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Welder-turned-millionaire readies for top prize

  • 2012-05-30
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

As smug and boorish Viktor Uspaskich, euro-parliamentarian and chairman of Lithuania’s Labor Party may appear to some, to others he is charismatic, outspoken and very bright. In fact, judging from the polls giving the party  solid leadership in the pre-election season, the latter opinion may outnumber all the grunters, who are exasperated by the welder-turned-multi-millionaire-and-rugged-party-boss character. His hazy ascent to power is amid accusations of his party’s shadow bookkeeping. Last week, Uspaskich sat in an EP session in Strasbourg and hurried back to Lithuania afterward for signing a collaboration agreement in the upcoming parliamentary elections with Seimas’ other opposition parties, those that are most likely to form a new ruling coalition. The Baltic Times correspondent sat down with Uspaskich for an interview in his Strasbourg office.

On the Lithuanian stage, you are, excuse my language, a loud mouth, but in Brussels, just a mere bystander, who has submitted very few resolutions and  legislation drafts, compared with other Lithuanian MEPs. Do you reckon it makes no sense to speak out in Brussels?
You have quite a strange perception of what makes a good and bad europarliamentarian. Speaking of EP resolutions, heaps of them are drafted and submitted every day. In fact, they go off the printing press by the ton; it is physically impossible to track all of them. To tell the truth, a good deal of them are useless. Second, those that I support and put my signature on do not usually appear as my contribution to the official EP statistics. Believe me, when I find it necessary to speak out on the EP floor, I do so. I am not one of the MEPs who strive to see their names under as many EP papers as possible. In fact, I’d call some of them hypocrites, who do whatever it takes to be in the limelight of the media. There are numbers of such attention seekers both in Brussels and the Lithuanian Seimas. I am not of this kind. Besides, with the numbers of different issues being discussed in Brussels, no one grasps everything, so it makes sense often to keep one’s mouth shut.

Your Labor Party has kicked off the electoral campaign early, with a tour across Lithuania. Was it your idea to start it off before anyone else?
A serious party’s serious leader has to think of the next election the next day after an election. Otherwise, you cannot even dream of having a good result. That is the tactic we’ve taken: the earlier, the better. Therefore, we appointed the head of the 2012 Seimas election campaign two years ago, when no other party had done so. We also adopted our party’s strategy for the elections. Basically, we are just following it now.
 
However, the party’s foundation rests exceptionally on your personality. No wonder the Labor Party is called a single-person, i.e. your, party. It’s hard to believe you haven’t weighed in on the program…
Indeed, I’ve spoken out in regards to its core provisions. But, for the most part, it has been set out by specialists in different fields. When they stitched it up, I just looked through it and asked to redo several things. And I really don’t like the Labor party to be called as a single-man’s party. Just think of this: could its participation in Seimas, municipal and presidential elections have been successful if the party were, as you say, a single person’s entity? Surely not.

However,  the party is all about you.
Well, is there anything wrong with that? Tell me any party in the world that wouldn’t be identified with its leader? Can you imagine America’s Democrat Party without Barack Obama, or Germany’s Christian Democrats without Merkel? I can’t. Such a party’s identification through its leader is a normal thing in the rest of the world but Lithuania. When my rank-and-file calls me a “steam train,” I am proud of the moniker.

What do you believe your party’s blast-off, to the top of most polls, to be about?
We don’t lie.

Are you saying other opposition parties do?
In a span of 22 years of independence, the Labor Party has been in power, together with the Social Democrats, only for one-and-a-half years, to be exact, from 2004 until the middle of 2006. Even without heading the government, we were able to execute many of our electoral promises, like increase the pension, from 372 litas [per month] in 2004 to 800 litas in 2008.

I really doubt whether it’s a merit you can chalk up to your party. Those years mark rapid growth in the economy and, as the 2008 crisis has shown, sometimes unwise, budget-wise, allocations for social care.
Well, the economy doesn’t grow on its own if there aren’t appropriate conditions stimulating its growth. Do look back at what we’d done then. I mean the reduction of income tax, the increase of the minimum wage, as well as the social benefits and, most importantly, the increase of domestic consumption we spurred.

The Labor Party hasn’t shaken off the litigation stemming from, presumably, a shadow bookkeeping of its accounts. However, it seems not to have affected the party’s standings in the polls. How do you explain that?
Thank God that it hasn’t affected, and doesn’t affect, the standings. On the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me:  the public understands that the criminal case against us has been made up from the very beginning. For some reason, with the trial going for over five years, many serious charges, for example fraudulent financial activities, have been dropped as only very few accusations of improper bookkeeping are left. Even if they manage to prove the latter, the party bookkeepers who took care of the accounts should be held responsible for the transgressions, not the party leader. One should think of this: when the Seimas bookkeepers were caught embezzling parliamentary resources, it didn’t occur to anyone to charge the Seimas chairwoman with wrongdoing.

You’ve assumed the same defense as all politicians who happen to brush past the law. Don’t you think the biggest problem due to this stance is the public’s disdain at criminal justices, which is lately highlighted by the Garliava pedophile drama?
You should address that question to others, not me. On the other hand, do you reckon the public to be so goofy and naive not to discern who is who, and what is behind the things?

