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Lithuania’s president insisted the Baltic state would not back down in its disputes with Belarus and China, arguing it was committed to defending the principles and values of democracy from attack.
Gitanas Nauseda told the Financial Times that Lithuania, bordered by both Russia and Belarus, was used to having “complicated neighbours in our long history” but had learned how to deal with them.
“Probably the most important message that we could send to the Belarusian regime is that democracies are not weak. Democracies are strong, democracies are united, and democracies respect the rule of law. They should not count on our weakness. We will be decisive,” he added.
Lithuania experienced a “hybrid attack” against the entire EU by Belarus, according to the president, in recent weeks as Minsk sent more than 4,000 migrants — mostly from Iraq — over the border in what Lithuania’s foreign minister described as “weaponised migration”.
Last week it also became the first EU country that China recalled its ambassador from as Beijing reacted angrily to Lithuania’s decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius.
Global Times, a tabloid controlled by China’s ruling Communist party, said in an editorial on Wednesday that Beijing should “join hands” with Russia and Belarus and “punish” Lithuania. “China and Russia are necessary to jointly deal a heavy blow to one or two running dogs of the US to warn other countries,” it added.
Nauseda noted wryly the “coincidence” that Lithuania faced pressure from Belarus and China at the same time. He underscored that Lithuania had supported the One China policy since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1991.
Migrants inside a newly built camp near Vilnius, Lithuania © Mindaugas Kulbis/AP
But Nauseda added: “We would like to also have relations with China based on the principle of mutual respect. Otherwise the dialogue turns into unilateral ultimatums, requirements which are not acceptable in international relations.”
He suggested that China probably would “reconsider and change its decision to recall its ambassador” while stressing that “as a sovereign and independent country, Lithuania is free to decide which countries or territories it develops economic and cultural relations with”.
Lithuania, which regained independence only in 1990 after almost half a century of annexation by the Soviet Union, has become one of the strongest defenders of democracy within Nato and the EU.
“Sometimes those principles and values are not very much liked by our neighbours or some other countries,” Nauseda said. “But we cannot just choose to go another way. It is our way. We understand very well it is not the way that is easiest.”
Lithuania appeared to gain control of the forced migration from Belarus last week after it persuaded Iraq to stop flights to Minsk and allowed border guards to forcibly repel migrants not crossing at official crossings. The migration flows appear to have moved to neighbouring Latvia and Poland, the two other EU and Nato members that border Belarus.
Even so, Lithuania has experienced several recent incidents that advisers to the president say may be linked. There have been small riots outside the country’s parliament and in a migrant camp; the foreign ministry also appeared to suffer a cyber attack.
Nauseda said: “We are used to dealing with hybrid attacks recently. We see some cyber attacks coming. Lithuania really understands very well that the tension in the region increased and we have to be prepared to deal with it.”
The Lithuanian leader, who spoke to Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg last Monday and asked him to deploy a Nato support team to the country’s borders, said the upcoming Zapad military exercise involving Russia and Belarus would add to “possible tension in the region”.
Latvia’s foreign minister has already warned of the potential for “incidents”. Nauseda stressed that, while he had no evidence that Russia was involved in Belarus’ hybrid attack, “nobody could reject the idea that these developments are more or less favourable to Russia”.
Nauseda said that Lithuania had learned “certain moral lessons” since independence, adding: “We really take our responsibility as a new member of Nato and EU very seriously because of our historical lessons and experience. Our history was painful, our history was complicated. But we think that principles and values even in the 21st century mean a lot and we try to defend them.”