Vilnius elects a youthful mayor

  • 2000-11-23
  • Howard Jarvis
VILNIUS – Deputy chairman of the Liberal Union Arturas Zuokas has replaced his party boss Rolandas Paksas as Vilnius mayor. The 51-member Vilnius City Council voted 27-18 on Nov. 15 to elect Zuokas. Paksas resigned after becoming Lithuania's prime minister last month as the head of a Liberal Union/New Union (Social Liberals) coalition.

The 32-year-old Zuokas' rise has been fast. Between 1990 and 1994 he earned danger money as a journalist reporting for British and American television networks from Caucasian hotspots like Chechnya, Ngorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Osetia, and was a war correspondent in Iran and Iraq.

In 1992, he established BNA Group in Vilnius, a company that became an umbrella for a number of highly successful business activities in the capital. A chain of United Colors of Benetton shops and a McDonald's restaurant were opened in the mid-90s after BNA signed contracts with these companies. Zuokas also owns plenty of Vilnius real estate.

Zuokas became a member of Vilnius City Council and chairman of its Urban Services Committee at the same time Paksas was re-elected mayor after the municipal elections held in March 2000. In the run-up to October's parliamentary elections, Zuokas headed the Liberals' electoral staff, but did not stand for election himself.

Zuokas is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of free trade in the Liberal Union, which is quickly making it known that it advocates a relaxation in all aspects of state control over business activities in Lithuania. Bolder and more dynamic than his predecessor, his main aim is to change the economic infrastructure in the capital.

State enterprises run by the municipality of Vilnius, such as the heating and water supply companies Vilnius Silumos Tinklai and Vilniaus Vandenys, and the capital's cash-starved transport system are expected to be privatized.

"The most important task is to create Vilnius as a center for investment," Zuokas told TBT, "and to simultaneously reduce unemployment. I would like to privatize all 20 companies that belong to the local districts of Vilnius municipality. I think we'll approve this in the council next week and early next year the privatization will start.

"We also need to restructure the municipality. According to an audit, we can reduce the number of employees here by 20 percent over two years."

Zuokas is keen to create a good name for himself by distancing himself from his business interests. "I know very well what conflict of interest means, what is ethical and what is moral. I am not now as active in my business. You could say I'm more of a pensioner. The directors at BNA will keep me informed about business developments."

Arturas Zuokas' wife Agne runs the United Colors of Benetton outlets in Vilnius.

Both Rolandas Paksas and the Liberal Union are hugely popular in Vilnius and have dominated the city council since March. Six other parties have between three and eight seats to the Liberals' 18. Unlike in the Parliament, the Liberals enjoy a harmonious relationship with the ideologically close Conservative Party. The two share a coalition with the Polish Election Action party totaling 30 of the council's 51 seats. The New Union is not part of the coalition.

The vote for Zuokas' candidacy was a secret ballot. It is therefore impossible to say who voted against him. Zuokas believes, however, that New Union's eight members voted in opposition to the coalition together with the nine left-wing Social Democrat and Democratic Labor members.

"I think the New Union members are trying to find their place in the municipality," Zuokas continues. "Sometimes, they try to be more important than they are. It will take some time before they can show Vilnius citizens what they can do and how they can do it."

Zuokas believes that when the support of the Conservatives is needed in the parliament their coalition on Vilnius City Council will prove useful. But he does not believe that tension on the council between the Liberals and New Union could upset the Liberal/New Union coalition in the parliament.

Zuokas had an easy ride to become mayor. He was put forward as the Liberals' candidate for mayor three weeks ago. No other parties nominated their own candidates. The council is in a state of flux as a third of its members take up seats in the parliament. They are still being replaced by new faces.

Another Liberal, Algirdas Kudzys, who was acting mayor until Zuokas stepped in, is likely to become head of Vilnius district. This will create a good working atmosphere between the city and district councils. Kudzys, who has a Japanese wife, is currently in Japan promoting relations between Vilnius and cities there.

Zuokas is well known for his promotion of Uzupis, a unique, rundown but arty area of Vilnius near the Old Town. Cut off on three sides by the River Vilnia, Uzupis declared its own mock independence last year and has its own president, flags and independence day. Zuokas lives in Uzupis and owns properties there. He plans to repeat the restoration of facades and facilities that has already helped to transform the Old Town.

"The spirit of the people who live in Uzupis can serve as an example to the citizens of other parts of the capital, especially the new districts. It's very important for people to believe they have the power to create their own style of life and not wait for the city government."

There has been much speculation in the media as to whether Zuokas is on his way to the Presidential Palace. But he is not making any such plans. A Lithuanian president must be at least 40 years old and Zuokas' 40th birthday is another eight years away.