Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Despite two major concurrent crises – the combustible situation on Lithuania’s border with Belarus and the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s ruling party, the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD), known as Conservatives colloquially, have been ensconced cosily behind the Social Democrats in many recent party support polls.
But a major test to the HU-LCD-orchestrated Cabinet and the party itself has come this week from a scandal over Belarusian state-controlled Belaruskali’s advance payment to the Lithuanian state railway company for services to be provided after the US sanctions against Belarus’ potash giant came into force on December 8.
The country’s Foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Thursday, December 9, that the continuation of the services was «incomprehensible» to him and that he is «ready» to resign.
At least several Lithuanian ministers, including Transport minister Marius Skuodis, were mulling resignation amid the scandal.
Defending the decision not to terminate contract with Belaruskali, a cash cow for authoritarian Minsk, Skuodis said Lithuania may face «hefty lawsuits» if it terminates its contract with the US-sanctioned Belarusian potash giant.
«I am sure we will be facing potential lawsuits of a huge size if we did that, and that’s why we can’t afford to make quick, rash and impulsive decisions here,» the minister said. «But it is a fact that there will be (lawsuits),» he added.
Lawyers say that the management board of Lietuvos Geležinkeliai (Lithuanian Railways, LTG) will be responsible for the termination of the state railway group’s contract with Belaruskali and for the possible financial consequences of the move, according to Skuodis.
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«As the minister, I can’t oblige LTG to terminate the contract,» he said. «The railway company’s board is responsible for the consequences, the financial consequences of its decisions, possible damages and lawsuits».
LTG CEO Mantas Bartuška said on December 9 that the Lithuanian company could face fines of hundreds of millions of euros if it terminated the contract with Belaruskali.
Bartuška said that unilateral termination of the contract was only possible if the state took such a decision. The CEO reiterated that the US sanctions against Belaruskali were not a legal basis for LTG to terminate or otherwise suspend operations.
Skuodis said later on Thursday that the state could take steps to minimize the financial consequences. Landsbergis, who has always been a vocal critic of Belarus under Lukashenko, said on Thursday he was awaiting a decision (on his fate as the minister) from Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė.
«I told the prime minister today, in fact last night, that I was ready to step down and I am waiting for the prime minister’s decision,» Landsbergis, HU-LCD chairman, was quoted. «I understand the reputational damage to Lithuania,» he added.
If Landsbergis and some other ministers resigned as a result, that would be a major shake-up of the HU-LCD Cabinet – it may even collapse, some say, but fallout for the party could be even harsher if the ministers stay, some others say.
Although being praised by some for what the HU-LCD claims to be «values-based foreign politics», Landsbergis junior has been as much excoriated for his hawkishness and belligerence on the front of foreign politics.
«Alas, if Conservatives get (power) reigns in their hands, a trouble comes for call, and for the state, too. We’re making just enemies, not friends. The Conservatives’ Cabinet just proves the rule,» Gintaras Tomkus, a publisher in Klaipeda, told BNN.
It is estimated that Klaipeda port’s annual cargo turnover would by slashed by third if Belarusian cargoes stop reaching the port.
And some Lithuanian MPs, who just recently cautioned to show sensitivity to Lithuanian economic interests in dealing with Belarus, have now become vociferous critics of the Foreign minister and the HU-LCD-led Cabinet.
«The situation we see now (the continuation of hauling of Belarusian fertilizers on the «Lithuanian railways» rails to the Port of Klaipeda) means a «bankruptcy» of the values-based foreign politics that the Conservatives have been promulgating. It is evident. Lithuania has called on Europe and the world to sanction Belarus, but, now with them in place, it shuns their economic impact. That is dishonest, to put it mildly,» Gintautas Paluckas, a Social Democratic MP, told BNN.
Some say that Landsbergis is in a catch-22 situation: neither his resignation nor stay will help him and his party (Gabrielius Landsbergis’ term as the HU-LCD leader ends in 2025 –L. J.) in the long-run.
«The liberal policies it has been preaching – support for same-sex, decriminalisation of soft drugs – have angered many Conservatives, especially on the Christian wing…And some, even some Conservative MPs, opine he is too tough as the minister,» other analyst told BNN.
However, notably, Gabrielius Landsbergis is included in the recent list of most influential Europeans compiled by the online magazine Politico. Dubbed «the dragonslayer», Landsbergis landed the third position in the list of «dreamers» for «leading the charge against China».
As reported, Lithuania angered China by allowing Taiwan to open it representative office in Vilnius. Unlike in some other European capitals, its name in the Lithuanian capital includes the word «Taiwanese”.
For Vytautas Dumbliauskas, associate professor of Mykolas Romeris University, «most interesting things», politically, come now, with the New Year being behind the corner.
«So far, the Conservatives have weathered quite well the crises stemming from the migrant influx and the coronavirus pandemic, but this situation (regarding Belaruskalij) can spiral out of control» he says.
The opposition Social Democratic Party of Lithuania remains the most popular party in Lithuania, with the HU-LCD remaining in the second place, according to the latest survey by Vilmorus, a pollster.
In total, 16.3 percent of the people surveyed said they would vote for the Social Democrats in November (16.8 percent in October), and 11.5 percent (9.7 percent) would back the HU-LCD. The opposition Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union came in third with 10.5 percent, up from 9.4 percent a month ago.
Interestingly, like his famous grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis, the architect of an independent Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis are one of the least favourably viewed politicians in Lithuania.
Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN