Until quite recently, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Belarusian Health Minister Vladimir Karanik have been inviting the public to ward off the COVID-19 virus by playing hockey, drinking vodka and spreading love.
Such an attitude offers a parallel to the Chernobyl disaster, where the Soviet leaders chose to conceal the horrendous nature of the real situation in an attempt not to lose face. Would the Belarusian authorities not make the same decision to hide the true situation if anything happened at the Astravyets nuclear power plant (Astravyets NPP)?
In a live debate ‘Tractors and hockey against the coronavirus: what will protect against the Astravyets virus?’ organised at the news portal 15 min.lt by the Movement against the Astravyets NPP and moderated by Rytas Staselis, our allies in Belarus and us tried to discuss the key issues regarding the Astravyets NPP.
It was our way to contribute to the dialogue with Belarus but, apparently, we failed in choosing the right partners that our Foreign Minister Linkevičius is pushing for. Instead of opting for the Belarusian regime that is integrating its country into Russia and building the nuclear power plant in the vicinity of Vilnius, we chose to engage with free citizens of Belarus who are truly concerned about the future of their homeland and are interested in a sincere dialogue with Europe. Unfortunately, the Belarusian special services or their associates, most obviously, did not like such a dialogue, as they hijacked our video conference with a press conference of Prime Minister Skvernelis. This kind of choice by our opponents is anyone’s guess. We now need to track down those actually responsible for this cyber-attack, who, as far as we understand, prefer the definition of a dialogue with Belarus offered by Minister Linkevičius, i.e. the dialogue pursued only with the regime that is now spreading both viruses while isolating the Belarusian civil society, which is our true allies in the fight against both viruses.
Since the Belarusian regime is doing its best in trying to prevent the voice of its citizens and our true dialogue with Belarus from being heard, we want to recall the key messages of our discussion.
In response to the question whether or not the Belarusian authorities will repeat the mistakes similar to those made by the Soviet leaders in the case of the Chernobyl NPP, Anatol Liabedzka, representing the Belarusian United Civic Party, drew a clear parallel between the management of the COVID-19 crisis and the potential disaster at the Astravyets NPP. Mr Liabedzka reminded that President Lukashenko still believed that this was just a minor virus. Moreover, he was somehow still trying to raise his own profile by opposing the views of other global leaders and refraining from any anti-virus steps that his neighbours were taking.
This is certainly not an adequate response to the current global crisis. According to Anatol Liabedzka, Lukashenko did not accept that he had made mistakes and continued to oppose the recommendations and instructions of scientists on how to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in a targeted manner. It can therefore be assumed that if anything happened at the Astravyets nuclear power plant, we would be hearing similar rhetoric by Lukashenko concealing the real situation, which would have far more serious consequences.
These ideas were supported by Tatyana Novikova from the Belarusian Green Party, who pointed out that despite the spread of the virus in the country and the NPP itself, the construction of the nuclear power plant had not been stopped; the Belarusian Greens explicitly requested at least to delay the launch of the reactor until the COVID-19 pandemic was fully over, but the Belarusian authorities turned a deaf ear to them and said that everything would be carried out as planned previously.
Special measures have now been taken worldwide to stop the operation or servicing of nuclear power plants, for example, in the USA, Ukraine, and even Russia, in order to prevent the staff from being infected, which could lead to even greater risks. However, the Belarusian authorities failed to follow this international practice, which has no parallel in the world. Tatyana Novikova reminded that it was thanks to the Belarusian civil communities rather than the Belarusian authorities that the first Covid-19 infections at the Astravyets NPP had been disclosed and reported.
Similarly, all other incidents which occurred during the construction of the Astravyets NPP were recognised by the Belarusian authorities only after the staff of the NPP or Belarusian citizens had painted the authorities into the corner by pinpointing obvious facts, thus losing a lot of time, which could turn out to be very costly in the event of an accident. However, despite this situation and COVID-19, preparations for the launch of the first block, perhaps even in July of this year, are still under way in Belarus, alongside the plans to deliver nuclear fuel shortly. The Belarusian authorities, the project contractor from Russia (Rosatom), and the Belarusian operator of the Astravyets NPP have ignored the threatening situation, which could lead to a catastrophe. It is therefore necessary to do everything possible to delay the launch of the first block of the NPP.
