Catherine Nicholson, France 24, November 12, 2021
Lithuania’s foreign minister has defended his country’s newly-imposed state of emergency on and around its border with Belarus, amid an increasing number of irregular migrants trying to cross – and has accused the Belarusian president of orchestrating “instrumentalised migration” and participating in “trafficking”. Gabrielius Landsbergis told FRANCE 24’s Catherine Nicholson that Lithuanian border officials need “more legal instruments to really secure the border”, which runs for approximately 700 kilometres.
The minister sees the possibility of “incidents” as being “quite high”, saying: “We’re seeing people who are angry, people who are being pushed from the other side, Belarusian authorities are using dogs and other instruments to mobilise the groups and to force them into a huge border crossing.”
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR had already warned Lithuanian border officials in recent weeks against pushing would-be asylum-seekers back across the border into Belarus, telling FRANCE 24 this could be a violation of the country’s commitments under international law. In response to this, Landsbergis asserts that Lithuania is not pushing people back, but “re-routing” them: “We have made legal ways for people to apply for asylum. One of them is our embassy in Minsk, which accepts the applications of people who would like to get asylum in Lithuania.”
On a suggestion from Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko that Russia could become involved in any escalation, Landsbergis acknowledged this as a possibility, referring to Lukashenko as the “so-called president, because he lost the election last year”: “[Alexander Lukashenko] doesn’t answer to his people, he doesn’t answer to international institutions, he only answers to Russia, to Russia’s president. So it’s obvious that he will try and get Russia’s president into the whole thing.”
He added: “There is a possibility of escalation. Especially when the military is involved on the border. But my hope is that if the European Union gets its act together and we can formulate a list of very concrete and specific sanctions, that would stop the companies from flying in the people into Minsk airport.”
There have been calls from other EU states, and from the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for various sanctions against companies and Belarusian state apparatus.
The Lithuanian foreign minister suggests sanctioning Minsk airport itself, as well as individual airlines involved in conveying people from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere to Belarus, saying they are participating in people trafficking: “We want to persuade in all ways possible, for companies not to choose Minsk, not to bring people in, because they are participating in the trafficking operation.”
The minister also discussed ongoing diplomatic tensions between Lithuania and Beijing, after the Lithuanian government permitted the opening of a “Taiwanese representation office” in the capital Vilnius. Other EU states host similar representations, but which go under the name of “Taipei”, not “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese”. Landsbergis insisted that his government was not aiming to irritate Beijing or defy its One China Policy, under which Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its territory. “We are adamant that we maintain the One China policy as it is defined in their international obligations. This is not a diplomatic representation, this is the same as in 18 other EU countries: this is more of a trade, cultural representation and we do not think that the name is an issue. The name was asked by the Taiwanese themselves, and we believe that they have a right in a European country to choose a name for their representation.”
The minister asserted that the case is important for other states too: “If we give in to coercion, which is not a diplomatic way to solve disputes between countries, the same instruments will be used against the next country, and who knows what the next country will be.”
In September the foreign minister visited Washington DC, where US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pledged his government’s “ironclad support” for Lithuania on this issue. When asked by FRANCE 24 however about the level of support within the European Union, Landsbergis indicated that certain states – including France – were more keen to join Lithuania’s side than others: “We are feeling a lot of support from Paris and it’s very important. More broadly, the political support is there but the EU is still in the process of formulating what I would call its “China Policy”. In the European Union we still haven’t decided on the format under which we will talk with China […] We adamantly believe that the EU has to have a very coherent policy on how we approach China on the political, economic, humanitarian, and so many other issues that we have on the agenda.”