Russia has triggered controversy by announcing that it will lend its politically unstable neighbor Belarus more than $9 billion to construct a Russian-designed nuclear power plant near Ostrovets, just 50 miles from the capital city of European Union member Lithuania.
The deal, inked Tuesday at a meeting between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Belarussian counterpart in Minsk, is being met with deep concern from Lithuania and criticism from environmentalists, who argue that the reactor design is untested, ecological impact studies are incomplete, and the decision-making has lacked public input.
Under the agreement, Russia's state-owned Atomstroyeksport will build the Russian-financed Ostrovets nuclear station, with the first reactor due to come on line in 2016 and as many as four more reactors operational by 2025.
The announcement seems strangely ill timed, given the still-unfolding nuclear tragedy in Japan and growing nervousness in Russia's own far eastern region over the danger of radiation blowing from the stricken Fukushima atomic power station, just a few hundred miles away.
Putin's nuclear defense
Mr. Putin defended the project, saying the five VVER-1200 pressurized water reactors Russia plans to install in Ostrovets are the "latest technology," whereas the failing American-built Japanese units are 40 years old.
"The level of protection will be substantially higher than in Japan, and that's not taking into account that Belarus is not in a seismic fault zone like Japan," Putin said.
Belarus suffered more than any other former Soviet republic from the meltdown and explosion of the Chernobyl atomic power station in 1986, and to this day large territories of the country remained closed radioactive zones.
"If Russia really wants to help Belarus, it has to be safe and economically efficient projects, not the construction of an unnecessary and dangerous nuclear power plant," Irina Sukhiy of the Belarussian environmental group Ecodom told journalists recently. "This project is economically unviable and ecologically dangerous. We call on the Russian government to reconsider participating in it."
Critics say political expediency trumps any other concerns in this case. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who won reelection to a fourth term in December and then ordered mass arrests to quash protests alleging vote-rigging, is in dire need of Kremlin support to keep his sputtering, patronage-dominated economy running and appears to be rushing his country into a full embrace with Russia.
"This announcement couldn't be delayed because Lukashenko is desperate for money, and Putin is keen to draw Belarus deeper into dependency on Russia," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, a Minsk-based economist and deputy chair of the opposition United Civil Party.
Until the strife-ridden election, Lukashenko had been promised substantial aid from the EU if he could clean up the country's dismal human rights record. If that had materialized, Belarus might have weathered the cut-off of Kremlin subsidies amid steadily worsening relations with Moscow over the past year.
"Since the crackdown on opponents last December, Lukashenko has been unable to obtain any support or credits from the EU, and Russia is now the only potential source of financing," Mr. Romanchuk says. "The Russians are no longer willing to provide charity to Belarus, as they did in the past, but they are eager to take advantage of Lukashenko's vulnerability."
Common Economic Space
Belarus joined a customs union with Russia last year, but Lukashenko is now pressing Moscow to revive Putin's idea of a Common Economic Space, which would bring a full union of tax systems, currencies, financial institutions, trade laws, and courts. The original members of the scheme were Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, but the plan was derailed by the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" in 2004.
"In Belarus, we have always pinned great expectations on that union, and we see its great potential," Lukashenko said at a meeting with Putin on Tuesday.
Russian analysts say that whatever the Kremlin's doubts about Lukashenko, the process of economic reintegration in the post-Soviet area is now Russia's top priority. That includes creating a single energy grid, and a major nuclear power construction program.
"In the world today powerful economic clusters, like the EU, are being created," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-sponsored Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "The only thing that countries left outside these groups can do is to form their own clusters. So Russian policy here isn't based on nostalgia, or a desire to rebuild the Soviet Union, but urgent contemporary necessity.
"I don't think Putin and Lukashenko's personal relations are good, but deals like this [nuclear power plant] are vital for the interests of both countries, and that's why they're going forward."