Lithuanian politician, Mayor of Vilnius (2000-2003, 2003-2007, 2011-2015) Arturas Zuokas paid a visit to Ukraine.
We talked to him about how he sees the security situation in the EU, how Ukrainian cities should be developed after the end of the war, and how the Lithuanian experience can be useful for Ukraine.
Lithuanian society supports Ukraine and fights Russian propaganda
What mission has brought you now to Ukraine and specifically to Odesa?
Even before the war, I often visited Ukraine, mainly in Kyiv, as I am a member of the board of the Ukrainian School of political studies. I often spoke and participated in their events. I think this school is very important. Those people who go through the two-year programs there are the ones who create the future of Ukraine. This is a new generation. I also helped the current mayor Boris Filatov during the elections in Dnipro.
I have only been to Odesa once. I came with the NICO Chamber Orchestra and the Lithuanian Symphony Orchestra, which participated in the Odessa Classics festival.
During the war, I organized a collection of aid for Ukraine, but already as a private person. It was food, and hygiene bags. We brought them to the Ukrainian-Polish border and handed them over to volunteers.
In May, I organized a big concert in Italy with the participation of Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, and Gidon Kremeris, a world-famous Latvian violinist. Together with the Italian Red Cross, we raised money to help Ukraine. This concert was important not only for the collected funds but also for the political message because Italy is a country where little is known about what is happening in Ukraine. Therefore, it was nice to see advertisements on the streets of Italian cities in support of Ukraine. Recently, Ukraine needs generators and cars. Discussing this, I realized that for more than a year I had not seen my friend from Kyiv, Oleksandr Shchelushchenko, the owner of the Tsekh gallery, whom I helped open a branch of the gallery in Vilnius. We collected help: a car, generators, sleeping bags, and clothes; brought it and handed it over.
How did the Lithuanian society react to the open aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine? Has your attitude changed since 2014?
The position of Lithuanian politicians and society since 2014 has been clear and precise: they condemned all hostile actions that were carried out directly and indirectly by Russia against Ukraine. I mean the occupation of Crimea and the eastern territories of Ukraine. But since it all stretched out in time, then it ceased to be a relevant topic and turned into a fact of illegal actions of the Russian Federation.
In Lithuania, hardly anyone thought that the Russian Federation would proceed to the actions that began on February 24, 2022. I myself am a military journalist by profession, I have been to many hot spots around the world, including in the territory of the former Soviet Union and in Russia: Abkhazia, Georgia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh; war in Iraq in 1991. I saw the war a little differently than society. Then I spent a lot of time in Dnipro, I met with many politicians, including the leaders of the Right Sector, ATO soldiers (Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone — ed.) who have been fighting since 2014, with representatives of the Ukrainian parliament. I had information that we do not speak publicly. For some time, I acted as an adviser, offering my vision of how to solve the problem… But even I don’t think that there will be a war of this magnitude. I did not think that Vladimir Putin would go to such a level of open aggression, but it was clear that the situation should be resolved. War is one of the solutions, unfortunately, used by Russia in relation to its neighbors.
From a European perspective, was it clear that this «frozen conflict» would lead to such consequences?
I can say that Russia followed the experience it had: Abkhazia and Georgia, South Ossetia and Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan; nowhere did she try to resolve conflicts, on the contrary, to freeze them. As an example, this is Transnistria. But a full-scale conventional war is the kind of method that Russia has not used so far.
How the Lithuanian authorities are fighting those fakes, untrue information that is spread by Russian propaganda, including using Russian-speaking residents of Lithuania? Can we say that this problem has been completely solved and the Lithuanian information space is protected from such intrusions?
The parliament and the government adopted quite difficult, but as the current situation shows, the right decisions are a ban on broadcasting news programs from Russia.
Was this decision made after February 24, 2022?
The speech about this and the restriction of the display of some channels was adopted before the invasion on February 24th. Previously, there was a decision to ban the broadcasting of channels for three months, it was like a punishment, like a fine. A complete ban was imposed after the start of the war. This is the first, and the second is the work of the Lithuanian ministries, which began to work with journalists, to prepare special explanations for the people of Lithuania, how to separate what is fake and what is fact. People began to understand that not everything we see and read is true; it can be a special manipulation. For the Russian-speaking population, this is much more difficult. Although I have never seen a threat from the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania. But the fact that there are difficulties with this part of the population is true. Even now it is extremely difficult to talk to them about the war, about the role of Putin and Russia.
At the beginning of the war, there was an initiative — to record an appeal from the Russian-speaking residents of the city of Visaginas. It is a predominantly Russian-speaking satellite town of the closed Ignalina NPP*. At the very beginning of the war, I had the idea to record an appeal to Putin, to the Russians in Russia from the Russian-speaking Visaginas, calling on them to stop the war. To my surprise, no one agreed. This was the first shock, so I overestimated the loyalty of Russians who have Lithuanian citizenship, who have lived in Lithuania for many years or even were born in Lithuania themselves. At that moment, I was in shock, because it was quite a tough rejection.
