Although Vilnius is likely to lift its veto on the talks by the end of the month, the spat has rekindled fears among the EU's older member states that their "newer" counterparts are not above using their membership in the bloc to settle private scores with Russia.
The move by Lithuania comes just a few months after Poland lifted its own veto on EU-Russia talks on a new partnership accord. But if Poland -- which dangled the veto threat in response to a Russian ban on its farm imports -- set a precedent, Lithuania is taking it to new lengths.
Last month, when Vilnius formally blocked an EU agreement to start strategic partnership talks with Russia, it cited as reasons a Russian freeze on oil deliveries to its Mazheikiu refinery; disappearances in Russia of a number of its businessmen; atrocities carried out by the Soviet Army in 1991, which Russia refuses to acknowledge; and Moscow's recent aggressive moves in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.
A Step Too Late?
The move caused consternation within the EU. Most member states felt the Lithuanian step came too late in the day, involved too many issues, and was generally misplaced, given the belief shared by most EU member states that dialogue with Russia is the only way of solving the numerous problems that exist in the EU-Russia relationship.
Talks on a new EU-Russia strategic partnership have been stalled since November 2006, and there was hope in Brussels they could be launched at the EU-Russia summit in Khanty-Mansyisk on June 26. The new treaty, once negotiated and ratified by both sides, would replace the existing Partnership Agreement that was scheduled to end in 2007 but which has been extended on an ad hoc basis since then.
A new agreement would allow the EU-Russia relationship to advance to a firmer contractual ground. The EU hopes an agreement would give it greater leverage in future dealings with Moscow. Brussels also fears Moscow could exploit a hiatus between treaties to interrupt regular contacts and meetings in important fields ranging from human rights issues to trade links and security matters.
Late last week, officials of the EU's current Slovenian presidency said they believed they had brokered a deal with Vilnius, averting another protracted standoff. The deal was said to involve a climb-down on the part of Lithuania and an acceptance by Vilnius that Russia's conduct in Georgia would be reviewed regularly by the EU, but would not constitute a separate condition for the signing of the EU-Russia deal. However, incensed at what it saw as underhanded moves to circumvent its objections, Vilnius again blocked an EU deal at an EU ambassadors' meeting in Brussels on May 12, saying it will need to take the matter before its parliament.
Diplomats in Brussels say the latest wording of a draft EU agreement to start talks with Russia addresses obliquely most Lithuanian concerns, but removes any link between them and concluding a new deal with Moscow.
The motives of Vilnius are difficult to gauge. After Poland lifted its veto, Lithuania must have known it would be left isolated within the EU in its opposition to talks on a new partnership agreement with Moscow. Lithuania's concerns over Russia are shared by most of the other member states, but there is also a widespread consensus within the bloc that dialogue as a problem-solving tool is superior to confrontation. The EU's whole modus operandi follows, in a gentler form, Winston Churchill's dictum that "to jaw-jaw is always better than war-war" -- the basic insight being that, without any contact, there is no opportunity to influence the actions of the interlocutor.
A new deal with Russia would also cement the EU's reputation as a cohesive foreign policy actor, which has increasingly been brought into question over the past few years. Russia specifically has contended that the entry into the EU of new ex-communist member states has hamstrung the bloc and rendered its agenda hostage to the newcomers' private interests.
Also, Russia's conduct over the past few years leaves little doubt that it would simply walk away from the negotiating table if presented with demands it deems unacceptable. Therefore, most EU countries feel, premature pressure on Russia before the actual talks start would simply be counterproductive.
Lithuania, on the other hand, is exploiting the EU's lack of leverage on Russia, arguing the bloc cannot afford to continue backing down in the face of Moscow's continual bluster.
It is likely that Vilnius will drop its opposition at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on May 26, trying to limit the damage its relative isolation within the EU is causing to its reputation, but still having spoken up on what it believes is a matter of principle.
In the final analysis, the EU may still find itself in a situation where, having overcome the Lithuanian hurdle, it may have to contend with a virtual Georgian veto. An open war between Georgia and Russia would almost certainly force the bloc to put the brakes, at least temporarily, on any partnership deal with Moscow.