Controversies over the rebuilding of the palace in Vilnius

  • 2011-03-16
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

OLD-NEW: The patio of the palace of Lithuanian rulers.

VILNIUS - On March 8, a group of intellectuals handed to Culture Minister Arunas Gelunas a petition demanding the completion of the rebuilding of the National Museum - Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania - as soon as possible. The petition was signed by 769 rather well-known persons, including artists, heads of science institutions, and leaders of Lithuanian communities in other countries as well as Lithuanian celebrities such as Edita Mildazyte, who is the famous anchor of the public TV charity-related shows. The signatures were collected quite speedily – it was done in two weeks. The palace’s reconstruction in the heart of Vilnius caused some controversy during the last decade and its rebuilding almost stopped due to legal issues this year.

The palace was finally ruined after Lithuania’s independence was liquidated by Russia in 1795. A decade ago, the idea to rebuild the palace was supported mostly by the rightist MPs. Later, Algirdas Brazauskas, leader of the Social Democrats, started to take personal patronage over the rebuilding, and then the rightists and intellectuals close to them started to criticize the rebuilding, mostly due to the fact that rightists and leftists almost always are hostile to each other, at least in public. As was usual with Brazauskas, he was under suspicion of doing his patriotic deeds, also taking care of the financial benefits of his friends’ companies. The media reported about the allegedly intentionally overpriced palace’s construction, using mostly state money.

On Feb. 9, prosecutors were questioned by MPs about it during the hearings in the parliament. “Usually the cost of expertise is one percent of the object’s value,” Darius Raulusaitis, deputy prosecutor general, said, stating that the legal expertise would cost 2 million litas (580,000 euros). It is unlikely that the state authorities will be willing to pay such a sum. The question is whether to allow the construction company Panevezio Statybos Trestas (PST) to continue to be a contractor in rebuilding the palace. The skepticism about this company was also obvious from the Economy Ministry, led by Dainius Kreivys, who resigned on March 8, some hours after the Chief Official Ethics Commission, an independent collegial public institution in charge of the control of adherence to the standards of institutional ethics and conduct, stated that he had a conflict of interest in another business and public procurement-related affair.

Kreivys also complained about the shadowy pressure on him over the public procurement related to the palace’s rebuilding. His friend, Zydrunas Plytnikas, director of the Office of Public Procurement, was also rather suspicious over the earlier palace rebuilding-related public procurement process. All dirty stories around the public procurement even forced the government to start developing law drafts similar to the U.S. so-called sunshine laws, according to which all the visitors with interest in the public procurement process should be registered, and their talks in the government buildings should be recorded.

Actually, it seems that the real author of last week’s famous Kreivys memorandum about public procurement-related illegal influences was Plytnikas, while Kreivys was rather a censor of that memorandum, deleting all the corruption-related facts where the members of the ruling Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats were involved, according to Paskutine Instancija, Lithuania’s TV3 program of investigative journalism. The memorandum states that PST offered Plytnikas 100,000 litas, later 200,000 litas and finally a house in exchange for cooperation in the public procurement related to the rebuilding of the palace in Vilnius. PST would be just a middle size Lithuanian construction company if not for the contract for the palace’s reconstruction. PST denies all the accusations of a bribery attempt.

“The financing of 16 million litas is appointed for this year. The discussion is going on not about financing. It is about legal issues. A change of contractor would mean a delay in the work. It is important to finish the construction of the palace by Lithuania’s presidency of the EU in the second half of 2013,” Gelunas said, adding that “it is not good to keep construction work going in the very center of Vilnius for so long.”

Earlier this year, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said that the palace should be rebuilt without delay. She also said that the state-owned palace’s halls are vital for the coming Lithuanian presidency of the EU, because the renting of conference halls in the privately-owned Litexpo exhibition center would be “10 times more expensive.”

The palace was one of the most important European places during the times of Vytautas the Great (who ruled in 1392-1430), when the pagan Lithuanian empire firmly expanded over the lands of the Christian Orthodox Eastern Slavs (now Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians) up to the shores of the Black Sea in the south and up to Moscow city in the east and, when in 1397, Lithuania proper decided to adopt Catholicism as its state religion. The palace was also quite a center of European history when Alexander, of the Lithuanian Gediminas-Jagiellon dynasty, became the grand duke of Lithuania in 1492 (he also became the king of Poland, then one third the size of Lithuania, from 1501–1506) while his brothers ruled the kingdoms of the Czechs and Hungarians (the latter then also included Croatia, with its Adriatic shore) and his sisters were wives of rulers of such German states as Bavaria, Saxony and Brandenburg. There was no fair public procurement in those times and, unfortunately, it seems that not much has changed since then. Anyway, the palace should be rebuilt – it is a matter of national honor.