Will the West join Lithuania’s crusade against Belarus NPP?
“We are not going to buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, but do not want to politicise the issue of construction of this station,” said the Polish Ambassador to Belarus on 27 December 2017. If asked, a few Western diplomats would say the same.
On the one hand, many Western politicians see Lithuania’s crusade against the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP) as politicised and even panicked. But on the other hand, perhaps thanks to Lithuania’s position, any cooperation (except on security issues) between Belarus and the West in the atomic sphere have become less feasible. Therefore, while Lithuania loses the conflict diplomatically, Belarus is not a winner either.
Lithuania’s fight against Belarusian NPP
It seems that Lithuanian politicians compete over who can deliver the sharpest criticism of Belarus’s first NPP, which is under construction in Astraviec in northwest Belarus near the border with Lithuania. In 2017, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė in her talk with American Vice President Mike Pence described the Astraviec plant as a “non-conventional weapon.” Former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus later called Belarusian NPP “an atomic bomb.”
Lithuanian authorities appear to use every opportunity to tell the world about the dangers of the Belarusian NPP. President Grybauskaite spoke about it in a conversation with Donald Trump, and the Lithuanian authorities have asked US lawmakers to hold a special hearing on the Astraviec plant. On 24 November 2017, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, expressed his “full solidarity” with Lithuanian safety concerns over the Belarusian NPP.
The mood in Lithuanian society follows the exclamations of their politicians. Two-thirds of Lithuanians perceive the Belarusian nuclear plant as a threat to Lithuania, according to Lithuanian polling agency RAIT (23 per cent of Lithuanians do not view it as a threat, while 12 per cent could not answer the question).
However, in practice, the Lithuanian crusade has borne little fruit. While Lithuanian politicians seek termination of the construction of the plant in Astraviec and non-admission of Belarusian electricity to the EU market, no other EU country shares the opinion of Lithuania. This makes Lithuania’s efforts appear futile.
“You will never satisfy the Lithuanians. They simply do not want the project,” an EU official told the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, some view Lithuanian arguments against the Belarusian NPP as being overboard. Although, it is easy to understand Vilnius’s fears of a meltdown or some other kind of catastrophe, because the plant in Astraviec is just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital.
Lithuania on the losing end
It seems that many involved feel irritated about how Lithuania politicises the issue. In September, even the EU Commissioner from Lithuania, who is politically affiliated with the current government, said that “Lithuanian officials confuse economics with politics” and “Belarusians [themselves] are most concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants.”
Previously, in the summer of 2017, at the initiative of a Swedish MP, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly declined to discuss a resolution put forward by Lithuania, because it mixed the nuclear issue and human rights in “an unfortunate way.” 20 other delegations supported the MP, including countries such as Czechia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Only seven countries supported Lithuania.
Other Baltic countries remain reluctant to criticize the Belarusian NPP. Indeed, they appear to flip-flop their positions depending on the circumstances. Moreover, Latvia would like to capitalize on the Belarusian-Lithuanian dispute. The Latvian government has long pitched the Belarusian authorities with the idea of transiting goods through the Latvian ports, and so it tries to be careful with its criticism. As the Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister stated in an interview to online news portal TUT.by, “we share the concern of Lithuania, but talk directly with our Belarusian colleagues.”
Lithuania has even tried to get Ukraine’s support. But, as the Lithuanian Energy Minister Žygimantas Vaičiūnas stated on 8 December 2017, he “has not received any concrete position from Kyiv.”
Poland’s reaction to the Astraviec plant may appear to be the best achievement in Lithuania’s crusade. Poland has not only refused to buy electricity from Astraviec, but it has also decided to dismantle its Bialystok – Ros power line with Belarus. However, in an interview with online news portal Naviny.by, Polish Ambassador Konrad Pawlik indicated that his country would like to distance itself from Lithuania’s position. Poland has acted for internal reasons.
