The speech of Gintare Skaiste (Kaunas, Lithuania, 41 years old) affects the prevailing idea on the shores of the Baltic Sea: Europeans must help Ukraine more and Russian citizens must pay for the acts committed by their rulers. The Lithuanian Minister of Finance received EL PAÍS on Thursday at a hotel in the center of Madrid, during a visit to Spain in which she met with Vice President Nadia Calviño. With a pin of the Lithuanian and Ukrainian flags on the lapel of his jacket, Skaiste, from Union of the Fatherland, a conservative party, constantly underlines in his perfect English that if Russia does not lose the war, another country in Western Europe This will be the next to suffer an aggression from the Kremlin.
Ask. War in Ukraine, skyrocketing inflation, the German economy on the verge of recession, acts of sabotage in the Baltic gas pipelines… What winter awaits the European Union?
Response. One hard and cold; Russian style, we could say. The fundamental thing is that we Europeans maintain our firm support for Ukraine and continue with the sanctions, which are working. Russia pressures EU members with the only weapon it can: gas. She is creating the necessary situation so that her price is through the roof and trying to use it as an instrument to force some European country to distance itself from the rest.
P. Could Russia’s annexation of four occupied Ukrainian provinces lead to an escalation of the war?
R. It is a daring attempt to [el presidente ruso, Vladímir] Putin, but it doesn’t really change anything on the ground. No one is going to recognize that this is Russian territory and the Ukrainians are going to continue to fight hard to get back everything that belongs to them. The Kremlin is going to maintain its aggressive attitude until there is a change of government in Moscow.
P. The European Commission this week proposed the eighth package of sanctions against Russia. His Government considers that it is insufficient. What else do you think should be included?
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R. We have always defended expanding energy sanctions, but we know that it is not easy to reach a unanimous agreement. So one of the steps that we could take in the near future is the inclusion of more Russian banks in the financial sector sanctions, mainly Gazprombank, the entity that carries out the majority of Russian gas transactions.
P. Like Poland, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania has banned Russians with tourist visas from entering the country and has announced that fleeing military mobilization will not be enough to apply for asylum. Several European countries have criticized this position.
R. The situation is not the same for countries bordering Russia as for those that are not. We consider that the arrival of Russians on our territory poses a risk, because we cannot really know who is coming. Fleeing from the mobilization and decisions of the Russian government is by no means a sufficient reason to seek asylum in another country. What those citizens should do is stay in Russia, protest there and refuse to go to Ukraine, but not escape and wait for everything to be resolved so they can return.
P. Washington is pressuring several European countries to increase their financial aid to kyiv. Can you do even more?
R. Yes. Supporting Ukraine is the only way to achieve peace in Europe, even if it is costly. The financial aid is necessary so that the Ukrainian government can continue to pay the pensions or salaries of civil servants. A different issue will be the reconstruction of the country, which will require a lot more money, and which should not be paid for by European taxpayers. We must find a legal method to finance reconstruction with Russian assets that have been frozen. And military aid is also essential, because if Russia does not lose this war, she will soon invade another country in Eastern Europe.
P. Lithuania was the first EU country to completely cut off Russian gas imports. What consequences has it had?
R. Several years ago we decided to prioritize energy security. We built a floating liquefied natural gas terminal and several gas pipelines that do not go to Russia. We have independence to buy gas from any country, but prices on the international market are very expensive as a result of the Russian invasion. Furthermore, in Lithuania we only produce a third of the electricity we consume, the rest we import. A solution must be found at European level to decouple electricity and gas prices. We have defended setting a cap on the price of gas imports, especially from Russia.
P. Year-on-year inflation in Lithuania is above 22%, more than double the EU or Eurozone average.
R. It is due to multiple factors. The European economy is still weighed down by the pandemic, especially among members of the South. In our case, the impact of the coronavirus was much smaller and the GDP contracted less than 1%. Therefore, the inflation rates are marked by the economic situation in which each State was before the war. Furthermore, Lithuania needs to import more energy goods than other countries, and this is being the main inflationary factor.
P. European governments are investing billions in mitigating the effects of the energy crisis. Some of those countries have very high public debt, which has skyrocketed even more during the pandemic. Is the EU at risk of facing a new debt crisis?
R. We have to be very careful, because the situation is very complicated. We have to support the most vulnerable population, but debt levels are growing a lot and we must also prevent government aid from raising inflation even more. All fiscal policies have to take into account both the loss of purchasing power and inflation. And the members of the EU should coordinate the measures, especially with regard to the business sector, in order to compete on equal terms.
P. In addition to Russia, Lithuania has been in conflict with China since Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius almost a year ago. Beijing has pushed hard with sanctions, the last one in August, but the Lithuanian government is going to open an office in Taipei soon. Why have they decided to face China alone?
R. We are not confronting China. We are only dealing with the Taiwanese and we believe that it is solely up to us to decide who can have representative offices in our capital. The consequences of the so-called conflict have not been very significant, because our bilateral relations were not very intense. Our exports to China were equivalent to less than 1% of the total and have now been reduced to 0%. Lithuania’s imports of Chinese goods remain at the same level as 12 months ago. I would like to thank the European partners for their support in this matter, especially regarding the case in the World Trade Organisation.
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