Audronius Ažubalis: «We understand very well that planned withdrawal of the ISAF forces from Afghanistan will affect the security situation in the country as well as in all Central Asia»

Exclusive interview Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

1.How would you characterize today the participation of Lithuania in Baltic dimension of European integration?

When somebody asks me about the vision of the Baltic Sea region and the region’s role in the EU I always refer to two notions: solidarity and sustainable economic growth. We have developed a very efficient model of coping with crisis and developing our economic and political cooperation. The region has a substancial potential for growth.

Baltic States share the same interests and concerns in foreign policy and not only. Therefore, it is natural that our Baltic interaction within EU is as close as possible. Because of the dynamics of the EU agenda our Baltic consultations have become “daily” and take place at all levels. We are proud that during the years of independence we have gained considerable experience in this very close co-operation. It is 18 years in a row that Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian leaders meet in the Baltic Council of Ministers to discuss key issues and coordinate joint actions. This cooperation between our governments is constructive and smooth. It was the case during the accession negotiations to the European Union, so it is now, when the parties regularly coordinate their positions in advance of EU Council or the European Council, or any other important international event.

The experts state that the eight Nordic and Baltic countries (NB8) were the most disciplined to take on the austerity measures, to stabilize the economic crisis and to start their recovery faster. It proves that sharing your experience, coordinating your decisions, good governance and expertise pays off both in the times of growth and in times of a slowdown. We see further integration within this region as a precondition of Lithuanian economic momentum, economic and financial sustainability and security. We put high importance the ability of the Nordic-Baltic countries to speak up jointly on international challenges.

Accomplishing the role of the first EU macro-region and implementation of the Baltic Sea Strategy is a sign of acknowledgment of our potential, but also it means a huge responsibility, to prove that such a new method of European regional cooperation is viable. Lithuania will be taking this challenge very seriously also during its presidency of the EU Council in 2013.

I would say that Baltic and broader Nordic-Baltic dimension of the European integration is of fundamental importance to Lithuania. This year Lithuania chairs the Baltic Council of ministers and coordinates the NB8 cooperation. It is a very special year and we are trying to contribute our best.
2. How urgent is nuclear energy and energy security for Lithuania?

Having achieved its independence more than 20 years ago Lithuania is nevertheless excessively dependent on energy imports from a single external energy supplier. This dependence has increased even more after the closure of Ignalina nuclear power plant in 2009. Today Lithuania imports more than 60 percent of electricity - the highest ranking amongst the EU Member States - and 100 percent of its natural gas comes from a single supplier. Depending on a single supplier means paying as much as the supplier asks.  Bearing in mind the figures we can firmly conclude that energy security is a top priority for Lithuania. Moreover, we all still remember the consequences of Russia-Ukraine gas conlict in 2009.  Energy security is fundamental for rapid recovery of our economy.

In order to make it a reality and to integrate to the EU energy market, Lithuania is making a fundamental breakthrough at the moment. Strategic energy projects are being implemented – regional Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), power interconnections with Sweden and Poland, Lithuanian–Polish gas pipeline interconnection and LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal. These projects would not be feasible without our partners and EU solidarity in general.

Diversification of routes and suppliers of energy resources, as well as development of internal energy generating capacities are of critical importance not only for Lithuania but for the EU Baltic region as a whole. New regional Visaginas nuclear power plant is one of a number of projects focused on improving energy security in the region. It is worth mentioning that Lithuania has developed nuclear energy since 1983 when the 1st Unit of Ignalina NPP has started its operation. Therefore we possess the experience, human resources, legal framework and infrastructure necessary for the development of such a high scale project. I am confident that Visaginas NPP, which is being developed in a transparent manner and according to the highest international nuclear safety standards, will help to increase region’s security in energy terms, and will serve as a driving force for the regions sustainable development in the future as well.
3. Lately it has been observed foreign policy activity of Vilnius within post-soviet area, especially in South Caucasus and Central  Asian region. In this respect, to your mind what are the definite successes of Lithuanian diplomacy in these regions?

