President’s squire-turned-critic to bring nuke to a referendum

  • 2012-04-11
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Linas Balsys, a 50-year old journalist and former special correspondent for the Lithuanian National Radio and Television in Brussels from 2002-2009, has made the most of this stint: he approached the then-EC Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite as no one did in the Brussels press corps. At the wheel of the Lithunian state, President Grybauskaite rewarded the devoted squire with the title of chief adviser and spokesman. Balsys shielded the Iron Magnolia (the moniker Grybauskaite is known for) well until the beginning of summer last year, when some black cats crossed the path of the two, which resulted in Balsys’ resignation. His departure triggered an avalanche of guesses but, in explaining it, he only referred to “different views.”

Some political analysts, however, hinted that the differences were about Grybauskaite’s changed stance on nuclear energy development in Lithuania. “I really don’t understand her switch from being a vocal anti-nuclear energy preacher to a supporter of this kind of energy,” says Balsys. Today he chairs the Lithuanian Green Policy Institute (LGPI) and is one of the spearheads of the referendum on the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant. He agreed to speak to The Baltic Times correspondent in his LGPI office.

In recent years, several Lithuanian parties and movements have added the word “green” to their names. The LGPI that you are heading is not an exception. Is greenness the trend today?
Well, indeed, it is a correct observation. Green movements in Europe and around the world mean a new approach not only to the environment, but also to the economy, politics, energy, even taxation and social policies. Green policies and politics have gone beyond their traditional perception and framework, encompassing all areas of life and criss-crossing the usual political ideologies. Speaking of Lithuania, we can see green values in the programs of most traditional and new political parties and movements. Generally, the bottom line is emphasis on responsible development of the economy and energy.

However, are the green values entrenched in the ruling parties actual policies?
Well, both the Conservatives and Liberals preach the necessity of renewable energy, but when it comes to real policies, they push for nuclear energy in a bulldozer style. This happens when nearly all of Europe is getting rid of nuclear energy and switching to renewable energy sources. Let’s take a look at Germany: the country is scrapping its atomic projects and closing down the existing nukes in favor of renewables. And more than that, Germany has created a huge green industry, employing thousands of people in it. This pays off;  the country is already exporting its green energy. The rest of Europe is following, or about to get into, its footsteps; not Lithuania, however.
Though the EU Energy Roadmap to 2050 aims to significantly reduce the role of nuclear energy on the continent, Brussels, nonetheless, doesn’t forbid or discourage EU members from taking on nuclear projects. How can the two be reconciled? Won’t the liberalism create certain problems for the EU in the future?
Indeed, the EU pursues neutrality when it comes to development of national energy strategies. Although the EUROATOM Treaty, which established the European Atomic Energy Community to coordinate the member states’ research programs for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, is still in effect, the European Union keeps underlining on all occasions that EUROATOM represents a separate, non-EU-bound legal body. In fact, the atomic affairs agency is preoccupied not as much as with nuclear energy expansion as much with research leading to a safer and more modern use of atomic power. However, this doesn’t mean that the EU doesn’t heed the sector. The new EU directives concerning disposal and storage of nuclear waste are extremely stringent and, time-wise, to be implemented very soon in EU member states, by 2015. I really can’t comprehend how Lithuania will manage to comply with the new regulations, as we are so much behind in meeting them. Lithuania hasn’t coped with the task when it comes to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, and it hasn’t done anything in resourcing and planning a nuclear waste site for the would-be Visaginas NPP.
Why then is the center-right government actively pursuing the nuclear project in Visaginas? No doubt you saw lengthy advertisements in major dailies, supposedly proving the benefits of the project -cheaper electricity, energy independence and so on? Are you saying people are being brainwashed?
Well, no economic estimation provided by others, not by the government, proves the benefits. I’d dare to say more on that account: construction of the nuclear power plant is only in the interests of certain clans that have intricately twined and webbed the highest echelons of power.

Can you pinpoint the clans? If that’s so, why is the Prosecutor’s Office silent?
They come from the energy sector, though it’s hard to name them yet. I speak of certain clans, as it is impossible to explain the construction otherwise. No government-provided economic estimation withstands the sharp criticism of the project. Look at our Prime Minister Kubilius, who simply engages in raving when the talk comes to electricity prices. Speaking of the price, first he comes up with 7 cents per 1 kWh and later, having taken a glance at the blue sky, says the price will be 25 cents. Asked about the calculation methodology, he only mumbles, disregarding the opposite-proving calculations by the most trusted persons and institutions, like the one done by Jurgis Vilemas, a prominent energy expert, or Raimondas Kuodis, a well-known economist. All NGOs also claim that the plant’s electricity price will be way over Kubilius’ prediction, more than 30 cents per 1 kWh. This means that the electricity will not be competitive in the regional market. The government [also] deliberately downplays possible safety dangers. Even if the plant is the safest according to all international evaluations, there still will be a probability of its malfunctioning.

And can you imagine a nuclear plant-related emergency in such a small country like Lithuania?
Differently from Japan and other countries, Lithuanians won’t even be able to evacuate in case of an emergency. From the economic standpoint, acceptance of the project equals dooming the current and future generations for an unbearable load of debt. To get the populace on its side, the government is already pouring thousands [of litas] of taxpayers’ money into lengthy advertising campaigns for the Visaginas project. People are being brainwashed, to put it simply. Therefore, we’ve spearheaded the referendum on the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant.

