EXCLUSIVE / On his first visit to Brussels, newly-elected Prime Minister of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis shared his fears with Euractiv.com about the building of a nuclear plant in Belarus, 40 km from Vilnius and of the hybrid war waged by Russia against the former Soviet republic.
Before becoming prime minister of Lithuania on 13 December 2016, Saulius Skvernelis served as a Lithuanian Peasant and Green Union MP, as interior minister from 2014 to 2016 and as a police commissioner.
He spoke to Euractiv.com Senior Editor Georgi Gotev on Wednesday (15 February).
After your recent election, this is your first visit to Brussels in your new capacity. What’s your message?
Indeed, this is one of my first foreign visits following my election [after visits to Latvia and Estonia] and it demonstrates how much importance Lithuania attaches to the EU. Our government is very much pro-European and we reflect the position of our voters towards the EU. More than 70% of our population in Lithuania believes in the European Union, supports its actions and believes in what it does.
The events taking place currently around the world, in Europe, like Brexit, show that the EU must be united as never before. We don’t have another alternative. We must support a united Europe, we must support the focus on human rights, on the most important freedoms, on the market economy, the free movement of capital and goods. We don’t have any other alternative. My presence in Brussels just demonstrates our focus on these values.
But your country has a specific concern: the Astravyets nuclear power plant being built by your neighbour Belarus.
Plans by Belarus to build a nuclear power plant 50 kilometres away from Vilnius are a worry for Lithuania, the country's foreign minister, Audronius Ažubalis, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Yes, this is one of the biggest problems and threats, the nuclear plant that is being built in Astravyets. Our government has a very clear position against nuclear energy.
I’m surprised to hear that because Lithuania had until recently planned to build Visaginas, the nuclear power plant that was supposed to replace the Soviet-built facility at Ignalina, which has been decommissioned. Even the EU pressed you to build it. Can you explain?
Lithuania will find it difficult to ensure the security of energy supply without building a new nuclear power plant, Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said.
Visaginas was a project designed to strengthen our energy independence. However, now we identified other alternatives for our energy supply. We no longer consider this project as economically viable. It would not be safe, and therefore it is no longer on our agenda. Our government is not going to discuss this project further, and the issue is settled.
Probably you know that Lithuania is currently part of the electricity network of Russia and we have a strategic priority to disconnect from the Russian energy system and to achieve synchronisation with the European system.
The project in Astravyets is not safe. It is being implemented disregarding all international standards and principles of international law, and it is a threat to our security. It is been built at a distance of 40 km from our country.
Is there a risk that such a project could keep you in Russia’s energy orbit?
Yes, partially, this is true, because the nuclear power plant (NPP) of Astravyets could not function without our infrastructure. That is, the hydro accumulative power plant of Kruonis. It is related with the balancing in the electricity generation process.
You can also oppose this project by saying that your country will not buy power from Astravyets?
Yes, and we are going to anchor this position in a law, which our parliament will adopt in the near future. The law will state that Lithuania will not be allowed to buy energy from third countries generated in unsafe power plants. Here we are not speaking only about Astravyets, we are speaking about all the unsafe NPPs. As you probably know another NPP started to be built in Kaliningrad [Baltiiskaya NPP, which was initially designed as the counter-project of Visaginas].
But can you convince the EU countries that they should do the same?
This is not a problem only between Lithuania and Belarus. It’s a problem to be tackled between the EU and Belarus. It is very important to have the trust of our citizens and the EU should be able to show it is capable of such solidarity. Sometimes we see how economic interests prevail over solidarity principles. This will be an indicator that the EU can be in solidarity with our people and our problems as well.
But in the case of Nord Stream 2, which Poland strongly opposes, Sweden is not only giving its territorial waters, but is providing a port for the construction of the pipeline…
The Swedish government said on Monday (30 January) that it would not hinder Russia’s Gazprom in its plan to use a southern Swedish port as a base for constructing a gas pipeline project that has raised security concerns.
It shows that all of us have our own interests. The Nord Stream 2 project is an attempt to divide the EU member states.
Let’s talk about your security concerns. There have been reports that when one of the two reactor’s pressure vessels for Astravyets, weighing more than 300 tonnes, was transported by train last December, it hit a railway power supply line and fell from a height of 4 metres. Is it safe to use such a reactor? Is there anything the EU can do to make sure that there will be no risks related to such an incident?
Actually, there have been more than 10 accidents linked to Astravyets and they have been hidden from the public. This project is being built in disregard of all international standards and principles of international law. Belarus has invited international experts at different stages of the construction, but this has largely been a public relation exercise. Belarus doesn’t perform any stress tests, it doesn’t invite experts at all the stages. It doesn’t run this project in accordance with international norms.
There is a local agency which monitors the construction process in Belarus. However it feels certain political pressure not to identify these problems. Because we know that this project is not a Belarusian project, it’s a Russian project by Rosatom. I will never be convinced that a project that is done in this way will be recognised as a safe project. It is impossible.
My main question remains. What can the EU do? Nothing?
If we accept that we cannot do anything, that would mean a sign of helplessness and that would bring in even more scepticism towards the EU. First of all, it is very important to recognise very clearly that this is a problem between the EU and Belarus. And that the relations between the EU and Belarus can continue only by recognising that we have to give the Astravyets the same importance as to issues of human rights and democracy. And that the relations between the EU and Belarus, be it in the economic, the financial domain and all the other domains will be discussed only bringing in the aspect of Astravyets. We must have a strategic problem leading to concrete results, developed by the European Commission, very concretely. The Baltic electricity system has to be synchronised with the European continental network. We must disconnect from the Russian system. We cannot buy electricity generated by unsafe nuclear plants. This is our strategic goal.
How serious is the issue of Russian propaganda, of cyber-attacks, of alleged hybrid war? Russia always denies being involved, and always maintains the so-called “plausible denial”. Which means that those who believe those things exist can believe, and those who don’t want to believe don’t believe. What is the reality?
We have a 50-year old relationship with Russia, or the former Soviet Union, but this is the same. We can see it as a fact: there have been several cyber attacks against our official institutions. We can see there is huge propaganda from the Russian side, coming to the TV screens of our audience in Lithuania, there are so-called “public organisations” from Russia functioning in Lithuania. Russia says that it is not engaged in eastern Ukraine, but we can see it is otherwise. Russia says it has nothing to do with the bringing down of the Malaysian airliner [MH17]. We can say this is not true. We can make conclusions ourselves and we can see that the words differ very much from the deeds.
We must understand that there are threats from the hybrid war, that these threats are very real, but this is cooperation in another format, namely in the NATO alliance. We have already started the deployment of the enhanced forward presence to the Baltic States and Poland. We are making big efforts to increase our spending on national defence, to increase our defence capabilities. This is very important.
So EU leaders, NATO leaders, understand the situation in the same way you do, or not?
I believe that sufficiently has been done already and the best message was expressed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg yesterday (14 February) when he said that a threat against one member of the alliance means a threat for the entire alliance, and that the alliance is committed to defend all its members. This is the best message. Tomorrow (today, 16 February) Lithuania is going to celebrate its Independence Day. The Secretary General said he could never put it in a better way, that Lithuania will never again have to restore its independence. This message is of particular importance, especially to those of us who think it may be otherwise.