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Our royal couple in front of the cathedral in capital Vilnius (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
From 24 to 26 October 2022, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visited Lithuania on an official state visit, the leitmotif of which was: 'Solidarity rooted in the past, cooperation resolutely focused on the future'. For now, the two countries are mainly working together militarily, but there is also potential to achieve an expanded relationship that also encompasses economic (green and digital transition), cultural and academic collaboration.
Belgium recognised the Republic of Lithuania as long ago as 27 December 1922. When the Baltic nation was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, that annexation was not recognised by Belgium, a fact that was appreciated by Lithuania. After the fall of the wall, Belgium established diplomatic relations with the newly independent republic on 5 December 1991. So this year, Belgium and Lithuania are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, an excellent occasion for a state visit.
Lithuania borders Belarus and Russia's Kaliningrad (© iStock).
Lithuania borders Belarus and Russia
Lithuania, like the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, is little known in Belgium and the fact that the country lay hidden for so long within the Soviet Union certainly has something to do with that. That particular aspect of the country's past actually has a considerable effect on Lithuania's standpoint to this day. The country is an extremely critical voice on the subject of Russia. For the people of Lithuania, membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is vital and they are also resolutely pro-European Union (EU).
The country's location actually makes it extremely vulnerable. After all, it shares a long border, not only with Russia's ally, Belarus, but also with the highly militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Lithuania and Poland (see map). The 65-km-long stretch of border between Lithuania and Poland, known as the Suwałki Gap, ensures that Kaliningrad has no land connection with Russia. That location actually represents a major vulnerability of the Baltic states. Because if Russia occupies the Suwałki Gap, they could be cut off from their NATO allies.
Meeting between the 2 heads of state in the presence of their spouses (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Robust military cooperation
Precisely because of this external border, Belgium has had a military presence in Lithuania since 2004, as part of the NATO contingent in that country. At present, 150 Belgian military personnel are stationed there. This means that our country is making a significant contribution towards the security, not only of Lithuania and of the region, but also of the EU as a whole. During the state visit, His Majesty the King, accompanied by the Lithuanian President, met up with the Belgian military personnel.
Belgium also participates in NATO air and land missions. Since 2004, fighter jets from NATO allies have been monitoring the airspace 24/7. In fact, our country was the first to send 4 F16s to Lithuania in 2004. Since then, we have already fulfilled a Baltic Air Policing mission 12 times and further missions are scheduled to take place.
Each year, the Belgian Navy participates in OPEN SPIRIT, a NATO demining operation in the Baltic Sea. The objective – to demine the area and remove World War Two munitions. In 2022, Belgium deployed a minehunter for that purpose for a period of 6 months. This year, Operation OPEN SPIRIT was led by Lithuania and focused mainly on Lithuanian territorial waters.
Not surprisingly, the war in Ukraine was a major topic on the minds of those taking part in the state visit. H.M. the King not only met the Belgian detachment within the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence, but also attended, together with the Lithuanian President, the Iron Wolf 2022 exercise at the military training ground in Pabradé.
For her part, H.M. the Queen, together with the President's wife, visited the Centre for Ukraine in Vilnius. There, Ukrainian refugees are offered a variety of classes in addition to psychological care. The Queen attended a performance by the children, admired their paintings and conversed with the women from Ukraine.
The King meets Belgian soldiers after the Iron Wolf 2022 exercise (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Economic potential for green and digital transition
Despite the robust military cooperation, economic cooperation between Belgium and Lithuania takes place at a relatively low level (see box with figures). Belgian investment in Lithuania also remains limited. Amongst others, the dredging companies Jan De Nul and DEME, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges and the energy distributor Fluxys operate there. Lithuanian investments in Belgium include the fishing and fish processing industries, amongst others.
Nevertheless, there is great economic potential. After all, both countries are facing a massive energy and digital transition. Lithuania wants to increase its own energy production from 35% today to 70% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, in order to become climate neutral.
But its relationship with Russia is also playing its part in the energy transition. Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Lithuania has been reducing its dependence on Russian gas. In May of this year, the country managed to completely disengage from Russian gas.
