TALLINN — Rail Baltic was supposed to be a big joint project between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, among others, to build a European gauge railway network that would enable them to have connections with North Sea ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg. Now it seems the project has become a soap opera of petty bickering between the three former Soviet nations.
The drama caught fire again this week when Lithuania’s Transport Minister Rimantas Sinkevicius told a local news agency that if a decision is not made to include Vilnius in the Rail Baltic route, the whole project may collapse. According to the current plan, Rail Baltic would go through Tallinn and Riga, but in Lithuania it would make a stop in Kaunas, a town about 100 km away from the capital, Vilnius.
The statement upset Estonia’s Transport Ministry, which argues that stalling Rail Baltic could risk billions of euros the European Union would be willing to invest in the project.
“It was the wish of Lithuanian government for the route to go through Kaunas [instead of Vilnius],“ Estonia’s Transport Minister Juhan Parts said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He added that decision not to include Vilnius in Rail Baltic was made under Lithuania’s previous government, which was “constructive“, but when a new government was sworn in a little more than a year ago things changed.
“There are fools* in the Lithuanian government,“ Mr. Parts said. “When the new government came, they allowed themselves to be influenced by Lithuanian Railways. The Lithuanian government is wasting time.”
Lithuania’s Deputy Transport Minister Arijandas Sliupas doesn’t agree. He says it is Estonians and Latvians who are not willing to cooperate and are wasting time. Lithuania is just trying to protect their national interests. And why should Vilnius be left out if the other two capitals are going to be connected to the high speed railway?
“We’re friendly, and we expect the same friendliness from our partners,“ Mr. Sliupas said in an interview. “It’s not about a battle for Vilnius, it is about understanding the [Rail Baltic] project and friendship.”
Mr. Sliupas says the report that was put together to estimate the costs and benefits of the project was just a preliminary document. Now a new, more thorough debate about the route, costs and investments should begin, he says. Like Mr. Parts, he doesn’t understand why his partners all of a sudden are trying to stall the project by saying that Lithuania should finance its plan to connect Rail Baltic to Vilnius from a different budget.
“Riga and Tallinn will be connected to Europe and Vilnius will be left behind on the Russian gauge? Nobody moved the capital to Kaunas, and all the capitals have to be connected to the EU,“ Mr. Sliupas said.
Rail Baltic is part of the European Commission’s plan to upgrade more than 9,000 miles of railways to nine high-speed corridors linking ports and significant trade routes across Europe. Out of €26 billion ($34.9 billion) about 10% would potentially go to Rail Baltic, if the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania manage to come to an agreement and establish a joint venture company for building the railway. Rail Baltic is believed to cost somewhere around €4 billion, and the EU is willing to pay up to 85% of the cost.
*CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article quoted Mr. Parts as speaking of “idiots” in the Lithuanian government. He says a better translation of the Estonian word “jobud” (singular: jobu) is “fools.”