VILNIUS - Vilnius found itself at the center of the European political stage Oct. 10 - 11 when it hosted a major energy security conference for Central and Eastern European countries, an event that resulted in a mix of victories and defeats for Lithuania’s own energy prospects.
Around 240 delegates, including seven presidents, top-ranking officials from 20 European and Central Asian countries, representatives from the United States and the European Union attended the Vilnius Energy Security Conference 2007, which was held at the presidential palace amid tight security.
In their addresses Baltic leaders warned of their region’s remaining an “energy island” unconnected with the electricity grids of neighboring states, spoke about the need for decreasing dependence on Russian gas supplies, and called for a common EU energy policy for negotiations with Russia (see quotes, Page 15).
The last sentiment was echoed by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who spoke to the conference from Brussels by video feed. He discouraged EU members from signing bilateral deals with energy exporters and instead work toward forging a common energy strategy.
“Member states have tried dealing with energy challenges on their own, but individual national approaches have fallen short of results,” he said. “The only way forward is together.”
The largest gain for Lithuania came during the first day of the conference when Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus persuaded the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Poland and Ukraine to join him in signing an agreement as a basis for further cooperation in the energy sector – in particular the creation of a new transportation corridor for crude oil and natural gas from the Caucasus to Eastern Europe.
The pipeline, which would be supplied by Azerbaijan and later possibly also by Kazakhstan, would provide an alternative to Russian oil supply in Europe, facilitating oil transit from the Caspian region without involving Russia as a carrier country.
Lithuania’s celebrations over the pipeline deal were however tempered by the fact that no agreement was signed between Lithuania and Poland concerning the proposed “energy bridge” link that would supply power from a future nuclear power plant at Ignalina to the north-east of Poland.
Just prior to the conference, Poland made clear its demand to receive a 1,200 megawatt share of the new plant’s output, and added that all other bilateral energy projects, including the building of a power link between the two countries, might be delayed unless it can get such a commitment. The plant’s overall capacity, however, would have to be expanded to meet the additional electricity needs. The move puts the energy bridge’s future into doubt, though the leaders of the two countries remained upbeat on its prospects.
“We had bilateral negotiations about the electric bridge,” Adamkus said at the evening signing ceremony in the grounds of the presidential palace. “It has to be built and it will be built. Today we have not signed for one reason only. It will be signed immediately after a company structure has been established – before the end of this month.”
Conspicuously absent from the conference were representatives from Russia.
Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry invited Russian President Vladimir Putin and several state-owned and private oil companies, such as Gazprom and Rosneft, but not one even sent a reply, AP quoted a ministry official as saying.
Russia’s absence was no surprise, and several conference speakers used the forum to bash Russian gas giant Gazprom and accuse Russia of using its energy monopoly in Eastern Europe as a political weapon.
“You don’t show up to court if you’re guilty,” Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, a conservative Washington-based group, commented to AP on Russia’s decision not to participate in the conference.
Linking energy security directly to democracy, he said, “If we found that Belarus and Burma were insecure in their energy supplies we wouldn’t be having this meeting. Russia threatened the energy security of Ukraine not just at the time of the [recent] election but because of the outcome of the election.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Bryza likewise wasted no time in pointing an accusing finger at Gazprom, laying the blame for much of the energy insecurity fear stalking Europe at Gazprom’s door.
“Gazprom provides about 25 percent of total European gas supplies,” Bryzka said, before outlining the alternatives to reliance on the Russian supplier which center on development of gas fields in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
“There has to be competition or forever a monopolist will act like a monopolist,” he said.