Belarus’s exports to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are at or near record levels, strengthening their trade relations, even as the three Baltic states take an aggressive stance on sanctions against the regime of leader Alexander Lukashenko.
In the first 10 months of last year, Estonia’s imports from Belarus were more than double 2020’s total at € 522 million and more than a fifth higher than the previous high in 2018. Lithuania’s imports increased by 50 percent compared to 2020, and hit € 1 billion – a third higher than the previous 2015 high. Latvia’s is two thirds higher from 2020 to € 407 million, just 2 percent below their 2011 peak.
The sharp rises expose the tensions facing the Baltic states between economic opportunities and their geopolitical rhetoric, according to experts.
“The Baltic states are discovering that translating strong and principled foreign policy positions into an effective sanctions regime is not such a simple matter, even in the most obvious cases,” said Tomas Jermalavicius, head of studies at Estonia’s International . Center for Defense and Security. “There are local economic players – even state-owned corporate entities – who will use every opportunity to find ways to find them for as long as possible.”
The Baltic states have the loudest voice in NATO for a assertive policy against both Belarus and Russia, as Minsk has used in recent months illegal immigrants to try to put pressure on neighboring Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
But economic considerations are causing domestic political tensions. For example, Lithuanian government barely collapsed last month after it came to light that he continued to trade with Belarus amid US sanctions. Lithuania’s foreign and transport ministers have resigned – which were rejected – following revelations that the country’s state-run railway still transport Belarusian potash.
Jermalavicius said that logistics and transport operators in all three Baltic countries “will always seize opportunities for extra earnings. . . if there is no pressure from the governments ”as many have had close relations with Belarusian state-owned businesses.
But Vidmantas Janulevicius, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, said that although the Baltic countries should obey sanctions, it would be “stupid” to block all imports, especially as the region connects Belarus with China and Central Asia through Belarus. is.
“The most important thing is to stop Lukashenko’s regime, not the people of Belarus. If we [Lithuania] will not do this transit of goods, it will just move to another country, ”he said.
One problem is that US and EU sanctions on Belarus do not always overlap, and that the US ban does not bite in the Baltic countries due to a lack of direct economic ties with the US, despite the fact that it most important geopolitical ally.
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Jermalavicius said the situation raises a “legitimate question” as to whether the Baltic states are ready to “accept the economic opportunity costs associated with their official political stance and regional security requirements”.
Estonia’s foreign ministry said imports from Belarus were “goods in transit” and had been closely monitored against sanctions lists. Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry noted that there is no legal basis in the EU to impose sanctions imposed by a third country. And Latvia’s Foreign Ministry said: “Any ongoing trade [with Belarus] is currently taking place in accordance with the sanctions regimes imposed. ”
Imports from Belarus to the three Baltic states include timber products, fertilizers and oil.
Jermalavicius said it was “a bitter lesson” for the Baltic states as the “margin of error in the current geopolitical circumstances is very narrow”.
He added: “They should not waste their precious political capital and credibility gained in Washington for the sake of a few hundred million euros that their businesses can earn each year by continuing to trade with Belarus.”