Lithuania wants energy debts settled

  • 1999-02-25
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - Diplomacy and occasional finger wagging by Lithuanian officials have yet to coax Belarus into paying off its overdue electric bill.

Lithuanian government officials and members of parliamentary groups met Feb. 17 to consider whether cutting energy exports to Belarus might convince their neighbor to cough up the approximate $100 million they owe. By meeting's end, however, Belarus debtors were given another two weeks to prove they are serious about paying.

The problem of Belarus' debt has been a thorn in Lithuania's side for months. A number of meetings between politicians and power company representatives of both countries have produced few tangible results. The frustrating nature of the situation has even left a few folks on the Lithuanian side with no option but to make light of it.

"The relationship with Belarus is very good, very professional. And if we succeed in getting payment from Belarus for exported energy, our relationship will be perfect," Virmantas Jurgaitis, general director of Lietuvos Energija, said with a smile a few weeks ago.

By the time the Lithuanian government officials and members of parliamentary groups met to discuss options Feb. 17, such light-hearted smiles were hard to come by. Even so, the Lithuanians stopped short of halting energy exports to their Eastern neighbors.

According to the Lithuanian government press service, two weeks were given to see if the Belarusians would fulfill a number of promises laid out to eat away at the debt. Because Belarus is strapped for cash, Lithuania has been willing to accept payments in the form of goods - but not without certain conditions, which were clarified during the meeting.

"Late in the evening [of Feb. 17] a decision was made to take Belarusian Embassy information into account, which expressed a Belarusian government's decision to accept a fixed exchange currency rate in settlements for electricity exports and to do it in a punctual fashion," the government's press service said.

In the past, the Belarusian goods had been sold through intermediary companies to convert the payments into cash. A company called Baltic-SHEM has recently been assuming this intermediary role. To simplify the process and keep better track of payments, the government said it wants a new agreement between Lietuvos Energija and Belenegro, the Belarusian power company, which would cut out the middleman.

"Lietuvos Energija sells electric energy without intermediaries, so Belenegro should make payments directly to Lietuvos Energija, which can organize some commercial division for selling," the government's press service reasoned.

A Lietuvos Energija spokesman labeled the government's decision "normal," but said the company's general director was satisfied that the company can continue to export. The situation puts Lietuvos Energija between a rock and a hard place.

Lithuanian energy exports account for almost one-fifth of electricity consumed in Belarus. The loss of this customer would be costly, not only because of the disappearance of potential revenue, but also because the Ignalina nuclear power plant in eastern Lithuania would have to make a cut in production.

"We are just glad this problem is being discussed on such a high level," said the Lietuvos Energija spokesman. "We cannot solve this ourselves and need an agreement between the Lithuanian and Belarusian governments."

Belarus has until the end of February to show it is actively implementing its promises. If no strides are made, its future could be darker.