Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 2

Lithuania is a country without natural resources. Once, many hundreds of years ago, it was a huge nation that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Now, it is the size of West Virginia, but without the advantage of that state's coal.

Even after its first unit was shut down in 2004, the Ignalina nuclear power plant supplies 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity. But as a condition for entry into the European Union, this old Soviet-style, Chernobyl-like reactor must be shut down in 2009. The decision has been made, and the plant will close, and thousands of jobs in northeastern Lithuania, where jobs are exceedingly scarce, will be lost. Not only that, the cost of electricity will skyrocket because the options are not many: Buy electricity from Russia or build a new reactor, at a cost of perhaps $18 billion.

Joining the European Union will be advantageous to Lithuanians, but painful as well. They have become accustomed to pain. The official unemployment rate is now down to 4 percent, but that figure is deceiving. In Lithuania, if you own a cow, which many families do just for the sake of survival, you are considered a farmer and thus employed.

The employment picture is better, though, because there are fewer people now. Massive emigration has depleted the population. It's estimated that among the young and educated, one of every four has left the country since independence in 1991.

What they've left is a beautiful landscape, verdant, and spotted with lakes of crystal-clear water. Driving through it, knowing something of these peoples' troubles, it makes your heart ache.

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