This shift in approach is not just because the branding of the country as a dictatorship now seems much less accurate today than it was a decade ago, but also because of broader geopolitical concerns.
Against the protests of the Belarusian opposition, President Alexander Lukashenko scored a significant victory with the EU last week. In exchange for releasing several political prisoners, and not throwing them back into prison again, Brussels lifted travel bans for Lukashenko and 170 of his associates.
The move has not been uncontroversial. Some say Belarus is not becoming more democratic and has done little to deserve concessions, while other argue that carrots are more effective than sticks in dealing with Minsk.
“The situation is reminiscent of 2008-2010,” said Lithuanian analyst Linas Kojala of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre. “Back then, Lukashenko had also released political prisoners and was sending messages to the West, especially in the aftermath of the Georgia war, that reforms were underway, that Belarus was moving away from Russia and becoming more democratic. But we know what came of it.”
When EU foreign ministers announced the lifting sanctions on Belarus, they urged Minsk to cooperate and share information with Europe about its Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant.
Lithuania has been vocally protesting against Belarus’ plans to build a new nuclear power plant in Astravyets, some 50km from Vilnius, with opposition parties recently publishing a strongly worded declaration urging the Lithuanian government to do everything in its power to stop the project immediately.
In January, former Lithuanian heads of state including former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, and Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first post-communist head of state, as well as leaders of opposition parties urged the Lithuanian government to do everything it could to halt the construction of the plant immediately including blocking the sale of electricity into the European Union. By buying Belarusian electricity or allowing it to be exported to other EU countries via Lithuania, Lithuania would be funding a hazardous project on its doorstep, they claimed.
Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis has spoken about efforts to ban Belarusian electricity exports to the European Union if Minsk goes ahead with the project. He has called on neighbouring countries and Scandanavian countries to boycott electricity from the plant. However, he said that such a move requires a consensus, both in the EU and in Lithuania.
Ironically, if Belarus were to sell its electricity in Europe, it would primarily flow through interconnections through Lithuania.
“If we decided [to boycott Belarusian electricity], we could bar Belarusian electricity from our energy exchange. What would happen then. By the laws of physics, electricity would still be flowing into Lithuania, but Belarus would not get any money for it, complicating nuclear power plant plans. So even without building a physical wall with Belarus, we could erect a commercial wall with the same effects,” Masiulis told LRT.
Foreign Minister Linkevičius cautions, however, that such issues should be solved in negotiations, not by building walls, especially as the Baltic States are planning to disconnect from the electricity network of the former Soviet Union.
“I think and I believe that if we are talking in the spirit of the Cold War, we will have a hard time making Belarusians do anything,” Linkevičius says. “It’s a clash of ambition. When we tell them to adhere to EU requirements, they are not impressed.”
He adds that the lifting of sanctions created a different atmosphere for EU-Belarus relations, one which is more conductive to seeking agreements.
The EU has said it will help Lithuania in its talks with Belarus on ensuring that Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant meet international standards.
However, Brussels is sceptical about the possibility of banning Belarusian electricity from the EU. European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič has told the Lithuanian business daily Verslo Žinios that such a demand conflicts with the EU’s energy market principles and would present immense technical challenges.
“It seems that banning electricity imports from nuclear plants would not be an effective leverage in seeking higher nuclear safety standards in nuclear plants outside the EU,” said the EU Commission’s Šefčovič.
Besides, Belarus has leverage of its own. The country is an important trade partner for Lithuania and handles the bulk of its cargo via the Baltic seaport of Klaipėda. Re-routing all the cargo to other ports would be a painful hit to Klaipeda and Lithuania’s economy. Every third shipment in Klaipėda is from Belarus, amounting to over 14 million tonnes of goods last year.
Strong-worded declarations, however, are just an election ploy, a pawn in the upcoming political game, and will do little to enhance nuclear safety, according to a leading Lithuanian political scientist.
“Unfortunately, we can see once again that Lithuania’s political parties ‘wake up’ before the elections. And so begins the traditional game of the opposition which is more about visibility in the run up to the parliamentary elections, using energy,” says Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.
“The talk about extreme measures [to stop the project] will probably divert attention from safety and will definitely not foster engagement, participation via international forums in order to ensure proper level of safety in the project,” he says.
Vilpišauskas notes that Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant has been in the works for a long time and the recent increase in hype about the plant has more to do with campaigning than anything else.
Belarus announced the project in 2008 and confirmed the plant’s site in 2011, when the current opposition was in power in Lithuania.
Moreover, Belarus is highly unlikely to scrap the project it has already invested millions into. There is a precedent for the failure of such an approach to a project that has already got up and running, he adds.
In 2002, Lithuania vehemently protested the D-6 project, an oil drilling platform that Russia was finishing in the Baltic Sea, dangerously close to the UNESCO-protected Curonian Spit. Nothing came out of it,
Lukoil Kaliningradmorneft launched the platform shortly after and Lithuania later admitted it did not present an environmental hazard.