European Integration, Unplugged

Most of the 14,000 inhabitants of Elektrenai, Lithuania, voted to join the European Union in May 2003 because membership promised a better life. In some ways, however, their European future looks a lot like their Soviet past, with new bureaucratic masters, new rules, and the revival of a giant power plant that once made their town a model of state socialism. A parable about the promises and pitfalls of European integration.

Halfway between Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius and its second-largest city, Kaunas, on the surprisingly smooth two-lane highway that bisects the country from east to west, three red-and-white striped smokestacks poke into the sky. Only one is smoking, sending forth a thin, solitary plume that trails over the forests and meadows of the small town of Elektrenai, population 14,000. During the 1960s, the town’s power plant — a model of centrally planned gigantism — helped spark an industrial boom across Soviet-era Lithuania and the surrounding Baltic States. But with the construction of a huge nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s in Ignalina to the northeast, Elektrenai’s turbines largely fell silent, its familiar smokestacks becoming little more than a landmark for passing truckers and motorists.

Now, in one of those twists of geopolitical fate, Lithuania’s entry into the European Union (EU) last May holds out the promise of Elektrenai’s salvation. The EU has declared Ignalina’s Chernobyl-style reactors a dangerous powder keg and insisted that Lithuania remove them from the electricity grid, or forgo EU membership. Policymakers in Vilnius grudgingly agreed, in return for an initial payment from Brussels of 285 million euros over the next two years to decommission Ignalina and transform Elektrenai once again into the Baltics’ largest energy producer.

With this one stroke, the EU is writing one of the more bizarre chapters in the story of its eastward expansion. In a previous era, the Kremlin’s grand industrial dreams drove rapid change in Lithuania and other countries in Eastern Europe. Today, change is driven by the EU’s belief that growth cannot come at the expense of public health, safety, or the environment. As benevolent as that diktat may seem, once again a distant capital — this time Brussels, not Moscow — is handing down a blueprint for economic transformation. And, once again, the inhabitants of a small community, still reeling from their last exercise in social and economic engineering, must play catch-up by someone else’s rules. Never mind the underlying irony that Elektrenai’s Communist dynamos have become the engine for the country’s capitalist transformation. Europe’s wider, increasingly ambitious union depends on the ability of Elektrenai and hundreds of towns like it to make EU expansion a success.

Power and the Powerless
"Communism," Vladimir Lenin said, "is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country." Elektrenai was built as a model of both. Like the Czech Republic’s planned community of Kuncice or Poland’s iconic metallurgical-works town of Nowa Huta, Elektrenai was conceived from scratch as an international advertisement for socialism, with broad, straight avenues, prefabricated housing blocks, and — a first for the predominantly Catholic Lithuania — no church. Visitors from across the Soviet Union came for guided tours of this masterpiece of Communist planning.

One man who was present at the creation is Pranas Noreika, the director of Elektrenai’s power station since its birth in 1960. A tall man, hard of hearing, wearing thick glasses and white tennis socks under wool pants, Noreika holds forth from his office, complete with black leather sofa, red conference table, handsome wooden desk, and wine cabinet. A good engineer who professes indifference to party politics, Noreika knows the right people. Almost every Sunday he entertains Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, a friend since their days together at university. The two white-haired survivors trade their business suits for swim trunks and enter the sauna at the power station, putting the world to rights.

A member of the Communist Party, Noreika nonetheless implemented his own brand of socialism. He ensured that hundreds of Lithuanians once bannished to Siberia under Soviet premier Joseph Stalin later found jobs and homes in Elektrenai. Behind Moscow’s back, some locals say, he turned planned warehouses into sport facilities, including the country’s premier hockey stadium, where U.S. National Hockey League stars Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus learned to skate. One business trip to Moscow yielded a Gorki Park roller coaster destined for the scrapheap, "Jet Star 2"; a Ferris wheel followed, and soon, tiny Elektrenai claimed the largest amusement park in the Baltics. Right up until Moscow recognized Lithuania’s independence in 1991, Noreika was busy drawing up plans for a new downtown area and a cultural complex where music and art groups would practice and perform. "If perestroika hadn’t come about," he says, "we’d have built it all."

