Geopolitics, Jobs, and the Local Economy in a Lithuanian Border Town
Continuing tensions between the United States and Russia have brought the Suwalki Gap into the news as of late.
Encompassing a narrow band of Polish and Lithuanian territory between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, the Suwalki Gap figures prominently in Western military contingency planning: a Russian invasion of the region would cut off NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from overland supply routes in Europe. Even its name recalls the strategic importance of the Fulda Gap to both Western and Soviet strategic planning in Cold War-era Europe.
The views from residents of Lazdijai, a small Lithuanian town within the Suwalki Gap, offer a much-needed complement to mounting concerns over the area’s security. For many local residents, Poland looms much larger than Russia. Frugal residents regularly cross the Polish border — little more than six miles away — to save on their weekly shopping. In the words of a 20 year-old student: “Lazdijai does not produce any goods [of its own]. Local people tend to buy everything in Suwalki in Poland.” When asked about Russia, he continued, “I think nobody really cares about Russia in Lazdijai. People here are more interested in Poland.”
Lazdijai’s mayor, Arturas Margelis, has called on residents to support local businesses, even threatening to bar city government employees from shopping in Poland. Margelis’s pleas have mostly fallen on deaf ears, because “the best thing about Lazdijai is shopping for goods at decent prices [in Poland],” according to a local worker. A Lithuanian journalist found many basic foodstuffs — chicken, bread, and sugar — to be twice as expensive in Lithuania as Poland.
Lazdijai residents’ recourse to shopping in Poland reflects the broader economic problems facing this town of 4,000. “There aren’t many good jobs in Lazdijai. Young people leave to work in bigger cities like Kaunas and Vilnius, if not abroad,” a cab driver commented. With few options outside of “the public sector and small business,” a services worker noted that several of her friends have already moved to bigger cities. Whether Lazdijai and the surrounding Suwalki region will get further entangled in geopolitics remains to be seen, but for the immediate future many of its residents’ concerns will continue to be much more prosaic.