The EU’s foreign policy credibility is being undermined by its lack of action on Belarus, where it needs to encourage democracy and counter Russia’s influence, according to Lithuania’s foreign minister.
Linas Linkevicius told the Financial Times that the EU should provide “concrete help” to Belarus’ opposition after he met two of its leaders on Friday, having already granted refuge to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the challenger to Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko in last month’s rigged elections.
“Sometimes we react too late and our measures are fragmented and aren’t making any impression on society or the people in power,” Mr Linkevicius said. “When we will not stand true on our national commitments, it will shatter our own foundation. We have to stand firm.”
Lithuania is the most vocal EU country on neighbouring Belarus, with Mr Linkevicius calling Mr Lukashenko “former president” and Vilnius imposing sanctions on him and 29 other government officials alongside Estonia and Latvia. Mr Linkevicius said EU sanctions would be preferable, but that it was “better to talk with one voice because no voice is not an option”.
Lithuania has also long been sceptical on Russia after repeatedly warning about Moscow’s actions after it invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea six years later.
Mr Linkevicius said the EU had “better understanding” of Russia than 10 years ago. But he added: “Our colleagues should realise that what we say isn’t science fiction, it’s happening in real terms.”
Lithuania has consistently railed against large European countries — the UK, Germany, and now France — seeking a “reset” with Russia. Mr Linkevicius said “lessons had not been learned” from previous confrontations with Moscow so Russia had become involved in recent years in Syria and Libya where “instead of managing crises, they are creating crises”.
He stressed that Europe had to give “meaningful and tangible” support to the Belarusian opposition, which itself has shown signs of internal division in recent days, by finding ways of funnelling money and help to the right people.
“Belarusian people should not feel deserted. We should provide them the perspective of being among democratic states. If they should make reforms, definitely they could expect closer co-operation with the EU, which would bring benefits for the society,” he added.
Asked if there was an east-west split within the EU, Mr Linkevicius said: “I shouldn’t call it a split.” He conceded that the EU had other issues to contend with, such as the dispute in the eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.
But he added: “Here is also something that deserves our attention — it is European territory. They are Europeans and they deserve better treatment.”
Tensions are high in the Baltic Sea region as Russia conducts military exercises, leading Sweden last month to lift its defence readiness to its highest level in almost three decades. Mr Linkevicius said he did not want to “dramatise too much” and stressed Lithuania was “not escalating, not provoking”.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned the EU not to interfere in Belarus. But Mr Linkevicius said the EU should send the message that “it is unacceptable for Russia to intervene in the domestic affairs of Belarus”. He added that Russia’s sending of journalists to help out in Minsk smacked of “the good traditions of hybrid war” and that a Russian military invasion could not be ruled out.
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