In recent weeks, Russia's Foreign Ministry has twice rebuked Lithuania for what it considers Vilnius's sympathy and support for Chechen separatists. Nevertheless, analysts and politicians say Chechnya is unlikely to become a stumbling block in bilateral relations.
Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is expressing its concern over what it considers informal Lithuanian support for Chechen separatists, but analysts and politicians say there is little chance the dispute will have a significant impact on bilateral relations.
In a recent statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said a Chechen website operating from Lithuania "propagates the actions of Chechen fighters who aim to destroy the process of normalization in Chechnya."
The Lithuanian Internet service provider Microlink Data says the website does not violate any Lithuanian laws. Lithuanian authorities have taken no steps to shut down the site.
Meanwhile, outgoing Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus granted Lithuanian citizenship last week to the deputy head of the Chechen Information Center in Lithuania, Aminat Saieva. Opened in December 1999, the Chechen Information Center is headed by former Lithuanian parliament deputy Algirdas Andriukaitis. He is assisted by Saieva, who came to Lithuania from Chechnya several years ago.
Adamkus said the move would help in maintaining relations between Lithuania and Chechnya.
The move came a day after Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned Lithuania's ambassador in Moscow to demand Vilnius put an end to the activities of Chechen separatists on its territory.
Vytautas Pleckaitis is an adviser to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. In an interview with RFE/RL, Pleckaitis said Lithuania has never recognized Chechnya as an independent state and that recent events do not mark a crisis in Lithuanian-Russian relations. "Lithuanian-Russian relations after Russian protests and after the steps taken by the Lithuanian institutions will not change. They did not get worse, nor they will get better. Lithuania never questioned the integrity of the Russian state and did not meddle in its internal affairs," Pleckaitis said.
A conservative member of the Lithuanian parliament, Andrius Kubilius, agreed: "It depends on Russia, if it decides to consider [these steps] as a worsening of mutual relations. The decision is to be made by Russia. We think that it should not make relations worse because Lithuania has not changed its principal attitude to Russia, with which it seeks to have good relations."
Politicians acknowledge there is a strong feeling of compassion for Chechens among a segment of Lithuanian society. Some Lithuanian organizations, such as Sajudis and the Public Committee for Support of Chechen Independence, strongly support the separatist movement, condemn Russian actions in the breakaway republic, and often hold rallies in Vilnius in support of the separatists. In addition, 19 members of the Lithuanian parliament are active in supporting Chechen causes.
There is a square named after former Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev in Vilnius, while the separatist president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was a Soviet officer at a military base in Vilnius.
Kubilius said there are also some historical reasons for Lithuania's pro-Chechen sentiments. "I think there is a lot of compassion for the Chechens in Lithuania. The [geographical] distance between the two nations is not so great. We think our destiny in some way is reminiscent of the destiny of Chechens. Both nations were at the end of the 18th [century and] the beginning of the 19th century occupied by Russia, and both nations did not agree with this destiny. We were luckier. The Chechens were less fortunate. But we are brothers in our destiny, and we understand their aims and morally we stand by them," he said.
Pleckaitis said the Lithuanian government should keep in mind the pro-Chechen sentiments in society. "You should have in mind that there are many people who sympathize with the Chechens, [with] their wish to be independent, and these sentiments should be taken into account by any Lithuanian state institutions," Pleckaitis said.
Aleksei Makarkin is an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. He said Lithuanians are not the only ones who morally support Chechen separatists. "There is a street named after Djokhar Dudaev in Lviv [Ukraine]. I do not think it is, so to say, the main thing. On the state level, Lithuania never recognized Chechen independence even when Vytautas Landsbergis was chairman of the Lithuanian parliament. There was never a Chechen embassy in Vilnius," Makarkin said.
Makarkin told RFE/RL that Russia's relations with Lithuania are much better that with the other two Baltic states, and he downplayed Adamkus's decision to grant citizenship to Saieva. "Russia looks at this as the personal decision of a politician who is no longer really defining state policy and who is only acting according to his own sympathies and antipathies. [He's acting] more in the capacity of a private citizen -- but one who still has presidential powers," he said.
Makarkin said the main problem in Lithuanian-Russian relations is not Chechnya but transit to the Russian region of Kaliningrad. In line with its European Union entry plans, Lithuania intends to abolish visa-free travel through Lithuania to Kaliningrad beginning in July. Lithuania has already started tightening border controls and no longer accepts Russian military-identification cards, for example.