Forced migration crisis at the heart of NATO PA lawmakers’ visit to Lithuania

10 November 2021

Lithuania, like its neighbours Latvia and Poland, confronts a very serious crisis on its borders as the dictatorial Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko cynically exploits desperate migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan and pushes them westward. 

Shortly after the Lithuanian authorities declared a state of emergency over the situation at the Belarusian border, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested to a visiting delegation of NATO parliamentarians that Lukashenko is pursuing provocative and dangerous tactics both to distract attention from the depredations he has inflicted upon his own people and to pressure the international community to lift sanctions on his regime. “Before this summer,” Mr Landsbergis said, “we didn’t realise that the weaponisation of migration was possible, and it took us some time to realise that this was a hybrid attack on our country.”

The Foreign Minister told the delegation that greater cooperation among Allies would be essential to countering these hybrid attacks. “Today it is Lithuania facing hybrid threats,” he noted, “but tomorrow it will be another country, and another hybrid attack.” He suggested that this experience has reinforced Lithuanian solidarity with its southern allies that have faced similar problems for years.

The Foreign Minister also informed the delegation about ongoing tensions between his country and China. Lithuania recently upgraded its trade relationship with Taiwan, and China has responded by imposing economic sanctions on Lithuania. This attempt at coercion, the Foreign Minister suggested, is part of a broader Chinese effort to isolate and bully democracies around the world. 

“We are committed to strengthening our ties with like-minded countries in Asia,” the Minister said, “so when China says that we have crossed a red line, we reply that they are moving the red line” in order to trip up other countries.  “This is a test – not just for Lithuania, but for all democratic countries”, he concluded.

Other speakers addressed the worrying domestic situation in Belarus during the Vilnius meetings.
“Lukashenko says that no one cares for the Belarusian people”, Franak Viacorka, representative of the democratic Belarusian opposition told members, “but democratic countries can show that this is not true. We can show that Belarus can be a better place, with a better future, and a better life for its people."  

Vytis Jurkonis, Project Director of the Vilnius office of Freedom House, concurred, telling the members that they had a critical role to play in maintaining pressure on Lukashenko’s regime in the form of sanctions. 

When asked for his thoughts on a proposed Center for Democratic Resilience, to be established within NATO Headquarters – a recommendation the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is pursuing, Mr Jurkonis responded: "I love the idea. We often put democracy and human rights fifth or sixth on our list of priorities, but it must be number one. If we do not show our political will in protecting democracy now, we will have to pay much more in the future."

Delegates also discussed the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Lithuania and its strategy for future development. Lithuanian Minister of the Economy, Ausrine Armonaite, told the parliamentarians that the Lithuanian economy has weathered the pandemic exceptionally well, and expects to grow at 4.4% in 2021. She highlighted biotechnology as holding particular promise for the country. That sector, Ms Armonaite said, is already contributing a great deal and its role will only grow over the next decade. 

Ms Armonaite also informed the delegation of Lithuanian efforts to host Belarusian businesses persecuted by the Lukashenko regime. “Belarusian unicorns and [information and communications technology] companies are relocating to Vilnius, and we have a framework where we can offer a safe place to conduct business for those who have been kicked out by Lukashenko”, she said. “At the same time, I hope people can get back home soon once things change in Belarus.” 

In related discussions, the visiting delegation heard Lithuanian perspectives regarding energy security, including the serious challenges that Russian gas policy pose to Lithuania’s energy sovereignty and national security. Speaking at the NATO Energy Security Centre for Excellence in Vilnius, the Defence Policy Director for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, Vaidotas Urbelis, explained to members that Lithuania has a whole of government approach to defence, which necessarily factors in energy considerations. 

On 9 November, members visited Lithuania’s border with Belarus to gather further insights on the hybrid challenge the Belarusian regime poses to the region. Members took stock of the measures taken by Lithuanian border officials to combat border violations and provide humanitarian assistance to migrants already in Lithuania. The delegation also travelled to Rukla to hear from Lithuanian officers and representatives of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (EfP) Battle Group stationed there. With an agile, multinational battle group like the EfP, NATO is sending a clear and credible signal of its resolve to deter aggression. Needed efforts to improve interoperability were also discussed.

John Spellar (UK), Chairperson of the NATO PA’s sub-committee on Transition and Development and Lord Hamilton of Epsom (UK), Chairperson of Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations led the delegation consisting of legislators from 13 NATO member countries visiting Lithuania on 8 and 9 November. The Assembly’s Economics and Security Committee adopted a report on Belarus at the Annual Session of the NATO PA held in Lisbon last October. 

Photos courtesy of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania

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