Astravyets opens a “pit” in Lithuanian-Belarussian relations and opens paths for Russia

Zones of radioctive termination of the Astravyets nuclear power plant

On November 5, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda presented the Finnish president Lithuania’s position on the threats posed by Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant. The head of state also presented this position to the presidents of neighbouring Latvia and Estonia, as well as European Union leaders, Viktorija Rimaitė wrote in Lrytas.lt

However, while experts believe it is useful to strengthen Lithuania’s position regarding Astravyets, it could also be too late: we have so far been unable to form a pro-Lithuanian coalition in the EU context, while other tools for strengthening the position on the international stage are not being used consistently.

That said, when thinking about Lithuanian-Belarussian relations, we should be thinking not only about bilateral relations, but also trilateral ones – Russia too, takes an important role here.

Stages of Lithuanian-Belarussian relations

President G. Nausėda openly declared at the start of his term that he encourages to seek a dialogue between Lithuania and Belarus. Looking retrospectively at the two countries’ relations, according to political scientist and long-time professor of the Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI), two periods can be highlighted – the period prior to incumbent Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s ascent to power and the period after him becoming Belarussian president.

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“These periods fundamentally differed in that up to A. Lukashenko, Minsk once officially expressed claims on Vilnius. A. Lukashenko has so far not made such claims officially.

After A. Lukashenko’s ascent to power, relations would fluctuate and these fluctuations would often be related to the overall development of international relations: when A. Lukashenko complained that Russia has Belarus by the throat, in such cases, there would be efforts from the Lithuanian side to respond to these requests,” R. Lopata told the lrytas.lt news portal.

That certain political aspects fluctuated in bilateral relations during A. Lukashenko’s presidency was confirmed by fellow VU TSPMI political scientist and lecturer Laurynas Jonavičius.

“Up to the year 2000, Lithuanian policy toward Belarus was not particularly aggressive, hard or particularly expressed. Afterward, when the concept of Lithuanian regional leadership emerged in which the democratisation of Belarus took a fairly significant and prominent role, the Lithuanian line was quite clear: the desire was dominant for Belarus to democratise, there existed support for the opposition and civic society, pressuring A. Lukashenko.

After 2010, we had the first efforts by Dalia Grybauskaitė to change relations – to talk, seek opportunities. This effort did not change Belarussian politics. Thus, we turned to even more severe pressure regarding Belarus.

Such policy continued to these days. Now the president talks about dialogue, however, we have yet to see any practical steps so far, thus there isn’t any real change,” L. Jonavičius spoke about the dynamic of the bilateral relation.

As a reminder, A. Lukashenko ascended to power in 1994. His first term lasted to 2001, after which he was re-elected for a second term. Afterwards, he was re-elected in 2006, 2010 and 2015 and is now on his fifth consecutive term as head of state.

Lithuanian position on Astravyets – isolated?

The question of relations with Belarus was given impetus in Lithuanian public consciousness by Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant. In response to the plant being built through Russian state funding by the Rosatom corporation, in 2017, a parliamentary political party agreement was signed in Lithuania and a law was passed to not purchase electrical power from unsafe nuclear power plants. Due to the failure to uphold security standards and the pursuit of geopolitical interests in selecting the plant’s location, Lithuania seeks for electrical power generated in Astravyets to not be purchased by other European countries as well.

According to international relations experts R. Lopata and L. Jonavičius, Lithuanian policy to urge to not purchase electrical power is, in the context of other countries, rather isolated and the measures that Lithuania could take up in seeking to reinforce its position on the international level have not been exhausted thus far.

“The question is – how much can Lithuania achieve in that not purchasing power from Astravyets would become more than just a Lithuanian matter. So far, there has been little success: we know of relations with the Latvians, Estonians, the EU and the United States of America, who are not doing what Lithuania would like them to,” L. Jonavičius observed.

VU TSPMI professor R. Lopata added that a coalition was not created in a time that would support Lithuania’s position, thus at the moment, only Poland supports it.

“The 2017 legislation prohibiting electrical power purchases were in principle not being enacted. The problem now is not the sole block, which is due to be launched, but how the Russians are openly talking about building a second, third and perhaps even third block.

Most Europeans still simply do not even understand the scale of this problem,” R. Lopata shared his insights.

However, action at the EU level is not the only way by which Lithuania could strengthen its position in the international arena in terms of Belarus. According to the long-time VU TSPMI lecturer, consistent use of historical policy instruments and human relations between academics, public and culture figures, as well as other representatives of society could be effective measures.

Nevertheless, political scientist L. Jonavičius highlighted that Lithuania does have certain pieces of leverage that it can use in declaring its position and that are linked to economic factors.

“Strategically, we have certain pieces of leverage to prevent the purchase or prevent the entry of the electrical power into Europe. This can, of course, be done by bypassing Lithuania, but at the same time, it would inevitably increase the cost of the electrical power and would raise the question of whether it is worth doing. However, what the Latvians and other countries’ representatives are talking is that they will build their own connections and Lithuania with its position will once more be left isolated,” the political scientist detailed.

No end in sight for the end of the era of A. Lukashenko and distancing from Russia?

It is difficult to find consensus among political scientists in predicting the end of 65-year-old A. Lukashenko’s presidential era. Furthermore, while it is conceded that after the 2014 Crimean annexation, there was a reaction in Belarus to Russia’s aggressive behaviour and more attention was dedicated to nurturing Belarussian identity, this political agenda of A. Lukashenko would be mistaken to be viewed as a pursuit of completely taking distance to Russia.

According to R. Lopata, namely, the lack of Belarussian identification is the largest problem Belarus faces and Belarus’ own stance potentially betray that it does not want to detach from Russia or associate with the West.

“After 2014, A. Lukashenko himself had to seek alternatives to the pro-Russian or Russian identity established in Belarus in order to not so much detach from Russia, but display that there is an alternative that grants leverage in negotiations in relations with Russia.

At the same time, it is an effort to find ways, which under a crisis situation, if for example, Russia began to pressure Belarus, would allow A. Lukashenko to consolidate the public for resistance,” L. Jonavičius spoke of the changes in Belarus.

The political scientists emphasised that when thinking about the future of the Belarussian regime, the version of a dynasty shouldn’t be dismissed. A. Lukashenko has three sons, among whom only the elder is a particularly prominent figure in the system. According to L. Jonavičius, the goal of the A. Lukashenko regime is focused on A. Lukashenko remaining in power – the whole system is constructed to be based on a sole individual.

“When the system is based on a sole individual, an unexpected, unplanned breakdown or crisis of the system will mean chaos in which anything is possible. Russia has more instruments to do something about dependency – economic, military or otherwise – than the West, but this does not mean that the Belarussian nation would freely agree to be incorporated into Russia if something were to happen,” L. Jonavičius stated.

Economic leverage and threats from Russia

“If political matters varied in Lithuanian-Belarussian relations, economic relations have remained practically unchanged – they have been good. In an economic sense, the countries are interdependent: Belarus is always among Lithuania’s top ten trade partners and furthermore, goods cargo from this countries is crucial for Klaipėda port,” L. Jonavičius pointed out.

He was echoed by R. Lopata, who emphasised that “The capacities and competitiveness of Klaipėda Port in the Baltic Sea region are by no small part ensured namely by the freight of goods from Belarus.” If Russian influence in Belarus were to rise, the professor explains that it is likely that the freight would be diverted through not Klaipėda or Russia, but through Latvian ports.

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