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Getting Belarus to cough up the cash

  • 1998-12-17
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - The Lithuanian government, appearing bewildered on how to make Belarus pay off its approximate $70 million debt for electric energy imported from Lietuvos Energija, announced Dec. 9 that a special commission to investigate the problem was being formed.

According to a government statement, the commission is being tossed together for a two-week period to find out if and how Belarus actually intends to reduce their debt as agreed.

Representatives from several governmental ministries, the government's chancellor's office, the president's office and faction offices are to form the commission. At the end of the two week period, they are expected to provide the government with recommendations and suggestions in regards to exporting energy to Belarus.

The Lithuanian government and Lietuvos Energija have spent the last few months brainstorming a solution to the problem without achieving any solid results. Even President Valdas Adamkus got thrown into the mix when he met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in mid-November. According to a spokesman for the Lithuanian president, Lukashenko promised to do "everything possible" to put a dent in the debt. But so far, the Lithuanians are still waiting to see words put into actions.

At the beginning of December, Romualdas Ramoska, Lietuvos Energija's commercial director, traveled to Minsk to hash out some payment options. According to a Lietuvos Energija spokesman, the two days of talks mostly centered around establishing prices for possible payments with Belarusian goods.

"There is no talk around here of just forgetting the debt," said the spokesman. "Ask any one of our [directors] and they will tell you that there is no question about Belarus paying it off."

Rumors have been swirling lately that Lietuvos Energija would even consider cutting off Belarus' energy supply should a quick solution not be found. But the Lietuvos Energija's spokesman told TBT that giving Belarus a dark Christmas is not in the plans.

"For our company, it would make more sense to work hard at getting back the money owed to us than not export at all," said the spokesman. "We will try to keep up our end of the contract, but of course we will want to get the money we have coming."

The Lithuanian government's frustration with Belarus' failure to pay is becoming obvious. When the government reiterated their "electric energy and oil products export development strategy" last week, the necessity of a project called PowerBridge was also noted.

The PowerBridge project is set to establish an electric link by the beginning of 2002 between Lithuania's Soviet era power grid system and the one used by Western Europe. After completion, the connection is expected to greatly increase the number of Lithuania's potential energy customers. The government's press service mentioned that a link to Western markets would not only build up the fund squirreled away for the eventual closure of Ignalina's nuclear power plant, but would "help electric energy export prices and guarantee timely payments."

For now, Lithuania is stuck dealing with the not so timely payments from its eastern neighbor.

Whether the new commission can achieve realistic results or not remains to be seen.

Well, the Lithuanians can always hope for a little Christmas magic.