Jul 1, 2013 | 10:15 GMT

7 mins read

Lithuania's EU Presidency in Historical Context

Lithuania's EU Presidency in Historical Context
AFP PHOTO / PETRAS MALUKAS (Photo credit should read PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Lithuania assumed the European Union's six-month rotating presidency July 1, but the strategic interests that shape its foreign policy will continue to be intertwined with those of its immediate neighbors — Poland, Belarus and Ukraine — and those of Russia, its historic adversary. The priorities of Lithuania's presidency reflect these lingering connections, but Vilnius' foreign policy constraints are outweighed by its interests — as they have since the founding of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth some 400 years ago.

Lithuania has become the first Baltic country and the first former Soviet republic to assume the EU presidency. Lithuania is one of the European Union's newer members — it joined the bloc in 2004 along with many other Central and Eastern European countries — and despite its small population of 3 million people, the country has set many ambitious EU-wide goals for its presidency. These include reducing growing youth unemployment in the European Union and making progress on the bloc's long-term budget plans for 2014-2020. 

Like most of the previous EU rotating presidencies, Lithuania's is unlikely to make an indelible impact on the 28-member group on such high-profile issues in a matter of six months. However, some of Lithuania's more targeted priorities, such as bringing former Soviet states Belarus and Ukraine closer to the West and increasing regional energy security and diversification from Russia, bear closer watching. Such priorities are much more illustrative of Lithuania's traditional interests, and will serve as the true focus for Vilnius well beyond the next six months.

Lithuania's Past Greatness

Historically, Lithuania's influential position in Europe is disproportionate to the country's current tiny size. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, established in the 12th century, was able to take advantage of Mongol raids on the lands of Kyivan Rus (the precursor to modern day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) to expand its control over much of this territory. In 1569, Lithuania formed the Lublin Union with Poland. This created the largest state in Europe at the time, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, this territory reached more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) at its height and included most of the East Slavic lands of contemporary Belarus and Ukraine as well as parts of modern day Russia, Latvia and Estonia. 

Lithuania's EU Presidency in Historical Context

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

However, growing internal differences eventually made the Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign competition and manipulation, especially from neighboring Russia and Austria, both of which had grown to sizable empires by the 18th century. This culminated in the destruction of the Commonwealth by rival powers, with Russia, Austria and Prussia carving up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a series of partitions in 1772, 1793 and 1795. The Commonwealth's constituent nations lost their independence and were subject to foreign domination for most of the next two centuries, with brief exceptions for Poland and Lithuania between World War I and World War II.

Poland and Lithuania then came back under Russian dominance during the Cold War, the former as a satellite state and the latter as a Soviet republic. With the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Poland and Lithuania emerged once again as independent nations without a threat to their existence for the first time in more than 200 years.

Lithuania's Current Strategic Interests

In the last 20 years, the institutional systems of Europe have changed dramatically with the expansion of the European Union and NATO into former Soviet territory. Lithuania's membership in these blocs has made the country more secure than it has been in centuries. However, the fundamental geography of the region has not changed, so Lithuania's position on the Northern European Plain will continue to raise doubts over this newfound security because of the inherent competition among larger states, particularly Russia and Germany. 

Lithuania's relationships with former members of the Commonwealth as well as with Russia continue to be the most important and strategic to Vilnius' security position. Poland continues to be a key ally, this time as a fellow member of the European Union and NATO. The two are also important trading partners that cooperate on energy and security issues. However, there are complications to the bilateral relationship, particularly over the status of the Polish minority in Lithuania. But on a broader scale, the countries are strategically aligned, especially regarding regional security.

Ukraine also continues to be very important to Lithuania. While Ukraine has not joined the European Union or NATO, Lithuania — along with Poland — has strongly advocated increased Ukrainian integration with these blocs. A key aspect of these efforts is the Eastern Partnership program, which seeks to increase cooperation between the European Union and six former Soviet states on the bloc's periphery (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Vilnius will host an Eastern Partnership summit in November that the Lithuanian government hopes will include the signing of a free trade and an association agreement with Ukraine, and Lithuania has made this one of the top priorities of its EU presidency. However, Russia has lobbied against this, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has been hesitant to get too close to the European Union, opting instead to balance between Brussels and Moscow. Currently it is questionable whether Ukraine will sign these agreements. 

While Lithuania has seen some progress in fostering Ukraine's ties with the European Union, it has experienced the opposite outcome with another important neighbor: Belarus. Under President Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarus has eschewed ties with the West in favor of a close relationship with Russia. Despite Lithuania's efforts to bring Belarus closer to the West, the European Union as a whole has distanced itself from Lukashenko's regime, issuing economic sanctions and travel bans as a result of authoritarian practices and political crackdowns in the country. This has pushed Belarus even closer to Russia, with Minsk joining the Moscow-dominated Customs Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization blocs, which makes building political ties to Minsk difficult (though Lithuania has maintained solid economic ties with the country). 

Finally there is Russia, which continues to pose the largest threat to Lithuania's security interests. Russia has spoken against Lithuania's membership in the European Union and especially NATO, and has also worked to counter Lithuania's efforts at orienting Ukraine and Belarus toward the West. Russia has been especially active in Belarus, recently announcing plans to establish an air base in the Belarusian city of Lida, which is only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Russia and Belarus frequently participate in joint military drills, including the Zapad exercises that simulated an invasion of Poland and the Baltics.

Russia has also used its role as Lithuania's dominant energy supplier to pressure Vilnius politically. In this regard, Lithuania has actually made substantial progress, invoking the European Union's third energy package to loosen Russia's grip on its ownership of the country's energy infrastructure. Moreover, Lithuania is in the process of constructing a floating liquefied natural gas terminal to substantially cut its dependence on Russian energy. Vilnius hopes to push both issues during its EU presidency, not only in Lithuania but also across the wider Baltic region.

Continuing Ambitions and Constraints

Lithuania's priorities for its EU presidency reflect trends that have endured in its geopolitical neighborhood for centuries. Just as in the 16th century, Lithuania is now part of multinational bloc, in which it seeks to cooperate with the constituent members while safeguarding its own interests with those both inside and outside the bloc. The European Union has been a useful alliance for Lithuania in some respects; it has strengthened economic ties with the West and has provided a nominal security bulwark against Russia. But it has been much less useful in bringing Belarus and Ukraine closer to the bloc and thus closer to Lithuania. 

Ultimately, the European Union is one tool among many to advance Lithuania's national interests, and Lithuania's small size and strategic location will always work against it as it competes for influence in the region. Lithuania's EU presidency, therefore, serves as an example of how grand strategy endures over centuries and how it is constrained by external forces.

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