No way out of the energy dependency
Belarus is building a nuclear power plant in an attempt to enhance energy security and gain energy independence from neighbouring countries. While the project is highly controversial amongst opposition groups, as well as in the EU, an alternative source is unlikely.
"No nuclear power plant in Ostrovets" – Election rally by the Belarusian Green Party in Minsk. (Photo: Marco Fieber)
Belarus' economic development since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been stable compared to other post-Soviet countries. The country's economic success is based on an accommodating price policy for natural gas and crude oil by Russia. Belarusian industrial sectors such as machinery, metalworking and petrochemicals are hugely dependent on gas. Lukashenko's planned economy is able to survive as a direct result of Russia's generous energy supply, which delivers 90 percent of Belarus's energy imports. But economic and political dependence was the real price for this deal.
However Russia now insists that Belarus should pay back debts from gas supplies and is raising the pressure on its neighbour. This could lead to unresolvable problems for Lukashenko and the country's economy. Understandably, he has been looking for alternatives, and has found it in nuclear power.
A tempting offer
There have already been a few attempts to establish nuclear power in Belarus, but they have all failed. The Chernobyl catastrophe, cheap Russian gas, financial difficulties and a nuclear moratorium in 1999 prevented the construction of a plant until now.
Interview with Dzmitry Kuchuk, Deputy Chairman of the Belarusian Green Party. (Photo: Alexander Steinfeldt)
Even Lukashenko voted against nuclear power in Belarus when he was still a parliament deputy. "But in 2007, when he had accumulated enough power, he decided to build a nuclear power plant", says Dzmitry Kuchuk, Deputy Chairman of the Belarusian Green Party and parliamentary candidate in the upcoming election. A tempting offer made him change his mind.
Russia plays the energy game
The Russia-Belarus energy dispute in 2007 likely played a major role in Lukashenko's decision for a nuclear power plant. Following tough negotiations about gas and oil prices, the mostly Russian state-owned company Gazprom stopped delivering oil through the Belarusian pipeline "to prevent Belarus illegally siphoning off oil".
The Russian company Rosatom offered to build a nuclear power plant (NPP) in Belarus. In addition, Russia's Eximbank provided a credit line for financing the plant. This finally triggered the decision for the NPP in Astravets, in the north-eastern corner of the country, just 45 kilometres from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
But instead of being more independent, Belarus is more chained to Russia than ever. "Belarus will be still dependent on Russia because there is still a credit to pay back and it will also be necessary to store the nuclear waste, as well as to buy uranium from Russia", explains Kuchuk.
Uncertainty from the West
Belarus will not only be reliant on Russia, but also on the European Union. Because of energy overproduction, Belarus will need to export part of its nuclear power to neighbouring countries, such as Lithuania or Poland. It is still not clear how these countries and the EU will decide on how to deal with this export.
But the President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has already signalled that she is not in favour for the plant being a mere 16 kilometres from the Lithuanian border. "Astravets is one of the instruments which can be used non-conventionally against the Baltic States," Grybauskaitė said at a conference in August 2016.
No real alternatives
Lukashenko is caught between two stools. On the one hand he has to toe the line with Russia because of this increasing energy dependence. On the other hand, the European Union cannot be neglected, in order to make the NPP profitable.
Protest rally of the Belarusian Green Party against the NPP during election campaign. (Photo: Marco Fieber)
Belarus could circumvent this dilemma and build up its energy system with national renewable sources. But renewables are a disregarded topic by the government and many facts speak against a renewable revolution to solve their energy challenges.
First, the energy infrastructure is being reconstructed to meet the needs of big energy suppliers. The building of NPP, fossil fuel and hydropower plants does not fit with largely decentralized, more volatile sources such as wind and solar power. Second, people are not informed about all the possibilities regarding renewables, alternatives that are not supported by the government with suitable legislation.
And third, local initiatives will face many municipal bureaucratic hurdles when trying to invest privately in renewable energies. "Also in practice we have experienced that when people come together and want to be active in an energy cooperative or initiative it draws the attention of the government. Local authorities then try to push these initiatives down", said Anastasiya Darafeeva, leader of the Belarusian Green Party.
Changes unlikely to happen
"The question about the Astravets nuclear power plant will be raised in a referendum, as in Lithuania. If a referendum would be held, Belarusians – especially because of Chernobyl – would never allow it to be built", thinks party colleague Kuchuk.
An energy grid well connected with the European energy market, a legislation that supports renewables, more rights for local initiatives and a referendum on the Astravets NPP could solve some of Belarus' biggest energy problems. But the implementation of these initiatives seems to be a distant possibility as long as Lukashenko has the power under his control.