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2019.12.17 09:00

Chinese money connects Lithuania to Belarus' nuclear plant – LRT Investigation

Mindaugas Aušra, LRT Investigation Team, LRT.lt2019.12.17 09:00

While Lithuania is putting all effort into isolating Astravyets' nuclear plant, a Chinese state-owned company is a key contractor connecting the would-be facility to Belarus' energy grid. Yet, that same company owns an enterprise in Lithuania and takes part in strategic energy projects in the country, LRT Investigation Team has found.

Meanwhile, Belarus is pushing ahead with the project just 50 kilometres from Vilnius. Lithuania deemed the plant a threat to national security over environmental and safety fears, and has aimed to isolate Minsk by rallying its neighbours and the EU to block energy imports from Belarus. So far, the calls have been unanswered.

As Belarus is planning to launch the first reactor early next year, one of the contractors building connections between the facility and the country's grid is North China Power Engineering (NCPE), a subsidiary of the state-owned company Power China. NCPE is now working on 23 Belarusian projects funded by a 5-billion-dollar laon that Minsk secured from the Export–Import Bank of China.

Yet, the Chinese company is also active in Lithuania.

LRT Investigation Team learned that in 2013, NCPE acquired the majority stake in one of Lithuania's biggest electric facility engineering companies, Kaunas-based Energetikos Tinklų Institutas (Energy Network Institute, ETI).

Since the purchase, ETI has successfully competed for a number of public tenders, participating in energy projects commissioned by the national electricity grid Litgrid and energy distribution company ESO. In all, ETI took part in 23 public contracts worth 8 million euros.

In a statement to LRT, Litgrid said that ETI was not screened by a special government commission that reviews strategic projects with implications to national security.

“ETI is involved in projects that do not service or give access to crucial information technologies, systems or infrastructures, databases or data therein,” according to Litgrid. However, sources told LRT Investigation Team that the company may have escaped scurity because it is registered in Lithuania, and not abroad.

LRT has approached ETI for comment, but failed to get a response.

When China's NCPE purchased ETI in Lithuania, it was assisted by Respekto Grupė, a company owned and managed by former politician and government adviser Česlavas Okinčicas. Respekto Grupė is NCPE's official representative in the Baltic region.

Okinčicas was one of the signatories of Lithuania's 1990 Act of Independence and has since been adviser to three prime ministers. At the time of the deal, he was advising Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius and admits that he introduced the president of NCPE to the then Energy Minister Jaroslav Neverovič, who currently works in the president's team.

Okinčicas has told LRT he was not initially aware that his Chinese partners were involved in the Astravyets NPP project, but insists that the company does not work against Lithuania's interests.

“It is a delicate issue, but they [NCPE] perform a job that they get paid for and that is it. I wouldn't say there is a link between security and Chinese companies, because they have nothing to do with the safety of the [Astravyets] power plant,” Okinčicas says.

He adds that the only area where Lithuania should be cautious about Chinese influence is IT.

However, Liudas Zdanavičius, a research fellow at Gen. Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy, disagrees. Chinese state-owned companies are closely linked to the Beijing government, he says, and their presence in strategic sectors of the Lithuanian economy is a risk factor.

“We should scrutinise the company" precisely because it's linked with China, Zdanavičius has told LRT.

Since 2013, NCPE has connected the Astravyets NPP to substations in Smorgon, Maladziečna and Pastavy. They are key for energy transit abroad, including to Lithuania, the very thing that the Vilnius government is eager to stop.

“It [Astravyets NPP] is an existential threat to us,” says Virginijus Poderys, chairman of the parliamentary Energy Commission, “it would be odd for us to buy electricity from the source of this existential threat or do business supporting it. It is a moral issue.”

He says that the first reactor in Astravyets NPP will generate more energy than Belarus needs for domestic use. If Lithuania could limit its economic payback, there would be a chance that the second reactor, intended solely for export, would not be built.

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