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Lithuanian report
by Euro Reporter
2015-03-09 10:59:34
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Lithuania to vote on conscription to combat Russian threat

The prospect of military conscription in Lithuania will spark a fierce debate in the country’s parliament when it is put to a vote next week, analysts say. Conscription in the Baltic state was technically suspended in 2008, although the law stayed in force and is still valid. However, there has recently been increasing talk of lifting the suspension and resuming conscription for the next five years as an emergency measure in the wake of perceived Russian aggression. The Lithuanian government approved the motion this week after president Dalia Grybauskaite announced at the end of February that conscription was needed due to the “current geopolitical environment”. The Lithuanian parliament must still approve the plan. On Wednesday Grybauskaite told Lithuanian journalists that “with a changing geopolitical situation around our borders, we realise that the threats are very real. The threats are real for our whole region, all Baltic States, and our neighbourhood has become less predictable and more aggressive, I mean Russia.”

Grybauskaite would like to see the first draft for serviceman issued as early as September, but parliament and the broader Lithuanian society remain divided over the controversial measure. Parliament is set to vote on the matter next week, as a matter of emergency. "From what I hear from some MPs, the discussion is probably going to be very heated," said the prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius on the radio Žinių Radijas on Thursday morning. Tomas Jermalavicius, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia, believes the motion is likely to pass, but only after a serious debate. “Lithuanian society is split on the issue,” he says. “A number clearly feel that Russia poses a great threat, and they are already making moves to sign up to voluntary paramilitary organisations and national defence volunteers. They certainly support the resumption of conscription. But a lot of other people feel that state cannot coerce its citizens in this way,” he continues. “People want to pursue careers, to study and there has been a backlash from some sections of society, from sportsmen, celebrities and economists speaking out in public. There’s certainly as interesting debate in the public space right now.”

There is growing alarm throughout Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that the current conflict in eastern Ukraine could spill over into the Baltic States. Increasingly frequent snap military drills are being carried out by Russia near its eastern European neighbours, and experts have warned that the situation should not be taken lightly. Yet despite the Russian threat, there is anger in Lithuania that the announcement on conscription was made so suddenly. “It came as a great surprise and was not properly explained”, says Jermalavicius.  A selection of EU foreign ministers met in Riga today to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, with talks focusing on the need to introduce further sanctions against Russia. Latvia's defence minister has also suggested strengthening his country's military, by increasing army numbers to 7,000 men, although the country isn’t currently planning on introducing compulsory service. While experts believe that the law will likely be passed, certain amendments and assurances have been made in order to make the law a more attractive and palatable prospect. The Ministry of National Defence submitted amendments to the law which will limit the numbers of conscripts to 3,000-3,500 and will expand a range of benefits for the troops.

Elisabeth Braw, Newsweek’s Europe correspondent, also points out that it’s unlikely that the Lithuanian army would suffer from the same fate as Ukraine’s, whose conscripts have been deserting the army at an alarming rate.  "Unlike Ukraine, Lithuania is a NATO member, so in the event of military action Lithuania's armed forces would be supported by NATO allies. Lithuanian conscripts would, in other words, not face an aggressor alone, which makes desertions rather unlikely." Fear of Russian aggression is not just being felt in the Baltics. This week, it was announced that Polish MPs will be offered military training, due to fears that the conflict in Ukraine could spread. Parliamentary speaker Radoslaw Sikorski announced that parliamentarians will be trained at an army firing range, adding that these are “troubled times”.


Lithuania’s tug of war with Russia just got serious

While Ukrainian Armed Forces continue to suffer setbacks against rebels in the Eastern part of the nation, policymakers and regional analysts are asking serious questions about Russia’s involvement, next move, and its ultimate endgame. Regionally, the current situation has forced neighbouring countries, among them the Baltic States, to reconsider their strategic posture towards Moscow. Particularly, in Lithuania, the government is now discussing the implementation of tangible measures to ensure a similar conflict does not arise within its borders. For Lithuanians, Russia’s aggressive manoeuvres for Crimea are reminiscent of 1940, when the USSR invaded Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Nazi Germany and Operation Barbarossa interrupted the occupation; however, it was only a temporary state of affairs as the Soviet forces returned in 1944. After dominating the states militarily, the Kremlin pulled the strings of the political scene, entrenching regimes that were de facto puppets of the Kremlin and members of the USSR. The ghosts of the past still haunt political leaders in the region. Baltic States, including Lithuania, serve as a region where NATO and Russian forces could come in direct military contact. In preparation for any possible tensions and armed action, Vilnius is already taking steps to deter and respond to any military aggregation from Russia. Perhaps, in a move that is safer rattling than a true call to arms, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has reinstated the draft to fill the ranks of their relatively small military of some 16,000 servicemen.

