No compromise between Belarus and Lithuania on Astraviec NPP
On 15 November, Lithuanian Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis presented his country's new energy strategy. Although it is not stated directly, the strategy strongly implies that Lithuania will not buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which will begin operating in 2019.
In recent years, the issue of the Belarusian NPP has stifled bilateral relations and it seems that a compromise remains beyond the pale of possibility. Lithuania exaggerates the lack of transparency surrounding the Nuclear Power Plant's construction. It also sees the NPP as an obstacle to its goal of connecting with electricity transmission grids in Western Europe.
A nuclear power plant provokes strong feelings
Several years ago, Lithuania looked to be a major advocate for dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. Even in 2013, when sanctions were still in place, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Lithuania. Moreover, although few remember it, at the same time the Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis had prepared a report encouraging dialogue between Belarus and the EU.
But it now seems that Lithuania has made a U-turn. Despite the thaw in Belarusian-European relations, Belarus and Lithuania have yet to warm up to each other. For example, Minsk is now more likely to host Polish official delegations, which had previously been known for their tough attitude towards Alexander Lukashenka, than Lithuanian ones.
Lithuanian politicians are spending their time creating an international coalition against the Belarusian nuclear power plant. In doing so, they aim to ban the purchase of electricity from the plant to the European Union. The station, which Belarus began to build 55 km from Vilnius in 2013, has become a major stumbling block for bilateral relations.
So far, the only result of Lithuanian diplomacy are reflected in the words of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who recently declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not internalised into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'
Meanwhile, Poland, the beneficiary of a long standing offer to purchase electricity from the Astraviec NPP, has kept silent, as have other European Union countries. On 23 September, the State Secretary of Latvian MFA Andrejs Pildegovičs told the TUT.by news portal that Latvia sees 'The NPP's construction as a sovereign right of the Belarusian government', and he 'will not judge, condemn or question the reasonableness of the project.'
Why does Lithuania dislike the Belarusian power plant?
Most Lithuanian politicians stress that the safety of the construction is dubious. This is actually true, taking into the account the poor reputation of Belarusian official transparency. On 10 July, the reactor casing, weighing over 330 tonnes, fell to the ground from a height of two to four metres. The wider public became aware of this disaster only on 25 July thanks to pressure from public opinion.
So far, the construction site has seen about 10 incidents, leaving three workers dead. This came to light thanks to pressure from the Lithuanian MFA. As Deputy Energy Minister of Belarus Mikhail Mihadziuk stated in September, 'this is an acceptable figure given that the construction site employs more than five thousand people.'
Moreover, the Lithuanian government emphasises the proximity of the Belarusian nuclear power plant to its border – should there be an accident, Lithuania would have to evacuate Vilnius.
However, Lithuanian authorities are exaggerating some issues. Despite the Belarusian regime's problems with transparency, the government has proved willing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In October, the IAEA mission spent 12 days in Belarus, eventually concluding that 'Belarus is committed to nuclear safety'. Previously, while visiting Belarus in April, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano had stated that 'Belarus is one of the most advanced nuclear newcomer countries.'
The Lithuanian authorities dislike the Belarusian NPP not only for safety reasons, but also because it undermines Lithuania's energy strategy, which aims to 'connect the Lithuanian power transmission system (jointly with the Latvian and Estonian systems) to the grids of Europe for synchronous operation by 2025.' So far, Lithuania remains strongly connected to the electricity transmission grids in Belarus and Russia, a dependence it wants to overcome.
Lithuanian officials see NPP construction as a Russian project aimed at preventing that. On 15 November, Lithuanian Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis said in a statement introducing a new strategy that 'the state will not be safe until the power transmission system affects managers sitting in Moscow.' One month earlier, at the Lithuanian Energy Conference, Masiulis had announced that 'if Belarus proceeds with the Astraviec Nuclear Plant, we will put electricity links with Belarus out of operation'.
The Energy Strategy of Lithuania seems likely to come to fruition, despite the fact that the IAEA praised the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, and the Belarusian authorities have begun to behave more transparently and responsibly. On 16 November, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka announced that Belarus would postpone launching the nuclear plant due to security concerns.
It seems that Lithuania's approach to the Belarusian nuclear power plant is already a foregone conclusion. The issue has become so politicised that Lithuanian politicians are even competing to speak against the NPP in Astraviec more sharply. Recently, Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the best-known Lithuanian politicians, called the construction of the NPP an atomic bomb against Vilnius.
The Union of Peasants and Greens, which won the elections in Lithuania last month, seems to see Astraviec in a similar way. Its politicians spoke out against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus even before their election. Compromise, it seems, may prove impossible.
Three ‘thorns in the flesh’ of Belarus-Poland relations
Despite some recent positive trends in relations between Belarus and Poland, several unresolved issues hamper their full normalisation.
Warsaw remains largely bound by the European Union’s official policy towards Minsk. The Belarusian authorities are suspicious of Poland’s support of democratic forces in Belarus.
Meanwhile, Poland’s conservative government has recently shown greater independence from Brussels on many policy issues. They have also visibly reduced their support of the Belarusian opposition, to the latter's great chagrin. This has led to tacit approbation from Lukashenka’s government.
