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Three Seas Talks – Dorota Sokolovska, Eastern Europe Studies Centre

Stefan: I’m Stefan Tompson and I am here as the host of the series of podcasts for the Institute of New Europe based around the Three Seas Initiative. I am speaking with experts from each of the Three Seas member states. Today I’m speaking with and an expert from Lithuania, Dorota Sokolovska. Let’s start the conversation with a little bit about you, Dorota. Could you tell us about you, your work, who do you work for…

Dorota: Nice talking to you. My name is Dorota Sokolovska and I am working for the Eastern Europe Studies Centre. It’s the main foreign policy analysis think tank based in Vilnius. We were founded in 2006, so we are quite young. Myself, I studied political studies at the Vilnius University. I also used to study in Paris, International Relations. I’ve been working for EESC for about two years. I am primarily in charge of projects which are focused on Belarussian minority in Lithuania and Poland. But of course we now also deal with the topic of the Three Seas Initiative, since as a think tank we work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I am in charge of this topic that is why I speak with you today.

Stefan: Amazing. The first question I have is – could you give us a brief overview of the economic situation in Lithuania, what it looks like since transformation. Who its major partners are and your position within the region. Just a brief overview. Not an in-depth analysis, but just kind of a lay person bird’s eye view.

Dorota: Yeah, of course. Since the restoration of our independence, in economic terms we had to cope with the high migration rates from Lithuania. Once we accessed the EU, even before that, we had to cope with people leaving. Now, people start to come back. Last year, the number of those who got back was higher that the number of people leaving. So, we are trying to deal with that as it is a major aspect of our economy. You can’t have good economy without people.

We are going through a period of changes. One is the demographics I mentioned above. The other, which has been started four-five years ago by our previous president Dalia Grybauskaitė, is the energy independence. It is important because we used to import a lot of energy from Russia and it was always considered a political challenge, that needed to be solved. With the LNG terminal in Klaipeda, our main port city, our energy independence become more tangible, more real. Now we consider ourselves energy independent, we do not buy any energy from Russia, even before the war. So this change was not something that was facilitated by the war.

The third change, in terms of the economy, is Lithuania’s strive for a counterbalance to its traditional heavy industry. Heavy industry is unusual in the Baltic states; Latvian and Estonian economies are more based on light manufacturing, light industry. We have Mazeikiu Nafta, an oil company, now controlled by Polish PKN Orlen. We have Achema, a chemical company that is a really big company in Lithuanian terms. We try to balance this conventional heavy industry with start-ups. We are proud of several unicorns that started in Lithuania. Vinted it’s a good example

Stefan: I see their ads all the time.

Dorota: They are quite popular in the region and they are constantly growing their user base and exploring new markets. Now they entered Hungary, I think. So Lithuanian economy is rather balanced.

In terms of trade, we trade the most with our neighbors – Poland and Latvia. To a lesser extent with Czech Republic and Estonia. But we still tend to remain in our regional bubble.

Stefan: Sure. What about Germany? What does that look like on the balancing sheet. In all the other conversations trade with Germany is a recurring theme. It is a very crucial partner.

Dorota: Speaking in economic terms, Germany is not that important for Lithuania. But in case of some components we can buy them only from Germany. So in terms of the opportunities and trade diversification in some fields we are linked to Germany. But in Lithuania Germany is mainly a political, military partner, especially in the light of war. There might be even a German battalion in Lithuania. Germany for us is more of a military partner than an economic one.

In the last year we also had an interesting development in the relations with China. Lithuanian companies were banned from trade with China. We have lost a number of German partners due to that, because they were cooperating with the Chinese and they were frightened of the secondary sanctions. So they just left Lithuanian partners, we were unable to cooperate with them further.

So yeah, in Lithuania economics is heavily tied to politics. Maybe it is a feature of all small states, of the Baltic states. We cannot have our big companies working with our political “enemies”, so we try to find the opportunities with the partners we have. Either EU or NATO countries.

Stefan: It is so interesting. Lithuanian track record of not doing business with countries infringing on human rights is really interesting. You also left China’s 16+1 format… is it 16 or 17 plus 1? I always get that wrong

Dorota: When we left it became 16+1. Now it’s 14+1.

Stefan: Right. And also then you won that semi-conductor contract from Taiwan. Your track record on Taiwan is really interesting. And your track record on Russia as well. It’s not just Lithuania, but all Baltic states have taken on leadership roles in the last few months….

Could you tell me more about the energy transformation?

