Determined to transform Vilnius into the premier East European hub

  • 2005-11-30
  • Interview by Gary Peach
One thing is for sure about Arturas Zuokas 's he loves to talk about Vilnius. Get him started on the subject, and he can ramble on for hours 's construction, population density, the "power of two" project. He has no shortage of ideas and enthusiasm for the city under his tutelage. A conversation with the Vilnius mayor, one of Lithuania's most influential individuals, tends to drift toward national politics and partisan scandals, as The Baltic Times learned last week while talking with Zuokas in his high-rise office.

How could you describe in brief your long-term plans for Vilnius?

Three years ago our City Council approved a strategic plan for 2020. The vision is that Vilnius should be the most modern city in Eastern and Central Europe. We promoted Vilnius as a city with a very good geographical location, because in a 300 kilometer radius around Vilnius there are 16 million inhabitants. Three hundred kilometers - this is nothing even by car!

So that the past three - four years we have been promoting Vilnius as a hub for business activities. If you're based in Vilnius, you can do business in Riga, Minsk, Belarus, the Kaliningrad region, and part of Poland.

And more and more international companies are choosing Vilnius as their hub. (smiles) No more Riga as the center of the Baltic states!

Yes, there is even talk of combining parts of their city administrations.

But this idea came from Vilnius because it is part of a project between Vilnius and Kaunas - we call it the "power of two." We united Vilnius and Kaunas' municipal activities, and even now have joint strategic planning. We already have an official committee consisting of both cities' councils, and the two cities no longer compete with one another in Lithuania. We united our strengths. And we are trying to compete with similar centers in Europe. The GDP of the Kaunas and Vilnius regions is equal to that of Estonia.

So why should Vilnius be the region hub? [Because] Tallinn and Helsinki are together in the north, and [smiles] Riga is just a border zone between Tallinn and Vilnius.

But at the same time, there are also some smart people in Latvia who are trying to make Riga a regional hub.

If you take the same 300-kilometer radius around Riga, you will only have 7.9 million habitants. Because a large part of that radius is in the Baltic Sea, and there you're only going to catch sprats. (smiles)

Right now we are working on the idea to use the Kaunas airport as the main Lithuanian national hub. The Vilnius airport will remain the international city airport. We are promoting this idea in the national government. If the prime minister supports it, Kaunas will become the region's main international airport and transit hub. We could even compete with Copenhagen.

Do you think the Vilnius and Kaunas airports together will serve more passengers than Riga sometime in the future?

No doubt about it. And Siauliai residents will no longer choose Riga as their airport, but Kaunas. The Kaunas airport has lots of possibilities to grow - it's a huge territory and in a very good location.

What is the situation with residential construction? What will you do with the old Soviet housing?

We've created a special program - "Let's renovate old homes - and you renovate the face of the city." This program is based on a few principals. First, there are subsidies from the city budget to the local communities. Plus, some money will come from the national level, and the rest from private banks. We've just signed agreements with the banks, and they will give loans to the housing communities for 15 or more years.

From the city's side, we are preparing a special project for each building and helping create a better surrounding for each building - better parking, playgrounds, trees, etc. We've done one building so far, but there will be one more soon.

Riga has some good examples of this as well - they've worked with German companies on renovating Soviet buildings. To destroy them is very complicated - they are privately owned, and people normally do not want to leave their buildings. It is very difficult to get 100 percent approvals. It took us more than one year to get all the signatures for that one building. But now that we have an example, it'll be easier [to convince the rest]. They [residents] only pay 60 litas (17 euros) per month, but they'll get new windows, renovation, new roof, new parking spaces, electricity, water, sewage. They will pay less for heating and increase the value of their property.

Anytime there is a construction boom, with new buildings going up, there is a risk that the old buildings will be overshadowed. UNESCO has issued Riga a warning already and has expressed concern about Vilnius' Old Town. How do you deal with this?

This is more political talk, in both Riga and Vilnius. It's very easy to say "no," but to say "no" is not an argument. The people who say "no" - those who are against a [construction] project - they always do it in a loud way: letters to UNESCO, protests, etc. But in reality, many people support these changes. According to our polls, 75 percent of people support our construction [plans].

Of course we should protect the Old Town - no doubt about it - we have strict regulations for the Old Town. You'll never see modern construction in that part of the city. But that doesn't mean we can't develop a high-rise building or something like it on the other side of the river. It would be crazy not to do this!

