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Megalomaniac Lukashenko: a walking economic and environmental disaster


Pavel Latushka, Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus and Head of the National Anti-Crisis Management, Ambassador

Lukashenko recently signed a decree establishing the Council for Strategic Projects with the aim of enhancing the planning, development, and implementation of strategic initiatives. However, it raises the question of what these specific projects are that necessitated the creation of another council under Lukashenko's leadership.

Former Minister of Economy Alexander Chervyakov previously announced seven planned strategic projects for the near future. Alongside the construction of a new nuclear power plant, Chervyakov mentioned the construction of a new pulp mill in Belarus.

It is worth noting that Lukashenko had already initiated the creation of a pulp and paper mill. While the project to modernize the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill and establish a new production of bleached sulphate pulp may not be comparable in scale to a nuclear power plant, the harm-to-benefit ratio for the pulp and paper mill could potentially be even worse.

A. Lukashenko on a visit to the Soligorsk pulp and paper mill in February 2020 Source: president.gov.by
A. Lukashenko on a visit to the Soligorsk pulp and paper mill in February 2020 Source: president.gov.by

The project to build a pulp mill based on the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill lasted for ten years and incurred a cost of one billion dollars. However, the construction was significantly delayed.

The Svetlogorsk Pulp and paper millwas initially scheduled to launch in 2016 but faced multiple deadline extensions, with completion finally projected for 2017. In 2019, the management of the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill commenced the process of terminating the contract with the Chinese general contractor. The reasons cited were violations of construction standards and deadlines, delivery of faulty equipment, and the emergence of a strong unpleasant odor near the plant. Furthermore, the general contractor refused to put the enterprise into commercial operation.

As a result, Lukashenko's regime severed ties with the Chinese investors, leaving a debt of $650 million to two Chinese banks. In mid-2019, the plant operated in a pilot mode with a utilization rate of only about 60%. The Ministry of Finance of Belarus partially repaid the debt owed to Chinese banks by the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill. Consequently, the construction of the bleached pulp plant rendered the Svetlogorsk plant financially unviable, as it had not shown a net profit since 2012. By early 2019, the company's total debt amounted to approximately $900 million, exceeding the value of its fixed assets.

The deadline for the full readiness of the new plant was subsequently postponed multiple times, and it was officially launched only in 2020. Nevertheless, even in 2021 and 2022, the plant operated at only 70% capacity. In the first ten months of 2022, the plant produced 220 thousand tons of cellulose, falling short of its design capacity of 400 thousand tons.

Soligorsk pulp and paper mill. Source: rynak.by
Soligorsk pulp and paper mill. Source: rynak.by

However, the economic issues faced by the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill are not the only concern; they are further compounded by the environmental disaster caused by the new production facility. The construction of the bleached pulp plant has significantly worsened the environmental situation in Svetlogorsk.

Following the plant's trial operation, local residents began complaining about unpleasant odors, difficulty breathing, nausea, sore throats, and vomiting. Local authorities and plant representatives acknowledged the emissions but attributed them to temporary issues associated with equipment adjustments during the process of reaching the design capacity. They emphasized that air samples did not reveal any exceedance of maximum allowable pollutant concentrations. However, calculations by the Belarusian Research Center "Ecology" indicated that concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and formaldehyde in the residential area of the city exceeded the maximum permissible levels by 60% to 96%.

The environmental problems are accompanied by safety concerns. In May 2019, plant employees shared photographs of a collapsed roof in one of the new workshops on social media. On July 30, 2020, a pipe containing a hot alkaline mixture ruptured during repair work, causing severe burns to two individuals, one of whom later died in the hospital. In October 2020, an explosion occurred in a tall oil tank, resulting in the death of a worker. Thus, at least two individuals have already lost their lives due to Lukashenko's strategic project.

Explosion at the Soligorsk pulp and paper mill in October 2020 Source: onliner.by
Explosion at the Soligorsk pulp and paper mill in October 2020 Source: onliner.by

Currently, a new project is underway at the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill involving the construction of a cardboard production workshop. The projected payback period for this project is ten years. Production was planned to commence this year; however, there have been further setbacks.

In general, according to Lukashenko and his officials, the production of cardboard packaging represents a breakthrough and advanced technology. The Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill exemplifies Lukashenko's approach to implementing strategic projects. It involves investing significant time and money into a megaproject, discovering that it does not function as intended, and then spending even more money to transform it into a super megaproject. Moreover, these endeavors do not prioritize mega-efficiency or super-profitability; instead, they entail mega-expenses driven by the megalomania of one mustachioed state farm "genius."

Recently, the press reported that the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill was fined 3.34 million rubles by the court of the Gomel region. The company is also required to pay a state duty of 33 thousand rubles. However, the illegitimate authorities, seemingly fearing public discontent, swiftly refuted this information.

Bellesbumprom, in addition to the refutation, stated that the company had indeed faced penalties in court, but solely for delayed compliance with environmental permits due to their expiration. Nevertheless, such explanations do not negate the problems generated by the Svetlogorsk pulp and paper mill in recent years.

But does this deter Lukashenko and his megalomania? No, quite the opposite. Lukashenko and his entourage are now preparing a surprise, not for the residents of Svetlogorsk, but for another Belarusian city.

Lukashenko at the BelNPP. Source: belta.by
Lukashenko at the BelNPP. Source: belta.by

Which Belarusian city will be "fortunate" enough to host another environmental and economic disaster? Only time will tell. Unfortunately, Lukashenko and the system he has established seem to have no other method of implementing "strategic projects" except at the expense of the people.

For every failure, this regime always has the same response. They construct one useless and costly BelNPP, not with their own funds? Let's build another one! They build one unprofitable and hazardous project that endangers people's health and lives, again not with their own money? Excellent, let's take out a loan and build another one!

The only measure of "progress" in all these mediocre ideas is Lukashenko's growing megalomania, which the entire country suffers from.

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