Odd Man Out

  • 2007-09-12

Cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

SLOWLY but surely, Lithuania is digging itself a hole from which it might not be able to crawl out. The new atomic power plant, which when first announced promised to strategically unite the Baltic region more than any other project, is now floundering under the cumulative weight of numerous diplomatic blunders. And they're all Lithuania's.

The original agreement 's symbolically sealed in February 2006 in the snowy backdrop of ancient Trakai 's called for each Baltic state to own a third of the new plant, which at the time was to have either one or two reactors. Nine months later Poland expressed an interest in joining the project, which made Lithuania jump for joy and Latvians and Estonians knot their brows in doubt. To adjust an old adage, too many cooks spoil the atom. But Lithuania was so gung-ho about bringing the Poles on board that it didn't listen to what its Baltic neighbors had to say. This kind of neglect would, unfortunately, become more the rule than the exception.

In early January, Lithuanian PM Gediminas Kirkilas stated that Lithuania should have a bigger stake in the project since the reactors would be on its territory. Fair enough, said Estonia and Latvia, but isn't it a bit too late in the game to switch strategies?

In March, Kirkilas flew to Warsaw to sign an agreement with Poland on the plant, giving Lithuania 34 percent and the other partners 22 percent. Latvia and Estonia were astonished; they hadn't been consulted. Later that month Lithuania decided to unite its state-owned utility and two electricity grids, one of which is privately owned, which meant private capital would participate in the nuclear plant. Now it was Poland's turn to express dismay.

In July Lithuanian lawmakers passed a law on nuclear energy, which set into law ownership division of the plant. Again, a 34 percent stake was set aside for the home team, while the visitors were given 22 each. This was a potentially disastrous breach of trust. By inscribing ownership stakes into law, the Lithuanians essentially told their partners, "Gentlemen, it's either our way or the highway."

Finally, President Valdas Adamkus suggested while on a visit to Kiev that Ukraine could possibly participate in the project. Once again, no one could figure out what the Lithuanians were thinking.

Now the other three partner-countries are fed up. Poland refused to show up at a crucial meeting in July. (The nation of 36 million 's four times more than the Baltic states put together 's wants to control 1,200 megawatts of output from the new reactors, while Lithuania is proposing only 700 megawatts.) Estonia is looking northward at Finland's numerous nuclear plants, and Latvia is mulling over building a gas-fired power plant. It's almost as if the Latvians are saying, "Better Russian gas than Lithuanian shenanigans."

And they'd be right. Lithuanian leaders and diplomats have completely failed to balance myriad interests (politicians forgot they were tying together a commercial deal and not a government coalition) and act in a transparent manner. They've been neglectful and even arrogant to a fault. As a result, they might lose the plant; or if they get it, the year will be 2020.

A new nuclear power plant to replace the Ignalina facility would be a welcome development for the Baltics. But Lithuania must remember the project is commercial, and so therefore boils down to simple economics: an investor will only participate if it's profitable. All the grandstanding about Russian energy politics means nothing if partners are unable to cooperate and listen to each other.