When the Maidan protests swept across Ukraine in 2014, resulting in the removal of the corrupt former President Viktor Yanukovych, one country outpaced the rest of the Western world when it came to recognising the new government and supporting the protestors in their desire to be free. That same country has also been quick to offer its support to the recent wave of protests in Belarus – and has even opened its doors to opposition leaders, offering them asylum. This guardian angel is not Germany or the UK, but Lithuania.
The small Baltic republic has established itself as a staunch defender of liberal democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe over the last two decades. Since independence in 1991 – Lithuania has transitioned better than most other countries in the region into a vibrant liberal democracy with a flourishing market economy.
During its transition from integrated Soviet Republic to fully independent democratic state, Lithuania – along with neighbours Latvia and Estonia – received support from their Nordic neighbours to the North. Now – almost thirty years later – Lithuania seeks to return the favour by supporting its Southern neighbours.
Part of this has to do with the fact that Lithuania has a sense of shared history with these countries. Historically they all belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – a nation that existed between the fifteenth and seventeenth century. This cultural legacy was seen through common language – and in the 1920s by an attempt to create a political confederation. Indeed, Lithuania was one of the founding members of the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ in the EU in 2016. It is because of this history that Lithuania has secured itself as a position as the de facto caretaker of Central-Eastern Europe.
It is therefore no surprise that in 2014 Lithuania became one of the first countries in the Western world to offer their support to the Maidan protestors in Kyiv. President Dalia Grybauskaite would later go the step further of offering Ukraine military training and weapons in their fight against Russia. In January 2015 she called for a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the illegal annexation of Crimea and became the only EU leader to openly claim that Russian forces were fighting in the Donbas. Lithuanians are viewed as some of the most active diplomats within Kyiv in support of reform for the government.
Indeed, Lithuania has gone further – opening not only its heart to the Ukrainian struggle but also its home. Some 44,000 Ukrainians now live in Lithuania – many of them with family ties to the country.
Recently – Lithuania has also taken an active role in the ongoing political crisis in Belarus. The day after the controversial elections were held in the country, Lithuania helped opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya escape. And since then it has been at the forefront of the defence of the protestors in Minsk. On the 5th of September the Lithuanian foreign minister again warned of the cost of EU inaction when it came to sanctions against the regime of Lukashenko.
Lithuania – along with the other Baltic States and Poland – are the sole voices of reason inside the EU when it comes to the need for tougher approach to Russia. They collectively have led the call to stop the construction of the Nord Stream II gas line, which countries like Germany are so dependent on. Lithuanian political leaders have never been afraid to call out inaction by the European Union – often publicly scolding members that do not take the threat seriously.
Indeed – Lithuania certainly practices what it preaches. It continues to be one of the few countries in the NATO Alliance that maintains its 2 per cent commitment when it comes to military spending. This is of particular importance given that Lithuania itself shares a border with the Kaliningrad Oblast. Lithuania’s position as the godparent of Eastern Europe should for these reasons be taken seriously. And the EU should pay more attention to their warnings and advice.