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Europe still "suffering from the aftershocks" of the break-up of the Soviet Union

Tensions between the Baltic states, including Lithuania, and Russia have risen markedly since the Ukraine crisis. But EU is being urged to avoid being dragged into an even deeper conflict because of "personal agendas" of some countries that may have a "grudge" against Russia.

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2014

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Senior UK MEP Sir Graham Watson, a former leader of the Alde group in the European parliament, has been particularly scathing of Lithuania, rubbishing claims that its EU presidency was a success. Watson says that "beneath the veneer of respectability" Lithuania "hides a serious problem." "Central to the problem is the person who is sometimes touted as the next head of the Commission - Dalia Grybauskaite."
Senior UK MEP Sir Graham Watson, a former leader of the Alde group in the European parliament, has been particularly scathing of Lithuania, rubbishing claims that its EU presidency was a success. Watson says that "beneath the veneer of respectability" Lithuania "hides a serious problem." "Central to the problem is the person who is sometimes touted as the next head of the Commission - Dalia Grybauskaite."

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by Martin Banks

The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, part of NATO and the EU since 2004, still in large part depend on Russia for energy and trade and have sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. But these former Soviet republics fear Moscow is trying to destabilize their region, which like Crimea also has large Russian-speaking minorities.
 
Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania, has led the way, saying Russia's actions amount to a prelude to a "new Cold War".
 
She said it is important for the EU to make a "strong response" in relation to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
 
But Lithuania itself has come under recent criticism with some EU policymakers saying the current crisis in Ukraine has its roots in the failure last November to sign association agreements with the EU`s Eastern neighbours.
 
Lithuania, as then president of the EU council, hosted the much awaited summit in Vilnius where the trade deals were expected to be agreed.
 
One leading centre right MEP told EBR the EU should "learn from its mistakes" and "better manage national particularities" in designating future EU presidencies.
 
The Polish member, who said he did not wish to be named, said, "During its EU Presidency, Lithuania was entrusted with the mission of positively concluding Eastern Partnership deals with neighbouring countries from the former Soviet bloc.
 
"But instead of a constructive and positive outcome we now find ourselves embroiled in a deep diplomatic crisis between the EU and Russia. Ukraine is in chaos. Crimea has been annexed to Russia and there are fears of huge financial losses because of economic sanctions."
 
The deputy, a member of the European People´s Party, added, "A lot of this is mainly due to the inability and unwillingness of Lithuania and Grybauskaite to put EU objectives ahead of pursuing ´political revenge´ over Russia."
 
Senior UK MEP Sir Graham Watson, a former leader of the Alde group in the European parliament, has been particularly scathing of Lithuania, rubbishing claims that its EU presidency was a success. Watson says that "beneath the veneer of respectability" Lithuania "hides a serious problem." "Central to the problem is the person who is sometimes touted as the next head of the Commission - Dalia Grybauskaite."
 
He said he had urged Lithuania to use its presidency to show itself a "fair, modern democracy" in which minority rights are respected and in which the separation of powers prevails but there remains a "problem" of lack of justice, especially for the Russian minority.
 
"Recent allegations by senior members of the judicial services about pressure from Dalia Grybauskaite suggest she herself has little respect for the principle of separation of powers."
 
Watson says there have been several "major miscarriages of justice against ethnic Russians in Lithuania in which the head of state appears to be complicit." 
 
John Measheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, described international sanctions against Ukraine as a "big mistake" adding,  "The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion including the accession of the Baltic countries. But President Obama should adopt a new policy towards Russia, one that recognises Russia´s security interests.
 
"It should make clear that the US will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukraine governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language."
 
Further comment comes from Steven Blockmans, senior research fellow and head of the EU foreign policy unit at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, who said, "It is not just Lithuania's national agenda that unleashed Putin's wrath. Collectively, EU member states had been supportive of the bureaucratic approach taken by the European Commission to negotiate association agreements with Eastern Partnership countries, thereby ignoring the wider geopolitical consequences of these accords."
 
Blockmans, also professor of EU external relations law and governance at the University of Amsterdam, added,"Collectively, member states misinterpreted the political conditionality imposed on Ukraine to sign off on the association agreement: it was not just about free and fair elections, the problem of selective justice and the release of Yulia Timoshenko from prison. It was also about the negative impact of the agreements on Russia: the potential trade diversion, the undermining of Putin's plans to create a Eurasian Economic Union and the political and security association of EaP countries to the EU."
 
