Friday

22nd Jan 2021

Interview

Lithuania: US is still EU partner on world stage

  • Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

China, Iran, and Russia - three authoritarian powers - have gloated about the storming of the US Capitol this week, but for Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the American republic will recover.

The images of an angry mob in the Senate made him feel "emotional" as he followed them on TV and social media on Wednesday (6 January) night, Landsbergis told EUobserver.

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"These [authoritarian] countries will try to use this momentum. It's a sweet moment they've been waiting for. Some of them might even have been working to help achieve something like this," he said, referring to Russian propaganda, which has fomented hatred and division in the West in recent years.

The Chinese foreign ministry, for instance, said on Thursday that what happened was the same as when pro-democracy protesters stormed Hong Kong's parliament in 2019, but noted that "not one demonstrator died" in those events, compared to the five deaths in Washington.

The Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, said "it is obvious that American democracy is limping with both feet".

The Russian foreign ministry also said the US system "does not meet modern democratic standards" and that US media had "become an instrument of political struggle".

And the Russian comments were pure "trolling" for Landsbergis.

"They know which buttons to press ... and I'm sure they said it with a smile, like: 'We've been waiting for this moment'. But even if it's a victory, it's a short-lived one, I'm sure", he said.

The US has been an "example" of democracy for countries such as Lithuania, which overthrew Russian oppression in the 1990s, he noted.

"When you see something like this [the Capitol images] you think: Is this it? Is this the end? Have the foundations been shaken too much? But the foundations [of US democracy] have held for almost 250 years. They are stronger than [outgoing US president] Donald Trump, than this one assault on the Capitol," he added.

"Some people might think that the [American] republic's dead, but I truly believe there are people who are willing to fight for a living, breathing democracy and republic," he said.

"I really hope this [the Capitol riot] was a pinnacle and I believe de-escalation will follow. That there will be a peaceful transfer of power," Landsbergis said.

But amid his optimism, the minister also said the US events had implications for EU foreign and domestic policy.

"What we saw in America was a stark image of what's also taking place elsewhere," he said, mentioning Hungary's drift away from EU values.

"We cannot neglect it, if we just leave things as they are, what happened might not stop there [in the US]," he said.

EU-China treaty

The EU is currently working on a new investment treaty with China.

It is also doing a stocktaking of its frosty relations with Russia, with France, for one, calling for a "new partnership".

And the idea of EU "strategic autonomy" - of becoming a united military power that no longer depends on US protection - has become a mantra of the European Commission and EU foreign service.

But "I would say it's an unfortunate time to build closer relations with China," Landsbergis said.

"It was just four or five days after the [investment] treaty was signed [on 30 December] when pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were rounded up and it leaves you with a bad feeling. It might look as if China waited a few days [with its Hong Kong crackdown], just to sign the treaty, and then do something," he said.

"If we take this line of strengthening relations, then we cannot stop saying what we see happening there, be it the Uighurs or Hong Kong. All these things have to be firmly on the agenda, not used as a bargaining chip for better treaties," he added, referring to China's persecution of its Uighur minority.

The China treaty still has to be ratified by EU countries and institutions, but the Lithuanian minister said "not everyone is happy" with the previous consensus on going ahead.

"The debate could get quite heated and Hong Kong could play a role in that," he said.

"I don't see any opening for change [with Russia]," he added, citing Russian aggression in Ukraine and its meddling in foreign elections as examples of its conduct.

"I believe Russia will, one day, come round to behaving in accord with accepted international rules, but that might not be very soon," he said.

The EU also had to "stand firm for the values it holds dear" on the world stage by supporting Belarusian pro-democracy protesters, even if this went against Russian interests, the minister added.

"We have to help countries, like Belarus, who are striving for liberty," he said.

Belarus

"In the Roman Republic, Cato the Elder used to end every speech by saying: 'Carthage must be destroyed'," Landsbergis said.

"And we have to keep saying: 'There must be new elections [in Belarus]'," he added.

Meanwhile, for Lithuania, the idea of "strategic autonomy" was fine, so long as it meant building a joint military-industrial complex in Europe.

But it was wrong if it meant "decoupling" EU defence from the US, the West's only superpower.

"When it comes to military defence - that's Nato. And that's the US," he said.

EU institutions have also pushed to end consensus-based foreign policy in favour of majority-voting in order to react to world events more quickly.

But for Lithuania, one of the smaller EU states, there would be too high a price to pay.

"We trust the [foreign policy] decisions made in Brussels because we feel that they are, partly, our decisions," due to the consensus system, Landsbergis noted.

"I think it has to stay. Because it would be too dangerous to lose," he said.

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