The persistence of protracted conflicts remains one of the greatest threats to security and co-operation within the OSCE area. Therefore, one of the highest priorities for Lithuania’s Chairmanship of the OSCE last year was to enhance the Organization’s capabilities to promote settlement of protracted conflicts.

It is really important that close work of the Lithuanian OSCE chairmanship and our partners facilitated the renewal of the official 5+2 negotiations on settlement of the Transnistria conflict. The negotiations have been stalled for nearly six years.

Concerning the conflict in Georgia, the Geneva International Discussions, which are now in their fourth year, serve as a valuable contribution to security and stability. Substantial progress has been made on the effective use of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms. Meetings in the framework of these mechanisms are taking place on a regular basis and deal with security issues on the ground, projects aimed at restoring confidence between the communities are being implemented.

As regards Nagorno-Karabakh, we have worked closely with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs and have made our contribution to prevent the volatile situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh from getting worse. A joint statement has been agreed by the Heads of Delegation of the Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries and the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the margins of the Vilnius Ministerial Council on 6 December, where heads of delegations agreed on the need to continue the negotiating process in the format of the OSCE Minsk Group and to improve the climate for making progress towards a peaceful settlement.

The EU has confirmed recently its commitment to remain engaged and involved in the stabilization and conflict resolution efforts in Georgia and in the region. I am confident that strengthened relations between the EU and the three countries in the South Caucasus will also open new avenues for the resolution of the protracted conflicts.

Recently Lithuania marked 20 years anniversary of mutual recognition of independence with South Caucasus and Central Asian countries. Over these two decades we have established strong bilateral relations with most of the countries in the region. Many of these countries recognise and show willingness to follow Lithuania’s successful example in their transformation into modern, forward-looking and growing states. Lithuania’s success story is to a great extent due to our strong will and determination to return to European family and embrace European values, such as freedom, democracy and human rights. European way of life is attractive to  the people of South Caucasus and Central Asia and becomes more so as EU shows growing interest in what is happening in the region.

Lithuania is a strong proponent for deeper involvement of the EU in the region. We see Eastern Partnership as indispensible instrument to develop relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Lithuania fully supports closer South Caucasus rapprochement with EU, including negotiations on Association and Visa Facilitation agreements. Increased cooperation, people to people contacts and mobility contributes greatly towards openness and positive transformation of these societies. Growing relations of EU and the countries in the region are very important as they become a vehicle for reforms and democratisation.

As a  holder of EU Presidency in the second half of 2013, Lithuania will support political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries, including through closer economic ties and increased mobility.

As regards Central Asia, throughout the year of the OSCE Chairmanship Lithuania actively promoted implementation of the Community Security Initiative (CSI) project in Kyrgyzstan which was designed to restore confidence between the communities and the law enforcement agencies after the violent inter-ethnic conflict in 2010.

We also understand very well that planned withdrawal of the ISAF forces from Afghanistan will affect the security situation in the country as well as in all Central Asia. Therefore, it is important to strengthen co-operation between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, so that different agencies are more capable to address common threats. During Lithuanian OSCE Chairmanship I have advocated for a strategic OSCE engagement with Afghanistan with a tangible regional module involving Central Asia. The 10 mln euro package of projects aimed at assisting Afghanistan in preparations for 2014 has been prepared and launched. I personally visited the border crossing point at the Nizhny Pyanj/Shir Khan Bandar at the Tajik-Afghan Border last year. As a result joint trainings of the Tajik and Afghan Border guards were conducted at the Border Guard School in Medininkai.

The OSCE conference on countering drug trafficking was organised in cooperation with the UNDOC and other international organisations. I believe that there is a need for better coordination of the efforts of international organisations like UN, OSCE, NATO and regional organisations in fighting common threats.
4. How would you assess the state and prospects of European “Eastern partnership” and participation of Lithuania in it?

