After Ukraine, Russia Aims Bully Tactics At Lithuania
Moscow has already made it clear to Ukraine that it should stop reaching out to Western Europe. The same message is being sent to Lithuania, which is already an EU member.
VILNIUS — He had been warned. First there were hints in the Russian papers, then in the Lithuanian ones, but what could he have done? Dalius Trumpa still doesn’t know what he can do to keep Russia happy.
“We are always ready to improve our quality, but the Russians haven’t told us anything concrete,” he says. Trumpa is vice president of Rokisko Suris, the largest milk processing company in the Baltic States. On Oct. 7 his trucks were turned back at the Russian border and had to take their stocks of cheese and butter back to the warehouse in Lithuania.
The Lithuanian government is convinced that this export ban is Russia’s way of punishing the country for hosting the EU summit last week. Lithuania hoped the summit would be an opportunity to entice Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia into the EU and develop links that would allow the country to free itself from its heavy dependency on Russia for energy. It seems that Russia has ample reason to disapprove.
The walls of Trumpa’s office in Utena are hung with photos of the local basketball team, which is sponsored by his company, and a few framed certificates showing that the company — which employs 1,700 workers — meets international standards. The company also exports dairy products to the United States and other European countries. “We haven’t received complaints from anywhere else,” he says. Only from the Russian consumer protection office, which cited quality concerns for refusing the company’s products into the country.
Shut off from the most profitable market
About 20% of Trumpa’s exports go to Moscow or St. Petersburg. “We’ve had a good reputation in Russia since the Soviet era, and it’s an attractive market for us,” he says in Russian. “We know the language, it’s not too far away, and prices are good. It’s our most profitable market.” Now that the Russian market is closed to him, Trumpa is shifting his focus towards Europe. He sells more non-perishable products to EU countries, especially Italy.
Trumpa says that business is still going well but some of his Lithuanian competitors are having a harder time, as almost half of their products had been sold in Russia. Now they can only wait and hope that Russia will relent. Trumpa thinks that the ban will be lifted soon, but the mood in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius is less optimistic. The government is convinced that Russia is flexing its muscles in the build-up to the summit.
Under pressure from its larger neighbor, Ukraine recently opted not to sign the association agreement with the EU — a decision that took the shine off Lithuania’s presidency of the European Council. “The methods Russia is using to intimidate Ukraine and its partners are unacceptable,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite recently told the French newspaper Le Figaro. She knows that reaching an agreement with Ukraine by the end of Lithuania’s presidency would be a huge win.
“The Eastern partners could form a belt of prosperity around Europe,” says Jovita Neliupsiene, the president’s chief political adviser for foreign policy. Is she disappointed that Ukraine didn’t sign? “They made their own decision,” she says, “and the EU’s offer is still on the table.” She is more disappointed by what she perceives as Russia’s bullying tactics, which she describes as “repression” and “almost a total blockade.”
“Baltic States are a lost empire for Russia”
Ad-hoc Russian controls are nothing new. In 2009, Lithuanian trucks were subjected to particularly detailed checks at the Russian border. Neliupsiene says that Russia is intensifying its controls again “because of the EU summit, the Eastern partnership, but also because of our energy policy. For Russia, we Baltic States are part of a lost empire.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania actively sought membership in the EU and NATO, and succeeded in joining the European Union in 2004. “We feel European, we are European. We were even during the Soviet era,” says Neliupsiene.
But the country’s ties to Russia cannot be cut that easily. Lithuania is heavily dependent on its larger neighbor for the gas it needs to power its industries, but the relationship is fraught. “We have to pay almost 30% more for Russian gas than Germany, and that’s a huge burden on our industry,” Neliupsiene says. “The price keeps on rising, which is why I hope that we will be able to realize all our plans.”
First among these is a 300-meter long super tanker currently being built in a South Korean shipyard. It is intended to act as a docking station for ships bringing liquid gas from other countries to Lithuania. When the country’s contract with Russian company Gazprom expires in 2015, the new terminal in Klaipeda should start receiving shipments. “Then Russia will have a problem,” says Neliupsiene.
It’s early evening when she leaves the presidential office near the old town in Vilnius. The Lithuanian flag flies from the roof, and projected across both floors of the building are the stars of the EU. It’s easy to see that Lithuania is proud to be European.