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© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Politicians took interest in Vilnius region only recently. The region, which no one except the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Union (LLRA-KŠS) that entrenched itself there, cared about has suddenly become especially important in the past few years. At the end of June, the Ministry of Interior (VRM) announced that the government has agreed to a plan, which would result in 60 million euro being earmarked for the region over three years.

The parliament majority motivates such attention to the region through immense economic and social differences, thus it should be "saved" first of all. Meanwhile, experts observed amassive benefit of such a plan to one political power – the LLRA-KŠS and do not dismiss the possibility that such a "gift" to LLRA-KŠS ruled regions is made as thanks to the party's support in Seimas.

First idea did not catch on

A proposal to establish the so-called Southeast Lithuania fund was made first in 2012. Its author was Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas. According to him, the logic behind the idea was simple – the intent was to create a financial instrument, which would allow local communities to directly, rather than through municipalities, obtain financing and implement various projects.

"The metrics showed that the capital effect was not fully exploited. The Šalčininkai region is especially one of those, which attracts the least foreign direct investment. Not only due to any specifics in the region, but also because the Electoral Action of Poles has no interest in the entry of figures, which would create alternative places of employment, which would in principle allow people to be less dependent on the loyalty network created by the municipality. In essence, the Electoral Action of Poles controls all institutions there," L. Kasčiūnas told Delfi.

This is why based on the primary idea for the fund, applications would have been processed by a special fund commission and funds distributed by a fund board. It was to be formed of 11 members – a representative each from the Vilnius region and Šalčininkai region municipalities, a representative each from these regions' local community associations and 7 representatives from state institutions. This way when distributing funds, the influence of the municipality would be minimal.

However, the Seimas rejected the idea. At the end of 2017, when the legislative project was proposed, it was criticised by both the ruling coalition parties and also by the LLRA-KŠS. It was claimed that this would be highlighting a specific region on an ethnic basis, furthermore, according to Polish Lithuanian politicians, the identity of ethnic minorities was threatened.

New plan – greater role for municipalities

However, the idea itself did not vanish – it re-emerged in public under a new name: Vilnius functional zone development plan. At the end of June the VRM released a statement that the cabinet has approved of this plan. Delfi contacted the VRM with a request for more details on the plan, however the ministry responded that it is not yet finalised and is being amended. The final version should be released in autumn.

The editorial office has been able to obtain an unofficial variant of the plan. After review, the question arises, why L. Kasčiūnas' fund proposal was found unsuitable and rejected, while the new plan, whose idea is in essence the same – to reinvigorate Southeast Lithuania – is making headway.

As both VRM Vice Minister Arūnas Gražulis and Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union (LVŽS) chairman Ramūnas Karbauskis explained to Delfi, the new plan differs from the previously proposed fund in that it is a single part of a plan that would encompass all of Lithuania. Furthermore, the cabinet found it unsuitable that the municipalities would essentially be removed from the decisions. The new plan intends to actively cooperate with municipalities, that is to say also with LLRA-KŠS representatives.

"The Vilnius functional zone development plan and proposal on the Southeast Lithuania fund are fundamentally different. In the latter case it was sought to create a financing mechanism, which would not adhere to general budgeting principles and legislatively regulated state and municipality relations, that is to say it could be used for ad hoc financing of certain projects and removing certain municipalities from the process. A cabinet seeking consistency in the legislative system could not approve such a model," A. Gražulis wrote in his response to Delfi.

According to the VRM vice minister, the implementation of the Vilnius functional zone development plan is to be done in cooperation with municipalities. Financing will be provided to municipalities as the implementers of specific projects, having agreed on specific results with them.

"The municipalities themselves will not be able to assign financing. Financing will be provided in consideration of not only the municipalities' wishes, the ministries will analyse the region's needs themselves and will make the most effective decisions," A. Gražulis said.

According to R. Karbauskis, in this place, the Southeast Lithuania region is not exceptional. It was simply chosen as a starting point because economic and social deifferences in it are the greatest. Meanwhile the municipalities are involved because without their participation it would be difficult to implement such plans.

"We are talking about a project spanning all of Lithuania, which is outlined in the White Book in 2018. The choice of the Vilnius region is very logical because just imagine what differences are in such a small region, after all the distances are up to 100 kilometres, but the differences in welfare and everything else are absolutely massive. (...) If we took any other region – say Panevėžys or Šiauliai, the differences there are far smaller (...). I believe this is what the cabinet based the choice on," R. Karbauskis told Delfi.

LLRA-KŠS feeling sceptical

Meanwhile the LLRA-KŠS representatives were sceptical. According to them, there were earlier plans to improve the circumstances of the Vilnius region, but everything would only end in talks. LLRA-KŠS Seimas group prefect Rita Tamašunienė told Delfi that the overall idea of the plan is not bad because the region certainly needs financial support, but according to her, some of the measures mentioned in the plan are already in place.