From a Polish perspective, the Rzeczpospolita – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – is ingrained at the back of our heads. We think we know Lithuania, whereas in fact I think we don’t really know much about Lithuanians themselves. Especially from the modern day perspective. There was this major difference between Poland and Visegrad countries and the Baltic states [during the Cold War]. V4 countries were satellite states, whereas the Baltics were part of the Soviet Union, so your level of integration with the soviet system was much higher than ours.

Could you tell me more about the transformation, how you managed to successfully wean yourself off Russian energy over the last decades or years?

Dorota: It is very interesting. I am not a big energy expert, but from what I know, [energy independence] was a very important, long-term political goal. It was supported by all the governments, despite them constantly changing. Since we regained the independence no party or coalition had been in the government for two consecutive terms. Although the parties in power are changing, the view on foreign policy and energy policy was shared by all the governments. So it was possible to open the LNG terminal in Klaipeda and to diversify our energy production in cooperation with Poland. We now have strategic partnerships with Poland, but that wasn’t something obvious back in 2008 or 2009.

We did not always have very good relations. Now, Polish PKN Orlen is the biggest tax payer in Lithuania, which tells you something about the size of their investment and its importance. That energy transformation was in part ensured by having independent LNG terminal built. Now we are in process of harmonizing our electricity grids with the Nordics, with Sweden mostly. So I think this was all possible thanks to a wide consensus of the political parties and the public.

Of course, it was not a very easy process. After the Belarussian events in 2020 and the war that started this year the trade with Russia was still present to some extent. It wasn’t in the energy field, but Lithuania served as a transit country for Russian and Belarussian trucks on their way to Klaipeda or Kaliningrad. It brought us a lot of money, but due to our political goals we had to stop it. It was to an extent successful. We met the EU sanctions, but not all of our goals, since our goals were higher. Energy-wise we have successfully cut our ties with the Eastern countries. But in terms of trade some companies still operate in Russia and Kaliningrad, so we are still in the process of change.

Stefan: Sure. Moving on towards the topic at hand, the Three Seas Initiative. What is the general attitude towards the Initiative among the general population, the mainstream? Is it even present? How about among politicians, experts and journalist? What’s the general attitude toward the Three Seas Initiative?

Dorota: At the political level and maybe even within the society, honestly, I don’t think that it is the most popular, most important format. Our main attention is on the EU and NATO formats. Speaking of regional formats, I guess Lithuanian politicians are just starting to understand the idea, and the need for regional projects. This also applies to the Lublin triangle format between Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. I would say that we are now trying to identify and articulate our interests and our goals in the framework of the 3SI format. Because we can’t have it all. For us, it is too difficult to add too many things on an agenda. We can’t occupy ourselves with too many questions that are not all relevant for us. But I see that on the government level there is a rising awareness about the importance of the 3SI framework and its possibilities. When it comes to general public, it does not pay a lot of attention to the Three Seas Initiative, Lublin Triangle or the Visegrad formats. If they are present at all, they are presented in the form of closer cooperation with Poland, which now in Lithuania is perceived in better light than before.

Stefan: Could you expand on that? I think that it is a really interesting topic. I believe that the majority of the viewers will be Poles. We are really interested in your perspective on Poland.

Dorota: I could say that, objectively speaking, you can see and you can say that the Three Seas Initiative is powered and led by Poland.

Stefan: That was actually going to be one of my questions, so you are really anticipating where I was going…

Dorota: It is seen that way. Of course it is hard to speak on behalf on the whole society, hard to say what everybody is thinking. But when I am talking to governmental officials, to experts, peers in other think tanks it is seen maybe not as a not a Polish initiative, but definitely as a Polish-led one.

Stefan: Ad vocem… Wouldn’t you agree that just by virtue of its size, of its GDP, Poland has to be the leader? From the Polish perspective, the perspective of Polish elites, there is a very cautious approach of not trying to paint the Initiative as led by Poland explicitly. I think there is a deep understanding in the Polish political class that the region does not want to see Pilsudski’s Intermarium vision coming to life, a project led by Warsaw. I know that from the Lithuanian perspective this is particularly important because of our past history. But it is interesting to hear your perspective. I have actually asked this question to all the other experts from the region and everyone sort of had the same feeling – “ah well, Warsaw’s leading this, Warsaw’s behind this, is pushing it, it’s in Warsaw’s interest.” In all fairness, we are obviously the biggest country in the region, the most populous. But there is a genuine need for strengthening that North-South axis and redressing the historical injustices that have made us into a transfer zone between East and West, rather than a connected region. This is where I was going with this… Is that understanding of where are we going with this, is that something that is being voiced and articulated correctly in Lithuania? Or is it not presented well enough? It may well be that it is Warsaw’s fault, that we are not communicating properly.

