Kaunas revamp raises questions about local democracy

Kauno pilis
DELFI (R.Achmedovo nuotr.)

Reconstructions of roads, bridges and pedestrian areas reshaped the look of Lithuania’s second city – but also raised many questions about the relationship between urban development and local democracy. A new municipal government promised ambition, a ‘cleaner’ panorama, and science valleys – but it also exhibited a tendency to blend public and private domains.

Pro-business municipal government

Local elections brought a new political force into the traditionally Conservative-dominated municipality of Kaunas. Businessman Visvaldas Matijošaitis, listed among the top-50 most influential public persons by DELFI, managed to convince Kaunas residents to shift their preferences to his newly formed political movement and became the mayor.

For the first time in many years, the nationalist party Jaunoji Lietuva (Young Lithuania) received no seats and no administrative positions in Kaunas. The party used to make sure that nationalist youth organizations received municipal permission for controversial annual right-wing marches on Independence Day.

Matijošaitis quickly made a name for himself with his lavish lifestyle, which also influenced his approach to his duties as mayor. The Ferrari-driving mayor with a habit of conducting business in his personal premises made headlines with his company’s promise to purchase and demolish the so-called ghost building – an unfinished hotel in the city center. The eerie building has scarred the landscape of Kaunas for nearly 12 years.

In a yet another curious mixture of public and private domains, Kaunas bus station temporarily relocated to the Akropolis shopping mall, while the historic station is closed for renovation. Next year, bus traffic is expected to return to the old station, complete with an underground parking garage.

The new municipality recently launched business-friendly policies, including fee reductions on business certificates for self-employed residents. Lifeguards, bicycle renters and the like will now pay only one euro for this certificate. The fee for self-employed care workers servicing people with disabilities will be halved. The campaign has been launched with a hashtag #permainos_Kaune (changes in Kaunas).

In an effort to attract more tourists and better preserve the city’s unique 20th century architectural heritage, Kaunas Municipality filed an application to have parts of the city included in the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage. However, some local businesses continued to ruin the city’s architectural heritage – during construction works, a local company destroyed a unique 19th century structure.

(Re)defining the meaning of freedom

Unprecedented mergers of universities are about to reshape Kaunas’ vibrant academic life. After Vytautas Magnus, Klaipėda, Šiauliai universities and the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences in Vilnius agreed to pool resources in order to carry out joint student admissions and research, other universities followed suit. Kaunas University of Technology and the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences have already presented a plan to merge by 2018.

A student protest in Kaunas on the 1st of September provoked discussions on the limits of freedom of assembly. A small group of students and graduates of Vytautas Magnus University joined yearly festivities for the first day of the academic year with an ironic post-graduation ‘wheel of fortune’. Among the ‘fortunes’ its student players could expect were emigration, low-paid service jobs and other grim future predictions.

The police quickly stopped the activity, and protest leaders were called to court for an unsanctioned public gathering. Even though the university’s rector stood up for the activists, the court sentence found one activist guilty of an administrative offense. Lithuanian law obliges organisers to report public gatherings to municipalities in advance.

Kaunas was also hit by the scandal over neglect and abuse in closed social care institutions for people with mental disabilities. The whole country, including high-ranking officials, were shocked to hear about various forms of abuse and neglect in these institutions, including one in Vilijampolė. An 11-year-old died after falling out of a window; a young girl choked on her food, even though employees knew that her medical condition predicted this could happen; a former worker reported that the institution allowed underage inhabitants to work as manual laborers in dubious circumstances.

“There is no excuse for this,” said President Dalia Grybauskaitė, in reaction to the deaths of two inhabitants of the social care institution, “it is the responsibility of the whole ruling majority and the government”. The institution houses over 200 people and has so far been spared from the efforts to de-institutionalize care facilities in line with Lithuania’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

Rebuilding bridges

Reconstruction of the main pedestrian street, Laisvės alėja, has drawn mixed feelings. An initial project envisaged opening the famous pedestrian street to cars, supposedly to draw upper-class shoppers to the street’s shopping area. This drew popular protests. Controversial aspects of the plan still remain to be discussed, and many Kaunas citizens feel they have not been properly consulted.

As car drivers are enjoying better roads and new facilities, cycling enthusiasts are worried that many urban developments will come at their expense. Kaunas is not known for bicycle-friendliness, and the initial plan of Laisvės alėja’s reconstruction would have made their movement even more restricted. A plan to open a public-funded bicycle rent service has stalled, while in Vilnius a similar scheme is immensely successful.

In early November, a new bridge was opened between the picturesque neighborhood of Panemunė and the up-and-coming residential neighborhood of Šančiai. An old bridge was demolished in 2012, as it was in an irreparable condition. The new bridge will optimize traffic and make these two neighborhoods more attractive to live. Construction works took three years and cost around €30 million.

In March, another Kaunas bridge received a facelift – the last Soviet symbols were removed from the former Aleksotas bridge – now renamed in honour of duke Vytautas the Great (video). This could only be done by removing Soviet plaques from the list of protected heritage objects. Lithuania has been fervently erasing any remaining Soviet symbolism from a variety of public spaces – iconic Soviet statues have also been removed from Vilnius this year.

More renovations of bridges and streets await as the Rail Baltica project is progressing – a high speed rail line will run across all the Baltic States to connect them to Poland and Western Europe. The branch from Warsaw to Kaunas has been completed, but no train traffic has started yet.

The year was also rich in cultural events, including Kaunas Biennial, jazz festivals and the Jazz Street initiative, concerts of world-class stars, and visits of performers from as far as Japan, South Korea, Niger and Russia’s Tuvan Republic. A street art festival Nykoka brought subcultural art into the public eye, and a variety of new spaces for enjoying and experiencing urban culture (see cultural guide in The Guardian) have put Kaunas on a par with globally popular European cities.

Sports fans also had reason to be happy – Žalgiris, the basketball club which has become part and parcel of Kaunas local identity, formulated an ambitious vision to be one of the top-8 basketball clubs in Europe. In spring it triumphed in the regular season of the Lithuanian Basketball League and successfully landed among top-16 of the Euroleague.

The coming year will bring more ambition and more business, but the question of whether ordinary residents will have a voice in determining the shape of city developments that directly affect their lives remains unanswered.

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