He added, "Whereas the Baltic states and Poland have been the EU's cheerleaders for stronger ties with the Eastern Partnership countries, as indeed a harsh response to Russia's actions over the past couple of weeks, they did not hijack the EU's agenda but rather acted in unison with the other member states."
 
Elsewhere, Dick Gupwell, vice chairman of the respected Brussels-based think tank, the European Institute for Asian Studies, commented, "For me, it is clear that Europe is still suffering from the aftershocks of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was itself built on the achievements of the Czarist Russian Empire. Much of this Empire had been conquered from other countries and nations and ethnic Russians settled in many of the conquered lands.
 
"Quite understandably, therefore, there was a huge build-up of resentment against both Communism and Russian rule and the break-up of the Soviet Union was seen as a liberation by many, if not most people in these formerly occupied territories. On the other hand, for the Russians, there has been great feelings of regret, sadness and frustration that their great empire has been so reduced both in size and population and in military strength, with its consequent loss of pride and sense of security. Russia, like Britain and France, both of which have been shorn of their former empires, still yearns for Great Power status."
 
Gupwell added, "However, the prospect that, at some date in the not too distant future, Ukraine might be detached completely from the Russian sphere of influence and join the European Union and NATO, causes great discomfort in the Kremlin."
 
His message?
 
"It is in the interests of neither Russia nor the West to pursue antagonistic positions towards eachother. On the contrary, so much has to be gained by both sides from constructive cooperation. Russia is essentially a European country, despite its vast Siberian territory, and its historic destiny lies as a part of the European family. It is most likely that the younger generation of Russians see Russia's future this way.
 
"The emphasis should be on the will for reconciliation and future cooperation."
 
The respected UK MEP Richard Howitt, who is the Labour Party spokesperson on foreign affairs in the European Parliament, said, "The biggest criticism of Europe is that it hasn’t been able to act faster in the face of what’s happened in Ukraine. However, it is important to point out that this slow and steady response is a product of European unity and the responsibility for this falls not on any one country but on all of them.”
 
UKIP's Roger Helmer also says he "blames" the EU for "creating a problem where they did not need to do so." The MEP said, “President Roosevelt's advice was "Walk softly and carry a big stick".  In Ukraine, the EU has made extravagant promises and raised improbable expectations, while wielding no stick at all. Imagine the situation were reversed, and Russia had made generous offers implying very close links – and maybe membership of the CIS – to, say, Austria.  How would the Germans feel about that?  Or to Ireland?  What would be the UK reaction?
 
"The Ukraine is in the Russians' "Near Abroad", their historic sphere of influence.  For decades, Ukraine was governed from Moscow.  The Crimea was handed over as a gift from Russia to the Ukraine, but with the clear expectation that Ukraine, now including Crimea, would remain part of the USSR.  Khrushchev would never have dreamed that Ukraine might join Western Europe, taking Crimea with it.
 
"So I am not justifying Russia's action.  But I do condemn the EU's approach to Ukraine, which was bound to infuriate and humiliate Moscow, and was always very likely to provoke a hostile reaction – as indeed it did. 
 
On the EU’s relationship with its Eastern neighbours, Howitt made clear that, “It remains a proper objective of the EU to develop relations with its Eastern neighbours."
 
Looking to the future, Brussels-based foreign affairs expert Shada Islam, a seasoned EU observer, has called on the EU to build a "new relationship" with Russia, adding, "In international relations, it is best to focus on strategic interests and keep national prejudices out of the picture. But this is very hard to do - not only in Europe but also in Asia where historical animosities have flared up again between Japan, China and South Korea."
 
Islam says, "The EU cannot afford to ignore Russia - it’s not just about dependence on Russian gas and other economic links, it's also about stability on the EU's borders. Once the current crisis is over, the EU should spend more time and energy on building a new relationship with Russia and its other eastern partners.
 
"It is important to distinguish between current strains in relations with Putin and the EU's longer-term interests and priorities in relations with Russia as a re-emerging power with which it shares a neighbourhood and common friends. Even as the focus is currently on sanctions and restrictive measures, the EU should be preparing for a post-Putin era."

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