Aleksandr Lukashenko promised that no Belarusian would die of COVID-19. According to global statistics, however, there are already 4204 infections and 40 deaths in the country. The trends demonstrate that the figures are changing disproportionately. To support that, Paval Sieviaryniec from the Belarusian Christian Democracy party also claims that the number of Covid-19 cases is clearly inaccurate. Mr Sieviaryniec assumes that there are far more people with COVID-19 in Belarus, as the morgue in Minsk records dozens of bodies daily, the cremation of which requires completely different procedures.
All this concealment of information is done intentionally to mislead people. It is important for Lukashenko to show he is a stronger leader than European heads of state and even than Russian President Vladimir Putin. This situation makes it possible to predict that if anything happened at the Astravyets NPP, the truth would be suppressed and a scenario similar to the disaster at the Chernobyl NPP would be followed. Paval Sieviaryniec also regretted that currently the official Lithuania and the European Union as a whole were in essence on the side of the Lukashenko regime. Up until 2016, when at the initiative of Lithuania the sanctions against Belarus were unconditionally lifted (without attaching any conditions even with regard to the Astravyets NPP), it was still possible to say that the West stands for human rights, democracy, and the European choice of Belarus. The citizens of Belarus, who are fighting for their freedom, have now been left on their own. Mr Sieviaryniec also thanked the Movement against the Astravyets NPP for fighting for the freedom of Belarusians and for their future in Europe.
How can anyone entrust the construction of the Astravyets NPP to the state, which conceals information on the actual situation at a critical time? President Vytautas Landsbergis, Chair of Honour of the Movement against the Astravyets NPP, underlined the importance of trust. Currently, trust is the biggest and most important issue in the world, both in terms of trust in our neighbours and in our relations with each other. Information is suppressed in order to mislead people.
The people of Belarus have been urged to ignore the situation and engage in entertainment and amusement thus pushing them into real danger. At the onset the of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, people providing information on the virus were persecuted. The same is now happening in Belarus. The question is, therefore, whether it points out to simple political negligence or a crime. However, political negligence and stupidity are also a crime. Chernobyl was not a mere folly. After all, managers who construct nuclear power plants must refrain from any recklessness. Nuclear power plants must be safe from any fools, because it is precisely negligence and foolishness that may lead to a disaster.
Prof. Landsbergis refers to the state of Lithuania, which has not done much about the Astravyets NPP. He believes Lithuania must adopt a constitutional document, where we would clearly state that we are against the operation of the Astravyets NPP. The construction is pressed ahead claiming that one can do on the other side of the border whatever one pleases. However, Prof. Landsbergis is firmly convinced that this is no longer the case because ‘the time is different now’. He says that when searching for assistance abroad, we should equally bear in mind that it is the efforts of Lithuania, which matter most. If the Government does nothing, it means nothing happens. The state of Lithuania is powerless if its authorities dither and shun criticism. They are very anxious about what the West will say or how the East will react and refrain from taking independent action. That is why we either put ourselves up for sale or accept to surrender.
We share Prof. Landsbergis’ opinion that Lithuania has made relatively little on the issue of the Astravyets NPP. Our country does not have a governmental institution to exclusively deal with this matter. The former Energy Security Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania has been dissolved by the decision of Minister Linkevičius; discussions about dissolving the Ministry of Energy have also been underway for some time now.
The incumbent President of Lithuania does raise the Astravyets NPP issue, but he lacks a strong force behind him to work on this matter. The head of the Lithuanian diplomacy is focused on the dialogue with the Belarusian regime whilst ignoring the issue of the Astravyets NPP. Therefore, this issue is addressed only by the enthusiasts in Belarus and Lithuania, including the Movement against the Astravyets NPP. Importantly, Lithuania should involve all levels of government in stopping the launch of the Astravyets NPP and direct its efforts towards the dialogue with our allies in Europe rather than the Belarusian regime; then, after a year’s hard work, we would be able to solve this problem.