For the time being, Lithuania is still partially connected to a power grid covering the three Baltic states, Russia and Belarus, a relic of the Soviet past. It would therefore be very easy for Russia to disrupt Lithuania's electricity supply. That is why the country wishes to fully connect to the European electricity grid by 2025, with the help of EU funding.
In its energy transition, Lithuania is placing a significant emphasis on renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Lithuania regards Belgium as an experienced and reliable partner for the realisation of its ambitious plans, which include making its buildings more energy efficient and building offshore wind farms. This means that the country may offer a number of attractive opportunities for Belgian companies. The state visit therefore resulted in a number of important contacts being made for that purpose.
Lithuania already shut down its old Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, also a relic of the Soviet past, in the period between 2004 and 2009. In 2019, mutual missions by Lithuanian experts and Belgian nuclear specialists from the Nuclear Energy Study Centre SCK CEN in Mol investigated how to safely decommission and remediate the site.
Lithuania explicitly wants to establish a profile for itself as an IT and ‘Fintech’ nation characterised by a great openness towards new, internet-related financial services such as e-money, digital payments and blockchain. These areas also present opportunities for Belgium.
Visit to a Lithuanian university (© FOD FPS Foreign Affairs).
Strengthening academic and cultural ties
Lithuania also wants to focus more extensively on research & development. The country's aim is that research and development will account for a 5% share of GDP by 2030. Currently, 27 Belgian universities and universities have cooperative relationships with Lithuanian partners; 10 of those institutions are situated in Wallonia and 17 in Flanders. Another of the aims of the state visit was to encourage academic cooperation and student exchanges.
The state visit also encompassed an important cultural component. The two countries are almost noble strangers to each other, especially on a cultural level. For example, our country only fairly recently discovered the masterful Lithuanian painter and composer Čiurlionis as the result of an exhibition in Ghent in 2013. The Čiurlionis National Museum of Art is located in Kaunas, the European Capital of Culture in 2022. The royal couple also visited this city which is an architectural and cultural hotspot of art deco and modernism. Design region Kortrijk already has a number of ongoing collaborations with Kaunas.
During the state visit, in the presence of H.M. the Queen, a cooperation agreement was signed between the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History in the capital Vilnius and the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. The latter will provide various pieces (paintings, posters. etc.) relating to Lithuania on loan.
H.M. the Queen's family connection to Lithuania
In the capital Vilnius, the royal couple visited the Church Heritage Museum in the St Michael the Archangel’s Church and the tomb of the Sapieha family, among other places. This was not without reason. Indeed, the Queen is descended on her mother's side from this Lithuanian-Polish noble family, which had great political influence in the then Grand Principality of Lithuania in the 16th century.
These family ties were also discussed during the visit to the old campus of Vilnius University, along with documents about the Polish-Lithuanian historian, politician and scientist Joachim Lelewel, who lived in Brussels for many years. Next, our royal couple and the Lithuanian presidential couple took part in discussions with small groups of Lithuanian and Belgian students on topics such as climate change, biodiversity and mental health in education.
The state visit provided an ideal opportunity for the two countries to grow more closely aligned. Lithuania not only showed its appreciation of the fact that our country never recognised the annexation by the Soviet Union, but also for the solidarity our country is currently providing on the external border of the EU and NATO. In light of the Russian threat, military cooperation remains crucial, but Belgium and Lithuania are also further strengthening their economic, academic and cultural ties.
Lithuania in a few figures
Surface area: 65,300 km² (slightly more than double that of Belgium)
Population: about 2.79 million (July 2022), of which around 590,000 people reside in the country's capital, Vilnius. The population is in decline due to a low birth rate and the emigration of young people.
Exports from Belgium: 1.1 billion euros, the majority of which consist of chemical and pharmaceutical products and transport equipment. Lithuania is our country's 42nd export partner.
Imports from Lithuania: 686 million euros, mainly consisting of mineral products and food and beverages. Lithuania is our 47th import supplier.