Foreign Relations

Lithuania Table of Contents

The course of Lithuania's foreign policy in the 1990s has been more stable than its domestic politics. This has been demonstrated by the fact that between March 1990 and November 1992 it had five prime ministers but only one minister of foreign affairs. Since independence the cornerstone of Lithuanian foreign policy has been integration with European security institutions: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE; until January 1995 known as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe--see Glos-sary), the Council of Europe (COE), the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and ultimately, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Lithuania is a member of the OSCE, the COE, and the NACC and is an associate member of the EU. It hopes eventually to join the EU, the WTO, and NATO, and progress was made toward these goals in 1994.

In the beginning, Lithuania's aims were more fundamental. Lithuania's sole foreign policy concern in 1990 was to gain international recognition of the restored Lithuanian state. However, efforts directed at Gorbachev on the one hand and the Western powers on the other hand bore no fruit. Gorbachev could not afford the political cost of recognizing Lithuanian independence, nor did he believe in Lithuania's right to statehood. The West's attitude, according to Egon Bahr, a German foreign policy expert, was "We'll throw you a life preserver after you learn how to swim." Gorbachev informally agreed not to use force, and the West did not push him to permit Lithuanian independence.

However, after the Vilnius massacre of January 13, 1991, which revealed that Gorbachev had authorized attempts to overthrow Lithuania's government, Western states broke ranks. The first was Iceland, which declared that it recognized Lithuania's sovereignty. Iceland had extended recognition in 1922 and had never reneged on it. Next, Denmark expressed its commitment to early recognition. Paradoxically, the greatest appreciation of Lithuania's needs came from Russia. After learning about the Vilnius massacre, Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin met with Baltic leaders in Tallinn and expressed solidarity with Lithuania. This expression gained legal status on July 29, 1991. On that day, United States President George H.W. Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty with Gorbachev in Moscow, and Yeltsin and Landsbergis signed a treaty "on the basis of relations" between the Republic of Lithuania and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The crucial item of the treaty was Article 1, which stated that "The High Contracting Parties recognize one another as full-fledged subjects of international law and as sovereign states according to their state status as established by the fundamental acts adopted by the Republic of Lithuania on 11 March 1990 and by the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic on 12 June 1990." Lithuanians hastily ratified the treaty on August 19, 1991, the same day as a coup was carried out by conservative forces in Moscow against Gorbachev. It was not until January 17, 1992, however, that Russia ratified the agreement.

After the coup failed, the international community quickly recognized the independence of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. In September 1991, President Bush renewed the United States recognition of Lithuania of 1922 and announced that an ambassador would be sent to Vilnius. The Soviet Union recognized Lithuania's independence on September 6, 1991. On the recommendation of the United States and the Soviet Union, Lithuania was admitted to the United Nations (UN) on September 16. Then on December 21, the Soviet Union collapsed as a legal entity, and on December 24 Yeltsin informed UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuellar that the Russian Federation had assumed "all rights and obligations of the USSR." Thus, Russia still was, for all practical purposes, the Soviet Union, only under different leadership.

Once Lithuania joined the UN, Landsbergis indicated the next priorities of Lithuania's foreign policy: to join all accessible international organizations, and to legally strengthen the status of the new state while working toward the withdrawal of Russian troops, regarded by Lithuanians as an occupying force, from Lithuania. The Russian military strongly opposed this demand, claiming that the troops had no place to go. The commander of the Baltic Military District believed the troops would leave only after several years. Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev suggested a "status of forces" agreement to legalize the Russian troop presence. In June 1992, the Baltic Council, a consultative body of Baltic leaders, appealed to the CSCE, the UN, and the Group of Seven (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States). The Group of Seven, the CSCE, and the UN, as well as NATO, counseled the Russians to set a definite withdrawal date. After protracted negotiations, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from Lithuania. An agreement was signed in Moscow on September 8, 1992, setting the deadline for withdrawal at August 31, 1993, a year earlier than expected.

The withdrawal of Russian troops was completed on time, opening a new chapter between Russia and Lithuania and encouraging closer economic and other relations. When Lithuania first declared independence from the Soviet Union and tried to negotiate its status with the Gorbachev administration, it did not achieve its goals. But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Vilnius tried to put the past behind them, even though the Soviet Union had imposed an economic blockade and had used violence to force Lithuania to renounce independence. Although diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1991, Russia did not send an ambassador to Lithuania until 1992, and Lithuania reciprocated only in March 1993. Relations between Vilnius and Moscow were often unsettled by press reports of violations of Lithuanian airspace throughout the first half of the 1990s. Despite a desire to control air traffic within its borders, Lithuania has been unable to come to an agreement with Russia to regulate air transit. The two countries did, however, sign an economic cooperation agreement in November 1993.

Preoccupied with Russia and with the West, Lithuanian policy makers had somewhat neglected Lithuania's other neighbors, especially Belarus and Ukraine. Nevertheless, trade with Belarus expanded, and a border agreement was reached. Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma's administration was supportive of Lithuanian sovereignty, and the two countries signed an economic cooperation agreement in February 1994. Vilnius focused on a rapprochement with Poland, which resulted in a treaty of cooperation covering various fields, including de-fense, and providing even for joint maneuvers of their armed forces. The agreement was signed during a visit to Lithuania by Polish president Lech Walesa in April 1994 and was ratified by Lithuania in October 1994.

Lithuania seeks closer relations with Scandinavia. The Swedish king and the Danish queen have visited Lithuania. Close economic ties are being developed with Norway and Denmark. Denmark cooperates closely with Lithuania in military affairs and has agreed to train Lithuanian military units to serve as UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.

In relations with Western Europe and the United States, Lithuania has two main objectives. The first is economic cooperation and attracting Western capital to boost Lithuania's economy and to help with the transition to a free market and democracy. The second objective is to gain security guarantees so that Lithuania and the other Baltic states would not be left alone to face any threat from Russia. Vilnius has pursued these objectives by demonstrating its respect for Western values and by negotiating bilateral trade agreements, tax treaties, and consular and other agreements with West European countries and the United States.

More about the Government and Politics of Lithuania.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress