Being in politics, to many politicians, means the almost unavoidable entanglement in the roller-coaster of political shake-ups, turbulence and turmoil. However, Eugenijus Gentvilas, a geographer by profession, one of the founders of the Lithuanian Republic Liberal Movement, Klaipeda ex-mayor, former member of the Lithuanian Parliament, Signatory of the Independence Act, ex-member of the European Parliament, and currently the Director of Klaipeda Sea Port, is simply someone who doesn't know what it means 'to lose' or 'to resign.' The Baltic Times sat down with the lucky man for this interview.
Only a few Lithuanian high-profile politicians can boast such a smooth ride on the high seas of politics. Are you a skilled captain?
Indeed, I can't complain about my life. Am I just a lucky dog? Maybe. I would rather think that when luck strikes once or twice, it's a coincidence, but if it accompanies somebody permanently, there's something more than just simple luck. What would it be? Personal virtues, knowledge, professionalism. Does it mean that I always tend to avoid shake-ups in my daily life? No. I've just probably developed a virtue of dealing with them.
It's human to have ups and downs. Where do you usually look for consolation or solace when you are down?
I deal with my 'downs' by voluntarily 'plunging' into self-imposed solitude and take a stroll in a forest; I own six forests on the outskirts of Klaipeda. When I feel really bad, I go to a forest, grab an axe and keep swinging it around for a couple of hours. It helps to cheer one up. When it comes to larger scale work, I take a saw. A forest is like a sacred place for me. Last year, I took my family and friends, in total 26 people, to one of the forests to meet the New Year.
In a luxurious dacha?
Oh, no. I don't have one. I don't own even a shabby cottage. What for? On New Year's Eve I went to the forest, I cut down dry trees, dragged them away, cleaned up the site, then took a hammer and nails and made benches and tables to cosily accommodate the people. At the end, I built a bonfire. When the guests arrived, it was hilarious to see their jaws dropping in surprise. We all had a wonderful night there!
You seem to portray yourself as a very modest person. However, you have always been widely recognized as a leader. Did you discover the characteristics of leadership as a member of Komsomol at the Soviet school in Telsiai, your birthplace?
When I was at school, my mom worked as a teacher there, so I had to join the ranks of the Komsomol. Otherwise, I would have put my mom's work in jeopardy. However, probably to a full extent, my leadership was revealed already at university, where I was appointed Chairman of the Students' Trade Union. Without doubt, my traits blossomed when Sajudis, the national movement for change, started. It felt good to talk straightforwardly and openly. Before going to the first free election of the Lithuanian Parliament, Sajudis' candidates were given ratings, and I scored very high. It was then when I felt that I could be somewhat of a leader.
You seem to be able to successfully work in different fields. Which of these activities do you enjoy most?
It's hard to tell. Back in late '80s, I was considered a promising scientist. Politics is a real roller coaster and I always enjoyed riding it, but starting with the period of 2000-2004, I became disappointed with it. It was the time when ideas were pushed aside and sacks of money for promoting certain ideas by certain politicians were thrown in the political campaigns. That was when I decided to run for a seat in the European Parliament.
And you did successfully. However, I have the impression you never enjoyed working thereâ€¦
That's right. In the mid-term of my tenure, I told myself honestly: "I don't like it here." Why? The European Parliament doesn't have much effect on trends of the European map. The European Commission and European Council are the ones to shape Europe's economic and political life. I never liked being a 'static' politician, without the real possibility to influence ongoing processes. In those terms, I prefer an activity where I can see results. Being an ordinary member of Klaipeda's council or mayor, I can generate much better results than being a member of the European Parliament.
Your appointment as the director of the Port Authority, some openly suspect Eligijus Masiulis, the Minister of Transport and Communications, the one you brought to the peak of politics, of favoritism.
Let's be clear: I have not been appointed by [this person] you mentioned; I won the competition against four other candidates. Honestly speaking, one of them, to my mind, was even more qualified than me, but his English failed him. When finishing my tenure in the EU, I decided not to seek re-election and returned to Klaipeda. When that became public, Masiulis suggested for me to participate in the election. This is how much he 'helped' me. I should not be portrayed as someone who has no understanding of the port [operations] and its' needs. I headed the public council at the Sea Port Expansion Board when I was Klaipeda's mayor. It irritates me when I read that Latvian seaports are doing better than the port of Klaipeda. Back in 1995, when I was mayor, I suggested establishing a free economic zone, but encountered stark opposition. Only in 2002 was it established, but many opportunities had been missed.
As the Sea Port Authority's director, you receive a lot of publicity for your decisions regarding layoffs and cut-offs. Are these changes because of an economic necessity, or because of your perpetual strive for change, to shuffle things around?
I am dissatisfied with the inner management of the enterprise. The administrative apparatus has been unnaturally inflated. I've just signed orders to lay off ten out of 130 upper level white-collar workers; also, I have decreased the number of structural subdivisions, from 23 to 13. Salary cutbacks are underway. These measures are needed to restructure the work of the state enterprise and they have nothing to do with my personal traits.
The Sea Port has had a more than 15 percent drop in cargo transit within the last six months, compared with Latvia's Ventspils port transit, which dropped by only 0.5 percent; Tallinn edged up slightly. Does such data put a lot of pressure on you? Do you blame Russia for the decline?
Have the previous governments and Ministers of Transportation and Communication done everything on their behalf when it comes to Klaipeda Sea Port? Have they passed necessary ordinances allowing the deepening of the [harbor], in order to let in more and bigger foreign ships? No. If it's not done within a year from now, I will personally take the blame for the declining results. So far, we haven't experienced any trade hindrances from the Russian side, but there's a lot of unpredictability. Also, I want no one to forget that Venstpils cargo consists of almost 80 percent oil products. The same with Riga port where transit of coal makes up 55 percent. The market trend [today] is that sales of natural resources, such as coal and oil, are now boosted. Klaipeda, compared to Ventspils or Riga, is not specialized in the transit of such products. We are more diverse. With fluctuations in the market, trends might change at any time.
Under the right circumstances, would you consider returning as mayor of Klaipeda, to go for something you always strive for?
I don't have such a bid now. However, I might think about it after the municipality election in 2011. Let's see what happens