Presidential and local elections will be held in Lithuania in the spring, as well as elections to the European Parliament. The deadline for registration of presidential candidates expires on February 21, and there are already three favorites of the election race. For Ukraine, the United States and the European Union, the election results in this distinctive and small Baltic country are of particular importance.
This year, the second presidential term of the “iron lady” Dalia Grybauskaite will end. This woman is perhaps the most ardent supporter of anti-Russian sanctions, the principle of territorial integrity, an opponent of the construction of the Nord Stream-2, a critic of Russia's aggression in eastern Ukraine and our country's lawyer in the EU and NATO.
Vilnius is one of the strongholds of US influence in Europe, a participant in the Atlantic Resolve operation to curb Russia's aggression on the Alliance’s eastern borders. Lithuania has become an example of a post-Soviet state that has managed to break out of the Kremlin’s orbit, join the EU and NATO, and diversify its dependence on natural gas supplies from Russia by building a floating terminal in the port of Klaipeda.
The question is what course the next Lithuanian president will pursue in relation to Ukraine and Russia. As in any other European country, elections in Lithuania are in the field of view of the Kremlin.
Local special services fear Russia's interference in elections and believe that Russian intelligence is preparing activities during the electoral cycle of 2019–2020 and will try to influence the outcome of elections through information manipulations and cyber tools, including the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation on social networks.
Friends of the West and Ukraine
To date, there are two presidential candidates who focus on strengthening Lithuanian defense, cooperation with the United States and NATO in their electoral programs, and pay much attention to the threat from Russia and its aggression in Ukraine in their rhetoric.
Nowadays the Russian threat serves as a unifying factor for the Lithuanian population. This is also characteristic of other Baltic countries (Latvia, Estonia). The Lithuanians did not forget the circumstances in which their state said goodbye to independence and joined the USSR in 1940 with Latvia and Estonia.
The Lithuanian authorities allowed Soviet troops to be stationed on their territory and held early parliamentary elections under pressure from the USSR. After the victory of the left-wing parties, Vilnius launched a political course 180 degrees towards the Kremlin.
According to the Vilmorus Ltd. sociological center, 65% of Lithuanian citizens consider Russia to be the most unfriendly and dangerous country (Belarus ranks second). In 2018, the number of supporters of intensified cooperation with Russia decreased from 44% to 38%. According to the DELFI survey, 60% of respondents believe that Russia's foreign policy is a threat to Lithuania.
According to the poll of Sprinter turimai, Ingrida Šimonytė from the Union of the Fatherland-Lithuanian Christian Democrats opposition conservative party, is supported by 19% of Lithuanian citizens. She earned a reputation as the Grybauskaite’s successor. Although they are not from the same party, Šimonytė has much in common with the president.
Like Grybauskaite, she held the post of Minister of Finance and maintains a tough stance towards Russia. Šimonytė criticizes the Russian Federation for the annexation of Crimea, the aggression in Donbas, support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. She believes that the Russian special services intervened in the US presidential election.
Šimonytė does not exclude the scenario of the Russian attack on Lithuania. The politician is in favor of strengthening relations with the West, since this is a strategic direction that should not change in the coming years.
Šimonytė won over the former EU ambassador to the Russian Federation Vygaudas Usackas during the primaries. Usackas also planned to participate in the elections from the Union of Fatherland-Lithuanian Christian Democrats party, but earned a reputation as a “Kremlin man” that deprived him of the support of a significant part of the electorate.
According to Usackas, Russia does not represent a direct military threat to Lithuania and it is necessary to develop pragmatic relations with the eastern neighbor. At the same time, he proposed to deploy the American military base in Lithuania and support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
By the way, the Union of Fatherland-Lithuanian Christian Democrats party was formed from the Saúdis social and political movement, which defended the revival of Lithuanian independence and the withdrawal from the USSR in its last years and stands on anti-communist positions, criticizing the Russian foreign policy.
A sufficiently strong candidate for the presidency is Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis from the ruling party, the Union of Peasants and Greens. 16.5% of Lithuanian voters are ready to vote for him. He holds similar views with Šimonytė about Russia and relations with the West.
He is in favor of strengthening transatlantic relations, he considers the USA to be Lithuania’s main partner, and NATO to be a strong and reliable alliance. He opposes the construction of the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, supports the supply of military equipment from Lithuania to Ukraine, and the liberalization of the EU trade regime for our country.
According to Skvernelis, Lithuania will never recognize the annexation of Crimea, and the talk that the annexation of the peninsula is an accomplished fact is unacceptable.
The Lithuanian Prime Minister is playing the anti-Russian card to rally the electorate around his person in order to take away votes from Šimonytė. In December 2018, Skvernelis announced that he had asked the security services to check the links of the Union of Fatherland-Christian Democrats with the Russian Federation.
In the Russian media, the version is being exaggerated that the latest statements by the special services about the threat of Russia's interference in the Lithuanian elections are part of a political game for the sake of conservatives, such as Skvernelis, who have a hard line against Russia. However, the situation is not so simple.
