VILNIUS - Following a brilliant fireworks display on New Year's Eve, the Vilnius European Capital of Culture (VECC) project has been crippled by a wave of attacks on the organizers and setbacks in budget and transport.
The year, which was long anticipated as the new awakening of Lithuania's capital, has instead been marred by incompetence, a huge budget cut and the collapse of major sponsor and transport carrier FlyLAL.
To add insult to injury, the organizer's accounts have been seized by the Economic Crimes Investigation Department and handed to the Prosecutor General's Office (PGO) to determine whether funds were misused.
Lithuanians were shocked when news reports showed comments by the organizers of Linz, Austria, Vilnius' sister culture capital for 2009. The Austrian organizers blasted Lithuania saying the budget, which has been cut in half from 105 million litas (30.3 million euros), is not befitting of a European Capital of Culture.
Even before the major cuts in funding, Vilnius' budget was only 43 percent of that of Linz, which has around 70 million euros.
Some observers have urged caution when comparing the figures, however, as basic services in Lithuania are often markedly cheaper than in Austria, lowering the costs significantly.
Despite this, the Linz organizers said it is a bad start to the year.
"This move to lower the budget has weakened the image of Vilnius Capital of Culture and that of Lithuania. People want to know 's can we trust Lithuania? We feel solidarity for our colleagues in Vilnius because good work has been done there, but you cannot start asking fundamental questions [regarding] funding cuts," Martin Heller, the artistic director for Linz Capital of Culture 2009, told The Baltic Times.
"The title was given by the European Union and it is the right of every country to represent itself with one of its cities 's but the recent events show insecurity and instability and this affects the way that the culture event is executed," Heller said.
"There has been good work in the build up to the start of the event, but a lot of that was risked by the budget cuts in the days before," he said.
INSULT TO INJURY
On top of dwindling funds and lack of support from the private sector, from which Linz gathered a large percentage of its funds, the PGO is compiling two separate pre-trial investigations against the organizing committee for embezzlement and misappropriation of property.
Director Elona Bajoriniene was unsure about the outcomes of the investigations and the conduct of her staff, but told TBT that her own conscience is clear.
"Well, I don't know [how the cases will go], but I am confident in myself that all my moral conduct [is sound]. What I did in this job was done with the biggest effort to do it in the best way. I am absolutely sure of myself," she said.
While the PGO could not disclose the individuals under investigation, it told TBT the two crimes under investigation 's the embezzlement of property and the misappropriation of property 's carry maximum jail terms of seven and 10 years
"They have to prove that 's they [the complainants] just have the contacts and are making their own conclusions without seeing the whole picture and documents. They are making a mess without knowing the situation. It is quite a dangerous thing when you have to prove you aren't a thief," Bajoriniene said of the complainants, despite the Ministry of Culture initiating one of the cases.
Bajoriniene said everyone is targeting the organizers because of their high profile in the country.
"Our office is transparent as never before in the country 's the best of all institutions 's and we are the target of all possible investigation institutions. We are absolutely open to discuss all documents and all cases and every single decision 's why it was done like this and not like that," she said.
She thinks that the process, while uncomfortable, will benefit the country in the long run.
"This will influence all public life afterwards. There are lots of unclear things in cultural processes and how to allocate funding. It's important for our country, this processâ€¦ We are having an independent financial audit, but this is a normal procedure," she said.
FlyLAL, one of the major sponsors of the VECC, recently filed bankruptcy and is also under investigation for suspected criminal activities associated with its failure.
Following legal disputes with its competitors, FlyLAL became the only major carrier at Vilnius International Airport. In its absence, only a few connections to the country are possible via carriers that fly from Frankfurt Am Main or Amsterdam. There is not even a direct flight to London.
Bajoriniene said it has been yet another blow to her team.
"This is really sad news for us and mainly because of the bankruptcy of the company affects the accessibility of Vilnius. Our government is working a lot in order to change the situation in the airport in order to get more flights from the spring season with other companies," she said.
If it had to happen, however, she said now is the best time.
"We really do hope that this will change in a few months. In fact we didn't expect a lot of visitors or tourists in wintertime. As a rule, spring, summer and autumn show our climate and history of our capital and make the events interesting. If you look at our partner capital, Linz, they also don't have many visitors," she said.
Heller was more pessimistic and said it was one more nail in the coffin for VECC.
"It damages the reputation of the country and poses questions of stability. It also just makes Lithuania harder to get to, but I don't know if this creates more problems than the government's action," he said.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Despite a shaky start and cancellations, Bajoriniene said the program was going ahead as planned.
"The program is going really well because all of the main planned activities except a few were and will be implemented. We have calculated the number of visitors and participants and it is really encouraging 's starting with the 200,000 Vilnius residents who participated in the opening. About 20,000 people already used the ice rink in the town hall square. Other events like concerts or theater are all sold out. It is nice that people are interested in the programmed events," she said.
"The response is seen in attendance 's if we look at the press, there is talk about funding and controversial discussion, but the content of the events is all good," she added.
The chief organizer hopes others will learn from VECC's mistakes.
"This is a lesson for future capitals of culture because we are already too late to change. There are some additional challenges because of the crisis, but [we are] thinking about long term strategies and keeping promises. [We are] not canceling events on the eve of events that have been planned for years."
"Currently we are discussing of all parts of funding. Every day we have different ways to reduce the program in such a way that would still be possible to have the whole program as it was foreseen," Bajoriniene said.