Text: Ray Vysniauskas
Artūras Zuokas is in his second candidacy as Vilnius Mayor. His first term from 2000 – 2007 was at once heralded as visionary and wasteful, and his second term continues to polarise the community.
The media savvy Zuokas enjoys a high public profile, often seen zipping around Vilnius on his Segway and a recent video of him running over an illegally parked car in a tank went viral on the internet, giving him worldwide exposure.
It is now just over a year since he started his second tenure as the boss of Vilnius and we thought it best for Mayor Zuokas himself to talk about his work and vision for Vilnius and Lithuania.
Mayor Zuokas, after a stint in Federal politics you have returned to the municipal front, what is the difference in working in these two areas of government?
The main difference is that in the municipal government, work is more result-oriented than in the National Parliament. I would say that if working at Parliament or National Government level is called Major Policy, then working at the municipal level should be called the Real Policy.
It is much more difficult to find real solutions that have a direct impact than attempt to regulate everything by making laws.
What is the main difference in Vilnius since you last held the post? Are there areas that have improved or digressed, and what are the priorities at the moment?
During the previous four years Vilnius had become drowsy, the citizens have become less optimistic, and there was a small amount of new projects and developments.
We aim to be regional leaders, attracting new investment by providing a convenient, healthy and safe place to live and do business.
The situation has begun to change and now more than 70% of citizens think that things in Vilnius are improving.
About €300 million in investment are to come to the city, and last year we had the highest number of new small and medium business companies being established in the past 10 years.
You seem to have a heavy emphasis on transport over the years. The orange bikes, Mindaugas Bridge, Gedimino Prospektas, eco-busses, proposed trams, a new taxi company and even an airline. Is transport the main issue facing Vilnius?
It’s not the main issue, yet it is very important for the city to have a good transport infrastructure.
As a municipality it is our duty to make decisions that promote comfortable and smart transportation.
This is why it is important for us to build bypasses and have high-quality, fast and ecological public transportation.
The new taxi company will fill the gap in the market which currently lacks sufficient quality services. A national air carrier will ease and promote access to Vilnius.
So you were serious about Vilnius Airlines? What is the current status on that project?
We are moving really quickly in implementing this project and we are seeking investors interested in buying shares in the company. We have already established the company “AirLituanica”.
And by the way, why does it cost me 17 litas to ring a taxi and get to the airport and yet I am quoted 70, 100 or once even 300 litas for the same trip back to the Old Town?
We are working to find the best solution for this issue, keeping in mind that most of the decision-making has to be made outside the city.
However, our newly established company will bring new quality to the city taxi business as well.
One of the major grievances of Vilnius and Lithuanian residents the last year has been the cost of heating. Vilnius inherited one of the most inefficient systems designed at a time when energy prices were not an issue.
What are the long-term plans for central heating of homes and hot water, and when will there be an end to the absurd sight of some people having to open their windows during the winter because it’s too hot, while others freeze and still have to pay exorbitant amounts for the privilege?
It is a very complex issue, which cannot be solved easily. As the municipality we have sent a number of suggestions to the national government on how to reduce the price of the heating.
Secondly, we have plans to announce a public tender to renew our city heating systems. As part of that, we have prepared the projects and permits needed for the block houses in the oldest areas of the city to be renovated, so that people living there would only need to conclude the process.
Transparency International recently released a report about public procurement. Vilnius Municipality is one of the biggest business entities in the country and 33% of purchases made on behalf of Vilnius residents between 2006 – 2011 are not available for public scrutiny and accountability. When can we expect Vilnius to set an example for the rest of the country in establishing an open and transparent public tender and purchasing system?
Last year Vilnius City Government followed every procedure stated in the law.
The official information is that all the purchases of the year 2011 were public and transparent.
Negotiations have been organized to decrease prices in cases where these have been considered, but all the procedures were coordinated together with the National Institution for Public Purchases.
Moreover, we have made the decision to use an electronic public purchase system, which is more transparent and helps the city to save time and money.
Sereikiškių parkas closed for a year to be refurbished at a cost of LTL80 million. What can we expect from the revamped public space and are there lessons learnt from the refurbishment of Gedimino Prospektas? LTL80 million seems a lot at a time of financial hardship for a nice park. What’s the reasoning behind putting so much of limited resources into this one project?
It is LTL18 million, not 80. It involves a major restoration of a historical park.
The project was designed according to the iconographic and other historical data. It will become a park with the spirit of the 19th century with motives as projected by A. Strauss.
More than half of the project is financed by EU funds.
One of the biggest works to be done in the park is the construction of an underground path system.
You will at last sponsor Lietuvos Rytas basketball team to the tune of about LTL3 million. Will you have a say in management, will there be a new name for the team, and what will you expect in return?
At the end of last year we became shareholders of the Lietuvos Rytas basketball club, of which we now own 1/4 of all shares.
There have been talks about the new possible name of the team when the takeover of the shares was confirmed. These talks have not been finalized yet, and so there are no final decisions made on this issue.
More broadly, having been both a federal and municipal representative of the people, what are the main issues facing Lithuania today? What should be the top priority for the country as a whole?
There are too many politicians speaking instead of working. This has to change.
We are collecting signatures to hold a referendum to decrease the number of Members of the National Parliament from 141 to 101.
Other issues include the need to stimulate small and medium enterprises, pushing through a number of needed decisions to raise the average salary to €1000, starting to use more renewable energy, and attracting more investment into the country.
And finally, is it easier being a war correspondent or a politician?
Neither of these professions are easy, yet both of them are intellectually stimulating really interesting and challenging.
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