Two-time former prime minister still irks incumbent

  • 2011-02-23
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Many had considered that the 53-year-old Gediminas Vagnorius, one of the architects of independent Lithuania, after a vivid political glare back in the 90’s, followed by retirement, has faded, leaving a distinct but forgettable trace. Contrary to the sheer majority of once-bright-political-stars-turned-plain-names-in-the-history-books, Vagnorius has made a stunning political comeback, muzzling the most vociferous critics, including the incumbent Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. “I find a great deal of support in the ruling Homeland Union-Christian Democrat Party (HU-CDP), though its leader Kubilius has not spoken to me for a long time,” Vagnorius shrugs. Ten years ago, expelled from the party and ostracized by most conservatives, he didn’t stumble. Today, his recently established Christian Party (CP) shows much robustness, threatening HU-CDP’s hegemony for the key slot on the political right. Vagnorius, an economist by profession, twice PM when leadership mattered most for this fledgling country, signatory of the March 11 Independent Act of the Republic of Lithuania and chairman of the Christian Party, while touring Lithuania in a bid to introduce his new book “State’s creation – mission (im)possible,” kindly agreed to an interview with this The Baltic Times’ correspondent.

Without any exaggeration, you are one who has already made history. Do you wonder how people remember you?
(grins) People probably remember me in different ways. For some, I am probably famous for my attempts back in the late ’90s to keep the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP) running. For others, perhaps, I guess, I am known for vagnorkes, or, otherwise speaking, vouchers named vagnorkas after my name which were, after immobilizing Soviet rubles, but still before introducing litas, Lithuania’s temporary currency. Some, I can just assume, may remember me as the premier who considerably increased teachers’ salaries.

Do you still believe that the vagnorkes were the right thing?
Oh, yes, I do, without any doubt. They helped to secure the Lithuanian market. Besides, they helped us cope with the Soviet and Russian economic blockade back in the early ’90s.

Throughout 1996-1999, as premier, you firmly stood for keeping the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant running, arguing that, politically, it was not in Lithuania’s interests to give in to European Commission (EC) demands to close it down while alternative energy sources were not available. When you resigned, the successive governments’ position changed radically, giving in to the EC’s urges. Do you still think it was a mistake to close the plant’s first and second nuclear blocks?
No doubt, it was! The decisions after my retirement have been adopted because of some politicians’ lack of integrity, unwillingness and incapability to defend Lithuania’s core interests. Back then, the European Union had not determined that the INPP was unsafe. Therefore, it did not put the demand to close it down on the table. My government did not agree to commit to closing down the plant for political reasons, not in 1997, nor in the beginning of 1999. On the contrary, we succeeded in talking the EC into letting us operate the plant’s first block until 2015-2020, and the second one until 2020-2025. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was on our side, supporting our position on the nuclear plant’s safety. Regrettably, due to a lack of statesmen mentality, Lithuania had to commit to closing down the plant. Obviously, our interests had been severely damaged. Unfortunately, even today, we have not inched up noticeably in solving the issues of energy independence.

After stepping down from the political stage in the late 90’s, you could self-rewardingly plunge into academic research, or lecture future economists, as most other Lithuanian political notables of the era did. However, you have shown much personal and political perseverance, making a rather surprising comeback to the political stage. What do you like so much about politics?
To be honest, I have not planned to come back to active politics. However, I have never been completely away from it. Only last year, did I come up with a decision to exert more effort in my comeback. I did so not in order to seek a new political career - I was instigated by numerous political mistakes, political indifference and a gripping sense of the state’s belittling, all of which often show a lack of administrative skills in our government.

Your eventual comeback to the political stage coincided with your excessive spotlight in the daily Lietuvos Rytas. There is a strong rumor that it, traditionally opposing conservatives, has significantly helped you pave your way back to politics, hoping you will considerably weaken the Conservatives. Can you reveal how much, money-wise, the creation of the Christian Party cost you, as well as your public relations campaign?
I disagree with this notion and the formulation. I do not think that the daily is somehow related with the creation of our party and my personal boosting. To tell the truth, I maintain that Lietuvos Rytas publicizes much more about other parties. When it comes to coverage of our party, we were mostly highlighted for our anti-crisis program, which was the first of its kind in Lithuanian politics. By the way, the Confederation of Industrialists has met it very favorably, as well as other business institutions.

After your expulsion from the Homeland Union-Christian Democrat Party, you established the Christian Conservative Social Union (CCSU), which failed to gain any political strength, leaving you behind the political stage for nearly ten years. However, the ascension of your founded Christian Party was rapid and robust. What was the secret of its success? What did you do differently?
I disagree a bit on the assertion that the CCSU was a failure. We gathered 3 percent in the polls in the 2009 European Parliament elections. The result, in terms of our resources, was quite satisfactory. I want to explain a few things before answering your question. Back in the ‘90s, when the Homeland Union-Christian Democrat Party shifted to the former president Valdas Adamkus’s favorite, Rolandas Paksas, in protest, I was against the move, which resulted in my expulsion from the party. Sometimes I think I may have made a mistake back then. Maybe I should have waited a bit longer before charging at Paksas and the party. Furthermore, the Conservatives later acknowledged that Paksas was not the leader they were looking for. [Eventually, in 2002, Paksas left the HU-CDP and founded the Liberal Democrat Party, currently known as Tvarka ir Teisingumas - Order and Justice]. To reply to your question, as the chairman of the CCSU, I admit to having made one crucial mistake, which was a refusal to criticize my former colleagues in the party, as well as to compete with them in elections. As you know, as the leader of the Christian Party, I do not shun criticizing the HU-CDP.

