Reform with a Bulldozer

The Lithuanian mayor who crushed a car with a tank makes a similar, and controversial, move against an illegal Roma settlement.

By Linas Jegelevicius

Vilnius, 09/03/2012 - France‘s move to bust up Roma encampments and send their inhabitants packing caused an outcry across Europe in 2010. But in Vilnius, officials have been demolishing a decades-old Roma community with barely a whisper of condemnation beyond the country‘s borders.
City Hall says the destruction is part of an effort to clean up the neighborhood and stem drug trafficking. Critics say it’s a ploy by the city’s flamboyant mayor to win support for his fledgling political party before parliamentary elections in the fall.


Workers clear belongings from houses to be torn down. Photo by Rita Stankeviciute for the Lietuvos Zinios newspaper.

In mid-February, Mayor Arturas Zuokas ordered the demolition of three illegally built houses in a Roma settlement and has targeted another 19. The settlement, one of two in the city’s Kirtimai neighborhood, houses nearly 200 people in some 20 plank-and-cardboard shacks. Nearly everyone there is unemployed.
The only public service the community receives is electricity, which comes from dangerously dangling illegal cables.
Inside the shacks, though, are surprising signs of affluence, including new televisions and tablet computers set atop wobbly tables. Parked along the muddy roads leading into the settlement are several new Mercedes.
In 2008, the city’s planning and construction department ruled that the houses there were built illegally and should come down.

Arturas Zuokas

“The municipality will do everything in order not to have the Roma settlement on the Vilnius map any longer. The Roma themselves agree that the conditions they live in are very adverse to rearing children,” Zuokas said in a statement after the demolitions.

The settlement, near the city‘s airport, has become a notorious drug market, but officials are determined to transform the area into an economic development zone, with the opening of an IKEA store this year as the starting point.
Police statistics show that the Kirtimai neighborhood was the scene of 1,640 drug-related violations last year, the highest rate in the city. The paths leading to the Roma settlement, lined by thick bushes in summer, are often littered with used syringes. Dealers have even built several tiny outdoor toilet-like stalls where heroin users can shoot up.
In an attempt to fight the drug trade, Vilnius police years ago placed a "mobile precinct,” or trailer, on the outskirts of the settlement, but buyers and sellers simply found paths and hiding places inaccessible to police vehicles.
“The cops may have succeeded in making our life harder, but they aren‘t going to stop people who need the stuff,” said a Romani man in his early 20s who refused to give his name. “The people who need it will come here or somewhere else no matter what, and we need to make a living here somehow.”
The precinct‘s deputy police chief, Robertas Daugenas, said many of the Roma settlement’s residents have been convicted for selling drugs.
“Sweeping away the Roma settlement will not put an end to the drug trade and narcotic addiction in Vilnius. Even if the camp is destroyed, the metastases of the tumor will spread throughout Vilnius,” Daugenas said. “However, Kirtimai is an island beyond the reach of Lithuanian law. That can’t go on forever.”
Few dispute that the area has been a hub of the drug trade, but critics question why the mayor has moved now, nearly four years after the planning department’s decree and in the coldest months without making provision for those left homeless by the demolitions.
Stepas Vysockis, chairman of the Vilnius Roma Community, called the demolitions “a daylight ambush” and said they are more about seizing what will become prime real estate than about fighting the drug trade or clearing out illegal buildings.
“The settlement has been here since 1934 and no mayor ever dared to ambush it before Zuokas took office,“ Vysockis said, vowing to take the fight to Brussels institutions.
Adding to the suspicion about the mayor‘s motives is the fact that there are almost 500 illegal structures across Vilnius, according to the planning department, that have not yet been targeted for demolition.
Arkadijus Vinokuras, a political analyst and commentator, said illegally built structures are scattered across Lithuania, even in protected heritage zones. Alluding to hotels owned by basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis in the resort town of Neringa, he said, “The Roma remember well that recently the government issued a decree allowing several high-profile illegal buildings to stay, despite the Supreme Court’s incontrovertible ruling that they be demolished.”
As in virtually every place where they live in large numbers, the Roma are unpopular in Lithuania.
In a 2007 survey, 47 percent of business owners said they would not want to hire a Rom under any circumstances.
Four years later, in a survey by GfK Custom Research Baltic, 87 percent of respondents said they would not want Roma as neighbors. The next-least desirable neighbors were Poles, at 51 percent, and Jews, at 45 percent.
“Alas, animosity toward the Roma is great and perhaps even quietly supported at the highest levels,” said Henrikas Mickevicius, director of Lithuania’s Human Rights Monitoring Institute.
“To be tough on an unpopular minority is always popular. And any action against it, even like the one in the camp, isn’t going to  backfire,” Mickevicius said.
“The Lithuanian public still dislikes gypsies a lot, and Zuokas is the master of PR and public psychology,” Vinokuras, the political analyst, said. “Who could be against the kind of slogans that have become policy in Vilnius, like ‘No to the Roma encampment in Vilnius!’ ‘No drug-related deaths!’ ” 
Zuokas won the 2011 mayoral race with a raft of populist promises, including raising salaries for Vilnius residents, launching a discount airline from the city, and significantly cutting residents’ heating bills. He also promised to curb illegal parking in the city and, in a stunt that drew international attention, drove a tank over a car that was parked in a bicycle lane.
Aistas Mendeika, editor of the Svyturys regional newspaper, said Zuokas is trying to make “one or two big splashes” in order to draw domestic and international attention and boost his new center-right party’s chances in the upcoming elections. Zuokas’ Taip (Yes) party debuted with more than 1,000 members, but it has languished at the bottom of opinion polls.
“Our houses were rundown and cold, but still, why didn’t the mayor and the government provide us another place to live, before tearing them down?” demanded Gora Rynkevic, who lives in the settlement but whose house has been spared, so far. “What have they done to provide jobs for those who want to work but not sell drugs? They’ve done nothing.”
Rynkevic’s neighbor Nadya Mickevic said she lacks the documents required to get housing elsewhere. A lack of official papers is a problem for Roma across Europe in getting access to health care, social benefits, even education.
“And why did they destroy the dilapidated houses in winter, even though we asked them to wait for warmer weather?” Mickevic said.
Asked what she intends to do if the whole settlement is swept away, Mickevic was blunt. “If I struggle to feed my kids, I’ll sell dope in other Vilnius regions, though it’s not something I really want to do,” she said.
This is not the first time that Zuokas has targeted illegal buildings in a Roma neighborhood. During a previous stint as governor, in 2004, he oversaw the destruction of other houses in Kirtimai, but a court ruled against the action on a technicality and ordered the local government to pay 16,000 euros ($21,000) in compensation to the Roma.
This time, the mayor has said he will look to the EU for help in funding housing subsidies and other integration programs for the settlement’s displaced residents.
“Roma integration is a very sensitive issue. However, can tearing down buildings and forcing people out change their behavior and resolve the issues they deal with?” said Paule Kuzmickiene, a member of the city council from the nationally dominant Homeland Union-Christian Democrats. Kuzmickiene said Zuokas wants a quick fix to a problem that will take a long time to solve. “Sadly, he hasn’t learned from France’s Sarkozy, who having driven out Roma of Paris saw them return to the city in a couple months. This path leads Vilnius to nowhere.”

Linas Jegelevicius is a freelance journalist in Klaipeda, Lithuania. Homepage photo by Rita Stankeviciutefor the Lietuvos Zinios newspaper.