UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 VILNIUS 001072
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELTN PREL LH LG EUN RS BO
SUBJECT: STRANDED TRUCKERS PONDER EU "OPEN MARKET"
Â¶1. (SBU) Summary: The long lines of trucks that began appearing
November 20 at all four border crossing points where commercial
traffic can enter Latvia from Lithuania have now largely
disappeared, but the episode has affected Lithuanian-Latvian
relations. Lithuania formally complained to the European Commission
about the problem on November 27. According to Lithuanian sources,
Latvian officials and others have offered a wide variety of
explanations for the delays, ranging from poor weather and
infrastructure problems to security concerns stemming from the
November 28-29 NATO Summit in Riga. Other commentators blamed
Russia and the interests of Latvian commercial carriers. While the
immediate problem now appears to have subsided, this episode raises
troubling questions about the Baltics' ability to constructively
discuss and resolve a seemingly simple problem. End summary.
Delays, delays, and more delays
Â¶2. (U) Commercial trucks can only enter Latvia from Lithuania at
four border crossing points. Starting November 20, Latvia's border
guards began letting far fewer commercial trucks per hour enter than
usual, causing backups that generated front-page headlines across
Lithuania. At one crossing, more than 400 trucks stood waiting to
enter Latvia. That crossing, which usually processes at least 20
trucks per hour, was allowing no more than four trucks per hour
enter, according to the Lithuanian border service's website. The
other crossings had lines ranging from 60 to 160 trucks. Lithuania
mobilized its armed services to provide hundreds of meals to
stranded drivers, and other branches of the government scrambled to
provide sanitation facilities.
Â¶3. (U) One of Lithuania's most widely read (if often sensationalist)
national dailies carried the headline "Economic War Begins"
front-page, above-the-fold in describing the situation. Some
Lithuanians expressed their ire on Lithuania's most popular online
websites, calling for boycotts of particular Latvian-made food,
beverage, and perfume products.
A wide range of explanations
Â¶4. (U) Lithuanian media have given several explanations for the
delays at the border:
-- In a telephone interview for a televised news program, Latvian
Interior Minister Ivars Godmanis said that the reduction in traffic
was necessary to ensure safety on heavily congested roads, noting
that some 1500 trucks were queuing inside Latvia, waiting to enter
-- Other Latvian officials have claimed that heavy rains and poor
road conditions, combined with delays for trucks at the
Latvian/Russian border have contributed to the problem.
-- Lithuania's press reported other Latvian sources saying that the
restrictions were necessitated by the security concerns for the
November 28-29 NATO Summit in Riga.
-- Lithuania's Confederation of Industrialists told the press that
Latvia was trying to support its own transport companies during the
holiday season by making it difficult for cargo to travel overland
from Lithuania (in some cases from Lithuanian ports) to Russia, thus
encouraging companies to use Latvian ports and, therefore, Latvian
transportation companies instead.
-- Similarly, Lithuania's National Association of Road Carriers
(LINAVA) told Lithuania's largest daily that many ships at Riga's
port were waiting to offload their cargoes, risking added costs and
penalties for Riga's port authority. The Latvian Government, claims
LINAVA, ordered its border service to restrict commercial traffic
from Lithuania so that goods from the port could reach the Russian
border more quickly.
-- Another version (which we heard from our colleagues in Riga)
attributed part of the problem to an increase of truck entry fees by
Belarus, leading more truckers to divert through Latvia on their way
to Russia than was previously the case.
-- Other press reports suggest that the border blockage was a
Russian-inspired scheme designed to encourage transport companies to
send their goods via Belarus en route to Russia. (Why or how this
would benefit Russia, however, is unclear to us.) An alternative
Russia-inspired conspiracy theory is that Russia arranged the border
delays to cause friction among NATO allies on the eve of the NATO
Â¶5. (SBU) A high-ranking official in Lithuania's Ministry of Defense
told us that MOD officials had been in touch with their Latvian
counterparts, who assured them that the situation was "absolutely
not related" to any NATO Summit-related security concerns. An
VILNIUS 00001072 002 OF 002
Interior Ministry official told us that some of its officers have
inspected the roads on the Latvian side of the border and found no
damage or construction projects that could plausibly be contributing
to the border delays. She also said that Russia appeared to be
letting in far more trucks (400 per hour) from Latvia than Latvia
was allowing from Lithuania (less than 70 per hour).
Â¶6. (SBU) A close advisor to President Adamkus with experience in
Latvia told us that Lithuania was "astonished" by Riga's approach to
this crisis. The source said that the GOL, including Foreign
Minister Vatiekunas, who served a tour as Ambassador in Riga, had
worked its extensive contacts within Latvia and not gotten a
straight answer back. (We understand from our colleagues in Riga
that Latvian officials have engaged more vigorously with Lithuanian
officials on the issue now that the Summit is over.)
Â¶7. (SBU) This source speculated that the main motivation for the
border mess was pecuniary. He explained that shipments to Russia
via Latvia surged during the pre-Christmas season, and Latvian
authorities may be inhibiting transit across the Lithuanian-Latvian
border to ensure that Latvian transport companies move the lion's
share of the goods. He also thought that some Latvians were using
the situation to dramatize the poor state of the Latvian road
network in a ploy to win more EU funds for the transport sector.
Finally, he shared the suspicion broached in the press about a
Russian angle. Claiming that Russian investment in Latvian
transport companies was extensive, he hypothesized that the Russians
used these companies to encourage Riga to block the southern border,
thereby fouling the mood in the run-up to the Riga NATO summit.
Lithuania complains to the EU
Â¶8. (U) Lithuanian Transport Minister Algirdas Butkevicius sent a
letter November 27 to the European Commission, stating that Latvia
has restricted passage through the Lithuanian-Latvian border. The
minister asked the European Commission to look into possible
violations of EU laws and to take appropriate action.
Not over yet
Â¶9. (U) Although the lines have disappeared, we likely haven't heard
the last of this episode. LINAVA is busily calculating the damages
to shipping companies and expects to seek restitution from Latvia.
Their initial calculations suggest that these claims will amount to
LTL 700 (USD 260) per truck per hour.
Â¶10. (SBU) We have no doubt that there's a Latvian side to this
story. The Lithuanians are also often quick to ascribe ulterior
motives to Latvian behavior. What is striking to us, however, is
that the issue reached crisis proportions in the very week that the
world's attention was on the Baltics. It is troubling that the two
countries proved unable to work this out without intervention from
Brussels. This does not bode well for their ability to work
together on larger issues, like energy.