Royal battle

  • 2001-11-15
The next Lithuanian presidential election will be held in 14 months. As things stand, the main rivals are President Valdas Adamkus and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas. But they are using one of Lithuania's most sacred historical sites as a battleground.

The country's political scene is somewhat akin to that of France: a right-wing president and a left-wing prime minister getting along as best as they can but preparing to fight for the presidency as rivals next year.

An unofficial election campaign has already started, and plans to rebuild the royal palace have become its accidental victim. Suddenly Adamkus has declared, after initially backing the idea, that the royal palace would be a waste of taxpayers' money. The palace would not even be authentic, he says.

Instead, Adamkus is pressing for the reconstruction of the mythical castle of Voruta, near Anyksciai.

There are plenty of examples of rebuilt historical buildings in nearby countries. The Nazis completely gutted Warsaw's Royal Palace. It was rebuilt. The Soviets pulled down the House of Blackheads in Riga. The doors of this architectural treasure were recently reopened.

Both restored palaces are now the pride of these neighboring nations - and they help to draw in the tourists.

Adamkus' move is smart PR. The Lithuanian electorate has always been easily bought with promises to save taxpayers' money.

Populists are jumping onto the bandwagon to attack the reconstruction plans as too expensive. Others counter that it's just 100 million litas ($25 million), which, spent over several years, is a drop in the ocean. After all, Lithuania's annual state budget is several billion litas.

Tight saving on cultural issues is close to the heart of every semi-literate provincial governor. Decision makers need to understand that such a minimal amount of money would barely touch the education and health budgets. Some architects maintain that the Louvre-style glass pyramid over the ruins propagated by Adamkus' adviser Darius Kuolys would cost the same sum as the palace's entire reconstruction.

Most of Lithuania's largely rural electorate are traditionally supporters of the left. Adamkus and his allies at the Liberal Union have evidently decided to try to hijack votes from Brazauskas.

The royal palace should be left out of this political scrap. The rebuilding should be left to the specialists. ICOMOS, advisers to UNESCO on the protection of monuments, have expressed support for the reconstruction. Earlier, Adamkus and his image-makers had a reputation for picking genuine topics for discussion. It's a shame their reputation has been spoiled.

Fifteen years ago, the arsenal building of the army of the Lithuanian grand duchy (now the Applied Art Museum) was a shabby garage. The wondrous island castle of Trakai was once just a ruin. What's to become of the royal palace?