Critical of Lithuania’s crybaby businessmen

  • 2014-09-03
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Ausra Maldeikiene, an associate professor of economics at Vilnius University, is a much sought-after talk show guest for her blunt and daring remarks, which make the intricate topic of economics sound simple and understandable to all. The notable professor has spent the entire summer in the picturesque resort of Palanga on the Baltic Sea coast writing her new book. Her previous book, “Economy of Lies,” hit a home run with readers, even with the local Palanga fruit and vegetable vendors who lunge towards her to have the author autograph the book. The Baltic Times spoke about current events with Maldeikiene.

Since our interview takes place in Palanga, your hometown, by the way, do you see it ever in the future becoming a second French Riviera, an exclusive resort?
No, I really don’t. Palanga will never be the French Riviera just because of the climate - it’s too cold here for most of the year. Even wrapped in a thick blanket, I couldn’t stay here past summer for this reason. By the way, I haven’t swum in the Baltic Sea for over 25 years now. Besides the weather, I find the town to be too noisy and the Basanavicius promenade, with all its Russian inscriptions and all those cheesy Russian and Lithuanian tunes blaring all over is too much for me. But I really enjoy sauntering in the Birute Botanical Park and musing about with the lush greenery all around me. Plus, the century-old atmosphere of the Tishkeviciai counts still lingers there in the park. I can confess I had dreamt at some point in my life of moving to Palanga when I retire someday. Furthermore, here is my parents’ house and many vivid youth memories. But then I dumped the idea after pitting all those “yes” and “no” [thoughts]. I don’t deem myself a big culture geek, but here, there isn’t a decent classical music concert venue, only cheap stuff for cheap tastes and thin wallets. If Palanga were an elite resort town, the penny-pinching would be gone, obviously. It is obvious that the entire Palanga works to please the Russians, its breadwinners. I doubt whether Palanga could do without them.

How can Palanga ratchet down its pronounced seasonality?
As I said, I don’t think it is possible because of the weather. One can build whatever here and expect that it will get all the town swarming, but the bottom line is the droves of tourists come here for the beach. Simple as that. Sure, Palanga has some posh hotels that the Russians love, but most of the people who come here, they stay in private establishments. Let it be an apartment, room, cellar, attic or a garage. As for the latter clientele, I mean those opting for this kind of accommodation, this makes up the bulk here; it also properly reflects the mainstream economy here - providing a place to live. But as long this prevails in Palanga, the resort doesn’t stand a chance of climbing up the ranks of the best resorts. From the standpoint of wellbeing, I’m aghast at having come to this idea that, in Palanga and Druskininkai [the other major resort in southern Lithuanian], what has been achieved has been done with a huge exploitation of the locals. Look, a masseuse in a Druskininkai rehabilitation clinic [takes home] pennies from the exhausting work. As the centers of the resorts shine, the masseuses dwell in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks on the outskirts and count every penny to get through. What I’m saying is that the life of an ordinary man in the resorts, as well as Lithuania, has not gotten any better over all the years. But look, being an associate professor, I could not allow myself vacationing in Palanga if not for my parents’ house here. It’s shameful to admit to colleagues from West that my [monthly] salary is a mere 1,200 litas (347 euros). If not for all the perks I add to it, I’d really just eke out [an existence].

How do you reckon the Russian embargo will hit the Russians frequenting Palanga?
It’s an interesting question. We have friends, a Russian couple - he is Armenian by origin, and she is Ukrainian - with whom my husband and I have been acquainted for quite some time. They really enjoy Palanga, and they come here every year, and stay in the most expensive apartments in Palanga Hotel, by the way. If one is interested, he owns several factories in Moscow. To put it mildly, both of them are deeply [sceptical] about the Kremlin politics, but they’re smart and don’t speak out against the authorities. As much as I’ve gotten to talk to them lately, it seems to me the couple, like thousands of others who come to Palanga every year, are going now to quietly pack up and leave. Sure, not to Lithuania, but Western Europe. And it’s sad, as most of the rich Russians would never cast a glance towards Palanga, as they have no connections whatsoever, neither with its past or present.

How do you believe Russian sanctions will hit Lithuania?
I just don’t believe that they will it hard. I know most out there tend to think otherwise. Sure, all will start swaying for some time, but the economy is flexible and it will gain soon a firm footing, adapting itself to the changes. But having said this I have to add that the business will pour out buckets of tears begging for help.
Whimpering and crying is a distinguished feature of Lithuanian economics, I’d say. I’d like to single out two potential paths of development in the wake of the situation. In the first - and the best - scenario, it all starts off and ends with the sanctions. In the second development, war starts. Not some regional, but a new third world war. It’s shaping up, evidently; it’s just that the ordinary people don’t want to grasp it. In fact, it’s going on, at certain levels now. The military-engaged conflict may be called a war a little bit later. In that scenario, Lithuania holds really bad [options]. On the other hand, though, the psychological war between Russia and Lithuania has been ongoing for nearly 25 years now. But until now we’ve seen petty slapping going on between two grumpy women neighbors. Now they have poured a water bucket over each other’s hand and are mulling the next move.

Do you believe Lithuanian dairy and meat products can pave their way into alternative Asian and Arab markets?
Have you ever eaten dairy soup in a Chinese restaurant? I haven’t, though I’ve spent a half year in Taiwan.
People in Asia, as a matter of fact, consume little milk and dairy products. So I don’t have any idea how Asia can be interested in Lithuanian dairy. You want it or not, but Russia remains the most lucrative market for Lithuania.

How will the U.S. and EU sanctions likely affect Russia?
Are they affective? Hardly so, I’d say. Russia is too tough and hardened by history to be harmed considerably by any sanctions. Unlike a smaller country, it has a huge inner market and vast inner mechanisms to buffer against the Western sanctions’ impact. One also cannot dismiss that the sanctions may even work in favor of Russia, bolstering the Russian morale and patriotism. I do believe Russia will become more united amid the animosity against it. Look, the number one Russian enemy is clear - the West.

But Lithuanian dairy and cattle breeding sectors, as well as the transporters have already sent a Mayday call to the government for help. Even the Financial Times has named Lithuania as potentially being among the top most EU-hit countries by the Russian embargo. Aren’t you just underestimating it?
I look at it realistically. Somebody already sent a Mayday call? Well, Lithuanian entrepreneurs tend to cry most of the time, regardless of whether Russia applies some sanctions against it or not. I’d say that crying is an exceptional characteristic of Lithuanian business. The businessmen out there are whimpering more quietly or loudly for 25 years now. I’m tired of being forced to listen to the crying.