21 July 2019, Sunday, 12:42
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Arturas Zuokas: Being Vilnius Mayor Is Most Exciting Job Ever

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ARTURAS ZUOKAS

The candidate for the position of a mayor of the Lithuanian capital intends to make public transportation in the city free of charge.

Arturas Zuokas is the “three-time” mayor of Vilnius, in the past he was also known as a Lithuanian journalist and businessman. On Sunday, he will struggle for this position again in the second tour, his opponent being the current mayor, former Lithuanian Minister of Justice Remigijus Šimašius.

On the eve of the voting day, Arturas Zuokas answered the questions of the Charter97.org Editor-in-Chief Natallia Radzina.

— Are you running for the city mayor for the fourth time because you haven’t completed some of your projects?

— I take part in the elections again, because I know what the real opportunities of the city are, and why they remained unrealized. And not as the former three-time mayor of the city, but as a resident of Vilnius, I consider it unfair. And people have become very supportive of me lately, waiting for some kind of breakthrough so that the city would receive the energy that Vilnius always had.

Never before has Vilnius been compared to Kaunas. People compared it with Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn or Minsk, but not with Kaunas! And today Kaunas in many ways is already ahead of the capital. This has not happened before. That is why I participate in this election, because I know, I have experience, many projects started by me and my team have not been implemented so far, and I can bring them to the end quickly and efficiently.

— So you’ve made it to the second tour of the elections. Sunday is the voting day, and the issue of who will become the new Vilnius mayor will be solved. What is your program?

— The program consists of three key parts. The main problem of Vilnius today is transport and movement. I have a solution that has existed in Tallinn for 6 years already — this is free public transport for residents permanently living in the city. It is also very important to improve the transport infrastructure, to include all possible types of so-called car sharing in the public transport system, to make the automatic system of transport passes better.

The second part of the program is devoted to education. Vilnius needs more schools, but so that they are not too large, a maximum of 500-600 students — we need to improve the quality of education. It is necessary to create new educational centers for children in the north, west, east and south of the capital, so that they are located not only in the center, but near the places of residence of students. If people develop, the city develops.

And the third point is those projects that I started in 2014. Over the past four years they have not been realized. After the election, if I get the voters’ support, I’ll have to go back four years and finish the job. We are talking about the Northern bypass road, the reconstruction of the motorway in the direction of Minsk, the expansion of the road in Nemenchin and other projects.

— Can you call the strongest and the weakest sides of your opponent Remigijus Šimašius?

— My opponent had very good opportunities, because if we compare the current budget of Vilnius with the one I had, the difference is very big. The city budget has greatly increased after the decision of the Constitutional Court, which I myself once applied to. The Constitutional Court confirmed that the state leaves Vilnius a lot less money than other Lithuanian cities. After this decision, the government was forced to change the budget legislation, and the capital began to receive much more money.

The budget of the current mayor is almost twice as big as it was in my time. Plus, the European money, since Vilnius can receive approximately 300 million euros for various projects.

So, there is money, there are projects, but many of them are simply not being implemented. My opponent does not have enough experience and he really is not the master of the city. He is more of a politician. And the city needs a mayor who understands politics and has experience working with territorial projects.

— Does it just seem to me that you’ve mentioned only negative sides? What about the good ones?

— You’ve noticed (laughing). It’s not out of nothing though. Of course, he is a former Minister of Justice, he has experience in politics, because he also was a member of the Lithuanian Parliament. An educated person, a lawyer, but I just don’t see in him the qualitites that Vilnius needs. He is not so obsessed with the city as I am.

— There are many Belarusians, Poles, Russians, and, lately, Ukrainians living in Vilnius. How do you take into account the variety of nations and what does your program offer for the national minorities?

— I am glad that many representatives of all the nationalities you’ve mentioned support me: both those who constantly live in Vilnius and those who come to work from Belarus or Ukraine. I always looked at each of them as a resident of Vilnius and found a common language with all the national diasporas that live here.

The history of Vilnius is so great that different nations built the city. This is the creative power of the capital of Lithuania. A person of any nationality should feel at home here.

Most recently, I visited a hostel where workers from Ukraine live. It should not be like this. I really disliked the conditions they live in. If I become the mayor of the city, I will do everything so that people who build the future of Vilnius live decently.

— I know that, being a mayor, you paid much attention to Belarus. After the events in Minsk on December 19, 2010, when there were mass arrests of the participants of the action of protest against the falsification of the elections results, you publicly condemned dictator Lukashenka, met with the opposition, former political prisoners, relatives of the people who were in jail at that moment. Do you have some special attitude towards Belarus?

— Since I used to be a journalist once, and worked in hot spots, I always try to be on the side of someone who is in a weaker position. Power is always a stronger side and therefore it is much easier for them to crush other people. I always take the side of those who need solidarity.

I would like our neighbors, Belarus and Ukraine, to go along the same path as Lithuania, so that there is no power in these countries that enforces “order” by force, not allowing people to decide for themselves how to live. Therefore, I am always ready to help, despite the problems that arise in this connection.

For example, I have always welcomed the Dalai Lama in Vilnius, although the pressure from China was great. It is necessary to back up the people who support progress, and not those who solve all questions by force.

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— What is your position towards the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, which poses direct threat to Vilnius?

— I have always stood against this project, and I even did a lot, looked for the opportunities to suspend the construction of the NPP. Unfortunately, the Lithuanian government hasn’t been active enough in this field, so the NPP is almost ready by now. And the current attempts of our government to interfere with it seem rather belated. Too late. This project is not the best for both Vilnius and Lithuania.

— However, Lithuania refuses to buy electric energy from the Belarusian NPP, and this is quite a big thing.

— I would like no one from the neighbors of Belarus to buy this energy. But on the other hand, if you look at the state-owned company “Lietuvos Energija”, it is now carrying out all the preparatory work to buy this energy. I would say that this is unfair. The government says one thing, but some other steps are being taken in the reality.

We do not look solid, demanding that neighbors block this project, while the Lithuanian state company is preparing to receive electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant. Of course, business is business. But this is a big mistake and it looks very ugly.

— Lithuania holds presidential election this year. How do you assess the participants of the electoral campaign, and their chances?

— This time, there is quite a wide choice, but so far the presidential candidates have not submitted their programs and have not answered the main questions: how they see the future of the European Union, what our foreign policy should be, and what kind of relations they will have with our neighbors.

Today, although the choice is not bad, it’s too early to say which of them could be president or for whom I would like to vote. I think it will take us more time to see what the presidential contenders offer.

— I wonder, what made you leave journalism and get engaged in politics?

— I didn’t choose much, I just walked along the path of life and it happened. I was engaged in journalism for 7 years, I worked actively, I liked this job. Since I worked with foreign companies, I earned quite a lot compared to Lithuanian opportunities.

There was money and I began to invest it. So I went into business: opened the first McDonald’s in Gediminas Avenue, the United Colors of Benetton stores, led other projects. I did business also for 7 years, and then became the mayor of Vilnius.

I have always tried to be where it is interesting, and where different ideas could be implemented. The post of a mayor of such a big city as Vilnius is very interesting. I would say that this is the most exciting job ever. My responsibility begins with the maternity hospital, from where a new life comes to the city, and ends with cemeteries, which the city also looks after. This is the whole spectrum of human life, and the work of the mayor for me is not even work. I just live it.

— Thank you for the interview and good luck with the election.

— Thank you! Come to us. Are you working from Warsaw now? Vilnius always welcomes you.

***

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