A pyrrhic victory for Belarus
The Belarusian NPP is a precedent: more Western countries seem to support something put forward by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s regime rather than the position of one of its own. To be sure, Belarusian diplomacy was also working hard. The Belarusian Government is working closely both with the International Atomic Energy Agency and with the European Commission. Representatives of the former organisation have visited Belarus several times, and the latter is preparing a major mission for this year.
But that does not mean that Belarus “wins” per se. President Lukashenka has repeatedly asked officials to think of what to do with the surplus electricity Belarus will have after the launch of the nuclear plant. However, the Belarusian authorities are still failing to find enough outlets. Desperation is so great that the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences has suggested to use the excess electricity from Astraviec to mine cryptocurrencies.
Even if the West will not impose formal restrictions on Belarusian electricity, informally Belarusian aspirations for the use of its nuclear power is already suspect. That is, the European Union will likely seek to ensure that any leverage Belarus (and Russia) can gain from cheap supplies of energy in the region has little impact.
Rather worryingly for Belarus, on 18 December 2017, European commissioners met with energy ministers from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland to discuss how to desynchronise the Baltic States’ electricity grid (BRELL) from Belarus and Russia.
According to the Lithuanian Minister of Energy, desynchronisation and synchronisation will cost around €1 mln and the “most of the sum will be financed the by the European Union.” If so, perhaps the Lithuanian crusade against Belarus’s NPP will achieve moderate returns at the very least. If this were to happen, the Belarusian NPP will be cut off from Western markets and likely become unprofitable. Lithuania, on the other hand, will be able to modernise its electricity system with the help of European Union funds.
Faces of Belarusian politics: political archaeologist Ihar Marzalyuk
Almost everything about Ihar Marzalyuk, a rising star in the Belarusian establishment, contradicts stereotypes held abroad about the Belarusian state. While he is definitely not a liberal democrat, he has even less in common with grey, Soviet-style bureaucrats. With his criticism of Russian chauvinists and love for medieval Belarusian history, he embodies Minsk’s ideological evolution over the past decade.
On 28 September, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka in a rare move appointed a Belarusian–speaking official the dean of Mahilyou State University. Some media, like Nasha Niva, connected the appointment to Marzalyuk’s growing influence. Reportedly, the new head of Mahilyou University has ties to Marzalyuk.
A standard oppositionist’s biography
The beginning of Marzalyuk’s biography sounds similar to biographies of leading Belarusian opposition politicians. His was the last generation that came of age under the Soviet Union. He has a strong interest in Belarusian history and comes from Mahilyou province. A study by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies shows this region has the strongest Belarusian identity in the country. At the peak of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, he started speaking Belarusian openly and joined opposition movements.
After becoming a professional archaeologist, historian and administrator at Mahilyou State University, Marzalyuk rose to prominence following his 2009 book, which criticises nationalist concepts of Belarusian history. He did not return to Soviet-era concepts but expressed views aimed at developing an ideological foundation for an independent Belarus. Even Marzalyuk’s son, Alhierd, got his name in honour of a ruler in the Great Duchy of Litva, a medieval state where the ancestors of Belarusians played the leading role.
Minsk as a centre of the Russian world
Marzalyuk’s ideas raised interests within Belarusian government. By the late 2000s, it was deemed necessary to fend off Moscow’s increasing ideological pressure. An eyewitness told Belarus Digest about a row behind the scene of a conference in Minsk in December 2010 between Marzalyuk and Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian philosopher with links to the Kremlin.
While Dugin reportedly insisted that the so-called Russian world should have only one pole, i.e., Moscow, Marzalyuk argued that it should be multipolar, reserving a place for Belarus as one of such poles. Moreover, his other writings and speeches imply that Kyiv should be another centre, too. In effect, this turns the concept of the “Russian world” upside down: from a tool of Moscow’s domination in Eastern Europe to a model of coexistence in the region.
