Astravyets divides the brothers: Linkevičius does not see common ground, while Latvia presses ahead

Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics
Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

When the Baltic and Polish Foreign Ministers met in Vilnius, they welcomed the success of the fight against the coronavirus. However, disagreements have arisen over their views toward the Astravyets nuclear power plant, Vilmantas Venckūnas wrote in

Lithuania and Latvia, who declare their unity, cannot reach a decision on how to avoid allowing possibly unsafe electricity into the countries. While Lithuania claims that negotiations are still ongoing and there is no common position, Latvia’s Minister claims that an agreement that has been the target of criticism is the best one could expect.

On June 16, the Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, and Polish Foreign Ministers met in Vilnius to coordinate action to ease restrictions created due to COVID-19.

During the meeting, the representatives discussed cooperation and coordination plans to ease the COVID-19 restrictions and include Poland in the Baltic states’ free movement area, reported the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (URM).

Linkevičius: sadly, there is no common ground

As Lithuanian Minister Linas Linkevičius said during the press conference, even though the Ministers were unable to discuss the Astravyets NPP question during the meeting, the power plant which will soon be opened in Belarus will definitely be raised during the Ministers’ visit.

L. Linkevičius did not miss the opportunity to thank Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz for his country’s and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki vocal position on the Astravyets power plant.

According to L. Linkevičius, the goal of all countries in the region is the same – to keep unsafe power from neighbouring countries’ and our electricity networks.

“You see, we have set a task for ourselves and we will accomplish it – desynchronise our electricity network with Russia and synchronise it with Western Europe by 2025. And this fundamental question about dependence on electricity supplies from the East is a very strong component of this process. Here we must find common positions, which, currently, sadly, are not common. We talk about that constantly,” L. Linkevičius said.

According to the Minister, a common Baltic Agreement to receive electricity from the Astravyets NPP is being discussed. In his words, the final goal is simple – to be as independent as possible from Eastern electricity.

“The cheap cost is attractive, but sometimes that cheap price may translate into some very expensive political costs,” the Lithuanian Minister is convinced.

Latvian Minister: solidarity has two sides

“Solidarity works from two sides,” claimed Latvian Minister Edgar Rinkevich.

He claimed that the question of electricity generated by the Astravyets nuclear power plant was discussed more than once, and heated discussions took place both between the ministers and inside the Latvian government. Although in Lithuania the agreement between Baltic states received conflicting opinions, E. Rinkevich maintains a different position.

“The current agreement is the best compromise reached by all sides,” the Latvian Minister said.

According to him, Latvia understands the Lithuanian position and its concerns about Astravyets. E. Rinkevich claims he raised the topic more than once when talking both with the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the country’s Prime Minister, or President Alexander Lukashenko.

“All of us share the same opinion – we only want to have safe energy, we want the situation near our borders to be as safe as possible,” E. Rinkevich said.

According to him, the discussions and negotiations on the agreement between the Baltic states were not easy and one should be happy with the compromise that was reached. E. Rinkevich says that the sooner the Baltic states separate from Eastern electricity networks and finish synchronisation with the West, the better. However, the Minister affirms that a plan is needed for the next five years.

“But I believe, that ultimately we have to go forward with the agreement that was reached by the Ministers of Energy during their long-lasting negotiations,” E. Rinkevich said.

Latvian resistance

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are currently working in a synchronised in a post-soviet energy system, the so-called BRELL RING, and are dependent on a dispatcher in Moscow and on the Russian electricity network.

After a long debate amongst themselves, the Baltic states confirmed last year that they will synchronise with Western Europe through Poland. Until now Lithuania has been unsuccessful in convincing neighbouring Latvia to commit to boycotting Astravyets’s  energy until the synchronisation project is finished.

The Latvian government says that if Lithuania ends its electric trade with Belarus, for technical and economic reasons it will switch to trade with Russia. That might open the possibility of Astravyets electricity reaching the Baltic market through Russia.

Baltic Agreement on electricity trade with third countries, so far postponed by the government, raises much debate.

In the agreement, Latvia and Estonia declared their support for the Lithuanian aim to keep electricity generated by Astravyets NPP out of the market, but critics of the agreement point to the reluctance of the Baltic “sisters” to commit to not buying this electricity themselves. It is thought that the electricity entering Latvia and Estonia will reach Lithuania anyway.

The agreement provides that the new order would apply from the activation of Astravyets and would last until 2025, when Baltic states would join the Western European electricity network.

Negotiations on the agreement have been ongoing for a few years already, and Lithuania aims to convince neighbouring countries not to buy electricity from Astravyets nuclear power plant at all, but Latvia has resisted.

