Exclusive interview of the lecturer Institute of International Relations and Political Science (Vilnius University) Mr. Vytis Jurkonis.
How is Baltic dimension of European integration performed today?
The regional cooperation of the Baltics is a complex issue. Looking through the lenses of Lithuania it looks like it is intensifying - the trade with Latvia and Estonia is growing and the Lithuanian export to these countries almost reached the size of the export to Russia. The growing imports from Latvia and Estonia would also support the argument that it’s a two way process.
However, the potential to fasten this process is not used to full extent. The Rail Baltica is perhaps the most obvious example of the unused opportunities. The EU is ready to cover 85 percent of the costs, which none of the Baltic states could afford alone. It could indeed fasten the integration and get the Baltics even closer to the heartland of European Union. Despite of EU willingness to fund the initiative, the project is struggling with bureaucracy, lacks sincere cooperation and political determination.
Other important regional initiatives like the regional LNG terminal or the Visaginas nuclear power plant experience challenges as well. Currently all Baltic states are pursuing their LNG terminals separately; meanwhile the Visaginas project is on hold. All this is happening despite the recognition that all Baltic states are the so called energy island suffering from the isolation and the need to decrease the dependency from Russian Federation.
The recent NATO exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 would argue about the success of the military cooperation, however the discussions regarding the rotation of the Baltic Air Policing Mission might flavour the cooperation narrative with rather illustrative details of competition.
Finally, the top rank politicians and officials are meeting regularly and obviously they discuss the achievements of as much as the obstacles for the efficient Baltic cooperation. The EU seems to be positive about regional cooperation, Nordic countries are supporting this as well, therefore the environment for improving the performance is really positive. The very fact that President Grybauskaite and the EU regional policy commissioner Johannes Hahn are opening the 4th Annual Forum of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea evidence that.
To your mind, how efficient is the Center of Energy Safety Assurance in Vilnius?
NATO Energy Security Center of Excellence in Vilnius is a relatively new initiative. Evaluation of the efficiency requires a longer perspective. Meanwhile, I know at least a few people from the staff and their competence leaves no doubt.
The recognition of NATO is yet another evidence that the project is needed and viable. Having in mind all the concerns and challenges regarding energy security in the region, I think the foundation of the Center was a very important and a long term strategic decision.
Which is the role of Afghan transit through the Baltic region?
Klaipeda is part of the Northern Distribution Network. Klaipeda’s port felt a substantial increase of the NATO transit in 2012, which was higher by 54 percent. But considering this as part of the annual turnover, the supplies to Afghanistan were far from the biggest.
It is not a secret that Klaipeda might be used during the exit from Afghanistan. Lithuania has expressed its interest, but aside to the willingness, the capacities of the port also need to be discussed. Moreover, the diversification of the transit needs to be mentioned. Though it is important, it is neither guaranteed, nor vital for the survival of the Klaipeda’s port.
I might just mention that the transit from Afghanistan is not so much an economic issue, but a political one. It would be an example of the transatlantic cooperation and Lithuania could prove once again to be a trustworthy partner. On the other hand if Lithuania fails this and cannot commit to it, it might be a bad signal regarding our capabilities as an ally.
To your mind, with which Central Asia countries NATO has the greatest progress and problems on the eve of reformation of the coalition’s troops in Afghanistan?
It’s not clear who will fill in the vacuum in the region once NATO troops leave. It will certainly create a new dynamic both in Afghanistan and in the neighbouring countries. A lot depends on the outcome of negotiations between Karzai and the Taliban. There are concerns of the resurgence of the Taliban, but whatever the outcome is most probably the consequences of the withdrawal would be mostly felt by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
How do you see the situation development in South Caucasus in 2014?
If we talk about the upcoming Vilnius Summit, definitely Georgia would be the champion here. Azerbaijan is rather reluctant to the Eastern Partnership initiative, Armenia is somewhat in the middle. That would have remained the same even without the statement of the President Sargsyan who stated the priority to the Eurasian Union over the Eastern Partnership initiative few months ago. Eastern Partnership index clearly indicates that. However, if we compare that to Ukraine or Moldova, then South Caucasus is unfortunately lagging behind.
The internal situation is hardly promising either. The recent Nations in Transit report by Freedom House reveals that Azerbaijan is a consolidated authoritarian regime, Armenia is a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime, while Georgia is a hybrid regime. The recent years have shown a very slight improvement in both Armenia and Georgia, but the situation there is not stable and very vulnerable to the external pressure. All the countries are part of one or another protracted conflict, which poses not only the security challenges, but also hinders the potential of socio-economic development.
The perception of the setback definitely exists, but that is partly the consequence of big expectations after the coloured revolutions in the region. On the other hand, was it possible to achieve any tangible results within 3-4 years since the start of the EaP initiative? It’s important to understand that Caucasus region could hardly be compared to the Baltic countries, while Ukraine is far more complicated than Poland and neither Moldova nor Belarus are even close to the starting position of the Czech Republic. Changes cannot happen there in one day.