Lesser Evil for Russia
The Kremlin’s goal is to prevent conservatives like Simonyte or Skvernelis from coming to power in Lithuania, because they will pursue Grybauskaite's successive policy. Since there are no prominent supporters of rapprochement with Russia among influential Lithuanian politicians, such as Moldovan Presidents Igor Dodon, Rumen Radev from Bulgaria, Milos Zeman from Czech Republic and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and local Russians make up only 6% of the population of three million Lithuania, the Kremlin can play up to those candidates who are not fixated on the idea of countering Russian expansion.
This concerns an independent candidate and the head of SEB Bankas former senior economist Gitanas Nauseda. According to Sprinter turimai, ру is supported by 27% of voters. In his rhetoric, Nauseda avoids topics related to Russian aggression.
In 2014, he said that financial market participants had come to terms with the “loss of Crimea” and the financial scenario does not reflect the further split of Ukraine. The presidential candidate of Lithuania actually recognized the annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli.
Nauseda avoids harsh criticism of Russia. He believes that one should not exaggerate the value of the eastern neighbor for the global economy, since the United States is setting the mainstream in this area. In September 2013, Nauseda said that Russia would not be able to bring the Lithuanian economy to its knees, but serious challenges for Lithuanians are the slowdown of the Russian economy, the decline in demand for Lithuanian products and protectionist measures of the Kremlin.
To some extent, the economist turned out to be right, as Russia limited the import of European products in response to anti-Russian sanctions. So, in his election campaign, Nauseda advocates strengthening relations with Poland in the trade, economic, energy and socio-cultural sphere in order to reduce dependence on Russia.
In 2017, Russia became the largest Lithuanian export destination, and its share in total Lithuanian exports was 14.7%. Lithuania purchased 1.4 billion cubic meters of natural ga, in Russia, 37% more than in 2016. Russian gas is cheaper than liquefied natural gas supplied from Norway.
Despite the pragmatic perception of Russia, Nauseda managed to find support among the population, even among the conservatives. In September 2018, even before the beginning of the election campaign, several branches of the Union of Fatherland-Lithuanian Christian Democrats party supported his candidacy for participation in the elections.
Some Lithuanians, such as the Lithuanian dissident from the USA Valdas Anelauskas, believe that Nauseda can continue the Grybauskaite policy. He is respected by voters as he considers it a priority to improve the welfare of Lithuanians, including state employees. Nauseda plays into the hands of discontent of a part of Lithuanian society with the activities of the Skvernelis government.
In November-December, a large strike of teachers took place in Lithuania. They protested against the regular wage system, due to which unequal wages are provided for the same work. Due to low wages in Lithuania, some citizens leave for work in the Nordic countries and the UK.
Pragmatic and prudent Nauseda is a lesser evil for the Kremlin than atlantists and conservatives, and if he wins, the Kremlin can start a dialogue with him and try to convince him to raise the issue of lifting or softening anti-Russian sanctions in the EU, and not to hinder the implementation of the "Nord Stream - 2" Russian gas pipeline.
It seems that Nauseda is going to build a foreign policy based on finding an alternative to the Russian market, which is of interest to Lithuanian food producers and cargo carriers.
He argues as a businessman who has become a hostage of unforeseen circumstances of a political nature and is looking for ways to minimize damage to the Lithuanian economy. The Ukrainian question, apparently, does not bother him much.
Concerns about the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the outcome of elections in Lithuania are not unfounded. In the Russian media, oriented towards the readers of the Baltic countries, Nauseda is presented in relatively positive tones, criticism of him is moderate and he is not splashed with mud like Simonyte or Skvernelis.
Since the beginning of 2018, the analytical portal Rubaltic.ru has published 45 different materials about Nauseda, his political program, while in 2015–17 there were only 11 articles. For comparison: since the founding of Rubaltic.ru in 2013, only 32 materials about the conservator Simonyte have been published.
According to journalist Alexei Ilyashevich, Nauseda gives the impression of a “sane person”, since he does not “rant” about Ukraine, Syria, and victims of repressions of the Kremlin. RT journalists Alexander Bovdunov and Elizaveta Komarova believe that, unlike Grybauskaite, Simonyte and Skvernelis, the economist Nauseda favors a pragmatic foreign policy.
Rubaltic.ru published an infographic under the heading "Nauseda - the new president of Lithuania?" in colors of the Lithuanian flag, in which the results of the opinion polls, where the candidate was in the lead, were presented.
The Russian media do not praise Nauseda, but lead the reader to the idea that he is supposedly the most constructive politician among other candidates. This is a deliberate move of the Russian side, so that the image of the Kremlin’s protégé does not stand behind Nauseda, as is the case with Ushackas.
In order to dispel suspicions of sympathy for the Russian leadership towards the candidate, two pro-Kremlin Lithuanian politicians kindled information noise. The founder of the movement “Alternative for Lithuania”, a publicist, Kazimieras Juraitis, known for criticizing the current authorities and asking the Russian Federation to introduce a peacekeeping contingent to Lithuania, is running for president.
The leader of the Eurosceptic Order and Justice Party, the ex-president and MEP Rolandas Paksas, who was removed from power by the parliament in 2004 on charges of disclosing state secrets, wants to take part in the election race (the electoral commission refuses to register him).
In December 2018, it was reported that Rolandas met with Putin. The Order and Justice Party is in favor of Lithuania’s withdrawal from the EU. The Kremlin is trying to set things up as if there were no attempts to influence the outcome of the elections in Lithuania.