If Lithuania refuses to cooperate with Minsk, then Minsk will cooperate with Latvia, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko says. In other words, due to Lithuanian initiatives against Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant, Belarussian freight could be diverted from Klaipėda port to Riga.
A. Lukashenko spoke of this in mid-September after appointing the new Belarussian ambassador to Latvia, Vasily Markovich.
"You see, we have no access to the sea and if Lithuania is unwilling to cooperate with us, then we need to focus on Latvia," A. Lukashenko is quoted on the Belarussian presidential website.
A third of freight
In 2017, a total of 43.17 million tonnes of freight was loaded in Klaipėda port. Of this, 13.23 million tonnes or 33% was Belarussian. Thus, if the head of Lithuania's Southern neighbour is speaking seriously, this could mean significant losses for both companies working in Klaipėda port and those transporting goods.
Minister of Transport and Communications Rokas Masiulis commented on A. Lukashenko's words during the cabinet hour in Seimas.
"First of all it is of course unpleasant that our neighbours are exploiting the situation regarding Astravyets NPP. We hoped that perhaps they would back us in this regard, but we are seeing it isn't happening. Factually, two Belarussian flows are going through Lithuania – fertiliser, which is the absolute majority and oil products.
Both supply chains have been worked on for a number of years, we have all the equipment, all the rail schedules arranged, trains travel at the fastest rate possible without stopping and this route is the most affordable for them," he said.
According to the minister, there is no economic basis for the Belarussians to change anything.
"We believe that our conditions are the best and we value that product, that flow to a great extent. We work a great deal for it, both the railways and Klaipėda port put in much effort to not only retain, but also increase it.
No doubt, there is always massive competition with Latvia, especially when there is more desperation there with the decline in Russian freight flows. You can also see it in the public sphere, communications and elsewhere, but this competition did not vanish anywhere, it was present all the time. We understand well that we must display conditions, provide good prices," R. Masiulis said.
The Klaipėda port management has been visiting Minsk this week for the international transport and logistic exhibition Transport and Logistics.
"As practice shows, Lithuanian and Belarussian partnership is mutually beneficial, the mechanism of bilateral business relations across the entire transport system has been working harmoniously for many years," Klaipėda port director general Arvydas Vaitkus is quoted in a press release.
Lithuanian Industrialists Confederation (LPK) VP Arūnas Laurinaitis also spoke of Klaipėda as the most economic choice for the Belarussians.
"Businesses in our country seek to provide quality services for adequate prices. Transporting Belarussian goods via Latvian ports is simply not beneficial economically. When competing in global markets, it is very important to optimise your supply chain so that you could provide the end buyer with a suitable price.
Lithuania has well developed rail infrastructure, a port, which is constantly modernised, transport companies offering quality services. We would like to highlight that one of the most important tasks of our country in order to retain Belarussian cargo transit through Lithuania is the modernisation of border infrastructure and ensuring human resources at the customs service," he said.
A. Laurinaitis added that Belarussian goods supply through Klaipėda port involves many businesses, many of them being LPK members. The confederation also includes a Lithuanian-Belarussian business council.
Want to punish Lithuania
Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science doctorate candidate Marijuš Antonovič describes A. Lukashenko's words as a negotiation tactic.
"In essence there is desire to punish Lithuania for its position in regard to Astravyets. This is a push to have Lithuania and Latvia compete with one another, which will offer better conditions.
In this regard, I believe that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Latvians will offer a package of measures that will make their exports cheaper. However, looking at distances and transport costs, Lithuania is geographically the most convenient. The Latvians would have to really think, how to draw Belarussian attention," he said.
The political scientist also points out that Lithuania and Latvia never had a common view of Astravyets NPP. He does not describe the Latvian position as betrayal.
"There is more meaning to talk about why our foreign policy fails to bend Latvia to our side. Why is there no such cooperation? Perhaps we have too little influence in Latvia? Such questions are more meaningful," the political scientist stated.
M. Antonovič summarised that the relations between Lithuania and Latvia are complicated.
"There is the Astravyets question, furthermore, Latvia is moving toward energy independence far slower. They implemented the third EU energy package the last of the Baltic States, there were many disagreements over the liquefied natural gas terminal, when it was being built – in essence Lithuania, instead of building a common one for all the Baltic States went ahead and built it unilaterally for its own funds," he said.
M. Antonovič advised to cease operating based on widespread clichés that Latvians have a similar language and are overall the Lithuanians "brothers".
"Oligarchs have significant influence on Latvian politics, there are many business interests in Russia. When we go to real politics, real decisions at the European level, in essence we see that it is hard to cooperate with the Latvians," he said.