Why Putin in Kremlin Is Good for Lithuania

Excerpt from report by Lithuanian weekly magazine Veidas

[Commentary by Audrius Baciulis: "Why Putin in Kremlin Is Good for Lithuania"]

It is better to have Vladimir Putin – who is weak, who has lost the support of the Russian nation, and who does not have the legitimacy in the West’s eyes – in the Kremlin than some self-assertive opposition nationalist with whom Europe and the United States would be very eager to strike a deal, perhaps at the cost of certain geopolitical concessions.

After the Russian presidential election, it has become something of a common courtesy for the Western, and Lithuanian, politicians and political scientists to express regret that Vladimir Putin has won the election and to express concern that the "Russian democracy" is in danger.

A Long-Term Deal Requires a Partner

Vytautas Landsbergis, [Lithuanian] member of the European Parliament, seems to be the only one who has brought some sense into this chorus, saying that "there is no threat to Russian democracy because there is no democracy there. Something that does not exist cannot be threatened." However, the formulation of the question shows that the European and US media have already drilled into their societies’ heads that, generally speaking, there is democracy in Russia, and that the only problem is that one or another politician is posing a threat to that democracy, and, that unlike Belarus, where there is dictatorship, Russia is a democratic country.

Veidas noticed this Western attitude in the summer of 2011, when David Kramer, head of the US nongovernmental organization Freedom House and an experienced diplomat, started explaining that there were two centers of power in Moscow – President Dmitriy Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which, according to him meant that Russia was being ruled more democratically than Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus. In his opinion, there was no reason to worry that if the Lukashenka regime is toppled, the economically dependent Belarus would be pushed directly into Russia’s embrace.

Such position of Western representatives shows that Russia and Belarus have different geopolitical importance for the West. In the eyes of Europe and the United States, Russia is a source of energy-related raw materials and a strategic partner in the fight against China over the dominance in Central and Southeast Asia. And Belarus is a nebulous post-Soviet territory without firm statehood traditions and without national identity. Its value, especially to Europe, is that of a transit country because strategic transport and energy supply routes are going from Russia to Europe via Belarus.

Moreover, considering that important political changes are taking place in Europe right now, that Paris and Berlin have been firmly tightening their grip on the EU wheel, we cannot rule out a possibility that Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or Washington might try to strike a long-term strategic deal with Russia, something in the spirit of the Triple Entente of the beginning of the 20th century or the allies deal of the mid-20th century. This is especially obvious because Berlin has been recently using geopolitical terms from the 19th century, such as "Mitteleuropa," but it also has been using the 21st century’s ideas of Europe’s regionalization and has been speaking about erasing the walls between the traditional national states of the 20th century.

However, to strike such a strategic deal with Russia, Europe or the United States have to have somebody they could strike such a deal with. According to modern traditions, this has to be a democratically elected political force that enjoys the trust of the nation and that can remain an active political force for a long period of time. Neither Putin nor his party – the United Russia, made up of his bureaucratic administration and force structures – satisfy these requirements. Europe tried to talk to Putin, but the "small victorious" war against Georgia put an end to the possible partnership story. In the West, Putin has been declared, as Russians have put it, "somebody who does not shake hand s with anyone."

Russian Democrats Are Imperialists

This is why when Medvedev was elected as Russian president, the West was rejoicing so much. US President Barack Obama brought the "reset" policy to Moscow and agreed to abandon his plans to have stationary anti-missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Such Washington’s actions, when it openly ignored the traditional geopolitical fears of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, provoked concerns that the Americans might have sold the former post-Soviet zone to Russia in exchange for the support in Afghanistan and Iran. Since then, the United States has been making every effort to dispel the fears of the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic states. However, it is obvious that, in the long-term perspective, the United States’ eyes are looking in the direction of the Indian and Pacific Ocean, and not in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.

As for, France and Germany, which are steering the EU wheel, these two countries are historical Russia’s partners from a geopolitical point of view. Paris and Berlin had (and have) been competing between themselves for Russia’s love. And now, in the united "Merkozy" Europe, they can reach an agreement because a long-term partnership with Russia would turn the Europeans into a world power whose might would match that of the United States.

However, they need somebody else, and not Putin or one of his proteges, in the Kremlin to be able to achieve that because Putin’s regime does not have much future left. This is obvious, we saw how, from December to February, hundreds of thousands of people everywhere in Russia were participating in protest meetings against the Putin regime that had falsified the Duma election results. This awakening of Russian democracy immediately received enthusiastic support in Europe.

