Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius -
During Soviet times, Visaginas – an “atomic” town in north-eastern Lithuania with a 65% ethnic Russian population – prospered, and unsurprisngly sentiment for the Soviet era remains high. But the town has since fallen into decay with unemployment near the country’s highest at 15% and the emigration rate of young people exceeding 25%, after the Lithuanian government in 2004, complying with promises it had given to the EU, closed down the Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear power plant for which Visaginas had provided the skilled workforce.
Hopes were high just a couple of years ago that Visaginas would see a recovery with the arrival of the Japanese firm Hitachi and its US partner General Electric, whom Lithuania has entrusted with construction of a new €5bn, 1358-megawatt (MW) nuclear plant to replace Ignalina. But a national non-binding referendum on the need for the plant that was held in 2012 together with a parliamentary election saw 63% of voters reject the plan and elect a Social Democrat-led government unwilling to pursue the venture of the previous conservative government in its present form.
With hopes for a revival in the town's fortunes fading, there are fears that growing anti-EU and pro-Moscow sentiment among the disaffected population could set off a chain of events similar to that which led to Crimea seceding from Ukraine.
Postponing the inevitable
A decision on the fate of the project has been postponed over a dozen times, though Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius denies suspicions he wants the project to wither and die, and insists he wants to see an improved project underway. “We are still resolved to build the Visaginas nuclear power plant, but we want the project partners – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – and their respective energy companies to find an optimal solution on the plant’s capacity, price tag and contribution,” he said.
A new date for announcing the decision on the fate of Visaginas has been set for the autumn. But some Lithuanian lawmakers, like Linas Balsys, an MP and chairman of the Green Party, are convinced the prime minister made up his mind on the project some time ago. “As Butkevicius tries to please President Dalia Grybauskaite, a staunch supporter of a nuclear power plant, and the Japanese and American lobbyists in the country, he simply doesn’t want to exasperate her with what he really thinks of it. Hence the numerous postponements,” Balsys says.
The citizens of Visaginas themselves are under no illusions about the government's stance. “Supposed ongoing talks among the project partners are a sheer bluff. Even Visaginas pensioners call them a big baloney. No one here believes that the nuclear project will ever get off the ground,” says Larisa Chrechkova, a teacher at the Draugyste school in Visaginas.
Such pessimism stands in stark contrast to the euphoria of 2011 when the town began gearing up to welcome the Japanese. “We have 49 nationalities in the town, so learning some Japanese would have not been a daunting task,” says Dalia Straupaite, mayor of Visaginas.
The construction of the plant would have brought in a few thousand Japanese industry specialists, who planned to build a Japanese settlement complete with kindergarten, school and recreational facility. “We were and are still ready for that,” the mayor says.
The positive impact on Visaginas' infrastructure would have been wider, as Hitachi was aiming to turn Visaginas into a high-tech “smart” town with a “smart” power grid, new communications infrastructure and even a Japanese bank. “If the investor had come, much of that would have been done. There would have been a high added value from other investments into the region,” says Arvydas Sekmokas, a former energy minister in the conservative government and staunch supporter of the nuclear venture.
Most importantly, the Visaginas project would have ensured Lithuania’s energy security and significantly enhanced its geopolitical “weight” in the region, supporters say. Indeed, with the shutdown of Ignalina, Lithuania went from being a major power exporter to an importer, with most of that (63% in 2012) coming from Russia. "I don’t believe the Social Democrat-led government will pursue the project [and] that will undermine Lithuania’s energy security goals and national interests,” Sekmokas says. "It seems to me the government is seeking ways how to nicely end the project."
The Green Party's Balsys says ultimately the Social Democrats won't defy public opinion, the economic reality and the position of the project's partners. According to him, Lithuania's Baltic neighbours have set their eyes on the launching of power interconnectors NordBalt and LitPol, which are expected to cut power prices for the countries on the NPS Exchange to €0.03 per kilowatt hour from the current €0.08 kWh – a lower price than a new Visaginas nuclear power plant could provide. “As a member of the Baltic Assembly’s Energy Committee, who is well aware of the behind-the-stage debates, I’m sure the Estonians and Latvians won’t ever approve the project, which for them is just too expensive,” Balsys says.
With the Lithuanian government still sticking to the idea that a nuclear project with smaller parameters is still an option, Hitachi has refrained from making any public comments, but behind closed doors has made its displeasure at the situation plain.
For the people of Visaginas, the fate of the town without a new nuclear power plant is clear. “The town has no future now. When in 1977 the town started popping up, thousands of people from all over the Soviet Union came for the construction and work at the new nuclear plant. All thrived here. The European Union has destroyed the town with the closure of the plant,” says Viktor Jelisejev, a once respected engineer at the plant, now a retiree who is supplementing his meagre pension of €200 by selling vintage books and coins at a local market.
The number of schoolchildren at the school where the teacher Chrechkova works has shrunk from 600 to 400 over the last two years and an estimated one-third of Visaginas residents have left the town since 2004. The number of people living on welfare has soared three-fold.
Chrechkova says she will stay in Visaginas “no matter what,” but laments that a recent meeting with former co-workers who over the last two years have left Visaginas for the West and Russia highlighted what the town has lost. “Their sentiment for the once hustling and bustling 'atomic' town has remained so strong that they came over here for a nice 'get-together' from as far away as Russia, Germany, Switzerland and UK. I wept seeing all of them here again,” she recalls.
But beyond the sadness there lurks darker fears about the longer-term social effects of the cancellation of the project on the region. Anti-EU and pro-Russia sentiment is being stoked by the issue, and some political experts fear this could be Lithuania’s “ticking time bomb” capable of setting off a chain of events similar to those that ended in the Crimean peninsula's secession from Ukraine and its joining the Russian Federation. "Luckily for the Lithuanian government, there's no pro-Russian political movement or party in Visaginas trying to capitalize on the social tensions," says a Visaginas councilman, speaking on condition of anonymity. "With many young people left for a better life abroad, the town's seniors disdain politics."
Upon hearing that, Mayor Straupaite hastens to point out that an “absolute majority” of Visaginas people “dream of Japanese nuclear reactors, not Russian tanks”. “Visaginas yearns for a nuclear power plant. It would mean a revival of the town. It would stop the massive exodus of youth and bring back those young people who have left the town,” Straupaite insists.
“We just don’t have other options besides it,” she adds forlornly.
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Russian banks are disappearing at the fastest rate ever as the country's deepening recession makes it easier for the central bank to expose money laundering, dodgy lending ... more
bne IntelliNews - The Kremlin supported by national sports authorities has brushed aside "groundless" allegations of a mass doping scam involving Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency ... more
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Revelations and mysticism may have been the stock-in-trade of Nikolai Tsvetkov’s management style, but ultimately they didn’t help him to hold on to his ... more