'King of beggars' becomes Kaunas mayor

  • 2000-04-20
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Vytautas Sustauskas, 55, seen as a considerably eccentric Lithuanian politician and anti-Semite by many, was elected Kaunas mayor on April 13. He will be the 13th mayor of Kaunas since independence.

Some say the two 13s might be symbolic.

"Kaunas has been taken from the hands of Conservatives that have ruled our city for 10 years. It is the end of their national bolshevism and destruction. We'll bring a new wind for Kaunas and Lithuania," Sustauskas said after becoming a mayor of Kaunas.

Sustauskas emphasized his hatred for corruption. He also called on municipality employees to be brave in expressing their opinions contradicting his own views. Sustauskas said that he will abolish all restrictions on street demonstrations in the city center and will care about the energy sector of Kaunas.

His party, the Lithuanian Freedom Union, won the municipal elections in Kaunas on March 20, though he did not gain an absolute majority of seats in the Kaunas council.

Sustauskas' biography is rather colorful -he is a former sailor, according to Lithuanian daily Lietuvos rytas.

The Freedom Union did no election campaigning. It did not publish a single poster. However, Sustauskas' party was known for its former street protests and for its ability to grab headlines. Sustauskas never spoke about Lithuania's membership in NATO and the European Union -usually beloved themes of Lithuanian politicians. His favorite theme is social justice.

On April 6 the first meeting of the council of Kaunas did not elect its mayor since neither of the two candidates -Sustauskas and Gediminas Zemaitis of the New Union (Social Liberals) -gained the majority of the vote.

According to Lithuanian laws, the state's central power must appoint the mayor itself if the local council members are not able to choose their mayor.

"We decided to support Sustauskas, otherwise direct rule from Vilnius would be imposed and it would mean the continuation of Conservatives' power in Kaunas," Arturas Paulauskas, leader of the New Union, said. Paulauskas' decision was crucial for Kaunas.

On April 13 Sustauskas was elected mayor by votes of his Freedom Union, the New Union and tiny nationalistic faction "Young Lithuania."

Flamboyant Sustauskas

Sustauskas is best known for organizing dozens of "beggars" marches in Kaunas and Vilnius. Until now, street protest "against poverty" was his only activity. His party has a developed structure only in Kaunas.

Sustauskas became especially famous after he and his followers came from Kaunas to protest against the Vienna Ball, organized by the Austrian ambassador in the Vilnius Town Hall in 1998. Vilnius' high society was gathering there to dance waltzes and to collect money for charity. Some 100 of Sustauskas' protesters met President Valdas Adamkus and his wife Alma and other couples of Lithuanian political and business elite with angry shouts.

Sustauskas screamed that rich people should not dance when the rest of the nation is starving. He also blamed the Austrian ambassador for implementing foreign traditions in Lithuania. The Austrian ambassador should dance Lithuanian dances, stated Sustaukas, and urged the diplomat from Vienna to go home.

Most of Sustauskas protest commandos are older, energetic and rather aggressive women from Kaunas. They scared Lithuanian politicians during the Vienna Ball in 1998.

In 1999 he again arrived at Vilnius Town Hall with his followers. The Vienna Ball was canceled because of fear of Sustauskas and his angry and sometimes drunk followers. Sustauskas celebrated his victory by organizing the Beggars Ball with dances and songs near the Vilnius Town Hall. Some 100 representatives of marginal spheres of society attended the event. Even two young Austrian left-wing radicals, living in Vilnius, joined this ball.

Sustauskas does not like the Austrian ambassador, but he is not totally anti-Austrian. In the press conference after municipal elections, Sustauskas condemned Europe's protests against the election of Austrian populist politician Joerg Haider.

"Haider is the choice of Austrian people. The Jews of Europe are against him. We all know who rules the world," Sustauskas said.

At the same press conference, he also criticized Vytautas Landsbergis, Conservative Party leader and parliamentary chairman, for allowing "Vilnius' Gedimino Avenue to be privatized by the Jewish mafia."

Masa Grodnikiene, deputy chairwoman of Lithuania's Jewish community, said that Sustauskas is not a suitable person for a country moving to the European Union. Rimvydas Valatka, a Lietuvos rytas observer, accused Sustauskas of anti-Semitism -a charge which Sustauskas denies.

Landsbergis and his Conservative Party always were the most frequent target of Sustauskas' attacks. On April 13, some 300 of his supporters, mostly older women, gathered near Kaunas city council to congratulate the new mayor.

"Landsbergis will sell Lithuania," sang a crowd of senior women.

Not all Kaunas inhabitants are fascinated with Sustauskas. Near the singing women, a group of Kaunas university students held aloft a poster declaring "We don't need an illiterate mayor."

Papers call Sustauskas "the king of the beggars," a "populist" and "Tadas Blinda." The latter was a legendary 19th century Robin Hood-style renegade who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Sustauskas' life-style is original. He lives in a shabby farm near Kaunas. His wife takes care of various exotic chickens, cats, ponies and a donkey, Richardo. Sustauskas' wife's son, who lives in Germany, financially supports the Sustauskas couple.

Sustauskas, a member of the Kaunas council in the previous three years, buys his clothes only in the second-hand clothes shop. He enjoys driving his Jeep.

Sustauskas has long gray hair, a mustache and a beard, recently trimmed. Half a year ago Sustauskas promised the public to shave his beard in the case he would become mayor of Kaunas. Now Sustauskas said he is ready to keep his promise.

According to the social research firm Vilmorus, 38.6 percent of Lithuania's adult population has a positive opinion of Sustauskas, 31.6 percent think negatively of him and 29.8 percent have no opinion about this controversial personality.

What to expect from Sustauskas?

Paulauskas said that a serious post would force Sustauskas to behave himself. Members of the opposition in the Kaunas city council are not so sure about it.

"It will be lots of fun. Kaunas council will entertain Kaunas and all of Lithuania," Juozas Kameneckas, representative of the Center Union in the Kaunas council, said.

"It is difficult to make a prognosis on Sustauskas. It is difficult to define him in political terms," Klemensas Rimselis, representative of the Liberal Union in the Kaunas council, said. He said that Kaunas is too small for Sustauskas who might leave his post to become MP after parliamentary elections this fall.

At an April 17 press conference, Landsbergis said that election of Sustauskas might harm the image of Kaunas and stop investments there.

"Perhaps the situation could improve somehow if we think that the electorate in Kaunas voted in support of the Freedom Union's leader Vytautas Sustauskas, not for his anti-Semitic attacks, but for something else. In my mind, his principal is that of a fighter against the rich - that is, for the poor whom he, nobody knows why, calls beggars," Landsbergis said.

On April 13, Rolandas Paksas, leader of the Liberal Union, made an official statement calling all right parties to unite and to stop the wave of populism and leftism.

Vytautas Bogusis, MP of the Modern Christian Democratic faction, criticized the center-left New Union (Social Liberals) for supporting Sustauskas in the Kaunas council -leaving a possibility to create a ruling majority without Sustauskas' party in the Kaunas council if other parties would overstep their ambitions, said Bogusis.

Other Lithuanian cities elected no eccentrics to mayoral posts. Paksas became the mayor of Vilnius. Eugenijus Gentvilas, another leader of the Liberal Union, became mayor of Klaipeda.