However, the primary sources of conflict in the two countries’ relations remain of a purely bilateral nature. Will Minsk be willing to overlook its economic and security concerns and open the way to a full mending of ties?
Local border traffic: still locked
A Belarusian government official, who spoke with Belarus Digest anonymously, outlined three major stumbling blocks to Belarus-Poland relations: locked local border traffic, the divided Polish minority in Belarus, and the problematic Pole's Card.
Implementation of a local border traffic agreement between Belarus and Poland would facilitate cross-border exchanges for 1.7m people (1.1m of them Belarusians) who live near the border.
In addition to being able to acquire expensive short-term visas (currently the only option), these people would become eligible for cheap multi-year travel permits. These documents would allow them to visit relatives and do shopping in the 30-km adjacent border area.
Belarus ratified the local border traffic agreement in December 2010, a few weeks before the violent crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, which led to a deep freeze of Belarus’s relations with Europe. The country then suspended the necessary intergovernmental procedures, thus preventing the agreement from taking effect.
Now, although the most difficult period in bilateral relations is over, Belarus remains reluctant to enact the traffic law. The authorities claim that the existing infrastructure capacities would not cope with the expected increase in cross-border traffic (between 30% and 70%).
The border checkpoints are indeed oversaturated. Dmitry Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, admitted on 29 September that Poland’s assistance in securing EU funds to modernise the infrastructure would help to launch the local border traffic.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities fear that the potential hordes of Belarusian shoppers would cause a dramatic increase in non-taxed imports from Poland. This could further undermine the country’s failing economy and weaken the Belarusian currency. In their turn, the Polish authorities would welcome greater inflows of shoppers to Poland’s less-developed eastern region.
There are also security concerns. Belarus’s security apparatus feels uneasy about increased foreign presence in the border area. It could mean less efficient control over this special-status territory, which includes two major cities, Brest and Hrodna.
The Pole's Card: an economic and security threat
The Belarusian government has always been hostile to the Pole’s Card, viewing it as a way for the Polish government to meddle in Belarus’s domestic affairs.
This document, introduced in 2008, grants many rights and benefits to people with nominally Polish roots in exchange for an oath of allegiance to the Polish nation.
The number of eligible cardholders in Belarus may exceed half a million Belarusians. As of December 2015, 77,818 Belarusian citizens received the card.
Many cardholders never thought about their Polish roots before the Pole's Card became available. Most have been enticed by more pragmatic considerations – primarily including access to a free Polish visa, which also allows for travel in the Schengen zone.
The Polish government has ignored repeated requests from Belarus to suspend the programme, which allegedly violates international law, until an advisory opinion of the Venice Commission can be obtained.
Instead, the legislation on the Pole’s Card has recently been amended to simplify the cardholders’ access to residence permits and Polish citizenship. It also provides for financial support of their resettlement to Poland.
Poland wants to encourage immigration from Belarus. The country, which is experiencing a labour shortage, would prefer to attract qualified workers from Belarus over migrants from the Middle East. Belarus can hardly rejoice at these prospects.
The Belarusian government also sees such dual-loyalists as a potential threat to state security. It has already prohibited civil servants and elected officials from obtaining the Pole’s Card. Moreover, a new provision in Polish law authorises the submission of applications on the territory of Poland, making it significantly harder for the Belarusian government to track them.
Polonia: a divided minority
Belarus Digest wrote earlier on the ongoing talks between the Belarusian and Polish governments about the reunification of the two Polish minority associations in Belarus – with the Belarusian authorities vetting the candidates for leadership positions.
The feuding associations, which each call the other ‘phantom’, publicly reacted to the proposed plan after Rzeczpospolita also broke this story.
The independent Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB), which enjoys the support of the Polish authorities, has expressed its “strong opposition to the idea of joining the independent UPB with the puppet organisation of the Belarusian authorities under the same name”.
The unregistered association invited the Belarusian government to enter into direct talks about ways to legalise the underground organisation.
Predictably, the government-controlled UPB has welcomed a unification scenario. “We have extended a unifying hand to them, but they sling mud at us and Belarus”, an official of the registered association complained in an interview.
The same official has asserted that the Poland-backed UPB will have to accept the scenario if pressed by their Polish sponsors. The unrecognised UPB is indeed dependent on Polish money. However, few people doubt the personal integrity of its leaders.
The Belarusian government would never allow most of these leaders to assume an important position in a unified organisation. The authorities perceive a strong, uncontrolled, and legally operating association of the Polish Diaspora to be a potential threat to national security.
Can the three thorns be pulled out?
Of the three major problems, only the issue of local border traffic has a chance of being solved in the mid-term. It would, however, require significant funding from the European Union. Gradual adaptation of Belarusian security agencies to the country’s greater openness would also help.
The Polish government will not abandon or modify its Pole’s Card programme. The emergence of a strong Union of Poles, which the Belarusian government would recognise but not control, also remains highly unlikely.
The three ‘thorns in the flesh’ can be pulled out painlessly, or ignored, only when Belarus manages to reform itself to become an economically prosperous and democratic country. Until then, more Belarusians will go to Poland to buy staple goods, work, or resettle; and the secret services will continue to suspect visiting Poles of being spies and treat national minorities as potential traitors.