Some ponder that the Lithuanian Green Policy Institute has been established for one reason - to pave the green parties’ way into Parliament waging a full-scale war against the Visaginas nuclear project. Is that so?
It’s not true. However, I reckon some of our opponents intentionally portray the institute as a project for the upcoming parliamentary elections. In your words, drawn up as an opposition for the government, with emphasis on the nuclear project. In fact, the LGPI is among 25 referendum initiators. The referendum initiative group includes many well-known Lithuanians, and I am just one of them. The LGPI is a public institution, established and financed by private individuals who are involved in the green movement. I can’t, however, mention their names without their consent.

You have to agree that your unwillingness to disclose the founders and financiers of the Institute instigated the chairman of the Parliament’s National Security Committee to speculate that the LGPI is a Russia-sponsored project aimed to ruin the Visaginas nuclear project. What can you say to this?
Both the committee chairman and all plotters of these kinds of theories will be able to flip through our annual report that we, following the law, will make public after May 1. The report will also include concrete names of the LGPI founders and financial supporters. It is a shame for the Conservatives, who attempt to smear the Institute, don’t shy away from employing the bugaboo of Russia. I can’t evaluate the demands of some ministers of the Cabinet to reveal the names before May 1 as anything other than Lukashenko-style threats.
Are you going to participate in the 2012 Parliament election?
Yes, I am seriously considering it. However, it is too early to say under what kind of flag. However  I choose to go to the elections, as a single person or within a party, I will preach green ideas on all frontiers.

Being the well-known Linas Balsys, don’t you intend to coalesce all those fragmented and mostly ineffective green movements?
Indeed, I am looking forward to doing so. And, in my plans, the LGPI would serve as the connector of all the existing green platforms in the country. I have to admit the green movement in Lithuania has been very sporadic and often uncoordinated until now. Look at Germany, where the Green Party has come a long way, from a group of anarchists to a serious political force. The European Green Party in the European Parliament is about to outcompete the liberals, the traditional third political force. That says a lot. We have a lot of catch-up to do in that regard.

Are all those green movements ready for coalescing?
I cannot speak of a united green political front just yet, as so far the only green party - the Lithuanian Green Movement - has registered for the parliamentary bid. All others that operate as non-political movements are welcome to join for a joint front.

I got the hunch that you left the Presidential Palace, informed in advance, that you would be entrusted to head the LGPI to get all green movements together for the elections.
Not at all. I really had no idea as to where life would lead me after the departure from the Presidential Palace. Different views and approaches between the head of state and me led to the decision I made.

You have never said publicly what kind of differences you both had…
I do not want to be engaged in public discussions over that with the head of state. In fact, I voted for her. I believe people, following her and my public speeches, can track the differences.

Were they partially related to the different stance on the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant project and nuclear energy development as a whole?
As one of her chief advisers and spokesman I was part of her team, which, as in any case when it comes to heading this kind of institution, has to be single-minded. Even being single-minded on most of the agenda, speaking of the Visaginas nuclear project, the team would engage in pretty heated discussions, bringing quite different views from all the sides.

However, doesn’t it surprise you that Grybauskaite, a seasoned EC Commissioner with a history of being a supporter for green energy, promotes the Visaginas nuclear project? Do you believe she does that out of support for the ruling Motherland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats?
If you were to follow closely Grybauskaite’s presidential election campaign and the beginning of her presidency, you’d notice that she had spoken against building the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant and has promoted renewables on many occasions. Today I can just state that her rhetoric has changed. I really am not entitled to speak for her now, and, frankly, I am not aware of the processes that led to the change of her stance. However, I can just note that her proactiveness for nuclear energy development in the country is in particularly sharp contrast with her efforts in dismantling the LEO nuclear project at the beginning of the presidency.

Can you tell a bit about the referendum? When are the signatures supporting it due to be collected? How is the signing for the referendum being organized?
We’ve actually just kicked off the campaign, collecting referendum signatures from March 27. I am very heartened to see people walk into our office and pick up the sheets for signing. As of today [the interview was conducted on April 2], we’ve distributed enough sheets to collect 100,000 signatures. We are looking for referendum volunteers in the provinces as well. I realize, however, the task – collecting 300,000 signatures in emigration-ridden Lithuania in three months, until June 27 – is extremely hard. I believe the Parliament should’ve changed the Referendum Law, setting a lower number of signatures necessary for a referendum.

You have to agree that securing support for the referendum from the major parliamentary parties is in your core interest. Are you working on that front?
Yes, we do. In fact, with our initiative announced, a group of 36 parliamentarians has signed an appeal to bring the issue of the referendum onto the Parliament floor. If that happened and if the legislators voted for the initiative, the 300,000 signatures wouldn’t be needed.

The referendum, taking into account the unpopularity of the nuclear project among the public, is the right horse for many opposition parties, as well as the Lithuanian Green Movement, to ride into the Parliament this fall…
I see it as a way to check our current parliamentarians’ green consciousness on a very important issue like this. Considering the importance and immensity of the project for Lithuania, the nation should be asked to give its [opinion] on it and, in case of a vote on the referendum in Seimas, one should know the parliamentarians’ individual positions.

Are you planning to have the referendum together with the Parliament elections?
It would be the best scenario considering the circumstances. Having the two ballots together would save budgetary money, time and would bolster a larger turn-out for the elections.

Can I suggest something to you that would boost the referendum petition signing?

You should put out a book on President Grybauskaite and her changed approach to energy issues.  The blockbuster bestseller would definitely boost the campaign!
(Laughs) I wish I could do that in less than three months. However, I really have no time for this. I am even short of time for writing articles, criticizing the nuclear reactors that Sekmokas, the Energy Minister, is intending to buy. By the way, they appear to be of a considerably smaller capacity than he pointed out. That is something that an international nuclear energy institution says in its letter to our Institute. This is just more proof that the public knows nearly nothing about the nuclear project. We are determined to change this for the sake of all.