It is possible the court will announce its verdict in the Labor Party finance case right before the elections. How are you going to stave off the fallout from a last-minute presumably adverse verdict?
I don’t think about this. Let them announce the verdict whenever they want. The timing is important neither to me nor to the party. If they follow world practice, the bookkeepers have to be held in charge for these kinds of things.

But you are also facing the charges, which means you can be sentenced…
Well, the court first has a very uneasy task: to prove that Uspaskichas has put his hands on the party’s ostensibly non-transparent accounts. If they dare to penalize me, it will be, most likely, a fine. Sure, I will pay it.

And what happens if they put you behind bars? Furthermore, the European Parliament has stripped you of your parliamentary immunity.
It’s not true. The EP has only allowed Lithuania to proceed with the judicial proceedings against me. There was nothing mentioned of my sentencing. If the court ventures to imprison me, Lithuania will have to address the EP again for permission to do so.

Or there’s another way to escape the bars: elected to Seimas, you are seemingly to form a new ruling coalition which, of course, wouldn’t strip you of your MP immunity…
Let’s wait a bit and see what will happen. I’m sure you will see the outcome as well.

In any case, it seems unlikely you will have to flee to hide in Russia, something you did in 2006 after the news of the Labor Party shadow bookkeeping news broke out.
Mister journalist, you are talking crap and messing up everything terribly… To remind you and everybody, I’ve never fled to Russia to hide myself from anyone, including the Lithuanian criminal justices. Indeed, I did go to Russia in 2006 after my brother died in a fire in our family house. Throughout the stay, I hadn’t been approached by Lithuanian prosecutors in any way. It is strange you haven’t heard that before.

But you stayed there one-and-a-half years, not two months!
I stayed as long as I needed.

Speaking of dodging court orders, the Garliava pedophilia drama has gone beyond the law, entangling parties and all politicians. What side of the barricades are you on?
Neither. I don’t participate and avoid being linked to events which, for a bunch of people, serve as a political stage at the expense of the child’s health and wellbeing. Alas, the Lithuanian reality is such that there are a lot of children who are being beaten, raped and uncared for, but who, unlike the girl in Garliava, haven’t received any help. Whatever angle you take, there have been obviously a lot more politics than child rights in Garliava. 

If nothing extraordinary happens, you are likely to form, with other opposition parties, a new government after the elections. Did you agree with Algirdas Butkevicius, the Social Democrats’ leader, who will assume the prime minister’s post?
Let’s wait for the fall first. However, I am ready to become the new government’s prime minister. And let me tell you this: I will be the best and most effective prime minister Lithuania has ever had. We’ve agreed that the leader of the party, which will garner the voters’ biggest support, will stay at the wheel of the new government. Butkevicius, I have to admit, would also make a good prime minister.

What are three jobs you are to take on first in the capacity?
First, we’d raise the minimal wage up to 1,200 litas and hike it till 1,500 litas from 2013.

That sounds like election bait! The national budget is too tight for it; I am sure you know that.
No, you’re wrong, or maybe too brainwashed by the talk of the incumbent prime minister and his finance minister. Believe me, that wouldn’t cost as much as they estimate. In fact, I’ve spoken to business; entrepreneurs agree already now to raise it up to 1,200 litas. The measure would automatically regulate a volatile market.

How?
We’d see less pay off the books and a lesser volume of the shadow economy.

However, the trade-unions stand for a more moderate increase, to 900 litas. Are they also fools?
The bottom line is none of the government ministers have created a work place. They do not grasp the simplest things of how economy works.

What would be your second job as PM?
We’d set up favorable competitive conditions for entrepreneurs and industrialists, who are involved in producing a significant part of the state’s accumulative output, i.e. who earn hard currency in foreign markets and who compete with imports in the domestic market. The third, immediate job would be creating new jobs.
When it comes to taxes, we’d reduce them first for those who earn hard currency in the markets. However, some taxes will have to be hiked.

Undoubtedly, you don’t feel any fascination with the incumbent PM, Kubilius. However, you have to credit the government for not putting Lithuania in a position similar to that of Greece.
And we have to credit it for the massive emigration, shrunk domestic consumption, high unemployment and desperation as well. Don’t we? As a matter of fact, Kubilius didn’t hold off the 2008 crisis. What he in fact did was borrow. No big brain is needed for that. Fortunately, being unable to create anything, he did quite well in putting the whole nation on a starvation diet, sincerely convinced that this was the only way to get through. No doubt the damage of the policies will cripple him and his party in the upcoming elections.

Will you pursue the implementation of the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant project if you end up at the wheel of the new government?
First, I’ll have to make sure myself that the project is economically reasonable. It won’t take me long, as I’ll have to take a look only at a few numbers. Now it seems the government is in a desperate pursuit of achieving energy independence, making Lithuania dependent on other countries’ financial input into the project for many years to come. It’s not the way we all have to go. Speaking of nuclear safety, the future, with possibly two other nuclear power plants near our borders, promises nothing good. If they blow up, they will blow all of us up, regardless of whether we have our own nuke or not. If Lithuanian politics with the neighbors had been smarter, we may have avoided the risk. Now I am afraid it’s too late.