• 2007-06-13

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

Other than demographics, energy security is the Baltics' greatest challenge over the next decade. This message was highlighted in Riga on June 12 during a conference attended by the three prime ministers and the European energy commissioner (who happens to be a Latvian). Other than a single underwater cable to Finland, the Baltic states remain isolated in the European energy scheme. As Andris Piebalgs, the commissioner, pointed out, a March 2006 strategy paper issued by the European Commission referred to the Baltic states as an "energy island." Changing this will not be easy, and will require tremendous capital, and work.

Fortunately, the will is there. Thanks in no small part to Russia's foreign policy shenanigans, Western Europe has opened its eyes to the continent's Achilles heel of energy supplies and distribution. In the past four years Russia has wielded its energy resources against Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Belarus and most recently, Estonia. In each case the motivations were distinct, but the common denominator was always an atavistic urge to control one process or another taking place in the former Soviet republics. When Russia didn't get its way, the Kremlin either turned off the spigot or raised prices suddenly and punitively. In two cases 's Ukraine and Belarus 's European energy users felt the impact of Moscow's capriciousness, and this more than anything has forced Brussels to swallow the acrid truth: namely, Russia is not a reliable energy partner.

As Estonia's Prime Minister Andrus Ansip reminded journalists, this was not news for the Baltics, which first confronted Russia's energy weaponry in 1991 - 1992, in the first years of independence. Now the message has been made abundantly clear to Moscow.
At least now 's again, thanks to Russia's incompetent foreign policy 's both sides of Europe are singing from the same song sheet. EU member states are hashing over a long-term energy strategy that addresses supply, distribution and environmental issues. Leading officials, including the commission president, are calling on the bloc's 27 members to speak in one voice. Piebalgs told the forum in Riga that he would propose adding a solidarity clause in any future EU constitution that would oblige member states to come to one another's aid in cases when energy supplies are suddenly disrupted.

In the meantime, Europe needs to research, diversify, increase effectiveness and interconnect grids. Earlier this month Germany, France and the Benelux countries announced plans to connect their electricity networks. The Baltics, linked to the "greater EU" only by the Estlink power cable under the Gulf of Finland, need to hook up their grids to Sweden and Poland. Estonia is prepared to lay down a second power cable, and Ansip said it was necessary to build a gas pipeline linking the Baltic state with Finland. Likewise, Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas wants to connect Lithuania's gas pipeline to Poland's pipe system. And they all want a new nuclear power plant for a cool 5 billion euros.

There's not a day to waste. In two-and-a-half years the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant will shut down, and the Baltics will experience a severe megawatt shortage. Latvia (no surprise, here) is behind its neighbors in agreeing upon a contingency plan, and though in the end there will be no blackouts, the country's leadership needs to adopt a more serious attitude to what is one of the region's true vulnerabilities.