Does History matter? : Eastern Partnership and Lithuania’s EU presidency

Our guest author Mariana Semenyshyn looks at the challenges that the Eastern Partnership brings for Lithuania’s EU presidency – and how history might give us some answers

Lithuania has recently taken the baton of EU presidency, becoming the first Baltic state to assume the responsibilities of chairing the Council of the European Union . Although the administrative capacities of the country are rather limited, it took on the challenge of being in charge of EU affairs for the period of 6 months. The agenda of Lithuanian presidency covers the issues of youth unemployment, improving public finances and strengthening EU’s global role. In terms of forthcoming Eastern Partnership Summit, Vilnius pays special attention to the EU’s Eastern neighbours, Belarus and Ukraine. Speaking about her country’s responsibilities during the presidency, Dalia Grybauskaitė said that ‘It would open up invaluable opportunities for Lithuania. After nine years of EU membership we can test our capacities and demonstrate that we are not only good members of the European family, but also excellent neighbours’. And the historical ties between Lithuania and Eastern Partnership states are rather important here.

Map of the EU and the Eastern Partnership States

Map of the EU and the Eastern Partnership States

Although Lithuania is the first former Soviet republic to take upon itself the responsibilities of EU presidency, it is quite doubtful that it will use its Soviet past as the platform for promoting EU interests, as well as its own interests. On the contrary, in a region where Soviet legacy is one of the most disputable topics, retrieving common Soviet past requires a lot of delicacy and diplomacy. Perhaps, one can find the historical rationale for the current Lithuanian interest in the more remote past?

Traditionally, Lithuanian interests in what is now ‘new’ Eastern Europe stem from its past as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Formed in XII century, it incorporated some lands of Kyiv Rus’ (medieval state and the predecessor of nowadays Ukraine, Belarus and Russia) becoming the largest European state at that time (in 15th century). While Lithuanian interest in playing the historical card while dealing with Eastern Partnership are clear enough, how appealing could this particular reference of the EU presiding country be to other states? Let us take a closer look at Ukraine, for example, which is expected to sign the Association Agreement with the EU during Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November this year.

Strangely enough, the idea of common European past, apart from the Soviet period, is rarely mentioned in the current political discourse upon signing the Association Agreement of the Lithuanian presidency. Ukrainian politicians are more willingly mentioning Lithuania and Ukraine as ‘the fraternal republics’ within the USSR rather than mentioning common Lithuanian-Ukrainian state-building experience dating back to 14th – 15th centuries. And this is certainly disappointing, since retrieving of the historical narrative could be very beneficial for Ukraine.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as it was formed in XII century, incorporated Ukrainian territories within the broader context of the Kyiv Rus’ of XIV century. Along with the Belarusian lands, Ukrainian territories constituted up to 90 % of the Lithuanian state. Thus, it stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. What is interesting, in Ukraine the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is often referred to as Велике князівство Литовське, Руське і Жемайтійське – basically, Lithuanian, Rus’, and Zemaitiian state. Viewed in this way, it signifies the Kyiv Rus’, and correspondingly, Ukrainian heritage; thus, incorporating ‘proto’-Ukrainian narrative into the broader European historical discourse.

The Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth in 1569 - source:

The Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth in 1569 – source:

Within this conglomerate, Ukrainian lands were included into the European cultural and political realm. This enabled an unimpeded flow of renaissance ideas through Ukrainians lands and facilitated the formation of a single, although not monolithic, educational and cultural space. The ideas spread at the time echoed in the culture, which crystallized later as Ukrainian. Along with societal life, public administration of Ukrainian lands were shaped according to the European tradition. More and more Ukrainian cities were granted Magdeburg law, customary law of Kyiv Rus’ was modernized and reflected milestones of the German law which at that time was adopted by a number of European states. Religion and language played their part as well, and previously pagan Lithuania was concerted to Orthodoxy and learned Ruthenian language- predecessor of the modern Ukrainian. The contemporary Ukrainian historians often refer to this synergy of cultures, developed in the Grand Duchy, as the successful model of multicultural co-existence and mutually contributing model of development.

Bearing in mind that history has a tendency to repeat itself and watching Kyiv looking north once again, this is a time to speculate. Unlike centuries ago, Ukraine makes decisions today as a sovereign entity but in terms of the approaching Vilnius Summit, it is high time for Ukrainian politicians to remember old connections and to use them. Well.

Mariana Semenyshyn is currently doing her MA degree in Russian, Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow (UK) and Tartu University (Estonia). Her interests revolve around the Eastern European politics: from Baltics to the Black sea. 

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