It is in our vital interests to encourage eastern neighboring countries on the way of closer political association and deeper economic integration with the EU. And it is high time to act as parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus are approaching.

Although attention towards Europe’s East was overwhelmed by the developments in Southern Neighborhood, we should still keep our appropriate engagement with the Eastern European partners and we are advocating for it on regular basis. Let us look at broader geopolitical processes in the Eastern Europe. One could speak of two competing alternatives of regional integration and cooperation for the Eastern European countries, one of which is EaP, and another – Eurasian union initiated by Russia. Presently I would not buy into the visionary speculations of the latter as in the name of noble ideas about Eurasian unity, certain undemocratic regimes yet try to impose the model of “top-down” integration without legitimate interests of our neighbouring states respected.

The Eurasian union, unfortunately, offers no long term solution to ensure stability and prosperity in the region which is the interest of both the EU and its neigbors. From what we have seen since the collapse of the EU, Russian leadership has been much more efficient in fueling conflincts rather than solving them, applying „divide and rule“ strategy rather than breeding solidarity, domination using power tools rather than generating regional prosperity. This naturally suggests that Eastern partners should not be interested in joining an even tighter coordination. Nor would it be within the interests of the EU. The EU needs to set up alternatives to these countries that are still strugling through economic and political transitions or are in need of them.

European Union will never offer a miracle solution and cheap and quick recipes to solve all the present challenges faced by Eastern Partnership countries.  But it can and must offers consistent instruments for long-term integration of those, who make their choice towards European future. The Eastern Partnership is an excellent example of that.  Lithuania strongly believes in the motivating power of the European perspective for those European partners that have European aspirations and follow the ambitious European path of necessary reforms. Reforms must also come in a democratic way – people must understand the need for them and push their leadership towards change. That is why engagement with civil society and youth within the Eastern Partnership is so important.

It would be unfair to claim about the lack of positive developments in the Eastern Partnership region currently. One must never forget that the present process of democracy consolidation is more complex and demanding as compared with the period of regime change.

On the other hand, the steps by some partners towards deeper integration with the EU are visible and undeniable: take, for example the initialization of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU in the end of March, also progress in negotiations on Association Agreements (with DCFTA as an integral part of it) with Moldova and Georgia, and Armenia, progress in visa dialogue with Ukraine and Moldova. Launching the visa dialogue with Georgia and then achieving considerable progress in it would be a great achievement as well. We also see much value added in strengthening sectoral cooperation between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, especially in the field of energy, transport, justice and home affairs, culture, etc.

Conditionality is important but must not be dogmatic. It must create pressure on political leadership but must never become an excuse to turn backs to societies that are going through a thougher period, such as Ukrainian people are at the moment.

The Eastern Partnership will be one of the main priorities for Lithuania’s Presidency of the EU in the second half of 2013. We hope that the 3rd Eastern Partnership Summit to be held in Vilnius during the Lithuania’s Presidency of the EU will be an excellent opportunity to further solidify the EU’s offer for the Eastern European partners.
5. Does Lithuania intend to suggest something, to introduce new initiatives during the oncoming NATO Summit in Chicago?

In 2010, in Lisbon NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept which embraces three fundamental contemporary missions for the alliance: collective defence, input to global crisis management, and cooperative security. Chicago summit lays the foundations for implementation of the new Strategic Concept. To put it in other words, we will be harvesting the fruit of Lisbon summit of 2010. These are strengthening transatlantic solidarity and collective defense, enhancing cooperation with partner nations and addressing crises beyond NATO borders.

In particular, Lithuania will seek to reaffirm NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, which is perfect example of “smart defense” initiative of pooling and sharing. We will increase host nation contribution to the air policing and will proceed with the establishment of the NATO Center of Excellence on Energy Security in Lithuania.

We will also reconfirm our support to Afghanistan and work towards achieving closer relationship with key contributing partners, particularly Sweden, Finland and Georgia.