By Andrius Sytas
PANEMUNE, Lithuania (Reuters) - A barge carrying equipment to help Baltic states access Europe's power grid passed under a bridge between Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave on Friday, as the former Soviet republics seek to end their reliance on electricity supplied by Moscow.
Border guards from both countries looked on as the vessel laden with a 164-tonne crate called an auto-transformer chugged past, tilting slightly under the weight.
Thirty years after splitting from the former Soviet Union and 17 years since joining the European Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia still depend on Russia to ensure stable power supplies.
"We deal with the Eastern neighbour - you never know what can happen," Energy Minister Dainius Kreivys told Reuters on Thursday in Klaipeda port, as the auto-transformer was loaded on to the barge.
"For this reason, we are installing this emergency system now just to be sure that we are secure."
A 1.6 billion euro ($1.94 billion) project financed by the European Union aims to disconnect the Baltic states from Russia and Belarus in 2025 and connect them to the decentralised power system of continental Europe.
But Lithuania wants an insurance policy in case Russia cuts off power earlier, potentially causing blackouts. The auto-transformer would allow Lithuania to link up to the continental Europe grid immediately, Kreivys added.
"If the Eastern neighbour cuts us off - we will be able to get help from Western Europe," he said.
As the Baltic states decouple from Russia's power grid, the territory of Kaliningrad - home to the Russian Baltic Fleet and a deployment site for its nuclear-capable Iskander missiles - will be cut off from Russia.
Late last year, Russia launched the last of four gas-fired power plants it hopes will make Kaliningrad self-sufficient in electricity, part of a 100 billion rouble ($1.35 billion) project funded by dividends from energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft.
Final terms of the power system divorce between Russia and the Baltics have not been finalized.
"The negotiations will be tough, so we should be prepared," Kreivys said.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Mike Collett-White)