*Protests against the construction of the third power unit of the nuclear power plant were held by Sąjūdis and showed one of the first mass and effective protest actions in the USSR during the perestroika period.
I think it takes time for the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Lithuania to understand the reason for the war. For a long time, they lived in informational isolation. They watched only Russian television. Even I sometimes, when it was not forbidden, watched Russian channels out of interest. Russian news is manipulated professionally: their reports, presentation of material, and filming. All this formed a certain point of view, distorted and untruthful.
Recently there was a scandal that the Russian language textbooks in public schools were made in Russia. We have a Russian population of about 140 thousand, and we wanted to give them a different picture of the world. But it turns out that we paid for what Russia offered them. We had a serious discussion this summer. Now, this is already bending in the other direction: let’s already abandon the Russian language altogether. But it’s not that easy. Politically, it’s simple, but realistically, for a person to accept it and rethink it, it’s difficult.
Security strategy: the common army of the EU countries and the ban on the sale of weapons to Russia
In the summer, an article was published where you describe your vision of a security strategy, in particular for the Baltic countries, and the creation of a European army independent of NATO. How do you see this process?
Let’s start with the fact that NATO, as a military-political organization, is very important for all the Baltic countries, it is a real guarantee of protection. However, one should always look at what is written in the contract and what is the political practice and procedures. In order for the fifth article of NATO to come into force, it is necessary that all countries vote «yes». All countries, including Turkey and Hungary. In order to activate the effect of the fifth article, thirty days are given. For us, as small countries, these are very important days. There are many risks. On the other hand, European countries, having the second total military spending in the world, after the United States, have five times more funds than the Russian army. But we have no coordination. Therefore, the idea to create our own European armed forces is not a new idea and not mine, it has been around for a long time. This idea was promoted by some European politicians.
The creation of a unified EU armed forces would solve the problem of command, planning and other issues. Maybe I’m wrong, but, in my opinion, there are so many types of weapons in European armies that it is extremely difficult to combine them into one working system. Ukraine is faced with this, because it receives weapons from different EU countries and not only. Therefore, I suggested: let’s start with the unification of weapons, with common procurement and training, create joint action plans and a common headquarters, which will include all the commanders-in-chief of the armies of the EU countries. This will help now, in the face of Putin’s possible aggression, and in the future will make us stronger in the face of any other enemy.
Let me stress once again that a common EU army would be an indicator that the EU is united. We have a good example – Frontex. This is a joint structure of the EU member states, which protects the border areas. A start has been made, now it is necessary to move to a new level and create the armed forces of the European Union.
Another risk is Trump. No one can rule out the possibility that he will again become president in two years. He introduced such an understanding that one cannot always hope even for the support of an American ally. Or it will be, but with conditions that will be unacceptable. To maintain peace in the future, a unified EU military must exist.
After the aggression of the Russian Federation in Georgia in 2008, it became clear that this was a serious threat, and the Baltic countries reached the required level of GDP deductions for defense and even exceeded it. How many years did it take Lithuania to completely re-equip even a small army, but fully equipped with Soviet weapons? How long were this period and how many years do you think the Ukrainian army needs to fully switch to NATO standards?
We had a clear political goal — to become a member of NATO and the EU. Since 1995, all purchases made in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have met the NATO standard. These were American or German suppliers and French or British systems. But only in the last three or four years have we begun to buy real weapons that can delay the enemy. Only in 2014, we began to purchase heavy equipment, and armored personnel carriers, using the HIMARS systems — just now we have signed an agreement. Before that, we had too much hope for NATO help. Key NATO allies rightly said that we ourselves must invest in the defense sector. I think that the Lithuanian army will be at a sufficient level only by 2030. Because signing a contract is one thing, but making equipment, bringing it in, training it, etc. is three to five years. This is not a shopping mall where you can immediately buy the goods you like.
And another fact that angered me is the statistics on arms sales to Russia after 2014. This is explained simply: the contract was signed — we must fulfill it. If there were joint armed forces of the EU, then no one would just sell weapons to a potential adversary. Everyone looked at it selfishly — there is a buyer and we sell. And the fact that it would be necessary to fight with him, with these weapons, no one thought.
Mayor of the city of happy people: urban projects of Artūras Zuokas
The most important thing I started as mayor in 2000 was city planning. It may not be so noticeable to society, but these are very important documents.
The basis of planning is the master plan of the city; clear for specialists, understandable to residents, and drawn up without the influence of politicians. It is a document that defines what can be built and where. So that no one has the right to receive preferences depending on friendship with someone.
The second thing I did was special master plans for different areas. For example, the development of shopping malls. For the development of the city, it is important that they are not concentrated in the center and that they are not all taken out of the city. We have made a master plan with a definition of where and on what scale shopping centers can be built. We excluded chaotic development, and this is already connected with the load on the transport infrastructure of the city.
