A chill wind blows across the Baltics from Warsaw

Monday, December 10, 2007

The thaw between Poland and Brussels has sent a chill down spines in Lithuania.

Donald Tusk, the new Polish premier, arrived at the European Commission and parliament on Tuesday to show that his country was back in the centre of Europe. The era of the Kaczynskis, “the terrible twins”, picking fights with Brussels, was over.

The fear in Vilnius is that he may stop picking fights with Russia, too, leaving the Baltic republics, which only recently threw off the Soviet yoke, alone in the ring with the bear. Talks on resolving the Russian blockade of Polish meat, which in turn have held up a new EU-Russia partnership agreement to Brussels' ill-concealed annoyance, start next week.

Tusk’s first foreign trip was to Vilnius, where he did not entirely assuage concerns that Poland has cooled on plans for an electricity link between the two countries.

The link is vital for Lithuania to cope with a looming energy crisis, says Gedyminas Kirkilas, Lithuania’s premier. Doing the rounds in Brussels last week, he told me avoiding greater dependence on Russian gas and oil was the country’s biggest priority.

Lithuania agreed to close its last nuclear reactor in 2009. A new one being planned with Latvia, Estonia and Poland will not be built before 2015.

“We have a gap and we have to find a way to fill that gap,” the premier said.

Lithuania has three options. One is to build more hydroelectric plants. Another is to import more Russian gas but that is the least preferred. Gazprom has yet to respond to requests to up supply, Kirkilas said. And the “Friendship” oil pipeline from Russia has been shut since last July because of “technical problems”.

Strangely the link crossing Lithuania to the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad is in perfect working order. The closure “is purely political” said Kirkilas. Oil comes by ship from Siberia with a five per cent mark-up.

The third option is to build a power line to neighbouring countries. There could be a second cable across the seabed between Finland and Estonia or a new one laid to Sweden, but that involves costly and lengthy environmental studies. Stringing a short wire to Poland would seem to be simplest, but the project has been on the drawing board for 16 years.

Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner, has drafted in a (Polish) co-ordinator to push through priority project for the EU’s proposed single energy market. However, Kirkilas is also worried that Poland has not kept a promise to sign a commitment.

The co-ordinator, Professor Wladyslaw Mielczarski, of Lodz University, refused to set a date to finish the project on Friday. He said finding companies to find 850m euro to build the link and to upgrade infrastructure on both sides of the border was more important than political declarations .

As for Piebalgs, the Latvian seemed unconcerned about his neighbour’s predicament.

“What have we done to support Lithuania to find an alternative solution? A lot of money has gone from the EU budget for this purpose.

“The lights will not go out in Lithuania.” Any reference to British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey’s similar remark on the eve of the first world war was unintentional, I am sure.

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