Astraviec Nuclear Plant: a Poison for Belarus-Lithuania Relations?
In the recent months, the issue of the nuclear power plant (NPP) that Belarus is building near its border with Lithuania has been dominating bilateral relations. Lithuanian politicians are seeking to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus.
Vilnius is worried about environmental and safety issues. Minsk sees economic and political motives behind Lithuania's claims. Domestic policy considerations in Lithuania also play a role.
Can Lithuania’s rhetoric and actions seriously harm the two country's economic and political ties?
A pan-European campaign against the Astraviec NPP
On 12 May, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a resolution calling the government to take all necessary diplomatic, legal and technical measures to halt the construction of the NPP in Astraviec. MPs want the government to prohibit Belarus from selling electric energy produced at the NPP to Lithuania as well as from using the country’s energy system and its spare capacity.
The Lithuanian legislator can hardly complain about the lack of interest to this issue in the executive branch. On 26 April, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius used the anniversary of Chernobyl to demand Belarus “to ensure that safety of the NPP, being built just 50 kilometres from Vilnius, be provided in strict compliance with all international requirements and recommendations”.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė claimed on 22 February that safety of the Astraviec NPP should be of concern to the entire European Union.
Indeed, Lithuania launched a pan-European campaign against the Belarusian NPP. In December 2015, Rokas Masiulis, the country’s energy minister, wrote to his colleagues in neighbouring countries urging them not to buy electric energy, which will be produced by the NPPs now under construction in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region.
Estonia and Latvia halfheartedly supported Lithuania’s initiative. However, Finland refused to join in the boycott. Poland hid behind a soft diplomatic formula affirming that “energy from unsafe NPPs should not get on the market”.
Lithuanian leaders have been seeking support well beyond the immediate neighbourhood. On 20 April, President Dalia Grybauskaitė discussed safety of the future Belarusian NPP with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
On 11 May, Algirdas Butkevičius announced his intention to discuss the Astraviec NPP with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. Earlier, he claimed to have the full support of Norway in this issue.
Belarus insists on its openness to dialogue
Lithuania claims that Belarus has violated its obligations under the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). Indeed, in March 2014, the Implementation Committee found Belarus to be in non-compliance with its obligations under four articles of the Convention.
The Belarusian government maintains that it has since remedied the situation. In June 2013, Belarus submitted the final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report to Lithuania. (The Lithuanian side claims that the report was Google-translated into Lithuanian).
According to the Belarusian authorities, Lithuania failed to respond to their numerous offers to organise consultations with the public on the EIA report. Belarus then organised such public hearings in Astraviec, provided free visas and translation into Lithuanian, and invited Lithuanian journalists, representatives of civil society and officials to attend.
Minsk proposed Vilnius to create a joint body for the post-project analysis of the Astraviec NPP. It also offered to implement a joint project of the system of radiation monitoring of nuclear facilities located near the border.
According to Belarus Digest's sources, Belarusian officials claim that Lithuania has been manipulating the Espoo Convention to slow down or block activities in Belarus, which it finds undesirable for economic or political reasons. They worry that Vilnius may seek to take advantage of the Western countries' majority in the convention to pass the needed decisions.
Belarus' Deputy Energy Minister, Mikhail Mikhadziuk affirmed in a recent interview to Lithuanian media that Lithuania has been "avoiding dialogue" by consistently ignoring Belarus' attempts to establish proper channels of communication and resolve disagreements through debate. In 2010 – 2014, Belarusian government agencies sent ten written replies to their Lithuanian colleagues. Since 2011, the Belarusian government invited the Lithuanian authorities on ten occasions – once at the prime minister level – to hold expert consultations on the Astraviec NPP.
Belarus has been resisting the Lithuanian offer to establish an expert body to resolve the existing disagreements claiming that the two countries have yet not exhausted the possibilities offered by bilateral consultations.
Belarus doubts Lithuania’s motives in the NPP issue
The Lithuanian authorities maintain that their only concern over the Astraviec’s project remains the lack of safety and a negative environmental impact.
Indeed, the Astraviec NPP is being built by a Russian contractor, using Russian technology, equipment and a Russian loan. Persistent mistrust in Russian technology and safe implementation of the project by corruption-ridden contractors, which prevails in the post-Soviet space, fuels these doubts well. A recent incident at the construction site, which the Belarusian authorities chose initially to silence and even deny, only reinforced these fears.
Another reason for concern is the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime. The authorities failed to have a proper public debate in Belarus before taking the final decision on the project. Some fear that in absence of an independent regulator, government agencies and constructors may disregard potential shortcomings of the project to comply with Lukashenka’s instructions.
In their turn, the Belarusian authorities are convinced that the Lithuanian authorities pursue their economic and political interests under the guise of safety concerns.
