Lithuania's PM-in-waiting pledges to halt nuclear project

By bne IntelliNews November 12, 2012

bne -

Lithuania's likely next prime minister, Algirdas Butkevicius, said on November 8 that he intends to halt plans to build a new nuclear power plant for the Baltic region. The announcement puts him on another collision course with President Dalia Grybauskaite, who is trying to block his planned coalition.

In an interview with news portal, Butkevicius stated: "The people expressed their viewpoint at the referendum, and I will carry out their wishes. The Seimas [parliament] must draw up a bill as soon as possible so that the plan to build the [nuclear power plant] is ruled null and void, and we will support it."

Butkevicius is leader of the Social Democrats, which won the most votes at last month's parliamentary elections. The poll had a non-binding referendum attached at the Social Democrats' insistence on the planned €5-7bn Visaginas plant, due to questions over the cost and financing of it. At the same time, Butkevicius said he is not against nuclear energy per se, and that discussion of a different project at Elektrnai - Lithuania's largest thermal power plant - could follow at some point.

The PM-in-waiting's words will do little to calm the current tension in Vilnius, with Butkevicius at loggerheads with Grybauskaite over his plan to form a coalition with the Labour Party, which came in third at the recent polls. The president, who formally appoints the PM, has objected to the planned coalition due to election fraud accusations against Labour. Even though parliament elects the government, Butkevicius offered a compromise that was rejected on November 6. Analysts now worry that the political logjam could turn messy, with the situation threatening to roll outside the territory covered by the constitution.

Grybauskaite, seen as left-leaning when elected, has worked surprisingly closely with the outgoing Homeland Union government, which came second in the polls despite large-scale anger against its tough austerity programme over the past four years. She has done practically everything but demand openly that the Social Democrats form a left-right coalition with the incumbent party. She has also strongly supported the government's confrontational approach in attempts to reduce Lithuania's dependence on Russian energy, and the nuclear power plant at Visaginas is a cornerstone of that strategy. So Butkevicius' insistence that the nuclear project will be ditched is hardly likely to bring the president around to a compromise.

Widening support

Meanwhile, it's notable that neighbours Estonia and Latvia, previously reticent to make an unequivocal commitment to join the regional nuclear project, have exhibited far more support since the referendum cast doubt upon the project by returning a result that showed 63% of voters are against the plan.

The pair displayed their renewed enthusiasm again on November 9. Following a meeting in Vilnius attended by the foreign ministers of all three states, the Baltic Council of Ministers and the Baltic Assembly released a statement pledging continued support. "The Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant is an important project which will increase the energy security of the region," the inter-parliamentary body said, according to Bloomberg.

While a final decision must be made by Lithuania's parliament and government, the Visaginas project is sound in terms of security, safety and economics, the Baltic gathering, including Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, said in the joint statement. In a separate email, Audronius Azubalis, the Lithuanian foreign minister for the time being, said canceling Visaginas "would mean a refusal to proceed down the route we have agreed with the United States and the European Commission" and could be misunderstood by international partners.

Stopping the pendulum

Analysts at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) suggest that apart from concern for her own prospects for re-election - the Social Democrats have a chance to form a coalition with a constitutional majority which would be able to impeach the president, and she has been accused of unconstitutional acts - Grybauskaite's push for a rainbow coalition involving Homeland Union is motivated by an urge to put a stop to the erratic policy that has held back Lithuania's progress in recent years.

"Unsuccessful attempts to bring these parties into closer co-operation were also made in the past by the then President Valdas Adamkus," OSW points out. "He thus wanted to reverse the consequences of the political 'pendulum' principle, [according to which] voters' sympathies regularly swing between the left and the right wing of the political scene, impeding the continuation of various political and economic processes."

"One example is the project to build a new nuclear power plant, which was [originally] initiated by the left and contested by the right. When the right took power, they cancelled all the decisions which had been taken in connection with this project and proposed their own model. This in turn is unacceptable to the Social Democrats, who are presently taking power."

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