Why, in my opinion, is there often all this negative activity in cities that have heavy investments? Because for someone this negativity is advantageous. It's good income. Local construction companies use the community to stop a competitor. But from the other point of view, it is always good to have active citizens. It's good for the city administration, or me as mayor, to have active citizens. Because very often they are right. So it is good to have someone to say "no" - because that "no" can be a good start for discussions.

The other boom taking place alongside construction is with the number of cars. And with the economy expanding, this number is only going to grow - even though the streets aren't getting any wider. What are you going to do to tackle this problem?

We are investing a lot in our city's roads, as well as public transport. Priority number one is public transport. We are in the process of planning two tramlines together with international partners. In the near future, we will invest - together with the national government and the European Union - some 1 billion litas in the next three years. But of course, it's not possible to avoid traffic jams. Right now we're only talking about reducing the amount of time spent in traffic. If we can reduce it by 10 minutes, that is good.

From another standpoint, we should look at city development in general. Vilnius covers a very large territory. We have as much territory as Paris, but the [population] density is 10 times less. Our citizens have cars because they have to travel so much 's to school, work, the center. So right now we are rethinking the concept of population density. We would like to increase it in the center 's excluding the Old Town. The idea is you should have everything you need within walking distance. In this case, if you could have a cinema, theater, kindergarten, shopping center, work within a 10 's 15 minute walk, you won't use your car.

But this is only in the discussion phase 's it hasn't been approved yet. We would like to approve our master plan for the city next year.

We are also trying to regulate where investors create jobs. From the Soviet period we inherited a situation where on one side of the river we have 70 percent of jobs, and on the other side 70 percent of residential spaces. This is why people have to cross the river several times per day, and this creates lots of traffic problems.

Any plans for a subway?

No. Trams, yes. Two lines, with a possible third later on. A subway is too expensive.

How would you characterize the situation in the Liberal Centrist Union, the party you head?

From the side, it doesn't look good. Several prominent members have left.

It can't be explained in one or two sentences. But I think it is normal because every country has similar situations, not just the Liberal Centrist Union. For example, the situation five years ago in the Conservative Party 's when two groups split away from the party: the previous Prime Minister Vagnorius, and he established his right-wing party [Moderate Conservatives 's ed.], and Andrikiene, who is now a member of the European Parliament, who also formed a party [Homeland People's Party 's ed.].

Sometime only such a solution can help. It's not that people have different ideas, or values, but they have egos 's "I would like to be a leader!" Okay, you can do this, but if other members of the party don't support you, what can you do? You can either stay in the party or create your own. This is very popular in many countries, not just in Lithuania, like Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

This brings us back to the Conversatives 's what happened to them five years later? They united! Again! Because what is important today, in one or two years, will hold less importance.

But you've lost some talented people - Petras Austrevicius, Algis Kaseta 's people you would want on your side. How do you make up for that loss?

(smiles) Like I said, some people have big egos. But I still think that we'll work together in the future, because our way of thinking is very similar. And our values and understanding of politics is very similar.

Sometimes you should go your own way and try things by yourself. Maybe later then, it'll be clearer how a party is run. But to create a new party is not easy, because you have to work a lot.

How do you rate the Liberal Centrists' chances in the 2007 parliamentary elections?

We are the strongest party in Lithuania on the local level. We have 13 mayors, including the main cities 's Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda. We hope to have 10 's 15 mayors after the next municipal elections, and we can do that because we have strong local leaders.

But the situation is not easy, because we have strong principals. Very often, especially me 's it is my character 's we say what we don't like, what isn't fair. And this creates a lot of opposition. But we should always raise complicated questions. And the citizens have the right to know the answer to these complicated questions. Particularly right now in Lithuania, when it is fashionable to work on the populist level, especially serious parties. What the Conservative Party is doing right now in Lithuania is the same as the Labor Party. It's only populism. Politicians say something just to get in the papers or on a TV program. But tomorrow, they'll do nothing to realize their ideas and instead look for another article or TV program.

The Baltic Times supported you during your scandalous re-election campaign two years ago, when Vilnius was left without a mayor for four months.

Thank you.

