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2019.09.04 17:45

Belarus’ nuclear ambitions cut into Baltic unity as old scars reopen between Vilnius and Riga

Linas Jegelevičius, BNN2019.09.04 17:45

In a blow to Lithuania, Latvia has announced it looks forward to buying electricity from Russia and, by implication, from a nuclear power plant in Belarus’ Astravyets under construction 50 kilometres away from Vilnius. As much as cutting into the Baltic unity, it has reopened memories of old disagreements between Vilnius and Riga, BNN reports.

Previously, Latvia’s independent electricity supplier, Spectrum Baltics, secured a permit from Lithuania’s energy regulator (VERT) to start electricity imports from Russia’s Kaliningrad.

Lithuania has recently outlawed Belarusian nuclear electricity, and has repeatedly said it wants to significantly reduce dependence on Russia for its energy. However, Latvia has embraced non-EU sources for an innocuous reason – it is often cheaper than that on the Nord Pool power market.

“Latvians are very pragmatic and do not politicise electricity trade and energy issues like Lithuania. I can see now Lithuania ratcheting up efforts to dissuade Latvia from buying Belarusian electricity, but I do not think Latvians will give in. What Lithuania wants is not in Latvia’s best interests,” Vidmantas Jankauskas, former head of Lithuania’s Energy Pricing and Control Commission, (VKEKK) told BNN.

Latvia’s transmission system operator, AST, has clearly stated it made the decision about buying Russian and Balrusian electricity purely on economic calculations, that is, to mitigate the risks of a possible decrease in electricity flow or negative tariff fluctuations.

Latvia claims it has consulted Lithuania, Estonia and the European Commission. Lithuania’s TSO Litgrid confirmed such consultations did take place, but there was no agreement with Latvia, it said.

Latvia is power-hungry and, for the second consecutive year, it is seeing a rapid fall in domestic electricity output. In 2018, power generation at Latvian hydropower plants plunged 44.1 percent from the previous year, according to Latvia’s Central Statistical Bureau.

The country currently has a 330-kilovolt interconnection with Russia, but has no direct power links with Belarus.

Bitter disappointments from the past

“Latvia must still feel bitter about Lithuania’s broken promise in the late 2000s to support its efforts to build a liquefied natural gas terminal near Riga,” said Jankauskas.

This little-known fact was recently brought up by Antanas Valionis, Lithuania’s former ambassador to Riga. “I had no serious arguments in defence of Lithuania’s policy. I do not know why it was decided not to fulfil the promises made to the Latvians,” he stated in his new book ‘In the Political Pendulum’.

According to Valionis, Lithuania agreed during a visit by the then Latvian PM Valdis Dombrovskis in 2009 that a power cable with Sweden would be built from the Lithuanian seaport of Klaipėda and, in return, Lithuania would help the Latvians to obtain around 45 million euros from the EU for reinforcing their western electricity grid, while the two countries would jointly build a regional liquefied natural gas terminal near Riga using EU funds.

After Lithuania began constructing the LNG terminal in Klaipėda on its own, the then Latvian government blamed Vilnius for thwarting Latvia’s LNG project. Latvia later blocked Lithuania’s efforts to have the Klaipėda terminal, which was already in operation, to be recognized as a regional project.

But it is Latvia’s decision to buy Astravyets electricity that is particularly painful for Lithuania. Arvydas Sekmokas, Lithuania's former energy minister, is anxious that Latvia's nod to Astravyets electricity may put the landmark synchronisation of the Baltic grids with the European network in jeopardy.

“If Belarus gluts Latvia and the Baltics with cheaper electricity, creating a new monopoly of supply, I believe that the synchronisation of the Baltic power grids will make no sense, at least to the Latvians. Lithuania will inevitably have to revisit the issue of the Astravyets electricity ban,” said Sekmokas.

Meanwhile, Latvian Economy Minister Ralfs Nemiro said he “understands” Lithuania’s anxiety about safety in the Astravyets nuclear facility, but emphasised that the decision on electricity trade with third countries was made to prevent possible electricity shortages.

The Baltics are now facing a “black hole,” said Sekmokas. “On the one hand, we’ve committed to synchronise our grids with the European network, but on the other hand, the possibly cheaper Belarusian electricity will bait the Baltic states and I cannot be sure that [Latvia] won’t trade our solidarity for it.”

“It is Russia that is rubbing its hands out of joy,” he added.

This story originally appeared at BNN, and was edited for brevity by LRT English