Dorota: I would not say that this link between 3SI and Polish leadership in the eyes of the Lithuanian officials and politicians is a bad thing. We naturally understand that due to the things that you just mentioned, size, population, GDP, we – Lithuanians, Latvians, Czech would not be able to lead the Initiative. I would not say that [Polish leadership] it’s bad or that it is viewed as a bad thing. The only negative consequence of it is that sometimes we are not able to fully follow the high ideas and high ambitions which Warsaw try to present. This very deep feeling of not being able to catch up with Poland is especially present this year. In Lithuania we are trying to think about hosting a 3SI summit in Vilnius, because we haven’t organized one yet. But now we are so occupied with the NATO summit that will take place next year. And it is very hard for our bureaucratic system, which is very small comparing with Poland, to have two ideas in mind at the same time. This proportional difference between Lithuania and Poland may influence the view of Poland as a leader of this project. But overall I would not say that the 3SI is viewed negatively or that Poles are taking the biggest share and stuff like that. Especially in the light of very good relationship we now have with Poland, which is very new in Lithuania.

Stefan: You were saying that 10-15 years ago that relationship was much more strained. What happened in the last decade that changed our relationships?

Dorota: Our governments still used to meet ten years ago and fifteen years ago, but I guess that a true breakthrough was made when Andrzej Duda became the president of Poland and Gitanas Nausėda became the president of Lithuania. They have some good personal ties. It positively influenced the governments on the ministerial level. I can’t say that we have solved some historical problems like Vilnius occupation, which remains to be viewed as occupation even though there might be some different opinions in Poland. There are a lot of historical things which remain untouched form both sides, because nobody is trying to solve these problems. Then there is also the situation of Poles living in Lithuania, which is viewed by Warsaw as one of the pillars of the relationships between our two countries. Their situation is good, but still there are some commitments that are not fulfilled by the Lithuanian government. There are still problems, but they no longer play such a big role as they used to. And the fact that our government meet every half year, if you see it from the historical perspective, it is something absolutely unusual.

Stefan: Just a short anecdote to put that into perspective. In the 1930s relationship were so bad that we did not have an ambassador in Lithuania. Diplomatic relations between two countries were done via the ambassadors in Riga, Latvia. That really says a lot how much things have changed. Crazy.

Dorota: Absolutely. Comparing to the previous century and even the 90s or early 2000s it was different. I think that a very good analysis, a very insightful analysis is needed to determine what was the main cause of the change [in our relations]. We would have to measure it and decide what was the main thing that brought the change. Now in the light of our relationships being better than any time before, naturally cooperation with Poland in the Three Seas Initiative is not seen as a negative thing. Of course, the goal of North-South connectivity is something new for Lithuanians, but it is very desirable. And I think that out of all three goals of the initiative – energy, transport and digital connectivity – first two are the most important for Lithuanians, because we feel kind of disconnected from the region.

Stefan: Even by the virtue of your geographical location, right? You share a border with Latvia, Russia, Belarus and with Poland. Whereas Poland has a more obvious gateway to the West, you kind of have that geographical limitations…

Dorota: Yeah, the Suwalki corridor is our gateway to the West. We are still rather disconnected, even with Poland. We don’t have direct connection with Warsaw still. Via Baltica and Rail Baltica are underway. What we now prioritize and what we now work on is the infrastructure. It is very important. Government officials begin to see that through the 3SI it is possible to reach our infrastructural goals. When I checked our trade with the Three Seas countries, it became clear that we trade with our neighbors, because it is the easiest. The least trade we have with Croatia because it is so far away. So in this sense, this North-South connectivity may open for us many economic opportunities and help foster new trade and economic relations. They are not possible to maintain without some infrastructural projects. From what I hear and what I discuss with government officials, this is very clear. This economic component of the cooperation between the Three Seas countries is becoming as important as the geopolitical one.

Stefan: And what would you say is the role that Lithuania should play or would like to play in the Three Seas Initiative? I think that question is that much more important in the context of what we have seen since Russia’s full scale aggression on Ukraine. Where we have seen Central-European countries, most of them at least, really step up and take leadership roles. Especially in comparison with this more established Western states that dominate the European Union – France and Germany. We have seen countries that are much smaller, population-wise, economy-wise, military-wise as well, becoming almost world leaders, in a metaphorical sense. At least, definitely, European leaders.

In the context of that, what do you think the role should be that Lithuania plays?

