MOSCOW, October 3 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – The country now at the helm of the European Union, Lithuania, threatened this week to shut Russia out of its own territory, exposing growing tensions between Moscow and a handful of former Soviet states looking to bolster their economic ties with Brussels.
A few of Moscow’s one-time satellites – most notably Ukraine – are expected to intensify their efforts to be drawn into the Western European economic space at a major EU summit next month in Lithuania.
But the Kremlin aspires to see a Moscow-led Customs Union, now comprising Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, eventually incorporate those same countries. It has responded to EU overtures to its neighbors by selectively imposing temporary customs restrictions and warning of the dire consequences that trade agreements with the EU would entail.
As the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, Lithuania, one of the three Baltic states to come under Soviet control around the time of World War II, has been an active supporter of the EU’s economic expansion project. On November 28-29, Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is due to host the EU’s Eastern Partnership Forum with Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Belarus.
The yen for Western Europe seems to have provoked the Kremlin’s ire. This week, Russian regulators said they were considering a ban on the import of Lithuanian dairy products. And in September, Lithuania, which sends 30 percent of its exports to Russia, was hit by a temporary tightening of customs checks for its goods, causing long delays at the border and allegedly millions of euros in losses.
That prompted Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius to raise the prospect Wednesday of a blockade of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, if Moscow continued to intimidate its neighbors. Vilnius also complained to the European Commission, which voiced its support.
Ukraine and Moldova, both of which plan to sign free trade agreements with the EU in November, have also come under pressure from Moscow.
Temporary changes to customs procedures caused chaos at the Russian-Ukrainian border in August. Russian presidential adviser Sergei Glazyev openly warned Kiev that the changes would be made permanent if a trade agreement with the EU was implemented, a move that he described as “suicidal.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at an international conference last month that stiffer customs regulations would be necessary to stop a flood of European and Turkish goods from entering the Russian market through Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Moldova, a struggling and impoverished former Soviet nation of 3.5 million tucked between Romania and Ukraine, was hit last month with a Russian ban on its wine and spirits.
In a thinly veiled reference to Moscow's monopoly on natural gas supplies to the country, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin predicted a cold winter during a visit to Chisinau last month. “I hope you don’t freeze,” Rogozin is reported to have told his Moldovan hosts.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite used her September address to the United Nations General Assembly to criticize Russia’s attitude to former Soviet Union states now looking to the EU.
“[They are] facing trade restrictions, bans on goods, price manipulation for energy supplies, the use of pressure and open disrespect displayed in information space,” said Grybauskaite, according to a transcript on the Lithuanian presidential website.
“The decision is really difficult to make when free choice means receiving threats.”