In Putin's shadow, Lithuania calls for EU-Belarus rethink
(BRUSSELS) - With Vladimir Putin set to regain the Russian presidency Sunday, Lithuanian counterpart Dalia Grybauskaite warned EU partners that moves to boost economic sanctions against Belarus will only extend Moscow's influence.
A European Union summit on Friday saw leaders give a cautious go-ahead for "further measures" in a 17-year battle with Belarus, days after the EU published the names of 21 more judges, prosecutors and police officials hit with EU asset freezes and travel bans.
Belarus ordered out EU and Polish envoys in response to the latest round of sanctions targeting individuals involved in state repression -- an unusual diplomatic flashpoint that prompted the recall by Brussels of all remaining EU ambassadors.
A former Communist party member educated in Russia but who beat off pro-Moscow rivals to win office in 2009, Grybauskaite maintains the drive for "deeper economic sanctions" on a country seen as a bulwark of a new Russian trade imperialism risks backfiring badly.
"Politically and economically, it pushes Belarus towards Russia and out of Western dependency or any kind of Western influence at all," Grybauskaite told AFP in her summit suite.
A frequently outspoken voice who notably gave former British premier Tony Blair a public dressing-down as EU budget commissioner in 2006, Grybauskaite says sanctions are having very little impact on President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
And with only "lower-level" officials left to be targeted under the standard measures, she argued that the step-change demanded by emerging EU power Poland will only leave the people of Belarus "isolated" and hit neighbouring cross-border business.
"Talking about sanctions is politically very fashionable, but the results mainly affect the people," she said.
"We see how much Belarus has been driven out from Western values, and how much it has been pushed towards Russian influence," hinting that others will follow.
"This is painful as neighbours," she underlined.
A haven for Belarus exiles -- the two capital cities, Vilnius and Minsk, are less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) apart -- Lithuania is right on the faultline between Brussels and Moscow spheres of influence.
Bordering the increasingly militarised Russian port enclave of Kaliningrad, which nestles between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea, few feel the shifting centres of geo-political gravity more keenly than this country of three million.
Putin, likely to win Sunday's presidential election in Russia, has said Moscow opposes all sanctions on Belarus "because they lead to intervention... as in the tragic cases of Libya and Iraq."
The Russian leader is meanwhile said to have taken it as a personal affront when Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence in 1990, and Lithuania has much work to complete to end total energy dependence on Russian giant Gazprom, which pipes in gas via Belarus.
Grybauskaite also faces a mish-mash of pro-Russian political strands and parties that spring up periodically.
She is fighting to achieve a better deal for countries just to the EU's east at a special regional summit set for next year, when Lithuania will be in the EU chair.
The reason, as ever, is Russia -- which retains the power well beyond its modern borders to turn gas taps on and off, or shut down whole towns commanded by industrial behemoths.
As another Lithuanian official who could not be identified pointed out: "It takes years to get into the EU club even when you get the go-ahead for negotiations -- whereas when Russia says 'come into our customs union,' it happens the very next day."
Last November the leaders of Russia, Belarus and energy-rich Kazakhstan signed, in the Kremlin, a declaration vowing to create a full EU-style "Eurasian economic union" by 2015.
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