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“Sadly, in Lithuania we vote with our feet, not hands”

  • 2013-08-31
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Septuagenarian Social Democrat dignitary of the Act of the Re-Establishment of Lithuania’s statehood, and now an MEP, Justas Vincas Paleckis, who extends the family tradition of statesmanship (his father Justas was a prominent Communist in WWII and postwar eras) today is mostly preoccupied with the issue of the formidable emigration from Lithuania. This summer he has been touring the country, meeting the party’s grass-roots as well as ordinary people and introducing his new book: “I will (not) emigrate! Why did I choose so?” This agile politician stalwart kindly agreed to sit down and take The Baltic Times’ questions.

Why does emigration matter so much?
Because its impact is huge and, perhaps, irreversible. We all here have shrunken to the status of a less-than-three-million nation… We do not only experience the brain drain that we’ve always accentuated, but also, when it comes to voting, we see that we’ve been doing so, illustratively speaking, not as much by our hands as by our legs - decamping for a better life. The statistics purport that, every day, Lithuania loses more than hundred people, who leave for the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain and Germany. Usually, and not temporarily, to earn some money there, but they move there with their entire families, villages and town districts.

Is unemployment to blame for this?
Not only this, in fact. Other things, like lack of respect for a person, many employers’ efforts to squeeze out all the sap of their workers and the trade unions’ impotence to curb this are among other things to consider. And there are a whole lot more things making our people pack up and leave the country, like the education system, mired in the experimental search for the best system, and even the former government’s confrontation against our closest neighbors. All this incites our people to search for a better life in a safe country elsewhere. One that respects its citizens and takes care of them.

The book is a compilation of schoolchildren’s compositions about emigration. What surprised you most in them?
The bluntness and sometimes really hard and unpleasant replies on why people want to leave, or have already left Lithuania. However, there were more young people who looked at the future optimistically and often questioned themselves, asking: If it’s not I to stay and make a change here, so then who will? The texts, for the most part, are left unique and very little is edited. The winners of the composition competition went to Brussels last autumn, by the way.

The European Parliament is gearing up for a new election next spring. Is the mood already “hanging” on there?
Yes, it does, indeed! As the EP autumn parliamentary session is about to start in a few weeks, all the euro parliamentarians are excitingly looking forward to it, as well as to the time left until the election. It is really very important what political parties will foray into the parliament in May next year.

How does it look from today’s perspective; what parties have the best chance to clinch seats?
It’s really very hard to tell now. I can just hope that there will be a larger presence of Social Democrats, also liberals and representatives of the Green party, both of which have proved to be our political allies.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a major novelty in the upcoming EP election, that the parties that will get the EP seats will be able to present their candidates for the post of president of the European Commission.
And the party that will rack up the majority of votes will be entitled to insist that its candidate is nominated as EC president. If the Socialist Party will garner the most votes, its candidate for the post will be the current EP President Martin Schulz.

Will you run for the MEP seat again?
No. I have decided not to run. After spending ten years in the parliament, I told myself it is enough, and let the youth try it out.

Have you decided what you will do after you leave Brussels?
(Grins.) In fact, I have some well-thought plans I am eager to take on. Perhaps you know that by profession I’m a journalist, so I want to wade into the realm again. Honestly, I cannot wait for the moment I can sit down at my computer, free of any commitments and busy schedules and pour my memories out onto the screen.

I am looking forward to picking up that book. I am sure you’ve got a lot to tell.
I really do. During the period of EU membership, Lithuania has been living through an entirely new period of development and history, which guarantees it yet an unprecedented security. However, not all the possibilities EU membership gives have been used until now. Especially when it comes to tackling the social disparity.

The line between political right and left in the West is very distinct, but it is obscure in Lithuania, you have to agree. Why is this so? Perhaps the right, to some extent, are those people who reckon the Lithuanian Social Democrats and the Conservatives are more alike than different?
I cannot agree with that. There are, sure, evident differences. Since the Social Democrat Party is really open to all views within the party, there is a big variety of opinions in it, from very liberal to more modest and restrained ones… For the example, speaking of progressive taxes, which could be the differing line between the two ideologies, the Lithuanian Social Democrats have written it into its program, but it is very hard to pursue the implementation of the pledge under the current circumstances.

Why?
Well, the fledgling middle class would be harmed, journalists included, who, no doubt, would take their vengeance against the party. But this will have to be done. But not now, some time later.

Why then are the Lithuanian Social Democrats so conservative on a range of social issues, from abortion to gay rights?
Well, some of the party members indeed are, but they are a minority, compared to the Conservatives’ opposition to the issues. I really see our Social Democrats being, on those issues, a whole lot more progressive. On the other hand, Lithuania has not yet been completely imbued with the ideas as in the Western countries. In that sense, sure, our Social Democrats are more conservative in comparison.

