This Week in LT

Ryanair plane that had on board the Belarusian activist Raman Pratasevich / AP photo

Minsk Hijacking Repercussions

As a growing number of European countries are banning Belarusian airlines from their airspace and Lithuania has banned all flights to and from Belarus, the Russian airline Aeroflot has cancelled its Friday flight from Moscow to Vilnius. Tadas Vasiliauskas, Lietuvos Oro Uostai (Lithuanian Airports) spokesman announced that the Aeroflot plane scheduled to land in Vilnius on May 28 was cancelled, but the airline did not provide a reason. The flight from Vilnius to Moscow, scheduled for the same day, was cancelled as well.

On May 24, the Lithuanian government banned airlines from flying to and from Lithuania via the Belarusian airspace. On the 26th, the country banned all Belarusian airlines from entering Lithuania’s airspace. Later, EU leader agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from entering the block’s airspace and urged EU airlines not to fly over Belarus.

Foreign Minister Speaks out on Lukashenko

Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis interprets the events in Minsk earlier this week as part of  Belarusian authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to help Russian President Vladimir Putin annex the country. Landsbergis told reporters he was convinced “Russia knew what was going on in Minsk”, but admitted that he had no evidence to prove it, noting that most European countries did not recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ legitimate president.

At an informal meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, EU foreign ministers discussed their response to the hijacking of a passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapiega.

Increased Security

Lithuania is taking steps to shore up security on its border with Belarus, such as installing surveillance systems along the entire border within a few years, Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė announced on May 27. The first goal is to cover the entire border with Belarus with surveillance cameras as soon as possible, she said, confirming that there is political will to do so both on the part of the prime minister and the government. The financial resources to cover the border will be secured as quickly as possible. Currently, surveillance systems cover only 38% of Lithuania’s 680-kilometre border with Belarus. The plan is to install the systems along the entire border within the next two years, according to the minister. She said the project would cost Lithuania 38 million euros.

Bilotaitė also said that the country was already taking measures to reinforce its border protection “in the short term”. According to the minister, there has been an increase in smuggling across the border as well as irregular migration lately, with 178 illegal migrants who came from Belarus in the first quarter of this year, a marked increase compared to last year.

Severing Ties with Belarus

Freezing or cutting off economic ties between Lithuania and Belarus would have much more painful effects on Minsk, economists say. Vilnius is considering radical sanctions on the neighbouring country after the Belarusian government highjacked a Vilnius-bound plane to Minsk in order to arrest an opposition activist and his partner, reports

Marius Dubnikovas

According to Marius Dubnikovas, a financial analyst and vice president of the Lithuanian Business Confederation, the losses for Belarus would outweigh any gains, for example in travel, as there are already sanctions on flights.

To put real pressure on Belarus, its export of oil products must be reviewed. The country imports oil very cheaply, refines it and exports it to Western Europe. If Europe rejected the exports, the regime would crumble, in his opinion. But crucial Belarusian exports to Western Europe go via Lithuania. If economic ties were to be cut off, some Lithuanian companies would also suffer. Lithuanian Railways and the Port of Klaipėda would be hit hardest, since the companies handle about one-third of Belarusian exports.

Economist Aleksandras Izgorodinas thinks that if economic ties are suspended and Lithuania gives up Belarusian transit and exports, it will be difficult for Lithuania to find other companies able and willing to export their fertilizers or oil products via Lithuania. Moreover, Lithuanian companies import raw materials, such as metals and wood, from Belarus. They would need to find alternative sources and would have their output disrupted “for a week or two”, according to Izgorodinas.

Statistics show that Belarus is 13th in terms of imports for Lithuania and 11th in terms of export volumes. Lithuania also reloads goods produced in Europe and transports them to Russia via Belarus. Lithuania’s European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, the country’s former economy minister, has suggested that suspending economic ties would cost Lithuania one percent of its GDP over three years. According to Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, economic sanctions on Belarus would have to be imposed by the EU as a whole.

Balts Consider MLRS Procurement

Estonian Defence Minister Kalle Laanet has announced that the three Baltic countries are likely to jointly procure Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS).

They decided to start a more detailed analysis and preparatory work for the joint procurement of MLRS. The announcement came during a joint meeting of the Baltic defence ministers. MLRS units from the United Kingdom and the United States have recently been deployed to Estonia, which was also reportedly the first time the US M270 systems have been deployed outside of Germany, where they are based.

The Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian ministers also stressed the need for more air defence exercises. Lithuania is holding the presidency of Baltic Defence Cooperation in 2021.

End of Quarantine in Sight

Health Minister Arūnas Dulkys

According to Health Minister Arūnas Dulkys, Lithuania could completely lift the coronavirus quarantine in July, if the pace of vaccination accelerates and the current testing rate is maintained. He noted that as many citizens as possible must get vaccinated. Since May 24, vaccination slots have been open to anyone aged over 35.

The second condition is to keep testing at the current rate. Over 20,000 tests daily help combat the pandemic, Dulkys said. The third key thing is to follow the quarantine rules and recommendations.

On May 26 the government extended the coronavirus lockdown until June 30, but loosened some restrictions. Among other things, it allowed outdoor cafes to stay open two hours longer, permitted groups of up to 10 people to socialize indoors and removed the limit on outdoor gatherings.

Promoting Sports in Lithuania

The Lithuanian Sports Foundation (Sporto rėmimo fondas) has designated 3.2 million euros for 61 projects and services, including events for the disabled. One of the projects being planned is “STOP Immobility“, modelled on a previous campaign decreasing traffic fatalities. It will encourage regular activity and educate citizens about the benefits of exercise for their health and well-being.

There were 343 projects submitted for the Foundation’s consideration, reviewed by experts and then by a commission assembled by the ministry of education, science and sports. Ten percent of the funds for each field are allotted to promote sports for the disabled. The total funding for 2021 will be 15 million euros, two million less than in 2020.

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