Tomas Janeliūnas. Astravyets NPP – we’ll stop the monster by shouting!

Tomas Janeliūnas. Astravyets NPP – we’ll stop the monster by shouting!

Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant will soon launch. Perhaps in August, perhaps in September. One way or another, it is likely that by the end of the year, the nuclear monster will begin generating electricity. But we have a weapon! By virtue of our loud shouting and paper placards, we can stop it! Only our united and intimidating shouting can make Alexander Lukashenko come to his senses. The Belarussian president will return around 10 billion dollars to Russia, will dismantle all the concrete constructions and will turn the surroundings of Astravyets into blooming grasslands. We were foolish and divided, but only by loudly – very, very loudly – shouting can we stop that accursed power plant.

Though maybe we can’t? Perhaps we are overestimating the impact of our vocal cords and the decibels they generate? But tell that to the Conservatives and Liberal Movement representatives and they will only increase the volume so as to more convincingly prove that loud shouting is a truly powerful force.

In recent weeks, a significant political storm has brewed up – the Conservatives call Minister of Energy Žygimantas Vaičiūnas a traitor, call for his removal from negotiations with the Estonians and Latvians on an agreement as to how the Baltic States will act after Astravyets NPP launches and are periodically protesting in various locations. However, neither protests, nor loudly demanding the minister’s dismissal seem to be having any impact. So far, no news has emerged on A. Lukashenko announcing a halt to Astravyets NPP and from the Latvian side, there’s nothing to hear about our neighbours barring the way for imports of Belarussian electricity. It appears that the Conservatives and the Liberal Movement are doing something wrong if the power plant is due to launch.

Noise and facts

To step away from the sarcastic opening, one must admit that the problem of Astravyets NPP has not been resolved by anyone and the problem itself will soon take very real and functioning shape, rather than one that is purely hypothetical. The ticking time bomb next to Vilnius will soon begin ticking. Just that no one knows what its timer is showing. However, what the Conservatives and Liberal Movement representatives are doing is simply demagoguery, which fails to resolve the difficult problem. On the contrary – it only causes extra noise, which distracts us all and the participants of political negotiations from concrete decisions.

First of all, the loudly shouting politicians, as is often the case, tendentiously mix arguments and blend problems into a single whole. The current negotiations between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on non-purchase of Astravyets NPP electricity is blended with technical processes and risks. For example, Žygimantas Vaičiūnas’ “betrayal” in the negotiations is linked with the likelihood that Lithuania will have to allow the use of Kruonis Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Plant as soon as Belarus asks it. Thus, Lithuania will supposedly itself amplify the effectiveness of Astravyets NPP’s operation.

Secondly, the politicians clamouring for the minister’s head are for whatever reason convinced that the interests of Latvia and Estonia would change solely from the wishes of Lithuanian politicians. In other words, we need only wish for it and the Latvians will feel ashamed, lower their heads and will admit they were mistaken. They will then no longer want to purchase Belarussian electricity. And if this fails – we should pressure our “brother Latvians” a little harder, twist their arms. Perhaps through the Americans, perhaps through the European Commission. And then the Latvians will definitely yield to our demands.

Things are actually more complicated and the clamouring politicians know this. But the essence of demagoguery is to skip the facts and arguments, which hamper them from relaying that single “politically true” opinion.

Lithuania missed the opportunity to halt the construction of Astravyets NPP in its early stages. Perhaps the opportunity was not guaranteed, but we ourselves granted extra motivation to Belarus when after lengthy tussling, we smothered the Visaginas NPP project. Furthermore, for a long time, we meandered undecided on whether we want to completely halt Astravyets NPP or just ensure its safety. Finally, upon realising that the first reactor of this plant will inevitably be launched, we took to a strategy of increasing economic costs – we decided that we will block the purchase of Belarussian electrical power and thus perhaps force them to rethink the construction of a second reactor (it is currently only in plans).

However, most importantly, through our indecision, our meandering and dismissiveness, we forgot that we must work actively with other actors – EU member states, the USA and finally the Latvians themselves- if we want to be heard and supported. The Conservatives themselves organised for the first time (!) last week online discussions with colleagues from the Latvian parliament, explaining the threat posed by the power plant in Astravyets. It turns out the Latvians have no understanding of our fears and are convinced that the Lithuanians are once again seeking to force their neighbours to undertake decisions that won’t benefit them, but this time, they are unwilling to yield to pressure. A little earlier, but once again – far too late – in autumn last year, President G. Nausėda and his advisors directly spoke to the Latvian president on the problem of Astravyets NPP. It turns out that this was nigh on the first direct political presentation of the problem at the presidential level to our closest neighbours!