After independence in 1991, an elected council gradually took over most of the town’s property. Elektrenai’s first and only church opened, built badly but big, in the socialist style. Soon afterward, a storm toppled two of its concrete towers. The rest of the town fared little better. In Soviet times, thousands of tourists from all over the country visited the amusement park every weekend. Today, the colorful lights are dark, the music has gone silent, and the roller coaster rusts away. Most of the time, the park’s employees sit idly on a bench in front of the ticket window. "People don’t have the money to come here," one of them says. The swimming baths have closed. The diving tower at the lake is dilapidated, the yacht club vacant. There are too many buildings to maintain in this tiny town, now that it has to survive on its own.

Surrounded by anachronism, the people of Elektrenai cannot help but be pessimistic. Vendors in the local markets wax nostalgic about business during the Soviet era, and their customers complain of high unemployment and poverty. Yet Elektrenai is relatively well off. At 5.3 percent, unemployment is lower here than in all of Lithuania, with a national average of 10.7 percent. Nobody in the town seems aware of that fact. Even as Lithuania’s politicians look to the EU as a way of breaking with the Soviet past, young people dream of "moving west" instead of bringing "the West" to their own country. They see workers in Old Europe earning many times their salaries. For the young, the only way to build a future seems to be to abandon their past.

Such a luxury is not available to the 76-year-old Noreika, charged with making his old power station fit for a new Europe. Already, the former Soviet official has transformed the plant into a joint-stock company. Soon, its four 300-megawatt units and four 150-megawatt units will get a high-tech overhaul. Noreika’s crews have to install new burners and gas-cleaning equipment. They must replace the plant’s control devices and instruments, refurbish its steam turbines, and automate much of the generator and turbine maintenance. New sulfur filters will improve the town’s air quality: If the plant operated at full capacity today, people say, the birds of Elektrenai would fall out of the sky.

But introducing free-market efficiencies may be Noreika’s biggest challenge. The plant remains grossly overstaffed, a typical problem at large state enterprises everywhere. Many of the laborers who retire are not replaced. For the rest of the workforce, Noreika tries to invent new tasks. But workers still struggle to fill their days — with, rumor has it, card games and long breaks. One worker tells of how "repairs" are still carried out in the old way: with a fresh coat of paint and polish. Even as Lithuania’s leaders celebrate their new European identity, the "old way" remains everywhere in Elektrenai: in habit, nostalgia, and fear of what is to come.

Plugging In
Noreika championed membership in the EU and tried to recruit his workers to that cause. Ultimately, more than 90 percent of Lithuanian voters chose to join the EU in last year’s referendum. Many of Elektrenai’s workers have long dreamed that the EU would bring an economic upturn and new jobs. But according to Jurgis Vilemas, director of the Lithuanian Energy Institute, only 600 of the 800 jobs will remain after renovations at the plant are completed. With privatization, 200 or 300 more jobs will have to go.

Kestutis Vaitukaitis, mayor of the Elektrenai district, plans to woo EU investors. He believes Elektrenai could become a sort of Lithuanian Disneyland — "Energoland," he calls it. With a new roller coaster, a renovated yacht club, and a new ice stadium, he hopes tourists will come in droves. Soon, he predicts, they will bathe in the lake before a backdrop of three smoking chimneys. But this feels like a fantasy, an echo of Soviet ways: trying to do everything as big and as fast as possible, whether a market exists or not. In reality, Vaitukaitis is having a hard time luring any business, let alone tourists, to this remote industrial town. One young woman, a 25-year-old teacher named Justina, points out the Russian music still playing at Elektrenai’s lakeside cafe. It’s like a time warp, as if the winds of political change had passed Elektrenai by. "Why doesn’t the mayor do something?" Justina asks. Just as in the Soviet era, the people are waiting for a plan.

Capitalism requires more patience. The great European unification, after all, will come about by installment. There are still passport controls at the borders, and it will take years before the citizens of Elektrenai are spending euros at the local grocery store. A free labor market is a long way off. Noreika seems to grasp this — which is fortunate, because neither the Eurocrats in Brussels nor the mayor can match his influence in the town he has run for most of the last half century. I ask him how long he plans to keep working. "Till all three chimneys are smoking again," he answers, with a smile. It seems not even he knows whether he is kidding.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola