Baltic cooperation twenty years later

  • 2011-12-14
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

THREE MUSKETEERS: On Dec. 2, Estonian Defense Minister Mart Laar, Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene and Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks met in the Lithuanian army officers’ club in Kaunas. The ministers signed a Communique on Trilateral Cooperation and an agreement to increase the appeal of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission to the allies deploying their troops and aircraft on the mission.

VILNIUS - The Balts, twenty years after re-establishment of their independent states, have finally found firm ground for their unity – common strategic projects that are vital for their economies and security. “We are members of the European Union, yet the actual integration of the Baltic region into the European Economic Area has not been completed until now. We should stand together and prevent any, internal or external, factors hindering the implementation of significant projects that will serve to ensure the security and well-being in the region,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said at a meeting with Latvian and Estonian presidents in Tallinn on Dec. 2.

The three Baltic presidents, together with the Polish president and EU Transport Commissioner, Estonian Siim Kallas, discussed the EU co-sponsored railway project, the European-standard 1,435 millimeter-gauge Rail Baltica, which will connect Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas and Warsaw. The 120-kilometer Rail Baltica’s Kaunas-Sestokai section (the Lithuanian town from where a 21.8 kilometer-long European gauge section to Poland was built after independence) of European gauge railway is now under construction over the existing Russian gauge-railway of 1,520 millimeters to avoid long negotiations about the purchase of private land, which would be the case if a completely new railway route would be constructed. This section of Rail Baltica should be completed by the end of 2013.

On Dec. 2, Estonian Defense Minister Mart Laar, Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene and Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks met in the Lithuanian army officers’ club in Kaunas. It was the first time that the Polish defense vice-minister was also present at such a Baltic meeting. “If such co-operation would have been in place back in 1937, when the construction of this house started, maybe our history would be different,” Jukneviciene said, adding that “a decision was endorsed to change the format of the present military cooperation and to adjust it to the structure of the Nordic defense cooperation.”

The three Baltic defense ministers signed a Communique on Trilateral Cooperation and an agreement to increase the appeal of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission to the allies who deploy their troops and aircraft on the mission. Three Baltic ministers endorsed two new initiatives of the Baltic defense cooperation. “The first one covers sharing national infrastructure for training purposes and specialization of training areas (BALTTRAIN). The second initiative foresees collective formation of contingents up to battalion size for standby in the NATO Response Force,” Jukneviciene said.
On Dec. 2, Lithuanian PM Andrius Kubilius and Latvian PM Valdis Dombrovskis discussed the future nuclear plant perspectives during their meeting in Visaginas. The Visaginas project details are confidential and both PMs spoke only in general phrases. “The Visaginas nuclear plant will produce energy at competitive prices,” Kubilius said. “We will go ahead,” Dombrovskis said.

On Dec. 9, the Polish state-owned energy company PGE announced that it is suspending its participation in the Visaginas nuke project and is terminating talks with Russia’s energy group Inter RAO on the possibility of buying electricity from Russia’s Kaliningrad region. Warsaw plans to build its own nuclear power plant in Poland. The reaction of top Lithuanian officials to the Polish withdrawal was surprisingly positive. “The departure of one of the partners is indeed not an obstacle for us,” Lithuanian Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said at his press conference on Dec. 9. Political analyst Kestutis Girnius told LNK TV that Poland is traditionally a difficult negotiator and the Baltic nuke project will go more quickly and smoothly without Poland. PM Kubilius said during his press conference of Dec. 9 that the termination of Polish talks with Inter RAO leaves no perspectives for the Russian nuclear plant project in Kaliningrad. Kubilius also emphasized the word “suspension” and said that the Poles may consider joining later. According to energy expert Jurgis Vilemas, the Latvians may also withdraw from the Visaginas project due to their financial problems, but the Estonians will remain big enthusiasts.

The most puzzling tensions are provoked by the LNG terminal projects in the three Baltic States.
At the end of November, Lithuanian Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas told a Lithuanian journalist at LTV, who was provoked by him in Brussels, “Latvia is changing its orientation.” According to the daily Lietuvos Rytas of Nov. 26, this statement was said because Latvian Economy Minister Daniels Pavluts refused to accept the European Commission’s proposal of the synchronized move of the Baltic energy grid from the Russian energy system to the Western European energy system.

According to Polish Economy Minister Waldemar Pawlak, Pavluts’ behavior is blackmail towards Lithuania and Estonia to force them to agree with the Latvian idea of building one LNG terminal for all three Baltic States in Latvia.
 The European Commission stated that the LNG project can be co-financed from EU funds only in case the project will be regional, i.e. pan-Baltic. Latvia seems to lack finances to build an LNG terminal on its own, without EU co-financing. The Lithuanian state projects its own LNG terminal near Klaipeda (another Lithuanian LNG terminal, the private LNG terminal by Lithuanian Achema Concern, is projected at a distance of some 600-700 meters from that Lithuanian state-owned terminal). The Lithuanian state-owned LNG terminal will start to function at the end of 2014, according to Sekmokas. Lithuania stated that it does not need co-financing from EU funds for its project. Estonia also wants an LNG terminal of its own.

It is possible to understand, from suggestions of Lithuanian politicians, that they fear that just one LNG terminal for the Baltics, in Latvia, would be too much of a risk, because its existence would lose sense in case it would fall into Russian hands, and that is quite a possibility due to the Russian influence in Latvia. Lithuania and Estonia stated that they do not object to an LNG terminal in Latvia being called a regional project, and they do not object to the EU’s co-financing for that Latvian project. However, the LNG project in Latvia does not become regional or pan-Baltic in the eyes of the European Commission due to such non-objection from Vilnius and Tallinn, though the European Commission may re-consider its position.