Indeed, the Astraviec NPP makes the planned Visaginas NPP in Lithuania redundant. The Baltic countries have been discussing the idea of building a new NPP on the site of the closed Ignalina NPP since 2006 but few practical steps were made. Some experts see this project, which was put on hold for many years, as effectively dead.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė's recent statement seems to confirm the theory of economic motives behind Lithuania’s opposition to Belarus’ project. On 22 February, she insisted that “the Astraviec NPP should not create any further obstacles neither for production of electric energy in the country nor for improving the efficiency of consumption or the synchronisation of the Baltic countries with power transmission lines of continental Europe."
Domestic policy considerations are also playing an important role in the debate. The forthcoming October 2016 parliamentary elections make the politicians from all parties to play stronger hand in "defending national interests." Even Rokas Masiulis, the Energy Minister, an opponent of the Astraviec project, called the activities of most ardent critics a “pre-election political manoeuvring”.
The Belarusian authorities are clearly concerned with the campaign launched by Lithuania against the NPP project, especially the calls for boycott of potential energy exports. However, even if this initiative enjoys wider support in the EU, it is unlikely to halt the construction of the NPP.
Belarus currently covers a significant part of its needs in electric energy by imports. The Astraviec NPP will serve to satisfy the domestic consumption. It will also allow to reduce imports of natural gas from Russia.
Some Lithuanian politician understand the importance of not overplaying the boycott card. Gediminas Kirkilas, the deputy speaker of the parliament and former prime minister of Lithuania, believes that Lithuania can now only mitigate the effects of Belarus’ decision. “Besides Astraviec, there are relations with Belarus, transit via Lithuania, the Klaipeda port”, he reminds.
Indeed, the Lithuanian authorities are hardly willing to jeopardise the numerous benefits of a wide web of trade ties between the two countries. For Lithuania, a face-saving compromising could involve much stricter environmental safety procedures and a mutually profitable arrangement for energy trade.
EU and Belarus: All Politics to Be Gradual
After the 2015 October presidential elections Belarus gears up for a parliamentary one on September 11 with little expectations of democratic improvement.
Albeit authoritarian, Belarus is both a functional state and society. The EU is learning to live with this reality due to tensions in its Eastern neighbourhood, the fact that it has no reliable political allies within Belarus, and Minsk’s effort to reduce those geopolitical tensions and holding a more responsive dialogue with the West.
Belarus is the only remaining country of the Eastern Partnership with territorial integrity. Given the political turbulence in Ukraine and Moldova, Belarus may also now be the only EaP country without political prisoners. The Ukrainian crisis and a resurgent Russia put Belarus’ capable, albeit repressive, state under new light.
The notion of local stability may prove wishful thinking if geopolitics continues to heat up. Without a finessed approach in the West, Lukashenka, always a deft maneuverer, might not be able to continue to resist falling under the spell of Russia’s influence. The EU’s policy should not sacrifice democracy for the sake of security, but rather the former should be viewed as an endgame instead of an ultimatum defining the relationship.
Traditionalist Revolution: Institutional Stability
Lukashenka’s political longevity has stemmed from two sources: institutional stability and an a la carte friendship with Russia. Brussels has learned to despise and appreciate both.
Lukashenka lived up to his 1994 electoral pledge to reinstall a centralised system that in some policies, procedures and symbols resembles the former Soviet Union. The liaison between Soviet-era bureaucrats and power-hungry new supporters of Lukashenka led to power consolidation and a mix of centralised public institutions. They have run the country in a stable manner with a viable social contract, relatively successfully as it relates to governance and the economy.
Fortified by Lukashenka’s personal skill in making Russia pay for Belarus’ posturing as its only “genuine” ally, the seemingly impenetrable country frustrated the EU’s end-of-history-style one-size-fits-all democratization effort. However, the infamous “power vertical” might now be causing Russia more annoyance than the West. This should not lull the EU into complacency.
Russia and Belarus: Mutual Vulnerability
the “Russian world” promotion do represent new risk variables for Belarus Read more
Belarus is a country where Russia`s soft power functions in most effective manner. Belarus shares with Russia common media and cultural sphere, Russian language and Orthodox church predominance and a significant presence of Russian banks. Deep connections link secret services, law enforcement, and the military of both countries. In addition, almost total energy dependency, and open borders are not new factors for Minsk to encounter. Moscow`s feeling of existential threat, its military confidence stemming from Ukraine and Syria, its effective media, and the “Russian world” promotion do represent new risk variables for Belarus.
Speculation that Russia might be losing patience can hardly be dismissed. Previously more concerned about Russia, the Baltic countries have started to worry about Belarus. Lithuania’s latest threat assessment, for example, repeatedly mentions Belarus, whereas in the 2014 edition, it was barely mentioned at all. None of Russia’s three recently announced deployments are to be placed close to the Baltic borders. One of the divisions, however, is to be deployed at the border with Belarus.
