Belarus First Nuclear Plant: High Costs and Low Benefits
As Japan is dealing with radiation leaks and Germany is shuting down its nuclear plants, Belarus committed to build its own nuclear plant. Belarus has a special and tragic relationship with nuclear power. In 1986 most of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant landed in Belarus. The country is still recovering from the aftermath of that disaster.
For years the Belarus authorities were toying with the idea of having its own nuclear plant station. Belarus is literally encircled by the Soviet-type power plants in neighboring countries without having its own. The main rationale to have its own nuclear energy is to diversify energy supplies. The country overwhelmingly relies on Russian oil and gas and the idea was that a nuclear power station would make Belarus more independent from Russia.
Earlier this month Belarus signed a number of agreements to build its first nuclear plant. However, it appears that in reality the nuclear plant will make Belarus even more dependent upon Russia. Prior to the elections Belarus was consulting French, Russian and US specialists on the construction of the plant. Following the violent post-election crackdown, the isolated Minsk has no choice but to use Russian contractors. Russia will not only build the station, but it will also lend money to Belarus for this purpose. Moreover, the nuclear fuel is likely to be supplied also by Russia and the nuclear waste will also need to be utilized in Russia. Instead of becoming more independent, Belarus will become financially, technologically and politically more dependent upon Russia.
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently corrected its forecasts on the use of nuclear power in the world. The demand for this sort of energy will be lower than previously thought because of safety concerns. The safety concern in Belarus is even greater than in Japan or Germany because transparency and monitoring mechanisms are weak or absent. In the absence of independent parliament, juridically and strong civil society, various abuses are likely to arise in the course of construction and maintenance of the plant. The price of such misconduct can be catastrophic.
The long-term economic efficiency of building nuclear power plants is also questionable. It is true that once the nuclear plant is up and running, the cost of energy is low. But the price of building the nuclear plant is enormous. If the plant’s decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs are also taken into account, nuclear energy looks less attractive. If the risks of future uncertainties such as human errors or natural cataclysms are also considered, the long-term costs may far exceed the benefits.
It is no wonder that Lithuania, which is just across the border from the proposed nuclear plant (see the map above) is very worried. If the construction plans go ahead, the plant will be just 50 kilometers away from Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Both Belarus and Russian authorities give assurances that the plant will be very safe. However, the memories of post-Chernobyl propaganda which assured people that all was fine in later April 1986 are still too fresh to be forgotten. Europe should pay serious attention to this issue and do all it can to ensure that Europeans (Belarusians and Lithuanians included) are safe from yet another nuclear disaster.
Belarus and the Middle East: What They Share and How They Differ
The wave of democratisation that had transformed most Eastern European countries left Belarus untouched, and the current wave of regime change is again bypassing the post-Soviet state. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to enjoy a monopoly of power while the opposition parties remain too weak to challenge effectively his political dominance. The regime in Minsk resists the transition from one-party government to pluralistic democracy and from state-controlled economies to relatively open market economies that happened in many post-communist countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At first glance, the Lukashenka regime’s longevity appears to rely on the widespread popular support registered in a number of landslide victories. For over a decade the overwhelming majority of the population seem to be offering him support or at least tolerarance. For many observers, his political survival has to do with his skills as an adept politician, as a demagogue who uses ‘the language of the people and the methods he had learned as a low-level communist official’. The political story of the Middle East offers new insights into why Lukashenka was able to stay in power for so long.
It is the money from the oil resources that helped the governments in the Middle East to bribe and buy support. The oil rents led to the development of a business sector less competitive outside the oil industry and therefore more dependent on government subsidies and protection. As a result, the business class and and the civil society remain weak and vulnerable.
Lukashenka’s rule has followed a similar trajectory. The Belarusian leadership with Prime Minister Viachaslau Kebich at the helm closed the ‘window of opportunity’ for economic liberalisation in the very first years of independence, and this decision marked irreversibly Belarus’ economic and political path later on. The flawed application of the rule of law and a dependent judiciary allow the patronising use of the state as well as the discretionary and nepotistic treatment of business. Outside the large state sector, a considerable large number of private economic actors are too dependent on the government.
What the politics of the Middle East also reveals is that to allow the exploitation of minerals and oil resources, governments collect rents from foreign actors, which reduces their dependence on the domestic business activity. For Belarus, a similar source of income comes in the form of economic support from Russia, including Moscow’s energy subsidies and the preferential trade access to the Russian market.
The predominant cultural perceptions of Belarus – the ‘little Russia’ story and the memories of relative Soviet prosperity – offered Lukanshenka a fertile ground for embarking on economic and political centralisation while pursuing his ambitions of having a wider political role in his ill-fated vision of a union between Belarus and Russia.
The ongoing events in the Middle East suggest that whether ‘oil impedes democracy’ may depend on the capacity of the government to bribe key actors, including the country’s local elites. For instance, the Libyan experience shows that conflict can break up when one side takes the lion’s share for too long at the expense of another and when tribal association stands as a criterion for discrimination.
In Belarus, Lukashenka’s patronising regime has reached out to the majority of key actors and succesffuly prevented the opposition from finding its niche in the society. Support for the authoritarian regime remains the most significant precondition for getting privileged access to state funding, contracts and other privileges for both the established businessmen and the new entrants. This symbiosis perpetuates loyalty to and complacency with the regime.
Aris Trantidis, contributing writer.
Aris Trantidis is a PhD student at the London School of Economics. His article ‘The Economic Underpinnings of Semi-authoritarianism. Explaining Preferences and Power Relations in the Case of Belarus’ was chosen as one of the three best PhD paper contributions by the EU Consent Academic Network in 2008.