Astravyets on an electoral platter: why are the Conservatives so aggressive and the “Farmers” so silent?

The approaching Seimas elections and launch date of the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant have linked these seemingly unrelated events. The opposition Conservatives are ever more fiercely critical of the ruling parties and the president for being unable to block the launch of the nuclear power plant in Belarus, while the ruling coalition is dealing with the conundrum of electricity non-purchase with our neighbours and avoiding escalating the question of the power plant, Jūratė Važgauskaitė wrote in

Political scientists are convinced that concerns over the power plant or avoiding talking about it are both nothing more than an electoral tactic. Among other things, it helps the Conservatives to mask mistakes they have made and the “Farmers” to fail to discuss things they cannot change.

Intense discussions regarding the future of the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant, purchase-non-purchase agreements for electrical power from Belarus and stalling negotiations with Latvia and Estonia over a “non-purchase” position are increasing in intensity with every passing day. The opposition has employed not only press conferences under the banner of the Anti-Astravyets Movement, but also protests next to the Latvian embassy, demanding that note be taken not only of the “Astravyets problem,” but also of themselves.

That said, not everyone maintains such a radical position. Social Democrat leader Gintautas Paluckas takes the opposite view, namely that, “the Astravyets “blockade” farce must end […], the power plant stands and is about to launch, meanwhile Lithuania is refusing an opportunity to obtain potentially more affordable electricity for its people and businesses due to political motivations.”

Paluckas: let’s talk to Belarus

Also, according to G. Paluckas, we should also be talking with Belarus already. However, the Social Democrat leader forgets that there have been numerous efforts to talk to our neighbours about Astravyets and other questions, but none proved fruitful.

Political scientist Mažvydas Jastramskis notes the Social Democrat leader’s position in a social media post, indicating that the Conservatives’ and Social Democrats’ opinions on this matter differ fundamentally, but it is currently uncertain, “as to what is more hypocritical – acutely exploiting the question of Astravyets in the knowledge that it’s a done deal or propagating dialogue with a closed-off, authoritarian country which undermines core human rights and freedoms.”

From another angle the question of Astravyets, also concerns the cabinet and ruling coalition. Approaches are being sought to come to terms with Latvia over not purchasing Belarussian electricity. However, it appears such an agreement is unlikely. At the same time, the agreement with Estonia, where the Estonians had already pledged to not purchase electricity, remains uncertain.

Latvia will not change its mind

Some analysts say that Lithuania lacks leverage to make Latvia change its mind, but veteran diplomat Albinas Januška writes that the situation is not all that dramatic. According to him, a new agreement with our neighbours is not vital for Lithuania because when Astravyets launches, the old tripartite agreement is not terminated.

Based on the old agreement, Lithuania has a unilateral right to import electricity from Belarus –  an agreement regarding this had previously been concluded. Thus, A. Januška believes that even without signing a new agreement, we will not be left empty-handed.  Meanwhile, Latvia’s need for a new agreement is far greater than Lithuania’s, the former diplomat is convinced. So the initiative is held by Lithuania and he therefore cannot understand the current government’s concerns.

The question of Astravyets is becoming an electoral weapon which benefits some more than others. Political science specialists are convinced that the feeling of danger helps to mobilise Conservatives voters and the aggressive tone employed helps to conceal mistakes they have made themselves.

For the ruling coalition meanwhile, the question is distasteful so it is likely it will be left at the margins of electoral discussions. That said, Astravyets NPP will not vanish anywhere even after the elections, just that a political fear of it will be replaced by a potential threat of environmental and radiation pollution.

Conservatives covering their tracks?

With regard to the sensitive question of Astravyets NPP, Vilnius University Professor Tomas Janeliūnas noted that the Conservative party‘s stance on this question is not unambiguous, while Social Democrat leader Gintautas Paluckas’ declarations are incomprehensible. Meanwhile, the “Farmers” seek to side-line the question of Astravyets because there is little they can do and no one wants to talk about failures.

“Positions on this matter truly diverge. For example, the Conservatives talk a great deal about this, while others view it more as a matter of current policy. That said, there’s also G. Paluckas, who cautiously tries to say that these questions are overly politicised. According to him, perhaps we should be reflecting on whether we have decided correctly to not purchase electricity from Astravyets NPP. Thus, there are differences, but they are inevitable with the elections drawing close,” the political scientist said.

In his view, in light of the parliamentary election campaign, this question is and will continue to be significant. That said, the political scientist could not say what Social Democrat leader G. Paluckas is seeking by speaking especially warmly of Belarus and a need to cooperate with it.

“A desire to enter into discussions is apparent, but it is unclear what he wants to offer in this dialogue. Whether it is new agreements with the Belarussians or perhaps renegotiation, his position is unclear. […] The suggestion that we should change our position on Belarus and Astravyets is peculiar because a law has been passed and the government seeks to adhere to it. It would be extremely odd to change our entire approach of wanting to halt the development of Astravyets. Doing this is only possible by making it unfeasible economically,” the political science specialist mused.