With regard to joint defence needs, including particularly air defence, Belarus has routinely requested “contributions” to its defence forces. The Russian contributions of military equipment are, however, either regularly delayed, or arrive in the form of outdated models. The much heralded Russian military air base in Belarus was quietly fended off.
Belarus has launched attempts at establishing “strategic” military cooperation with China - and allegedly with Ukraine Read more
Meanwhile, Belarus has launched attempts at establishing “strategic” military cooperation with China – and allegedly with Ukraine – produced its own advanced surface-to-air missile system Polonaise.
In February 2016, the government updated its military doctrine dating back to 2001. Its main target is not conventional war but a hybrid one comprising terrorist and (political) extremist activities. Minsk is aware that the West no longer prefers revolutions in the neighbourhood. Yet, it cannot afford a political shift away from Russia.
Controlled Capitalism: Institutional Instability
The Belarusian economy has been struggling for years, with inflation rising and real incomes plummeting. New taxes are constantly being approved, the form of which have reached absurd heights: one example being a tax on “social parasitism/unemployment”. These policies fail at generating necessary revenues, ignore the elephant (state owned enterprises) in the room, and antagonize the population.
Yet, the country`s beleaguered political opposition, with only four months remaining until the parliamentary elections, has managed to produce only several badly coordinated lists of candidates.
The economic re-shuffle prepared by a handful of reformers aims to move the country from a planned economy to a regulated one Read more
A more potent challenge to introduce reforms is posed internally by the old government guards and the “siloviki” – the security services and law enforcement. The economic re-shuffle prepared by a handful of reformers aims to move the country from a planned economy to a regulated one. Even such gradual changes would deprive them of the veto power and target arbitrary state management, a change impossible to accept for many in Belarus` neo-Soviet power hierarchy.
A murky episode involving the recent arrest of businessman Yury Chyzh underlines the potential of internal struggle. This arrest, and the KGB involvement in it, indicates that the power mechanisms in the country might be less centrally controlled than commonly thought.
Additional speculation posits that Chyzh bankrupted a company of which Lukashenka`s family were informal shareholders, highlighting the gradual transition between (state) power and wealth in Belarus. Regardless of the true explanation, the opaque, informal and arbitrary rules underscore the fact that reforms are not in the interest of the West but of Belarus.
Doomed to Dialogue
As there are no major carrots from the West and – following Crimea annexation – Russia carries the big stick – the EU is largely doomed to dialogue. After 20 years of opposing Belarus, the West should most of all build trust based on common interests in order to reduce resistance to reforms.
As much as the idea of a permanent NATO base might be attractive to the Baltic countries, it would likely push Russia to exert greater pressure on Belarus to accept a Russian military base on its territory. This outcome would not help to achieve deterrence but rather would increase the risk of conflict and subdue Belarus to an overpowering Russia.
the majority of the Belarusian population further show no desire to be integrated into the EU Read more
Relations with Belarus, particularly for Poland and Lithuania, should be a higher foreign policy priority. In this regard, the trip of Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowskyi in March 2016 is a step in the right direction.
Integration is not supported by either side (the EU or Minsk) and the majority of the Belarusian population further show no desire to be integrated into the EU. Nevertheless, Belarus has been slowly turning towards the West: the technology trigger for supporting necessary economic modernization is there.
The EU’s policy towards Belarus already includes increased engagement with the government. Exercised with caution, this policy has the long-term potential to help make Belarus` notorious informal decision-making process more transparent. The EU is already strengthening its focus on education. It should also emphasise the careful promotion of structural reforms, taking into consideration the principles of its social economy and the general aim to modernize local industries.
While such dialogue may ensure a relationship built on common interests, concern for democratic elections should not be neglected. The Spanish transition model might come useful here: democracy can be the end result, even if not necessarily the beginning of a successful transition process.
Russia’s perception of encroachment from the West could spiral out of control, particularly in the presence of any dramatic events, as it did with the case of Ukraine. Given the geopolitical sensitivity of Moscow towards Belarus as its last ally and a territory linking it to Kaliningrad, such an event may not need to be as significant as the Maidan was in Ukraine.
Lukashenka will play his part in keeping both sides mildly satisfied. Yet even his manoeuvring power is limited, given domestic economic challenges, resistance toward reforms, and Russia`s dominance. It is now up to the EU to demonstrate normative finesse in developing its relations with the country, both for the sake of local democracy and regional stability.
Balázs Jarábik and Alena Kudzko
Balázs Jarábik is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment. Alena Kudzko is a research fellow at the Globsec Policy Institute.
A longer version of this article is available at cepolicy.org.