Valdas Benkunskas, an avid collector of vinyl records – the hobby of his musician wife Vismante too – and the new mayor of Vilnius, already knows the areas he will be focusing on as the new capital city broom very well: infrastructure, quality public services and a growing economy. “I feel that Vilnius could do better taking care of its infrastructure – strategic objects for entertainment, sports, business, mobility infrastructure such as roads and pavements, also – schools, kindergartens, and clinics,” V. Benkunskas told The Baltic Times Magazine.
You are not a novice in local politics - you've been deputy mayor of Vilnius City for six years, yet what prompted you to seek the post of Vilnius mayor?
I’ve worked as a Deputy mayor at Vilnius City Municipality for 6 years and served as a Member of City Council for 12 years in total. My experience through the years has allowed me to gain both the understanding of the issues in the city and the knowledge necessary to solve the problems we are facing. Thus, I felt like it’s time to give back to the city.
Initially, the polls were inauspicious to you, but you managed to surge in them in the final stretch, bagging victory in the run-off. Which stretch of the election was hardest for you and why?
Although it is my first time running for Mayor, it is not my first election. I have worked on previous local government elections and usually the most difficult stage of the campaign lies somewhere in the middle timewise – once the initial excitement of the campaign launch is gone and you begin facing fierce opposition and at the same time both media and the public are not that much interested in the ongoing process; it becomes more difficult to keep up the pace and the focus. Yet, our team has managed to maintain the intensity of the campaign and for that I am truly grateful and proud.
Who are the backstage boys who helped you win?
I definitely need to thank my colleagues from the Homeland Union, especially Andrius Vyšniauskas who has guided local campaigns throughout the whole country and my current colleague Deputy chief executive officer at Vilnius City Municipality Adomas Bužinskas for input in team making. And last but not the least – candidates who ran for the City Council. They have been a big part of the campaign and a huge help overall.
What do you personally admire about the outgoing Vilnius mayor, Remigijus Simasius, and your contender, Arturas Zuokas, who has already served as Vilnius mayor?
Remigijus Simasius raised the bar for transparent governing and I find it admirable. Arturas Zuokas is known for his ability to connect with people including city dwellers and strategic partners.
The Homeland Union, part of which you are, will have a majority in Vilnius Council, something Vilnius has never seen. What is your explanation for the party's success in Vilnius? And for the party's unimpressive performance in the provinces?
The Homeland Union is known for responsible right-wing politics with respect to human rights and Western geopolitical orientation. I believe that this is something that Vilnius residents have been longing for.
However, mayors in Lithuania tend to get reelected, therefore, in some areas parties with acting mayors running for office again were a bit more successful. Yet, the number of votes the Homeland Union received in total is quite a success in my view.
Do you have a plan for Vilnius? Can our readers have a glimpse into it? What will be your top priorities?
I believe that the city must excel in three areas: infrastructure, quality public services and a growing economy. Those will be my priorities.
Where do you believe Vilnius lags behind the other European capitals? And where does it score much better?
I feel that Vilnius could do better taking care of its infrastructure – strategic objects for entertainment, sports, business, mobility infrastructure such as roads and pavements, also – schools, kindergartens, and clinics. On the other hand, Vilnius has been growing rapidly in terms of investment and this is no coincidence – the city and its enterprises have been working on its image and favorable conditions for business. This must be continued; thus, our team plans to improve the business environment in terms of mobility, develop a conference center, a film studio, and also strengthen agencies in charge of investment, tourism and business promotion.
What do you find fascinating about Vilnius?
I mostly admire its ability to combine modern perspective while maintaining its historic uniqueness. Vilnius is such a colorful place – not necessarily in a literal way, but in terms of historic heritage, a growing multicultural society, diverse businesses and institutions. This is our biggest strength – turning our differences, obstacles and flaws into opportunities.
Vilnius County creates ca 60 percent of Lithuania's GDP. Is this something you marvel at or feel uneasy about? Why?
It is most natural for the largest city in the country to generate a high percentage of the country’s GDP as it is vast in the numbers of city dwellers, higher education institutions, qualified professionals and territories for development of necessary business infrastructure. The growth of its economy is the main condition that allows us, the Vilnius City Municipality, to improve the quality of living in it. And it is also beneficial to the other regions as funding of the country’s budget is directly linked to the value created and taxes paid both by the businesses and the consumers despite the region. However, I do think that the economic growth could be more even throughout different areas. At the time, Vilnius’ population is rapidly growing while that in other cities is shrinking. Therefore, we are facing the lack of staff and infrastructure to satisfy the need for public services of a growing number of residents.
What do you believe will be your biggest challenges in the mayoral office?
I expect to face the biggest challenges in the city development area. It is a challenging process because changes are usually met with reservations, and they do require some quality management of very different interests. All of us understand very clearly that Vilnius is growing. However, the growth must be accompanied by development of public institutions such as schools, kindergartens, clinics, sports and leisure infrastructure, convenient transportation links. In some cases, this is not an easy task as we are facing lack of state-owned land. For that, our team intends to work on private-public sector partnership projects as well as direct some funds to purchase estate. I believe that any issue is manageable as long as communities are prepared to search for consensus.
Who or what made you as the person, the man and the politician you are?
I’ve been mesmerized by politics since I was a child. For one thing, at the time Lithuania has been going through this incredible transformation into an independent, modern country. Like many of us back then, I was inspired by Vytautas Landsbergis who I have been lucky to meet and work with later in my life. Nonetheless, my aunt who was a politician in my hometown played a huge part in my career path. The work she did back then seemed like the most interesting job in the world. And I have to say – the assumption was more than right. I could not imagine a more rewarding career than the one I have. And finally – I must mention my wife Vismante who has been a huge example of devotion and a wonderful partner throughout everything, including this campaign.
You were born and raised in Klaipeda on the Baltic coast, were you not? How often do you reach it?
I was born in Klaipeda and raised in Silute. My parents still live in Rusne. I must confess, with a family of my own and the increasingly responsible roles I’ve been taking up, I have become a rare guest in my hometown, but I enjoy spending time there very dearly.
Talk about your family, please.
Last year was the most unimaginable time of my life with the birth of my daughter Agota Ona and the fight for Vilnius. My wife Vismante was an amazing support and a great friend through the good times and the bad. I could not be more grateful for her impact, strength, and wisdom as I could not always be there for my family. It is one of the greatest things in life to find someone you can rely on 100 percent; thus, I feel incredibly rewarded for having someone to rely on and being trusted to rely on.
And what are your hobbies?
I enjoy engaging in sports, especially paddle tennis, as well as watching matches as a fan. I also try to read as much as I can, visit cultural events, and collect vinyl records. With my wife being a musician, this has become a shared hobby and a superb way to relax at home.