During the Riga Conference 2017, European Western Balkans spoke with Linas Linkevičius, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. We spoke on Juncker’s Strategy for successful accession of Serbia and Montenegro, Russian interests in the Western Balkans and Serbia’s military neutrality.

European Western Balkans: President Juncker said that Montenegro and Serbia, as front-runners of the process of EU integration of the Western Balkans, should join the EU by 2025. What is Lithuania’s position regarding this?

Linas Linkevičius: The process is generally positive and I can say that we are very much in favour of enlargement. When we are talking about the Western Balkans, we said that accession depends on the willingness of the countries and definitely on their performance. It is not a calendar based, it is performance-based process, so you cannot mention any years. it should be done consequently, but we would like to see the Western Balkans as a part of the Euro-Atlantic community. That would be our vision, but it is up to the countries themselves. It is important to mention alignment with European policy, values and principles. Here we have the reminder that this is important, and it is also important for my country.

EWB: You recently stated that some countries “enjoy enlargement negotiations while others are conducting military exercises with Russia, near our borders, while other highly motivated countries are facing sovereignty threats and are not even given membership perspective.”

LL: Yes, I can mention some countries. For instance, Georgians – they have almost 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. They are one of the most active contributors to peace operations, and they have victims and casualties. They are sharing our principles and values, and the geopolitical situation is not easy for them because of the Russian aggression. Since 2008, 20 percent of their territory is occupied and military build-up still continues, but they are not given any membership perspective. When it comes to Serbia, it conducts military exercises in the vicinity of our borders, not sharing our position on sanctions against Russia. Also, recently some teachers were issued internships in Crimea which is also an implicit recognition of Crimea’s annexation by Russia. That was my point.

All of this was not what we really expected. I would understand that something is not happening, but it would be a matter of intentions, saying that we will do something, that we would try and maybe change at some point. But that is not the case. That is the reason why I said that. But what I said in the beginning is also true: we would really like to see Western Balkans as a part of our Union, but this is a performance driven, not calendar-driven process, regardless of what Juncker said.

EWB: What do you think should be the EU approach towards states such as Serbia, or Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, who have not joined EU sanctions against Russia?

LL: We should talk and discuss, and understand that this is an alliance based on not just mathematics or composition of entities, but on values and principles, on some foundations which are really bigger than just the mathematic sum. This is to be said not only regarding the EU, but also regarding NATO. It is not just a composition of armies, tanks or missiles, it is something else. It is a value based democratic free society with human rights and a free market. Those are the principles we should keep.

EWB: NATO accession has in so far been parallel, but a complementary process to the EU integration in Central and Eastern Europe. However, Serbia declared military neutrality and does not have aspirations to become part of NATO. From your perspective, does this represent an obstacle for the EU integration of Serbia?

LL: No, not at all. Those are different sorts of organisations. In my country’s case, it was really the same goal for a cross-party agreement. We had two equal priorities – EU and NATO, two parallel but different tracks. They are not related, the EU accession is one way, and NATO accession is another way. If country needs closer cooperation, it should, in my opinion, be neither help nor obstacle.

EWB: Regarding the Russian interest in the Western Balkans, do you believe that special ties that exist between Russia and some WB states represent a problem for the partners in the EU?

LL: Good relations with any country are not a problem, they are a positive thing. We are always talking that relations should be based on values and principles, and in the relations between countries the rule of law should prevail, and not so to say, implying or exposing EU interest to do something at that expense, or change European borders with force, like it was in Georgia in 2008 or like it was in Crimea recently, or currently in Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine. That is the problem. To seek good relations is not the problem. The problem is if we are denying the principles, or if we are not consistent regarding values – that is the problem.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States