Confronting Belarusian nationalists and Russian imperialists, Marzalyuk proved himself as one of the few persons in the Belarusian political establishment willing and able to level sophisticated responses at opponents. No wonder in 2012 he got elected—or perhaps better to say selected—into the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament. For four years, he served on the prestigious Commission for international affairs and national security.
Despite getting into the parliament, he kept speaking Belarusian and expressing original views. In August 2016 meeting voters in Mahilyou, he commented on Russia‘s annexation of Crimea and activities in Eastern Ukraine. “Russia has done a terrible thing. What had existed at the level of mass consciousness, the feeling of East Slavic commonality, of East Slavic unity was destroyed in one day,” he said.
Marzalyuk does not conceal his interest in politics, even in its most basic forms. Two cases illustrate this point. First, he left the Council of the Republic – the upper (and more closed) chamber of Belarusian parliament—essentially a political sinecure. Instead, in 2016, he went on to be elected to the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. It offers more opportunities to publicly articulate one’s views and even engage in political debates—as much as it is possible in the existing political system.
Secondly, when in spring 2017 the protests broke out over the government’s attempt to tax people who were not officially employed, Marzalyuk became the only high–level Belarusian official to meet the protesters to discuss their grievances.
It seems Marzalyuk wishes to profile himself in Belarusian political establishment as a man of direct political action. After all, he has to compete with other ideologists of the current government, like Vadzim Hihin, who also generate intellectually sophisticated products. Indeed, what makes Marzalyuk’s unique in this power game is his willingness to meet people on the street and readily talk to independent media.
Marzalyuk makes a point of his right wing, conservative views. He emphasises his coming to them after participating in activities of Nationalist Belarusian People’s Front and Social-Democrat Party.
While articulating his views of a Belarusian national idea in 2014, he openly referred to certain views held by Vyacheslav Lypynsky, a conservative politician active in the short-lived, independent Ukrainian state after WWI known for his criticisms of socialism and ethnic nationalism. In addition, Marzalyuk picked up Lyavon Bushmar, an anti–hero of Belarusian Soviet literature as his human ideal. In Soviet times, this figure represented a negative type of hard-working, yet individualist and a narrow-minded peasant. Bushmar eventually sets fire to a local collective farm.
His views of contemporary Europe follow the same lines. As Marzalyuk said in an interview to the European radio for Belarus in February 2013, “My European ideals are in the past—I prefer the Victorian British Empire. Not because they were colonisers, but they had a more honest position. Europe is sick with socialism in the worst sense of the word. Hence all their [Europeans’] problems.”
Some other top officials hold similar conservative, statist views. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei chose Bismarck as his ideal statesman. And even while Internal Minister Ihar Shunevich might throw on the uniform of a Stalin-era police officer for a parade, he can also be found personally designing and inaugurating a monument for Imperial Russian policemen.
Paving the way for a compromise in society?
To continue the consolidation of an independent Belarusian state, a dialogue between the ruling elites and those who oppose them must develop. Marzalyuk might be the figure to facilitate such dialogue.
Indeed, there are already signs this may be happening. Persons with known affiliations to the opposition have welcomed Marzalyuk’s advancement in power. Thus, former opposition politician Valyantsin Holubeu praised Marzalyuk in an interview published by Nasha Niva on 8 December. “I have known Ihar for a long time, back when we both participated in social initiatives. Marzalyuk is Belarusian historian and proponent of Belarusian statehood [dziarzhaunik], with his own vision. All he is doing he does only for the sake of Belarusian independence,” said Holubeu.
In a word, most foreign stereotypes about the Belarusian regime hold only until closer examination. Belarusian state officials and their varying ideology are a case in point. Key personalities in Belarusian government profess a conservative, statist ideology with few traces of Soviet socialism. They are also developing original concepts of Belarusian history and visions of a future which avoid unnecessary Russophobia, but also insist on the necessity of Belarusian independence. Marzalyuk rose up in the state hierarchy due to a gradual changing of the the regime’s ideology. His ascendancy illustrates just how wrong are those who insist that the Belarusian state has not changed in the last two decades.