routes for all countries involved as well as contribute to developing coherent regional energy markets. This means a stronger EU Energy Union and a greater resilience by the EU community to external energy pressures (Vz.lt, September 18).
Following three major summits, the 3SI is gradually moving forward; yet, the initiative is arguably still in its exploratory phase. And considering the, at times, divergent objective interests of the various forces in the region, its further development can still move in multiple directions. It is already possible to distinguish several major crossroads. First, the 3SI members face various levels of pressure pressure from the large EU member states of Western Europe versus pressure from the United States to subordinate their foreign and economic policies accordingly. Second, the ongoing disagreements between Brussels and Warsaw regarding questions of rule of law and democratic norms in Poland may affect the direction that Poland seeks to push the 3SI project as well as dictate the level of support the EU may be willing to provide. The overall success of the initiative will, thus, largely depend on how much the project remains focused on improving intra-regional infrastructure over more political goals and how successful the initiators are at ensuring EU buy in. Finally the third issue relates to the so-called Russian question. Creating a solid counterbalance to Russia’s aggression through economic development and greater integration is one of the most important—albeit, unspoken (Three-seas.eu, accessed October 25)—pillars on which the 3SI was formulated. However, knowing both the diverse views and complicated relations of some of the initiative’s members to Russia, this can be difficult to achieve. Undoubtedly, Moscow will be interested in cultivating insiders in order to try to form a new coalition that could break or at least diminish a united 3SI policy vis-à-vis Russia.
The head of the Department of Political Science at Vytautas Magnus University, Professor Andžej Pukšto, has been closely monitoring the development of the Three Seas Initiative in Lithuania, Poland and the region in general. According to him, “The desire to diversify energy markets is understandable both in the EU’s older member states as well as its newer members. It [the 3SI] could be an opportunity to balance the different countries’ infrastructural capabilities, which would benefit all the parties.” In assessing Vilnius’ position, he noted that, “Lithuania is a supporter of deeper integration among the EU members. And therefore, its foreign policy will always be weighed, first and foremost, in this respect. On the other hand, it is evident that the country is directly exposed to Russia.” Professor Pukšto concluded, “Thus, the problem of diversification is extremely sharp, and this is well understood [in Vilnius]. Therefore, any feasible option to secure additional support for the vital diversification of the country’s energy networks and the strengthening of the country’s infrastructure in general will undoubtedly be considered seriously and responsibly [by the government]” (Author’s interview, October 17).
In analyzing the benefits of the 3SI, Linas Kojala—the head of one of the main foreign policy think tanks in Lithuania, the Eastern Europe Research Center—emphasizes “the importance of establishing an effective permanent format for cooperation among the members.” In an October 23 interview with this author, Kojala argued, “It is obvious that the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and other countries have a lot of common strategic interests; so this format can not only calibrate their position but also reach consensus, which can then be transmitted into other formats [the wider EU, etc.].” Yet, he also recognizes that even while the ideas championed by the 3SI are attractive and might seem practical to its regional participants, this does not a priori guarantee success: “Decision-making in international politics, especially with regard to the small-sized countries like Lithuania, is only possible with the formation of coalitions.” But, as he points out, “This initiative contributes to their emergence. The 3SI can stimulate dialogue between states whose bilateral relations are not necessarily excellent. Strengthening such relations is significant, and Lithuania is using this format for this purpose.”
Despite the strong focus on infrastructure, the Three Seas Initiative inevitably involves political aspects. It is clear that the small countries participating in this intra-regional grouping are forced to carefully weigh every decision based on how it may be perceived in Brussels, Washington or Moscow, all while seeking to avoid reducing their own strategic position in the region. But at the same time, the 3SI is largely seen as a positive opportunity to secure financing for the implementation of important projects that not only improve the infrastructure of the entire region, but also open up opportunities for economic growth. And assuming the initiative is successful in achieving these goals, it should help the European Union’s frontline states develop a more solid buffer against Russia’s influence.