Statistically, Lithuania falls behind Western Europe in voter turnout at election. Is there any way to turn it around in Lithuania?
(Sighs.) It is really a big lag and a minus of the political life in Lithuania. I always keep repeating one thing: the less people vote, the worse people come to power. As a rule, when there is a small turnout, it is always possible to impact in certain ways the outcome of an election. This is a really good question as to what could incite a larger participation. But it is very hard to come up with a definite recipe. I believe it should be every party’s and every political establishment’s objective to spur the election turnout rate.

Do you see any candidate able to throw down the gauntlet against the incumbent president, Dalia Grybauskaite?
It is hard to tell at this point. I just wish there were several candidates capable of that. But our president, I believe, is not vulnerability-proof. Sure, she [Grybauskaite] has done quite a lot, but she has some weaknesses.

What are they?
Well, first of all, her obvious orientation to the political right.
Particularly lately. I really believe what she’s doing is a very non-presidential thing. A president has to be as much neutral as possible to all political parties. I also don’t like the assertiveness she exercises. A president has to be a conciliatory figure, sort of a go-between person. She is far from being that person.

Do you believe she stands any chance in the EU Presidential election?
Frankly, I believe she doesn’t. I know some speculation on that have surfaced already, but she has a minimal chance in succeeding.

With nearly a year past from the 2012 Lithuanian Parliament election, the ruling Social Democrats enjoy incredible public support, at 29 percent at a recent poll. What is the explanation for this?
Indeed, it is a very pleasant surprise. Usually, a year or so after an election the winning party’s support drops significantly. In this case, I attribute the success to a number of Social Democrat Party’s stalwarts who always tend to score well in polls. I believe people feel that Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius is a very open, sincere and good-natured man. And as everything comes in comparison, perhaps the people see themselves that he does not have a tiny bit of the arrogance and the I-know-everything attitude that his predecessor [Conservative Andrius Kubilius] had. Look, he acknowledges his shift in opinion on some issues. But this comes to him very naturally, as if underlying his human nature. Other Social Democrat leaders, like Juozas Olekas and Vytenis Andriukaitis - the latter has exerted Sizif-like efforts in overhauling the current health system - also are very strong and have deserved people’s confidence. Unlike other parties, our party is not arrogant, angry or constantly seeking enemies. I think people see that.

I remember when conducting an interview for a Palanga newspaper with former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, that there were two of his advisers next to him, with me sitting in front of them. Meanwhile, for a similar interview, Algirdas Butkevicius showed up alone and sat next to me.
Well, you see, it tells a lot, and even journalists log in the differences.

As a party insider, can you reveal how likely the party leadership decides on the fate on the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant?
I believe it will not pursue the project. My position throughout the years - since the debates on the LEO nuclear project [pursued by the ruling Social Democrats during 2004-2008] and up to the present discussions on the Hitachi Ltd. project - has not wavered: such a nuclear project would not do any good to Lithuania.

Won’t we become geo-strategically weaker and more vulnerable having abandoned the project?
No, I am sure we won’t. We do have really sufficient capabilities of satisfying the electric power need through the future electric transmission interconnection links and renewables.

Should the project be tested again by the nation in a plebiscite, provided the government resolves to take on it?
I believe this kind of a new referendum stands no chance of winning. And that would definitely hammer the last nail in the plant’s coffin. So it would be very risky to put it up for the nation’s judgement.

What is your take on introduction of the euro in Lithuania?
I stand for it, but, nevertheless, I see some drawbacks as well. Between the two options, I believe not introducing the euro would do more harm to Lithuania than having the currency.

Since we’re meeting in Palanga, which is often dubbed Lithuania’s summer capital, let me ask you how you like it this season? Have you noticed anything different here on this visit?
In fact, it is my second visit here this summer. Since I’ve always been very keen on sports, for me, therefore, the biggest thing is the advancing construction of the universal sports hall. Generally speaking, Palanga has been lately becoming nicer and more interesting. However, a lot still has to be done in eradicating a distinct seasonality. I wish the mayor of Palanga, instead of going to Liepaja, on the Latvian side for spa treatments and amusement, which is something he admitted in an interview, would rather put more effort in luring more foreigners - and Latvians- here in winter to the spas Palanga already has, and perhaps build some new ones, capable of drawing headlines over the border. As I am a tennis zealot, I really miss in the resort some modern indoor tennis courts. I was in Silute [in southwestern Lithuania] a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find that it has an indoor tennis facility. That is really nice.

By the way, you look very agile and spry for a 71-year-old. What is the secret of your youthfulness?
I have been very fascinated with an active lifestyle throughout my life and perhaps that is one of the reasons.
For example, in Palanga I never drive, but try instead to walk and ride a bike as much as possible. In any weather. Also I swim a lot in the Baltic Sea, even in winter, until recently, but I took the advice recently from my doctor and stopped taking the dips. Over the 20 last years, what I call the culture of swimming, has changed in Palanga. Before, people would wade into the water and start swimming. Nowadays, people get into it up their waist and stand idly, or jump over the waves at best. C’mon, one has to swim when in the sea!