However, the problem is that after analyzing what these "democrats" have been propagating, one’s hair stand on end. These are cold, cynical, nationalists-imperialists, who do not have anything to do with the [Boris] Yeltsin’s democrats, who were supporting the Baltic countries’ freedom goals two decades ago. They see Putin as a bad one first of all because they believe he has sold himself to the West and to the United States; they see the Baltic countries, and Georgia, as enemies; they believe that like the other former Soviet Republics, the Baltic countries have to be returned to Russia by hook or by crook. However, if they take over the power through democratic means, Paris and Berlin, and Washington, will enthusiastically negotiate with them and will seek partnership.

How would this affect Lithuania’s interests? Directly. It is obvious that when the future Russia negotiates partnership with Europe, it will demand a payment. The price would be Belarus. Once the latter finds itself in Russia’s embrace, the Baltic countries would be connected to Europe only by a narrow "Suwalki" [Poland] corridor, which from one side would be pressured by Russia in Minsk, and from the other side by Russia in Kaliningrad. It would be only a matter of time before Baltic countries would be returned to "mother Russia."

We should note that not a single Russian president has paid a visit to Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, three Russia’s neighbors, during these two decades, thus demonstrating to the West that, de facto, the Kremlin has not recognized the independent Baltic countries and that it still considers them as rebels who have escaped from it only temporarily.

Kaliningrad Is Turning Into Konigsberg

Such Kremlin’s behavior is understandable because the geopolitical factor of the independent Belarus and the Baltic countries has also a reverse effect: If these four countries remain independent for at least several more decades, Russia will lose the Kaliningrad Oblast because it is only a matter of time before its separation from Russia becomes a reality.

Alrea dy now, only 40 percent of the Kaliningrad Oblast residents consider themselves Russian residents. The rest of the respondents gave the following replies: 54 percent consider themselves residents of the Kaliningrad Oblast, 2 percent consider themselves Europeans, and the rest are undecided. Discussions about a referendum on the change of the name of the Kaliningrad Oblast to Konigsberg is being conducted at the level of the Kaliningrad Oblast Administration. The previous governor supported the idea; the current one is against it because 360 war veterans, who had assaulted the Konigsberg stronghold, are still alive. They might find it difficult to understand such an idea. And what happens after 20 years? Especially since Kaliningrad Oblast residents already call their capital city "Konig" in private life, which can be seen at every step, from bus stops to which passengers are brought by Konig Auto to cafes and names of Internet portals.

Discussions about a possible separation of the Kaliningrad Oblast from Russia are seen as absolutely normal in public domain, political scientists have even been analyzing the "Kaliningrad separatism" phenomena. Truth be told, they agree for now that this is more an economic than a political goal, but the direction is clear. Especially since from the economic point of view, "Konig" is badly lagging behind Russia: Its GDP is lower by one-third than it is in Russia, unemployment is over 10 percent, and the locals associate this situation with Moscow’s hostile opposition to the idea of the region’s autonomy. Such Moscow’s attitude makes it impossible for the Kaliningrad Oblast to freely communicate and to trade with the EU, which is surrounding the Kaliningrad region from all sides.

In June 2011, Putin killed the discussion that had been going on for four years about an introduction of special passports for the Kaliningrad Oblast residents, which would allow them to travel to EU countries without visas. "We absolutely cannot single out any Russian region and give its residents special concessions to visit the EU without visas because all Russian citizens have to have equal rights," said the prime minister who was getting ready for the Duma and presidential elections. He did that at the advice of a Kaliningrad FSB [Federal Security Service] chief, who issued a recommendation to Moscow immediately after the massive protest rallies attended by tens of thousands of Kaliningrad residents from November 2009 to January 2010. The people were protesting not just against Moscow’s economic oppression, but also against the Kremlin’s ban for Kaliningrad residents to elect their government from the pool of their own local politicians.

Kaliningrad "returned its thanks" to Putin during the March presidential election by giving him the lowest number of votes in the entire Russia — only 52.7 percent (and only 47 percent in the "Konig" city, and this is after all the "administrational measures!"). If the same trend continues for some 20-30 years, what will we get? Already in 2004, one German Bundestag member from the Christian Democratic Party asked the government about the possibility of establishing the "Konigsberg" European region that would include Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Perhaps it is nothing but a coincidence that this European region repeats the East Prussia borders. Several years ago, a student of Immanuel Kant University in Kaliningrad noted in one discussion: "Is it really a coincidence that Germany decided to abandon its nuclear energy projects exactly when Russia decided to build a nuclear power plant in the Kaliningrad Oblast?"

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but there is already talk in public domain about a submarine power cable from the Kaliningrad Oblast to Germany.

[Box]

[Passage omitted on Landsbergis’s comment on the Kaliningrad Oblast being part of Europe]

Source: Veidas, Vilnius, in Lithuanian 26 Mar 12

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