At present, however, official diplomacy is not allowed to act in this direction. Several foreign ministers and heads of state have tried to engage Lukashenko in dialogue but to no avail. Futility of these efforts is proved once again by the inhuman and inadequate conduct of the Belarusian authorities in the face of the coronavirus and the Astravyets virus. The latter obviously fails to appeal to the Belarusian citizens and is embraced only by the Kremlin and Lukashenko, who has sold the independence of his country to Moscow. Our authorities must forget all the dialogues with the Belarusian government and thus make it clear that we support the people of Belarus favouring their future in Europe. That is why the citizens of Belarus who are fighting for their freedom are our real partners in this dialogue. We must do our utmost to guide the changes in Belarus like we have been doing in Ukraine and Georgia. Vilnius is naturally geared towards undertaking this mission. We cannot afford to be complacent and observe how life dwindles in Belarus and how the Kremlin wields the sword of Damocles in the form of the Astravyets NPP over this country for centuries to come.
To date, Lithuania has neither drafted a constitutional document defining our long-term policy and principles with regard to the Astravyets NPP, nor established a governmental institution dealing with the implementation of this policy, nor formulated a policy itself. Instead of creating a coalition against the Astravyets NPP with NATO and EU Member States, we appeal to the Belarusian authorities. Although they repeatedly reject our proposals, we continue flirting with ‘fools’. In our action against the Astravyets NPP, we do not have any allies in the West apart from Poland. However, even Poland is already starting to block the synchronisation of our electricity system with the European continental network because it sees that, while flirting with the Belarusian authorities and failing to take any real diplomatic steps in the West, the Lithuanian government can, in the long run, open the way for Russian electricity to Poland, which Warsaw has never agreed to and never will. The Lithuanian authorities have not even tried to raise the issue of the improper selection of the site for the Astravyets NPP. Moreover, Lithuania has failed to explain clearly in all Western capitals its position that all nuclear safety requirements must be implemented without exception before launching the first reactor. Only Poland hears our demands that Europe as a whole should refrain from buying the energy produced in Astravyets. The Lithuanian diplomacy has so far done nothing to convince Riga, Tallinn, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Kyiv, Washington and other Western capitals to impose a Europe-wide embargo on electricity from the Astravyets NPP, which is a goal set by our President.
This year may be decisive for Belarus. Either Belarus will be irrevocably lost and the issue of the Astravyets NPP will remain as a monument to attest to this loss or, on the contrary, the blocking of the Astravyets NPP will become a litmus paper and Belarus will take a European path. Therefore, Lithuania should no longer dawdle along wrong paths suggested by Minister Linkevičius.
We take note that the first unit of the Astravyets NPP has already been under construction for ten years. If over all these years Lithuania had been defending fundamental human rights and democracy in Belarus and actively forming coalitions against the Astravyets NPP in the West, our country would have already achieved a great deal.
We are fighting to maintain certain ground. However, there is a lack of clearly defined red lines that would enable us to link any policy or steps by the EU or other international organisations to the closure of the Astravyets NPP. Lithuania is vaguely speaking about the problems, about the need for Europeans to live in safety, and about a direct threat posed by the Astravyets virus to the safety of all of them despite clearly seeing how Minsk behaves in the fight against both viruses. By embracing the Green Deal, Lithuania could convince Europeans that the Astravyets NPP built by the Kremlin in Belarus is incompatible with this course.
Today, we cannot put blame on Brussels, the EU Member States or other Western countries because Lithuania has certainly not done its homework in the West. Furthermore, it keeps making more and more mistakes in the East by pursuing pointless, unviable, illusion-creating and even harmful dialogue with the Belarusian regime on the issue of the Astravyets NPP. It is not until Vilnius understands the need to take a radical path by fighting for a fundamental human right to live in safety that Brussels will understand the problem posed by the Astravyets NPP and stop deriding it merely as a joke. Unfortunately, at the moment the European Parliament is void of enthusiasm to speak about Belarus on account of either Lukashenko’s disappointing and inconsistent policy following the principle of say one and do another, or Lithuania’s unclear, contradictory and virtually non-existent policy on Belarus and the Astravyets NPP. This approach can and should be changed by changing rhetoric and policy and by empowering the Lithuanian diplomacy to fight for the fundamental interests of Lithuania and the Belarusian nation, whose well-being is being sold today to the Kremlin by the Belarusian authorities.
Although the fight has been going on for nearly a decade now, we must not give up. The best help for the people of Belarus is the fight against the Astravyets NPP, therefore, make sure you sign the Movement’s petition against the Astravyets NPP.
We have the right and the opportunity to build a secure state thus decide on its future.
Petras Auštrevičius, Member of the European Parliament,
Žygimantas Pavilionis, Member of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat Political Group of the Seimas