The third point was the definition of where high-rise buildings can be built: how high can commercial real estate buildings and residential buildings be? High-rise buildings for housing are passed, it’s bad for the city. What I see in Odesa are very bad decisions that have already been implemented. This is a big problem for the future of Odesa. There may be high-rise buildings for offices, but it is necessary to clearly plan where they can be. They cannot be scattered to whom, where they want, or whoever agreed. All this forms the appearance of the city, and this is already the public domain. Everyone comes to the city, first seeing its picture — whether it is beautiful or not beautiful.
The other part is advertising (outdoor advertising on city streets). There is a simple recommendation: the less advertising, the better, and if there is, then clear parameters so that there is no chaos in the city, so that there is no visual dirtiness, which is typical for many cities. By the way, this master plan (for advertising) was adopted from us by Warsaw. If we compare Warsaw 10 years ago and now, then this is a completely different city because they put things in order with external advertising.
In administrative terms, we have introduced a one-contact system. To do this, I sold the old building of the city government at auction, and for this money, a new 20-story office building of the city government was built. I moved all controls to one place. We began to control who comes to whom in order to reduce corruption risks. At that time, I became the most unpleasant politician for many, in 2004-2005. I didn’t have any friends in Vilnius at all. Everyone was against me: big business, the press because business is an advertiser. But now even they understand that these were necessary measures.
Then you can start implementing local, targeted projects. This is an indicator that the city is becoming comfortable for residents. My biggest achievement: in 2014, Eurostat presented the results of a survey of residents of all European capitals, and the residents of Vilnius called themselves the happiest. For me, it was an assessment of the results of my work. Not the presence of a bridge, or a road, but precisely this feeling that they feel comfortable in the city.
Let’s touch on the transport problem. The case of Odesa is about a million inhabitants, there is no metro, there is public transport, which is represented by municipal trolleybuses and trams, as well as private carriers, mainly with small buses (minibuses). Obviously, a similar problem faced Vilnius, which had a Soviet legacy in the field of transport. How did you solve this problem?
I solved this problem in a difficult way (laughs). And I started by removing minibuses from the city. It was also difficult, there were demonstrations and opponents. It was cancer for public municipal transport, they took away a solvent client, leaving beneficiaries to urban transport, besides, they created chaos on the roads, stopped where they wanted, and did not follow the rules. I have always been for public transport, as such. But in order for people to use it, it must be of high quality.
I see many problems in the Dnipro, in Kyiv, and in Odesa. There is a lot to be done here. These will always be unpopular decisions. First, you need to clean up the parking lot. If the car is on the sidewalk, it means that this city will never be European. It is not enough for a city like Odesa to have only buses, trolleybuses, and old trams. But it’s good that you already have it, so these modes of transport need to be updated. Today, modern trams are a convenient and comfortable form of public transport.
The metro is good for a city of this size, but as I understand it, there are certain technical problems, although now, I am almost sure, they can already be solved. Example: a new subway line under the Colosseum is currently being built in Rome. This is probably the most important monument in history, but the Italians are making a metro line under it.
As for the trolleybus, it is a thing of the past if it is possible to use electric buses without guides and a contact line. I have already seen traffic lines marked for buses, but in Odesa, they are not separated from the main traffic flow. Much more needs to be done to make public transport an alternative to road transport. There is no need to invent anything here. There are many examples in the world, we just need to resolutely tackle this problem. It is necessary to make a special program for several years; one cadence of the mayor will not be enough for this. And two is not enough. But, regardless of who the mayor is, it must be carried out. It is necessary to use the relief of Odesa. The city is quite flat to create comfortable public transport. Modern public transport is a guarantee that residents will use cars for longer trips over long distances.
The future of Lithuanian-Ukrainian relations and the restoration of Ukraine
How do you see the development of bilateral relations between Lithuania and Ukraine in the medium and long term? What points of contact, what common interests?
Lithuania has always looked positively at Ukraine; I am sure that this is mutual. But I noticed that the younger generation of Ukraine knows more about Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Berlin, but less about Vilnius. Therefore, I have always tried to organize meetings and exchange contacts as much as possible. I think we have a similar view of the world. We could be good partners in many ways. The next initiative that we are discussing with NGOs in Lithuania, with the self-government of Vilnius, is a program on how Ukraine will be rebuilt after the war. It would be a big mistake if Ukrainian cities began to repair what was destroyed during the war. Now is your chance, at a high price, to start building the future of Ukraine: modern buildings for schools, and kindergartens. Here we can give ready-made projects, prepared, and implemented in Vilnius or other cities of Lithuania. It is also very important to look at the future of infrastructure. For example, the diversification of energy consumption and the use of renewable energy sources.
Ukraine needs a complete renovation of its energy networks. Such projects have already been implemented in Lithuania. In fact, every house, every kindergarten, becomes autonomous. During the war, we see a serious dependence on large infrastructure facilities. Lithuania can prepare such solutions that will be implemented by Ukraine with the help of donors. This would become the basis for building a new Ukraine with European cities. We can’t miss this chance. But to make it happen, the rule of law is needed. At all levels. The next step is to comply with the law. Without this, it is impossible to imagine Ukraine as part of the EU. One thing is a political declaration, another thing is the requirements and examination by all EU members.
Interviewed by Stanislav Kinka