'A party is more than just personalities'

  • 2004-09-22
  • Interview by Milda Seputyte
Petras Austrevicius is widely regarded as the individual who literally lead Lithuania to the European Union. He tried to take his popular rating and experience as former chief negotiator with the EU to last summer's presidential elections, but only finished third. Undeterred, Austrevicius, 41, is taking another shot at a political career this autumn, as he will head the list of candidates from the Liberal and Central Union in the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections.

You do not belong to any party, yet you have decided to run in the parliamentary election on the Liberal-Centrist list. Why this particular list?

My journey to the Seimas [Lithuania's parliament] began with the presidential election campaign. I have to admit that during the campaign I was supported by the Labor Party and the Conservatives; however, my decision to join the Liberal-Centrists was determined by ideological principles.

I made a few attempts to consolidate center-right forces. Despite various discussions with the Christian Democrats, the Conservatives and the Liberal-Centrists, we failed to achieve an agreement, and therefore we are running separately in the elections. I have chosen the Liberal and Center Union because they underwent party unification, and now they represent a center/right-wing tradition. These are young, ambitious people who associate their future with long-term perspectives. And the program itself, which has been revised during our negotiations, is in establishing a vision for the center/rightwing in Lithuania.

However, according to the latest opinion polls, Lithuani-ans do not vote for an ideology or platform, they vote for personalities. And you are a top candidate for a party that has enlisted people allegedly involved in ongoing corruption scandals. How would you comment on that?

Now we are exposed to additional questions from society such as "who" and "why." Alas, we have to admit that the current situation in the country is a combination of unnecessary politicking and perceptions. The institutions that were expected to issue sound judgments provide us with hasty, biased information. I don't think we should rely upon the prejudiced judgments yet. As for me personally, I shall trust the reasonable and legitimate resolutions of legal institutions.

Since the Liberal and Center Union did not hesitate to enlist some of these people on the candidate list, this shows that it maintains confidence in them and is giving them an opportunity to prove their innocence 's what they claim to be.

A party is more than just personalities 's ideology also plays a big role. In this case, I defend the ideology.

What are the most important principles of the Liberal and Center Union program? What does your slogan "for a Lithuania that is good for everyone" imply?

We have to create a society where people can feel politically, socially and economically secure. Our vision is to create a country that provides opportunities for a person to work undependably, so that the person himself can arrange better living and working conditions.

Certainly, if we don't solve the problems of temporary unemployment and other problems, we won't be able to tackle the problems of people who are better off. However, this shouldn't be the only aim. More importantly, the state has to design the best conditions for the people to continue progressing. Encouraging people to work, inspiring them to be competitive and ambitious and willing to win in a fair competition, should be one of the main goals of the state. [The Liberal-Centrists] can achieve this while amending some tax laws. People are motivated to work when taxes do not limit their initiative.

Moreover, we have to work on reducing regional imbalances. Otherwise, we will have Lithuania camping in a few different social economic bases. Certainly, a state divided into regions of hope and despair does not promise much.

Finding an instrument to tackle these problems and [to help Lithuania] become a competitive country in the EU is the most important principle of the Liberal-Centrist program.

How do you intend to transform the country's upbeat macroeconomic indicators into appreciable benefits in everyday life?

First, we have to maintain the high economic pulse, which should be higher than that of any average European country. Lagging behind 's with Lithuania averaging only 46 percent of the average European economy [in terms of GDP per capita] 's certainly can't be tolerated for long, especially when we have open markets at our disposal. Otherwise, we will encounter additional tension, more economic migration and a downturn in economic development due to a lack of labor.

Regional imbalances remain a serious concern. An effective tool would be to establish a national fund on regional development. The funds could help municipalities reduce the feeling of socio-economic exclusion. Europe has demonstrated some excellent examples in similar economic situations that we can use. We have to implement reasonable tools to avoid unwanted migration from rural to urban areas and from the cities to other countries.

A universal response to social exclusion would certainly be a well-paid job. We need a new approach in policymaking in order to provide opportunities for education and employment. The only tool to combat social exclusion is employing people near their places of residence and providing efficient education.