With the HU-CDP, Tvarka ir teisingumas [Justice and Order] and Liberalu Sajudis [Liberal Movement] positioning themselves as rightist parties, do you have a niche in the right wing?
Before starting out my political career, for nearly ten years, as a scholar, I had scrutinized many different economic models and systems. Therefore, unlike other politicians, when it comes to a model, I can very clearly define which one is conservative and which one is social democrat or another. Today, I can firmly state that both Lithuania’s conservatives and liberals have repudiated traditional principles of fiscal conservatism and liberalism. The parties often implement ultra-left economic principles that have nothing to do with real conservatism. Today, the Christian Party is probably the only party that strictly follows the principles of traditional fiscal conservatism.

What do they pertain to?
They pertain to labor motivation, economic growth, proportional tax system and encouragement of private initiative. Briefly, all that triggers a state’s growth. As the chairman of the Christian Party, I stand for strict embodiment of the principles, and I urge my party members to comply with the doctrine. Besides, we do strictly abide by Christian principles, perceived in the context of European Christian parties, and we urge our party members to do so.

Let me check with you on several controversial issues, even for traditional Western European Christian parties. What is your approach towards abortion?
It is similar to that of German or other West European Christian parties – it is moderate. We do perceive civilization’s signs of the times; however, maybe most often silently, we support the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue. Practically [speaking], we respond to society’s needs, therefore, we refrain from aggressive rhetoric on the issue.

Your party’s outspoken member, Rokas Zilinskas, is openly gay, avidly supporting gay rights. Does his attitude correspond to the Christian Party’s policies on the issue?
No, it does not. What he says in regards to the issue are his personal beliefs, not the party’s official stance. In fact, recently, after the European Parliament’s (EU) condemnation of the Lithuanian parliamentarian’s legislative initiative to criminalize promotion of homosexual activities, we have voiced our strong disagreement with the EU’s interfering with our legislative process, and we put it clearly, as far as the marriage institution is concerned, that it must be between man and woman.

However, obviously, Zilinskas does not follow your instructions on the issue. Does it not create some awkwardness and contradiction?
I have to admit, it does create a certain problem. Furthermore, he has pledged to us to keep his sexuality as a personal matter, and not to speak about it publicly or, in any way, promote it.

Do you still harbor any grudge against the Conservatives and its leader Andrius Kubilius? Do you find a lot of support in the HU-CDU? Do you see being in a political coalition with it some day?
No, I do not bear any grudge. On the contrary, I maintain good business relationships with the Conservatives’ patriarch Vytautas Landsbergis, and many other outstanding Conservatives. To be honest, I do not have any relationships with Kubilius for one simple reason – he shuns me. Probably he feels some inferiority complex. I can just guess what kind it is. I am not looking for any friendship with him, but such a hostile stance, frankly, creates certain problems. For example, last year, when negotiations were going on over our party’s possible joining the ruling coalition, no one managed to get him behind the table – somebody else represented him in the talks.

Well, I can grasp his position, as your party, definitely, will chip off a slice of the Conservative electorate’s polls in elections to come…
Maybe. However, I do not justify such animosity in any way. On the contrary, I see our party collaborating with the HU-CDU in the 2012 Seimas election. In a long-term prospect, I see our parties working together in a coalition. However, I think party leaders will have changed by then.

What would you have done otherwise if you had been head of the government after the crisis broke out at the end of 2008?
The crisis has many similarities with the Russian crisis’ inflicted aftermath in the late 90’s, when I was behind the then-government’s wheel. I am not boasting, but then Lithuania coped with the crisis quite easily, as my government implemented classic market methods upon these kinds of economic hardships. In short, we encouraged consumption by raising minimum salaries and pensions, lowered interest rate levels, got rid of some taxes, and boosted credit. If I had been premier in 2008, I would have done the same. By the way, all Western European countries have successfully applied the measures. Regrettably, Kubilius has done everything to the contrary, significantly reducing consumption and worsening the situation in the country.

Does your anti-crisis program covering the objectives receive considerable support from the ruling Coalition, especially from HU-CDU’s rank-and-file?
Oh, yes, it does a big deal, as it pertains to classic principles of the market economy and Western conservatism. As I said, only its top leaders disapprove of it.

How many seats in the municipal council elections are you eying? What election outcome would satisfy you?
Nearly 1,000 of our candidates are to square off for the seats. Since our party is new, we have induced certain difficulties while compiling the candidate listings. Nevertheless, we managed to make them in 40 municipalities, which I consider a good thing. The Christian Party aims to win seats in at least 20 municipality councils.

Some political scientists point out that your Christian Party, like Tvarka ir Teisingumas with Rolandas Paksas, and the Labor Party with Viktoras Uspaskichas, is built solely on one person, i. e. you. Is this not a shortcoming?
Oh, no, this is far from being true. Maybe some people see it that way because of my high profile. However, we do have a strong core consisting of many professionals. They are those I count on, particularly in the regions.