Conflict continues over royal palace project

  • 2001-11-15
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - On Nov. 6, the Lithuanian Parliament rejected an initiative made by the Liberals, Centrists and Modern Christian Democrats that would have scrapped a law obliging the state to finance the reconstruction of the royal palace in the center of the capital.

The bill was passed by the previous Parliament and enacted by President Valdas Adamkus in Oct. 2000.

Before the vote, Centrist MP Virginijus Martisauskas, who drafted the initiative, explained to MPs that he was not against the restoration per se, but that he was against it eating into taxpayers' money.

"There are authentic old monuments that badly need restoration. Financing the rebuilding of the royal palace should be a private initiative," he said.

Specialists maintain the project will cost 100 million litas ($25 million). The law demands that the palace should be rebuilt by 2009.

Martisauskas doubts the authenticity of images of the palace in a small amount of artwork that survives from the 16th-18th centuries. Napoleonas Kitkauskas, an architect at the Royal Palace Restoration Foundation, a non-governmental organization, disagreed.

"We had much less information about the castles of (the Lithuanian towns of) Trakai and Birzai before their reconstruction began (in the Soviet period). We need state funding for the royal palace for at least the next two years," he said.

The palace of the Lithuanian grand dukes was destroyed after a period of Russian occupation began at the end of the 18th century.

After tumultuous discussion, 34 MPs, mainly from the Liberal Union, Peasant Party and Center Union, voted for the law to be recalled while 43 MPs, mostly Social Democrats, Conservatives and Christian Democrats, said the palace should be rebuilt. Twenty abstained, which in this case was as good as voting for the reconstruction, including a large block of Social Liberals.

Lithuania is governed by a ruling coalition consisting mainly of Social Democrats and Social Liberals.

Some politicians voted in surprising ways. Conservative MP Andrius Kubilius, another presidential contender, voted to stop the project, and former Liberal head Rolandas Paksas abstained. Infamous anti-Semite and self-proclaimed "king of the beggars" Vytautas Sustauskas voted for the project.

Swords drawn

At the beginning of 1998, in a baroque-style ceremony on the ruins of the royal palace, President-elect Valdas Adamkus and outgoing President Algirdas Brazauskas publicly made an oath that the palace of the grand dukes would be rebuilt.

The royal row erupted last month when Adamkus unexpectedly announced that any reconstruction would not be authentic and that the money should instead be spent on education.

Brazauskas insisted it should go ahead. He also commented that ruins covered in scaffolding are inappropriate for the center of Vilnius. Indeed, he believes in the tight schedule of having the roof of the palace finished by July 6, 2003, when Lithuania celebrates the 750th anniversary of the crowning of Mindaugas, illustrious king of Lithuania.

On Nov. 6 the Lithuanian branch of ICOMOS, advisers to UNESCO on heritage protection issues, expressed its support for the reconstruction of the palace. It said the archives of the Vatican, Poland and other countries are ready to help with historical material about the royal palace.

On Nov. 7, Brazauskas and three Social Democrat MPs paid a visit to Adamkus' office to show him impressive architectural designs of the royal palace as it would look if rebuilt. But Adamkus was not swayed by the vision.

Later the same day, at a government meeting, Brazauskas made an effort to persuade his ministers to offer donations to the royal palace project. They gave a total of 3,000 litas.

On Nov. 8, Adamkus visited Seimyniskeliai hill in the central region of Anyksciai and declared that it was more important for the legendary wooden castle of Voruta to be rebuilt there, rather than the royal palace in Vilnius. Over 700 years ago, Voruta was one of Mindaugas' strongholds.

But historians say there are up to 20 locations in Lithuania where Voruta could have existed.

At the beginning of July, a social research company asked Lithuanians if they supported the reconstruction of the palace if it came from taxpayers' money. Fifty-eight percent answered negatively and 27 percent positively.