We have to be more resolute with our decisions 's expecting prosperous changes just because we are a member of the EU won't change the situation.

Most political opponents and political analysts regard the Labor Party as a threat to Lithuania. How concerned are you with this new political force?

The Labor Party is a phenomenon of present-day Lithuania. It did not appear suddenly or unexpectedly; a certain political niche was left vacant for such a force. But no matter how badly the Labor Party program is criticized, it has a lot of positive elements. Generally, they speak about the same public welfare; they don't speak about seceding from the EU. Just the opposite 's they speak about implementing European funds, and so on.

However, when they start speaking the language of numbers, it becomes difficult to remain calm. Generally, making economic forecasts is a risky matter. Raising hopes that most frequently fail when some numbers are exposed as future indicators is populism. Unfortunately, one may find a lot of such numbers in the Labor Party's program.

Yet these numbers appeal to society. It is also pleasant to associate oneself with a person of the future who has a good income.

Unfortunately, as an economics expert, I know that the economy is a whirlwind of varying conditions, and no reliable economist would agree with Labor's numbers. Moreover, the Labor Party has not yet been tested in a position of power. State governance is more then just a political program; it also requires an ambitious team capable of accomplishing it. Mr. Uspaskikh is a strong politician with strong communications skills, yet there are very few standing behind him that could become agents in materializing his party's vision.

No matter how beautiful the vision appears to be now, we'd like to see a real plan of [the Labor Party's] actions and the individuals implementing [its] thoughts.

Most likely none of the political parties will garner enough votes to form a ruling majority in Parliament. Who would you make political compromises with, and who would be your partners in a ruling coalition?

The government will surely be a coalition. The choice of the Liberal-Centrists will be determined by the popular attitude to the model of a reliable European center/right-wing party. Certainly, the Conservatives are our number one partner. Still, I'm not sure whether the coalition of two partners would be large enough to form a strong parliamentary force. We might have to invite others too.

Our second choice 's one suggested by the Conservatives 's could be a wider "rainbow" coalition. This is quite possible. We are open to those parties that are ready to make political compromises. Here I am speaking about the Social Democrats and Social-Liberal coalition of [Prime Minister] Algirdas Brazauskas and [Speaker of Parliament] Arturas Paulauskas.

Is there a party that you could say a strong "no" to?

We are not considering a coalition with the Labor Party because it is still difficult to define the party. Moreover, there is little chance that the party itself could make certain political compromises.

The Liberal and Central Union is regarded as a traditional party in Lithuania. Yet the word "traditional" has a negative connotation for the biggest part of the Lithuanian electorate. How would you interpret the situation when people are more eager to trust the populist, and traditional parties are more often associated with a "power-gang?"

Everyone is expecting quick economic improvements. We spoke so much about the EU in the pre-enlargement period, and a lot of people have seen the world while traveling, so that we have been exposed to a large scope of great expectations, all associated with a more prosperous lifestyle. The question is when will these more prosperous days come? No generation wants to leave it for the future. As a result, some political forces have taken advantage of this situation, emphasizing that the rapid economic growth has not brought adequate changes in the quality of life. Some people have a feeling of being robbed because prosperity is even disappearing. These are excellent conditions for social economic populism, yet we are not the only ones facing the problem.

I believe we will continue being exposed to these great expectations for another 10 years, until [the Lithuanian economy] reaches the margin of 65 percent 's 75 percent of the European average.

How do you regard the parliamentary scandal as a whole?

I think most would agree that it would have been best for Lithuania to have avoided the scandal. Unfortunately, we continue jumping back and forth in strange events; we have witnessed prejudiced opinions and, moreover, the drama itself is taking too much time.

Secretly tapping telephone conversations for such a long time is not the best solution in combating the threats of corruption. If there are enough bases for suspicion, one ought to act strongly while avoiding breaching the presumption of innocence and transparency. And more importantly, legal investigations must avoid impacting politics. I don't think all of the principles were implemented in the case; therefore it was a strong blow to the reliability of the institutions.

Society and politicians will have to a pay a price to return confidence and reliability to the authority of the institutions.