VILNIUS - A construction free-for-all on Lithuania's natural wonder 's the Curonian Spit 's has in recent weeks sparked infighting among local officials, a ministerial resignation in Vilnius, a protest by residents and even a possible death threat against a park director.
Inhabitants of Neringa 's what Lithuanians call the Curonian Spit 's held a protest on March 11 to bring attention to what they are describing as "a population genocide carried out by the Protected Territories Service and the Curonian Spit national park directorate."
Protestors said they were also angered by the failure of national authorities to repair the main road between Nida and Smiltyne and the insouciance toward fishermen's plight in Juodkrante, one of the four towns in Neringa.
The picket was also supported by the Neringa municipality.
"Until now decisions were taken in Vilnius offices 's without asking the opinion of local dwellers," said Mayor Vigantas Giedraitis. "I hope that locals will be heard during the picket, and [the protest] will help understand the needs of Neringa inhabitants better."
Deputy Mayor Arunas Burksys said that locals are afraid they might lose their jobs because of EU projects regulating the territory, which is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Two EU-related regulations will force Lithuania to set up a "biosphere polygon" in the Curonian Spit and abolish the use of traditional fishing nets for local fisheries.
Aurelija Stancikiene, the head of the Curonian Spit national park, claimed that the protest was a reaction to her efforts in fighting illegal construction work on the pristine pine-and-sand-dune territory.
She said that her institution is flooded by complaints from people who eagerly want to build something in the area, which is a major tourist draw not only for Lithuanians but for Germans and Russians.
"It totally paralyzes the activities of the institution 's inspections and investigations are going on constantly. We can hardly keep up with answering the papers," Stancikiene complained.
She even added that she was recently threatened, albeit indirectly.
Stancikiene said she had found a burning candle and a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums 's a sign of death in Lithuanian folklore 's by her window on March 9.
"I have been threatened for almost two-and-a-half years now since I took up the position," Stancikiene told the Lietuvos Rytas daily, adding that she was threatened in telephone messages and followed by automobiles.
In her opinion, the protest and the flower-incident are related to the park directorate's recent conflict with a former advisor to the newly appointed environment minister, Arturas Paulauskas.
Rolandas Zujevas was asked to remove a wagon in Juodkrante. According to Stancikeine, he replied with an angry outburst and by organizing the March 11 protest.
Paulauskas implied that former connections will not stop him from fighting against illegal construction.
"It is strange that these things came to light only when I became a minister. But I am somewhat happy that my arrival encouraged officials to be more principled in their work and expose those infringements. The laws apply equally to everybody," Paulauskas said on March 7.
The government's strategic planning committee, presided by Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, met on March 6 to discuss a compromise in court proceedings involving Curonian Spit building permits (or lack thereof). Court cases have dragged out for years, and so far only one case out of 35 has ended successfully for prosecutors.
Prosecutors are demanding that buildings erected in violation of the Curonian Spit's general plan be demolished.
Meanwhile, former Environ-ment Minister Arunas Kundrotas pointed out the fact that the former and new general plans for the spit set different requirements.
"There's one very important aspect 's relation of old and new Curonian Spit plans. They are very different, and that raises serious problems," the former minister said March 7.
Following his resignation on Jan. 8, Kundrotas and Kirkilas then claimed that intense lobbying pressure on behalf of construction interests on the Lithuanian seaside resort was one of the main reasons for the official's departure.
"There is always pressure involved when talking about construction at the seaside, and withstanding this pressure is not easy," Kirkilas said in a Jan. 8 interview on Lithuanian National Radio, adding that there were forces seeking control over the seaside.
Kundrotas has persisted in his calls for "bulldozer politics" and razing illegally erected buildings.
The present environment minister, Paulauskas, fears that a wrong decision would result in lawsuits that could create millions of litas of losses 's much of it straight out of the Neringa's municipal budget.
"If a court decision was adopted ordering the demolition of a building and that building was demolished, institutions which issued authorizations could face legal claims," said Paulauskas.
Therefore the minister is proposing a sort of peace agreement as a way out. The idea has found support among businessmen. In 2007, the firm "Sabonio klubas ir partneriai" presented a draft peace agreement to the Neringa council.
"We think that it would do good to agree peacefully in order to avoid expenses of municipality and state. A government decision would be a basis for agents to start negotiations on the peace agreement's conditions," Gintaras Cerniauskas, a lawyer, told the TV news program Panorama.
However, Curonian Spit park directors said that construction in Preila by the firm "Sabonio klubas" involved too many violations that can't be legitimized by a peace agreement. Park directors believe that only a few pending cases can result in a peace agreement.
The prime minister did not reject peaceful agreements as an option but also referred to negative opinion of lawyers.
"There are two alternatives: one is to continue the cases in accordance with all laws, and another one is to look for posibilities of peaceful agreements. Lawyers are essentially against the latter, saying that we will set inappropriate precedents in this way," Kirkilas said on March 6.
An NGO "Zveryno bendruomene" called on the president, prime minister, prosecutor general, parliamentary factions and other organizations to prevent any attempts to legitimize illegal construction. The head of the organization's legal committee, said such a precedent would have implications far beyond the tiny Curonian Spit.
"These intentions violate the fundamental legal principle 's it is an attempt to justify a violation of the law instead of eliminating it," Paulius Markevicius was quoted as saying March 10.
He also noted that UNESCO should be concerned since by accepting "peace agreements" the government is essentially legitimizing activities that are destroying the spit's heritage.