The events in Ukraine are not an isolated incident of provocative Russian actions. Over the past few years, the Russian military has become bolder in asserting its regional dominance and is increasingly demonstrative in its show of military reach. The European Leaders Network recently reported that Russian provocations have increased in frequency and intensity against Baltic States. Specifically, in response to Russian actions, the NATO Air Policing Mission has conducted at least 68 “identification and interdiction missions along the Lithuanian border alone.” But why would Russia stand to win by mounting a hybrid war with any Baltic state? The answer lies in the Kaliningrad strategic enclave and cold war remnant. Cut-off from the Russian mainland by Lithuania, the oblast is a policymaker’s nightmare: poverty, unemployment are completely incapable of ensuring its economic viability. Kaliningrad serves solely as Moscow’s forward position in Europe. Since Putin became president, the region has been placed in a state of constant military readiness. Moreover, for 2015, the Russian Defence Ministry plans to modernize and bolster the armed forces deployed in Kaliningrad. There are fears that the Kremlin could try to carve out a land corridor through Lithuania and link the oblast to Russia. Fortunately, unlike Ukraine, Lithuania is a full-fledged member of NATO, granting them full-rights under the protocols of the NATO Charter, including protection under the concept of collective defines. NATO, to its credit, has clearly reaffirmed its dedication to this concept.

During a visit to Estonia in September, President Obama proclaimed “…we will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally. In this alliance there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners. They’re just allies, pure and simple, and we will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally.” Obama continued, “Today more NATO aircraft patrol the skies of the Baltics. More American forces are on the ground training and rotating through each of the Baltic States. More NATO ships patrol the [Baltic] Sea.” Strong statements like these not only assure Baltic allies of the alliance’s commitment to military action, but serve as a warning to Russia that NATO intends to defend its members. NATO allies have also proven willing to show their military strength in the Baltic region, holding a large military exercise, Operation Iron Sword 2014, in the forests of Lithuania. The exercise featured approximately 2,500 soldiers from the US, the UK, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, and Luxembourg. The exercise included improvised ground and air defines manoeuvres. For Lithuania and the other Baltic states, pressure does not have to come in the sole form of Russian military manoeuvres and occupation, but could also be manifested through energy politics. 100% of Lithuania natural gas flows from or through Russia. Lithuanian officials are aware of the implications of this energy dependency on the sovereignty and security of the nation, arguing that they will never be truly independent of Russia until they achieve energy self-sufficiency. To this end, the Baltic States have tabled the idea of nuclear facilities that should serve the energy needs of a Pan-Baltic energy union. This is in addition to the recent opening of a new LNG terminal in Lithuania at the seaport of Klaipeda, whose annual capacity of 4 bcm could free Lithuania from its dependence on Gazprom.

Compared to Ukraine and other Baltic states, Lithuania has a much smaller and less influential Russian-speaking minority at 6.8% of the population. What’s more, the Russian minority has shown little interest in the separatist movement in Ukraine. In the near future, the fighting will continue to rage in Ukraine and NATO will continue to demonstrate its regional might and commitment to its Baltic members. NATO will also continue to draw lines in the sand and Russia will continue to test these lines. In the long run, Vilnius will look towards a future where it does not depend on the socio-political and economic proclivities of the Kremlin. Time will tell if the current tense state of affairs will become the new normal in the Baltic region.


Unemployment in Lithuania at 9.6% in February

On 1 March 2015, there were 174,400 unemployed people registered at the Lithuanian Labour Exchange, by 34,200 less compared with the same period last year. 9.6% of the working age population was unemployed. The number of unemployed people registered at the Labour Exchange dropped by a quarter in a month. 20,800 people were looking for work at the Labour Exchange in February.

In February Lithuanian companies offered nearly 22,000 new jobs: 21.5% of vacancies were in the trade sector, 19% – in industry, 14% – in construction, 9% – in transportation.

The demand in the labour market was the highest for salespeople, drivers of lorries and heavy goods vehicles, advertising and marketing specialists, car drivers, cooks, administrators, tailors and painters.


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