It comes as no surprise that having shown little interest so far in questions of Astravyets NPP’s safety, the Latvians are now vehemently opposed when Lithuanians ask them to commit to not purchasing Belarussian electricity following the launch of Astravyets NPP. We simply forgot that others might just have their own national interests and that these might differ to ours.

Between a bad and a worse (no) agreement

Negotiations on how the Baltic States’ electrical power market will operate after the launch of Astravyets NPP are a fundamentally only political agreement, which is important due to several aspects. Firstly, it would confirm that all three countries maintain a united position and are inclined to complete their projects of synchronisation with Western Europe and finally disconnecting from the BRELL ring they are in currently (together with Belarus and Russia). Second, it would offer political commitment to not support the Astravyets NPP project directly, which would match Lithuanian interests to hamper the economic returns of this project.

However, it is important to not forget several facts. Physically, Belarussian electricity will flow through Lithuania and Latvia – until we complete the synchronisation project, we cannot cut the remaining four electricity lines to Belarus. Respectively, Lithuania, together with Estonia and Latvia, are responsible to allow the use of their infrastructure in critical cases so that the entire BRELL ring wouldn’t “blow” and we wouldn’t all be left in “energy darkness.” As such, it is likely that with the launch of Astravyets NPP, there will be moments when it will have to disconnect (such things happen in all nuclear power plants) and Estonian and Latvian network operators, unable to sustain network charge, will have to ask Lithuania to launch the turbines of the Kruonis plant.

In speaking how A. Lukashenko will abuse our position and constantly blackmail us over Kruonis PSHP, the Conservatives are manipulating this aspect – the Lithuanian operator has clearly stated that the Kruonis plant will not be used for everyday balancing of current and such balancing is the responsibility of Belarus and Russia. However, in critical cases, Lithuania’s decision is simple – either provide a temporary reserve or cause a region-wide technical crisis.

In a commercial sense, with Lithuania refusing to purchase Belarussian electricity following the launch of Astravyets NPP, Latvia and Estonia have the right to demand a new methodology on trade with third countries. In this, our politicians manipulate yet another aspect, seeking to reinforce their accusations of betrayal. Claims that we have an existing methodology where only Lithuania has been granted the right to import electricity from Russian and Belarus and that we can simply adhere to it are fundamentally misleading.

This methodology will cease applying because Lithuania will simply no longer import from Belarus. Meanwhile, Latvia and Estonia have the right to import electricity from third countries. Here, our neighbours’ arguments are based on both World Trade Organisation and EU commitments. We can only choose – do we negotiate on a trilateral methodology, where Lithuania’s interests are reflected and where we ensure that commercial Belarussian electricity will not enter Lithuania or do the Latvians and Estonians draft their own bilateral methodology where Lithuania’s interests are not heeded?

In the first case, Lithuania has already included a significant number of technical details (certificate of electricity origin, a common ceiling of potentially purchased electricity, extra taxing of imported electricity), which should help ensure that we adhere to our own law on the non-purchase of electricity from Astravyets. In the second case, the Latvians will not only be able to purchase Belarussian electricity without limitations, but will also be able to sell it to Lithuania without any certificates or extra taxes, as well as sending a signal to the European Commission that we here just can’t agree on how to ensure joint action on electricity trade and other joint projects. Respectively, doubts on whether the Baltic States are capable to jointly complete the synchronisation project could hamper the continued financing of the project.

The situation is unfavourable for Lithuania – Astravyets NPP will be launched and the Latvians will want to retain the possibility to purchase Belarussian electricity. However, the possibility isn’t certain to be used and namely, a trilateral agreement would significantly reduce this likelihood. It is not the best option as per our interests, but the current situation does not allow achieving a better one.

But of course – you can always choose to shout. And hope that the louder we shout and stamp our feet, the better we will be heard and the more we are agreed with. But the shouting was necessary not three, five or even ten years ago. To the extent that the Latvians, Estonians and other EU countries would have heard. The current shouting is only for the purpose of being heard by Lithuanian voters. If this shouting only serves to hamper negotiations with the Latvians and Estonians, it will inevitably result in only worsened results of the (non)agreement. We can replace the minister of energy, but this will not change the Belarussian and Latvian positions. In the name of electoral results, we would sacrifice the already slight remaining chances to limit the commercial effectiveness of Astravyets NPP. And then you can beat your chest on how everything is all in the name of Lithuania.

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