20 November 2017, Monday, 14:41

Linas Linkevičius: Astravets NPP Is an Economic "Bomb"

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Linas Linkevičius

The Lithuanian Foreign Minister gave an exclusive interview to Charter97.org.

Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius answered questions of editor-in-chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina.

- Mr. Minister, for the third year Lithuania lives with euro. At the same time, a part of post-socialist countries has not taken a common European currency. Poland categorically does not want to do this. The transition to euro was a political decision and touched upon every Lithuanian citizen. How do you assess the introduction of euro in Lithuania and how did this affect the country's economic development?

- In short, each country has its own situation. First, almost all Lithuanian parties agreed that joining the euro zone was also our political choice, and we perceive this as a part of European integration. Second, this is not only a political decision but also a fiscal one, since our currency has been tied to euro for a long time. So we were de facto in the euro area but de jure could not participate in any other mechanisms as a member of the Eurogroup.

Of course, speaking frankly, if you look at sociological studies, there is always suspicion and mistrust when the currency changes. It happened in Estonia, Latvia and our country. But in general, people supported the introduction of euro because they noticed there were fewer bureaucratic obstacles. It became easier and more convenient to travel to the EU countries; it is also more convenient for business. In fact, only banks gained profit on different currencies, because the exchange of currencies was another source of profit. But otherwise, everyone noticed that it was more practical, especially, I repeat we were already de facto in the euro area. Although, of course, those who have an independent monetary policy, there may be some other arguments.

Yes, there was a crisis in the euro area, but it is much easier to come out of a recession together with strong EU economies. Considering all that, there are more pros than cons. Skepticism of people eventually vanished.

- International military experts believe that the latest Russian military exercises were directed against all regional security, but primarily against Lithuania. Lithuania was actually "enveloped": there were exercises in Kaliningrad, where Iskander missiles were deployed, Belarus held West-2017, exercises of the Russian Baltic Navy with the participation of the largest Russian missile carriers. What was the purpose of Russia? Was this preparation for the seizure of Lithuania?

- I would not say that there was a direct preparation for the seizure of Lithuania. We always say that one can conduct exercises, especially if it is predictable (the West exercises take place every 4 years). The last time they occurred in 2013, but since then Russia has waged two wars and annexed the Crimea. Therefore, all activities involving Russian military personnel deserve more attention.

What were these exercises? It was the demonstration of power. It was not only testing the ability of the Russian-Belarusian armed forces to interact. Since Russia has recently used military force in foreign policy then, of course, these exercises deserve special attention.

The practice has shown that "West-2017" exercises were not defensive, but offensive. Especially if we talk about the number of servicemen. it was officially announced that there were 12.700 of them, it was made to cause fewer monitoring requirements for the Vienna Document. But we know that the number of servicemen participating in the exercises is not exactly known, we still need to compare everything, but in any case the declared number is far, far away from the truth. Moreover, not only Russia and Belarus were under exercises, the exercises were conducted from the Kola Peninsula to the border with Ukraine.

So one needs to keep in mind both the number of servicemen and training areas involved. If we can say that these training areas were correctly identified in Belarus as was declared before the exercises, in the Kaliningrad region we know that there were more of them. In addition, the transparency of the exercises, as promised, was not observed.

- Now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine declares that part of the Russian military has remained in Belarus. What is the threat for Lithuania then?

- It also threatens Belarus. We said there was a very large number of servicemen in Belarus... But the Russian Foreign Ministry officially announced that they would all be withdrawn before the end of September. It requires compliance assessment. If the Ukrainian side announces this, there probably are some facts. Everything is possible.

If there is an accumulation of greater military power of the Russian Federation next to our border, then, of course, this is a threat. It will add only tension. I do hope that the troops will be withdrawn.

- Lithuania has been recently playing a significant role in policy-making of the Baltic-Black Sea region. There was information that Lithuania was lobbying the "Marshall Plan" for Ukraine, today Lithuania is taking a principled and consistent position regarding the Belarusian regime. Are any economic projects along the North-South axis involving Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine possible in the near future? Or will you participate in creating a transport corridor along the eastern border of the EU bypassing Belarus and Ukraine?

- As for the transport corridor, it is probably early to discuss something, but regarding the activity in the region you are talking about, we are trying to use the levers we have.

Let's take the countries that are members of the Eastern Partnership program. We really want the differentiation principle to be performed because all these countries are very different, especially five of six countries have frozen or active conflicts. By the way, Belarus is an exception, but your internal situation, as we know, is also very complex.

We, of course, will try to act more actively in this direction, not just be observers. For example, there are military actions in Ukraine, there is a Russian aggression. We understand that it is not enough to support Ukraine only in terms of security, but we need to support the country in the economy. Ukraine needs economic assistance including financial mechanisms of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the International Monetary Fund. The use of these funds, of course, should be controlled, as we know that there are problems with corruption and bureaucracy.

Therefore, Ukraine has been chosen in this respect, I cannot say anything specific about other countries, but the doors are open, and they should think about it as well. Are these countries ready for this? Of course, we are not going to impose ourselves, but if countries are ready we could consider different options.

- Does the dictatorship in Belarus hinder the development of such cooperation?

- Indeed, there are different nuances. Belarus is constantly balancing between the Russian Federation and the European Union. But this cannot happen all the time.

Of course, we will not take reforms for the country. This is up to the Belarusians themselves.

- And how could you comment on the situation with the construction of the Astravets nuclear power plant? Do you have some new information?

- Unfortunately, there is none. Everything moves along the old channel. We repeat our arguments, try to avoid any emotions, give specific facts and requirements, and constantly raise this issue on the international arena, in particular in the European Commission and in neighboring states. There are certain results.

I am convinced that the longer this continues, the clearer it is that the project is in no way economically grounded. This can be some kind of political project of certain states.

By the way, we should pay attention not only to security issues, since we, of course, "have a headache," but I think Belarusians should also have it. This is also an economic "bomb" as loans that are given for construction will have to be repaid. And if there is no self-repayment in the future, then debts will grow even more, Belarus' dependence on Russia will increase. Objectively speaking, we have little to influence on here. We can only give our assessment, talk about it on the international arena, which we are going to do in the future, and demand the compliance with standards and safety regulations of such facilities as the NPP.

- Lithuania and Poland refused to buy energy from the Belarusian NPP. It makes the existence of BelNPP not only senseless, but also dangerous. What do the Belarusian authorities count on?

- This is the factor I was talking about. I cannot know what the Belarusian authorities are counting on. The authorities themselves know the answer. But I guess that the Russian Federation is another party of interest. I am convinced that this is a geopolitical project of Russia on the territory of Belarus, so it pursues not economic objectives. Let's say, to stop our synchronization with Western electric networks. It is also possible.

- Now the civilized world has realized how dangerous the information war that Russia wages is. This is a part of the hybrid war.

- It just starts resembling.

- Anyway, the need to counter the information war of Putin is being actively discussed. What is Lithuania doing in this direction?

- Lithuania is actively raising this issue. A strategic project has been created, a group of strategic communications in the service of foreign policy relations of the European Union is also our initiative. So we do our best based on our experience and observations. And we can see that there is a shift in this regard, but it is still insufficient.

There is an understanding that talks about vulnerability of Eastern Europe are needed, but I am sure that in this respect Western Europe is also vulnerable. The problem of Eastern Europe is also the problem of Western Europe, Europe as a whole.