One of the first major acts by the new Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Antanas Valionis, turned into a spectacular but potentially disastrous own-goal against Lithuania's EU integration process. The symbolic downgrading of the importance of EU integration in the formation of his foreign policy team indicated either a lack of understanding of the integration process or, worse, a deliberate decision to decelerate it.
In December, Valionis surprisingly refused to allow Lithuania's chief negotiator with the EU, Vygaudas Ušackas, to retain his post as deputy foreign minister. Instead, Ušackas was offered a lower post as head of the European Affairs department—a clear and obvious demotion.
Understandably, Ušackas, the top roving diplomat in the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry in the past few years, was dissatisfied and concerned about the downgrading of his status, arguing that the demotion of the negotiator's status harms the post's legitimacy.
As a result, Ušackas stepped down from the post altogether. Though he is likely on the fast track to become Lithuania's ambassador to the United States, this entire episode has damaged Lithuania's EU aspirations in ways that are still hard to gauge.
A symbolic loss
At this point, losing Ušackas to an embassy post—not to downplay the importance of Washington—could possibly come back to haunt Lithuania in the long term. Since joining the Foreign Ministry in November 1991, Ušackas has been Vilnius's point man on NATO and EU issues, rising from desk officer to diplomat in Brussels to running the political department of the ministry.
He was promoted to deputy foreign minister in the middle of 1999 and named as chief negotiator with the EU in January 2000—a natural post for the person most responsible for working with the EU over the years. Although his NATO credentials will be useful in Washington, the loss of Ušackas on both the EU and NATO fronts at this critical juncture deflates any momentum built up over the years.
Ušackas was also key in the successful policy to promote the integration of Kaliningrad with the Baltic Sea region, a policy that has earned Lithuania many points with Moscow and even Washington. It is this type of foresight and ingenuity that Valionis sacrificed in his attempt to exert full control of his ministry.
Vygaudas Ušackas has been the chief negotiator with the EU since the beginning of talks between Lithuania and the EU and has negotiated successfully without losing the perspective of national interest—something Estonia has not been very successful doing.
He also played a major role in brokering the deal for the partial shutdown of the controversial Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant and its funding scheme from foreign donors. His rapport with the European Commission, especially Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen, was a major advantage held by Lithuania.
Ušackas is also familiar with every aspect of Lithuania's EU integration, having worked on the topic long before his appointment as chief negotiator. In other words, the loss of Ušackas from the post emasculates Lithuania's negotiating strength and eliminates most of the momentum built up from the Ignalina move—an own-goal indeed.
The beginning of controversy
The appointment of Antanas Valionis as foreign minister, while he was serving as Lithuania's ambassador to Poland, was already controversial. The New Alliance (Social Liberals) was in charge of the foreign affairs portfolio under the coalition agreement with Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas's Liberal Union, whose party leader, Seimas Chairman Artūras Paulauskas, chose one of his friends from the Soviet days for the post.
Reportedly, the nomination angered many people, including Liberal Union member Alvydas Medalinskas, who was rumoured to be in line for the job (he is settling for the chairmanship of the Seimas Foreign Affairs Committee for now). There were also rumours that others, including Ušackas, were in line for the job of foreign minister but did not gain the approval of all parties involved.
Eventually, Valionis was the first one agreed upon by all interested groups—including the two coalition parties and the office of President Valdas Adamkus.
Valionis then moved to secure his control over the country's foreign policy; however, his hands remain somewhat tied by the activities of the Seimas Foreign Affairs Committee and the President's Office. The only realm where Valionis has full control is his own ministry, and that is where he acted.
When Ušackas was demoted by Valionis, there was both outrage and silence; the latter proved to be much louder than any outcry. The government and Seimas leadership remained conspicuously silent over the demotion, while the President's Office—seen as an ally of Ušackas—also failed to give public support to Ušackas.
Patriotism or politics?
However, as deputy minister jobs in Lithuania are seen mostly as political, the minister has the right to establish his or her own team—even to the apparent detriment of the country.
The structure of Valionis's team in the Foreign Ministry is most curious. Among the set of deputy ministers, the post responsible for relations with the EU—held by Ušackas—was also removed. Instead, a deputy minister responsible for relations with Russia was created in its place. Some critics immediately argued that the foreign policy of the country is being shifted eastward by the move.
If Lithuania really wanted to catch up with the so-called "Luxembourg" group of candidate countries, this is certainly not the right move. The head of the EU integration office, Petras Austrevičius, was named to replace Ušackas as chief negotiator. The balancing of negotiations with the EU and co-ordinating domestic reforms could be difficult and counterproductive.
Lithuania has commonly overloaded certain individuals with too much work. Ušackas is a great example, as he handled EU and NATO issues, alongside other pressing matters. This is one reason that replacing Ušackas will be so difficult at this critical juncture of talks with the EU, especially on the heels of a friendly Swedish presidency.
Once the paperwork is done, Ušackas will be very useful to Lithuania's NATO bid as ambassador to Washington. However, that is akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving Hollywood to move furniture. It just doesn't make sense, and, sadly, this will hurt Lithuania.
Mel Huang, 8 January 2001
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