A young mayor unafraid of change, or a simple challenge

  • 2001-08-16
  • Virgilijus Savickas
Arturas Zuokas, 33, the young, ambitious and energetic mayor of Vilnius, is a fine contrast to Lithuania's more geriatric politicians. He wants the Lithuanian capital to be turned into the most modern city in Central Europe. Interview by Virgilijus Savickas.

The Baltic Times: How would you like to be introduced to the reading public?

Zuokas: I always say that by profession I'm a journalist. I do not want to call myself a politician. Although I was for a long time in business, I would not like to be introduced as a businessman either. According to my nature I'm an explorer and organizer who is eager to act and change. In short I'll put myself as journalist, and a very sociable one.

TBT: While you are in the mayor's office, are you thinking of a political career in the future?

Zuokas: I've never planned my life. Everything goes in its natural way or according to circumstances. I'm planning a political future. Being as young as I am, I have a lot to do here.

I hope I will always be able to participate in social developments. One way or another I will stay in politics for a long time. However, I have never been a party member, except for the Liberal Union, which I entered two years ago. I am often in the center of political events more than is publicly reported.

TBT: What should the relationship be between business and politics? Are they inseparable?

Zuokas: Politics and economics are inseparable. They are intermingled in many different forms, civilized and uncivilized. Frequently politicians in public pretend to distance themselves from business more than they do in reality. Being inside politics I see a lot of ambiguity and double-dealing.

TBT: How do you manage to keep impartiality in your own business matters?

Zuokas: I always talk to both sides in a conflict. Conflicting business groups try to use politicians for favors. They try to strengthen their position in a competition. The truth is, when politics are involved there is nothing left in a competition. Finally, the interest of the state or the city suffers most.

My advice to businessmen is to watch their own interests first, not the city's interests. If it were otherwise, the city soon would have to take care of these enterprises. That would be a real disaster.

TBT: Does the younger generation have a say in politics? Do you believe in the young generation?

Zuokas: Older people prevail in politics in many countries. When I'm abroad many people wonder how I could be a mayor at such a young age. There are only a few of us youngsters in politics in Lithuania - Gintautas Steponavicius, Kestutis Masiulis, Jonas Cekuolis. The Liberals managed to attract some young people in the election, but not as a rule.

TBT: What would you like to do for Vilnius?

Zuokas: We have a goal in our program to make Vilnius the most modern city in Central Europe. In a broad sense this should become the most ecologically, intellectually and culturally distinct city with the best preserved Old Town. It could take decades for this ambition to become true.

What is to be developed in particular? Public transport, high-tech production, university education. I want Vilnius to become a place where new ideas are generated. A true factory of new thought.

Many projects are underway. We just made a site ready for a new municipality building. A tender for construction is being announced. Vrublevskio Bridge over the Neris River is under design. Other projects are due to start this year. We would like to sell off all our municipal public services.

TBT: Have you not changed your mind about the orange bicycles yet?

Zuokas: Not a bit. I stick to my notion that it was necessary. There was a need for intrigue. We wanted to start a discussion, and it started. People began to talk about bikes as a means of public transport, about morality and security. This was a great result.

TBT: Is the municipality's planned action against outdoor beer drinking also up for public discussion?

Zuokas: I think this goal is achievable. We want to focus public attention on the problem first. Either you understand that by drinking alcohol in public you are violating the rights of other citizens, or the problem has to be tackled by force. We asked the Higher Administrative Court to explain by decree that beer is an alcoholic drink. So now we are ready for action.

TBT: What will young people do then? Were should they drink?

Zuokas: It depends on quantity. Sitting in a bar you can afford one glass of beer, but outside it's two bottles for the same price. But we gave alcohol licenses to many outdoor cafés. High competition pushes down prices.

TBT: What about the beggars who gather bottles after beer drinkers leave them aside. Are you ready for some social compensation?

Zuokas: We have an effective social support system in Vilnius. It ensures a minimal living standard for them. No one has to go begging. On the other hand the business of bottle collecting is wrong. We are preparing a decree to forbid begging in certain parts of Vilnius, as well as aggressive busking by street musicians.

TBT: When you were young, during a Soviet Army parade in Vilnius you put yourself in front of an armored vehicle. Would you do the same again?

Zuokas: Young people express their emotions in different ways these days. Now I'm all for non-confrontational methods. I'm ready to go against any armored vehicle in order to prevent evil in a state or a city. If I see a good goal for the public, I'll do my best to reach it.

TBT: The Liberal Union is involved in a hectic discussion about who is best to lead it, Paksas or Gentvilas? Whom do you support?

Zuokas: I stand for organization. Organization will give us the opportunity to please our ambitions. I did not support the Liberals when they left the government in the recent crisis. I did not support our chairman and voted against him. But I was in the minority. Now is the time for change. I think we should have a new leader. I support Eugenijus Gentvilas.