Conservatives will continue

According to T. Janeliūnas, the Conservatives will continue escalating the question of Astravyet., It is ideologically close to them. Their voters understand threats and the Russia factor, which the power plant on the Lithuanian border evokes. This topic is in keeping with this political power’s traditional electoral rhetoric. According to the political scientist, such narratives can attract the attention of voters with affinity to the Conservatives.

The political scientist is also convinced that the Conservatives wish, through their aggressive rhetoric, to also distract attention from potential accusations on themselves because they missed the “Astravyets moment.”

“They seek to put the blame on the other side. The effort is being made to transfer responsibility to others – the Social Democrats or the “Farmers”. At the same time, they are partially correct that the threat should be lessened by specific decisions and this is necessary for both the current government and its predecessors. The more distant the time period, the more abstract the accusations and the more recent the time, the more specific the discussions,” the political scientist said.

According to him, this topic is less appealing to the “Farmers” than to political parties currently not in power.

“It is difficult to actively increase interest in this problem. They are in government and are responsible for reducing the threats emanating from Astravyets. Thus, they can only talk about what they are doing, how they are seeking synchronisation, seeking compromise. […] They will likely only react to discussions about the problem, that is to say – react to the Conservatives’ complaints,” T. Janeliūnas explained.

Elections draw closer, voices grow louder

Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University professor Algis Krupavičius is convinced that the new anti-Astravyets movement is an electoral card the Conservatives have deployed. It is obvious and clearly expressed, the professor believes.

“The Conservatives probably have the least right to criticise Lithuanian policy on Astravyets. They overlooked the emergence of the power plant, the public was reassured that it would not go ahead. But suddenly, they wake up after a lethargic sleep and it just so coincides with the elections. There is no other way to interpret it other than electoral posturing,” the political science specialist added.

He noted that the core questions relate to the power plant’s security and these queries must be raised constantly. In all other questions relating to Astravyets, Lithuania’s positions are not strong because even its nearest neighbours do not support Lithuania.

“Efforts to have a more united [with our neighbours] position on Astravyets have been unsuccessful,” A. Krupavičius pointed out. According to him, Lithuanian politicians do not overlook this question, but it is not equally important to all of them.

According to the professor, perhaps it is only the Social Democrats who take a more critical look at it and try to think about how to cope if the situation does not change. After all, Astravyets is not the only question we have to discuss with Belarus.

A. Krupavičius is convinced that the question of Astravyets is inconvenient for the ruling party and will thus not be employed in electoral rhetoric.

“Efforts are being made to push the question out to the margins. On the other hand, the Conservatives’ tactic on the very same question is intended for no other purpose than to mobilise voters loyal to them. However, this will not attract new voters and is more of a card to play before current ones,” Professor A. Krupavičius said.

Launching soon?

In mid-April, Belarussian Minister of Energy Viktor Karankevich announced that the “physical launch” of Astravyets NPP’s first reactor is slated for July and the plant’s connection to the Belarussian energy grid – “at some point between September and October.”

The minister did not indicate why the launch had to be postponed again and this is not the first time the launch of Belarus’ first nuclear power plant is being postponed. Based on preliminary plans for Astravyets NPP’s project, the first of two reactors should have become operational in November 2018, but this was postponed to the middle of last year, subsequently to autumn and later on – to January this year.

Soon, this deadline was extended to early Q2 this year. The second reactor of the nuclear power plant is to be launched approximately a year after the first one.

The first batch of nuclear fuel reached Astravyets in May this year.

According to various experts, if a major accident occurred in Astravyets, it would be felt by Vilnius and a third of Lithuania’s population. The region is not seismologically active, but earthquakes do occur.

For example, in 1987, just 10 kilometres away from the Astravyets site, two earthquakes occurred, each at a magnitude of 2.5 on the Richter scale. The chosen location for Astravyets NPP also means that water from the Neris River will be used to cool it.

Close and dangerous

A number of incidents have occurred in Astravyets already, with at least six noted in 2016 alone. It has been advised that in the case of a major accident in Astravyets NPP, six thousand Lithuanian citizens living within a 30-kilometre zone from the nuclear object would be evacuated. This so-called active protection zone includes territories in the Vilnius region and Švenčionys region municipalities.

The Ministry of Interior Affairs, which drafted the plan, states that it was created when considering the least favourable circumstances for an incident at the power plant – the size of the accident and unfavourable weather conditions.

The document also indicates a one hundred kilometre radius around the Astravyets NPP preventative protection zone, where in case of an accident, other security measures would be put in place. The plan indicates provisions which would define the organisation and execution of civil safety, the functions of state and municipal representatives, the procedures for public warning and information.

Resident evacuation in case of an accident in Astravyets NPP would cost up to 20 million Euros. Lithuania is the main critic of the plant being built just 50 kilometres from Vilnius. According to the country, the object is not being built safely and does not adhere to international commitments. Minsk denies all of these accusations.

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