Dorota: I think you mentioned a very important thing. In Lithuania, especially this year, with the 3SI Riga summit and the fact that Ukraine was invited to join the format, there were a lot of talks how we can help. How we can ensure that this decision is not only on the paper… I think this reflects well the ambitions, the role Lithuania would like to play. Lithuania needs partners to fulfill its foreign policy goals and the 3SI may be a way for Lithuania to find balance between our ambitious foreign policy goals, which are very welcome now in the light of the war, and our not so great size and capabilities. 3SI could help us find partners that share our ideas and foreign policy ambitions and help us realize them. Of course with policy towards China it might be difficult, but if we talk about nearer threat like Russia and Belarus, which we border, I would say that Lithuania’s role should be trying to balance the component of foreign policy and geopolitics with the component of economics. But we need do our homework in terms of infrastructure and pay more political attention to the 3SI format. And of course I would like to see Lithuania to cooperate more within the format with other Baltic states, with Latvia and Estonia. We don’t see a lot of such cooperation. I’d say it would be important for us to advocate for some common interests, after we formulate them, and even to apply for the project at the 3SIIF together, not unilaterally just as Lithuania. So to focus not necessarily or doing more with Poland which is a lot bigger, but to try to cooperate more with Baltic states. It might seem obvious, but it is not happening.

Stefan: It’s funny, because what I have thought, what I actually believed, is that there was a much greater cooperation between the Baltic states. When one talks about, when one reads about the Baltics, one has this vision of these three really closely connected, closely cooperating states. And you just essentially sort of contradicted that vision that I have taken for granted, really. Interesting to hear, I did not know that.

Dorota: I hear a lot about this from foreigners. When they start getting to know Baltic states from the literature, they start to form this sort of cultural vision of Baltic states as one entity. And we see ourselves as competitors. We are like three brothers, three sisters, that compete a lot and there is no smooth cooperation. Of course we cooperate in many formats, like Nordic-Baltic cooperation, but between ourselves we are not cooperating that much. Maybe in the Three Seas Initiative framework it would be beneficial to cooperate more and to do something as a trio, and not as a one country.

Stefan: I see another role that you haven’t mentioned. In Poland, as well as other countries of the region, demographics is a gigantic problem. Bulgaria has seen 25% of its citizens leave since they joined the EU, which is a mind-blowing statistics. In Poland we are talking about somewhere between, no one really quite knows what the official number is, between 2, 3 maybe even up to 4 mln of people that left since 2004 when we joined the EU. A number of those have certainly returned, but many have not. Interestingly enough, those that have left tend to be on the lower spectrum of age. They are in their prime, they are ready to work, a lot of them are very entrepreneurial, and they are having children abroad. And this not just a Polish problem, it is a CEE problem, a regional problem. How did Lithuania reversed that? What happened?

Dorota: I am not sure. We try to advocate for the returns, even our MFA has a separate department to deal with diasporas. There is even an organization called Global Lithuania that gathers Lithuanians from around the world. But of course we cannot say that one department or one initiative brought people back. To an extent our educational system tried to prepare for it and to bring Lithuanian children that were born abroad into the Lithuanian system here.

I would say that maybe in this case our size was an asset. Because Lithuania’s economic situation got a lot better and it is now possible to work remotely. It is easier to get intellectual work than manual. Those people who are coming back, those are not the people who migrated because they had low paid jobs. They tend to stay abroad. Of course I don’t mean those who only work abroad seasonally and the rest of the year they spend in Lithuania. Those families who came back to Lithuania with their children, they just saw that they can do business in Lithuania more easily than in the Western Europe. That they can manage and balance their work with their family life much easier in Lithuania. I guess a lot of bureaucratic procedures are now easier in Lithuania than abroad. The quality of life in Lithuania is pretty good now. It is not the same as back in 1995 or 1996. So, we advertise ourselves as a good place to be, a good place to live

Stefan: My travels there really confirm that. Outstanding place.

Dorota: People who are born here they just need to ask themselves this question: why have we left and why are we not coming back? Of course, it is much harder to come back for people who had not married Lithuanians and created their families abroad because…

Stefan: The language, just like Polish, isn’t the easiest ones out there.

Dorota: But I guess the very fact that we’ve just reinvented ourselves as a place good for work, good to live in, good to be in, speaks to many people who are sentimental about Lithuania because they were born here.

Stefan: Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! [Oh Lithuania! My Homeland!]

Dorota: Right, Adam Mickiewicz.

Stefan: Dorota, that’s pretty much it. We’ve just scratched the surface, there are many interesting side topics here. But that’s essentially it. Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time and your insights. Hopefully the cooperation keeps going the right direction.

Dorota: Thank you so much for the invitation. I’m glad that we finally did the interview.