But don't you think that mayors should be directly elected by the people, not city councils?No doubt about it. This is what European countries do. In Poland they changed the law two years ago, and now mayors are elected directly. The thing is, all the parties support this idea, but it won't happen.

Why not?

It's a great example of how politicians say they support something but do nothing to realize it. Because it is easier for Parliament to control mayors when they are not elected directly. The second reason is that direct elections would be good for us, since we have strong local leaders, something the other parties don't have. The third reason why we need direct elections is because pressure on mayors from city councils, business groups, is very strong. It is difficult to strike a balance between the public interest and business.

As leader of the Liberal Centrists, how involved are you in national politics?

[smiles] Too much. This is probably the cause of all my problems! Because as mayor of the capital, I'm too active in national politics.

We raise hard questions all the time to the prime minister and the government. And we should. We're very active in the Mazeikiu Nafta privatization. We raise questions about laws that don't look very balanced, that don't take it in the public interest.

Lithuania is now rocked by a scandal involving the prime minister's family. What, in your opinion, should Algirdas Brazauskas do? Should he resign? After all, the country's number one asset 's Mazeikiu Nafta 's is up for sale, and this is not a time for questions about personal integrity.

In reality, I find myself asking: Why has this scandal arisen now? Because the privatization of the Draugyste [now the Crowne Plaze hotel that is controlled by the prime minister's wife 's ed.] finished 10 years ago. Even [Andrius] Kubilius [the Conservative leader who is leading the calls for a probe in the Brazauskas family business 's ed.] has been prime minister since then, and he could have asked prosecutors to look into it. And there've been other prime ministers.

I can say who this scandal is good for: Viktor Uspaskich, the previous minister of economy. Because now he has as much power as before; he has a lot of influence on the prime minister, and he sits at the table where the Mazeikiu Nafta sale [is being discussed].

I see the situation as quite dangerous. Because in my opinion, it's very complicated for the prime minister to remain in his position.

Do you think he should resign?

I don't think it's a good time. In my opinion, he should stay, and he should finish next year's budget. He should stay until the end of the Mazeikiu Nafta sale.

If Kubilius knew about the hotel while he was serving as prime minister, why didn't he do anything? Why is he trying to discredit Brazauskas now?

It's populism. It's the best way to increase one's popularity. It's easy if you have no responsibility.

But to give Kubilius the benefit of the doubt, there is reason to be concerned about Lukoil, a company that is infamous in Russia for not playing by the rules. After all, Lukoil was instrumental in Russia's decision to cease crude oil supplies to Lithuania some eight or nine times in 1998-99 as a means to pressure the country not to sell Mazeikiu Nafta to Williams International. So isn't it natural to want to know if one of the assistants of Lukoil CEO Vagit Alekperov was cutting deals with Kristine Brazauskiene?

This is one way to explain Kubilius' actions. But in my view, in the view of a big business, there is no such thing as a good company. There is a good contract, and there are good guarantees. We should focus more on the contract, and not the company. For example, why aren't we taking the proposal from Kazakhstan more serious? They proposed the best price. They have oil. They'd like to be separate from the Russian oil industry. This is very interesting 's why not? And then someone says, "This one's bad, this one's good." That's not professional. Williams [International] was also good-looking, but look what happened to them in the end.

Do you think the president did the right thing by asking the law enforcement agencies to investigate the prime minister's family business?

It's the only way to solve the problem. If there is something wrong with the [hotel] privatization, then only the authorities can give a quality answer. I supported the president's position.

At the same time, the president spoke not too long ago and asked a couple people to resign their political offices, but neither one did. (Zuokas smiles.) Looking back, do you think you made the right decision? Do you think the president was wrong to ask what he did?

Of course the president has the right to express this view. What the president said at the time was important to me as a person. But he was not right. And time will tell who made the mistake. And I'm sure there'll come a time when the president will admit that he was not right.

It's very easy now to say, "This is bad" 's "This is corrupt." Sorry, that's not the way of a democratic country. Some people say [to me], "You should play as a Western politician." I say, "Okay, I'm ready. But why are you using Russian methods against me 's using the media, business groups, tapping my phone?"

I'm a journalist by profession, and I'm doing a study of politics from within. And in the future I'll write a book about it.

I'll be the first to buy it.

(smiles) But I think it's time that you move the paper to Vilnius. I'll find a good office for you.

Sounds good to me. I'll pack my bags as soon as I get back.