"The 60 million euro also mentions some measures that are already in place. (...) I would like to say that the plan is in my opinion an electoral one because the municipalities, in cooperation with the ministries, participating in various programmes, are already putting those measures in place. The plan outlines measures for the region and portrays how the region will be supported. The intent is to portray that there is attention. Just as with the first fund – attention was provided, but it completely missed the mark of what was declared," R. Tamašunienė said.

She states that if we look at other regions, they are supported in a similar way, they also receive financing and implement projects, but no one highlights them or speaks of them. In terms of the rule of municipalities, the MP said she is convinced that the opinions of local municipal representatives should be listened to, what measures the region requires and how they should be implemented.

According to R. Tamašunienė, currently the municipal represenatives of the Vilnius region are in discussions with various ministries, arranging, what can be done in the region. The LLRA-KŠS group and politicians in Seimas are also consulted.

"Truth be told, based on experience so far, it is hard to evaluate anything because up to today we have heard many appealing promises on various support for Southeast Lithuania, development funds, programmes and such, but we have not received any extra funding. I hope that the Vilnius functional zone development plan will grant the Vilnius region council a leading role where municipal representatives will be delegated," R. Tamašunienė stated.

Vilnius region Mayor Marija Rekst essentially agrees with R. Tamašunienė. In a response to Delfi she outlines that there were "many achievements, but also disappointments" in cooperating with the ministries. The mayor also observes certain threats in the plans.

"I would want for municipalities to have more power in Lithuania. In this case, the central government will create a fund. It is important that the ministries would not establish limiting criteria for the selection of projects because at the moment when implementing EU projects, we are faced with belated financial reports, constantly changing conditions," the response to Delfi states.

M. Rekst confirmed again that the essential difference between the new and old idea is that the earlier idea cut off the municipalities from fund distribution, while based on the new plan, according to the mayor, they are granted opportunities to select measures that should be implemented.

"Gift" to Polish politicians?

Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) Institute of Political Science director, TS-LKD Vilnius region branch head Gediminas Kazėnas believes that the clear statement that the plan's implementation will also feature municipal representatives shows that the ruling coalition are pandering to a political power and the LLRA-KŠS, which has massive power in the region, will only increase its powers. He did not dismiss the possibility that beneath all this lies the majority's agreement with Polish politicians on support in Seimas.

"Kasčiūnas' variant was mostly criticised by the Electoral Action of Poles due to the side-lining of municipalities. Now, if the municipalities are involved, then it is certainly convenient for them because this is further financing. Overall, speaking of activities, it is hard to do anything without municipalities, eventually you have to deal with them. Thus if the municipality obtains a certain administrative role in this process, then the role of its representatives rises even more and the ruling coalition is thus pandering to a certain political power," G. Kazėnas believes.

In his opinion, the LLRA-KŠS group in Seimas has been in an informal coalition with the majority since early this year. By obtaining further financial instruments, this party's political and economic significance will rise, as will its influence.

"On the other hand, as is often the case around here, the devil lies in the details. That the municipalities are involved is not bad, if you look in general. But make sure that they are not given the final decision or that deciding role. So that they would not be the ones, who decide, the ones to make the final decision. Say that there is some sort of commission, where you have the VRM, municipal representative, some prefects, it would all be good, but if they hand everything over to the hands of the municipalities, it would be all shots to one goal," G. Kazėnas believes.

Meanwhile, when asked if this plan could not be interpreted as a gift to the LLRA-KŠS prior to the municipal elections for the group's support to the ruling coalition, R. Karbauskis assured that the matters are not related.

"All regions will receive the same "gift" next year, if you are to call it that. It is a question of regional policy. And that the other cabinets and parties did not do it at all, that's their problem. Why should the "Farmers" be accused that the are giving "gifts", when they are simply implementing regions policy? (...)

Neither the Klaipėda nor Kaunas regions have such differences as that seen in Vilnius region. I believe that this was the argument for the choice. I certainly do not believe that someone would have claimed in the cabinet that someone needs some gifts. The Electoral Action of Poles support for us, let's say is very important, thus let us do it this way. That was certainly not the case," R. Karbauskis told Delfi.

As the VRM vice minister explained to Delfi, the Vilnius functional zone development plan does not create new sources of financing – it only creates opportunities to better exploit existing measures.

"Respectively, oversight of the public funds will be done by existing control measures, the use of all the funds will be regularly audited, thus talking about the risk of misuse of funds is futile here," A. Gražulis said.

According to him, the Vilnius functional zone development plan is also in no way linked to the municipal council and mayor elections. In his answer to Delfi, it is stated that already at the moment in the region (excluding the Vilnius city municipality) there are projects funded by solely EU funds for 72 million euro, a third of which will conclude by 2019.

According to A. Gražulis, extra resources are also planned, however this opportunity is first of all linked with the EU fund reserve review, that is to say, what funds can be used no earlier than the second half of 2019.