In the agreement provided to the government, Latvia and Estonia declare their support for Lithuania’s decision not to buy electricity from Belarus. Goals to create safeguards are also provided, with which it is expected that electricity made in Astravyets nuclear power plant will be guaranteed not to reach Lithuania and in that way the so-called “anti-Astravyets” law adopted in Parliament will be implemented.

May demand the minister’s head

In Lithuania, most criticism of the compromise comes from the Minister of Energy, Žygimantas Vaičiūnas. On Monday, opposition representatives urged him to step away from the negotiations so that the electricity of Astravyets NPP, which is being built in Belarus, would not reach Lithuanian territory. Otherwise, they intend to start collecting signatures for the Minister’s interpellation.

They are also asking for President Gitanas Nausėda’s involvement.

Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats members Dainius Kreivys and Žygimantas Pavilionis, and European Parliament member and Liberal Movement representative Petras Auštrevičius approached the Minister.

“Today we have a paradoxical situation when, because of incomprehensible reasons, Minister of Energy Ž. Vaičiūnas does not defend the position favourable to Lithuania, but, it seems, is actively searching for ways how to open the door for commercial streams of Belarusian energy through Lithuanian territory. This situation is not tolerable, so Ž. Vaičiūnas must be replaced in the negotiations urgently. If the Minister will not resign voluntarily, we will call the President (…) as soon as possible to replace him with another negotiator,” Ž. Pavilionis said in a press conference on Monday.

“If this call is not heard, I think that, with my colleagues in the Parliament, we will start collecting signatures for his [the minister’s – BNS] interpellation,” Ž. Pavilionis stated.

According to the opposition representatives, Lithuanian negotiators are not implementing the country’s goal to restrict the supply of Astravyets electricity to the Baltic and other EU countries.

The Conservatives claim that according to current methodology, the solidarity of the Baltic market protects against not only Belarusian, but also Russian electricity access.

“In the meantime, Lithuanian negotiators have started to claim that the validity of the methodology itself is expiring with the beginning of activity at the Astravyets nuclear power plant. In this way, the road to an agreement is open to a new methodology created by our own negotiators and already unfavourable for Lithuania,” opposition representatives claim in the report.

“In these kinds of negotiations, which touch on national security interests, the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs is unavoidably necessary. He must take responsibility not only by criticising his colleague the Minister of Energy, but by participating fully,” P. Auštrevičius said.

“Full political control of negotiations, objective control, is necessary, including all the Parliamentary political powers among them, but also the opposition. And another thing is the unavoidable need to change the negotiators,” stated P. Auštrevičius.

The Conservatives call Ž. Vaičiūnas to aim for a more ambitious agreement, in which none of the three Baltic states would buy electricity from Astravyets NPP. However, Latvia opposes such a plan and intends to buy Belarusian electricity, although it does not oppose Lithuania’s plan to forbid it.

Ž. Vaičiūnas believes that the agreement proposed by him does ensure the implementation of the “anti-Astravyets” law.

In the beginning of June the government did not take a position on the Baltic states’ agreement, expecting that both the European Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would get even more involved in the negotiations after its leader Linas Linkevičius criticised Ž. Vaičiūnas’s position.

President G. Nausėda claimed last week that he still sees space for an agreement that would be acceptable to all three countries and asked Minister Ž. Vaičiūnas to keep negotiating.

On Sunday, the Minister himself repeated that Lithuania is committed by law not to buy electricity from Belarus the moment that the Astravyets nuclear power plant goes online.

“For me, all this criticism is not unexpected, but the sharpness of rhetoric was maybe a bit surprising. I have already said earlier that the Astravyets nuclear power plant topic is an unwinnable game for the opposition until the elections, and there is still an advantage – someone will always write off their own unreached goals,” claimed Ž. Vaičiūnas.

Both he and Litgrid CEO Daivis Virbickas emphasised the necessity of successfully implementing the project to synchronise the Baltic states’ electricity network with continental Europe by 2025 (then the physical electricity infrastructure of Baltic states will also be separated from third countries).

However, the opposition representatives called for these questions not to be confused on Monday.

D. Virbickas on Friday called for separate physical and commercial electricity streams. According to him, Lithuania could avoid commercial streams from the Astravyets nuclear power plant with the help of the origin guarantee system, about which discussions are still held with the Baltic states.

According to the opposition, while the start of Astravyets activity is approaching rapidly, an open question remains as to whether the government will be successful in implementing the “anti-Astravyets” law and ensuring the protection of the Baltic market from the potentially more expensive Astravyets electricity.

The Baltic and Polish Foreign Ministers will also attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, where attention will also be drawn to transatlantic relations and strategic dialogue with the U.S.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a video meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, EU states’ Foreign Ministers will discuss the most relevant geopolitical questions –  response to the COVID-19 pandemic and disinformation, relations with China and Russia, the situations in Syria and Libya, the state of Ukraine, and the peace process in the Middle East.

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