Šimonyte: Baltic bubble persists on cooperation level

Evelyn Kaldoja
Lithuania’s new Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonyte.
Lithuania’s new Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonyte. Photo: Eero Vabamägi / Postimees

Lithuania’s new Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonyte does not deny having close ties to the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) in whose name she has been an MP, run for president and is now head of government. At the same time, she does not consider joining the party to be important.

Recalling how two Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) politicians called into question the legitimacy of elections in Lithuania that saw Šimonyte to power makes her laugh out loud. “We hear similar tales from some of our politicians. We treat them as anecdotes,” she says.

What shape was Lithuania in when you became prime minister?

It happened at the height of the second wave of the coronavirus. The number of new cases was ballooning, our healthcare system was under considerable pressure and the number of deaths was up. The latter will persist for some time after the number of new cases starts coming down. The first thing the new government did was introduce tougher restrictions. Unfortunately, it was just before Christmas.

It seems right now that we saw the peak of the crisis in late December and the pace at which new cases are registered has slowed by half. The pressure on the healthcare system has let up, we are seeing fewer positives – the data seems to suggest the situation is improving to a certain extent.

However, there are plenty of new dangers. Firstly, we have all heard about new mutations that are rather contagious. As we have seen in Ireland, the number of new cases can start growing again quite quickly. That is why we are cautious when it comes to easing restrictions.

We are trying to promote vaccination. Our pace of vaccination is quite good looking at European countries, however, because we are getting so few vaccines in… We would like to have more doses and be able to do more.

Lithuania’s COVID-19 statistics were very bleak for a time and the country was among those worst off in Europe. How much of it was down to the previous government’s action or inaction and how much a coincidence?

It all worked together. The government might initially have been reluctant to introduce restrictions because of looming elections, political reasons, so as not to intimidate and sadden people.

However, it is less clear why the previous government still did not take measures after elections when it became clear that the government would change as the infection rate was exploding.

Had things been locked down in late October, the situation would perhaps have been better by the year’s end and we would have had fewer deaths, which is the saddest part of it. People have lost parents, grandparents, relatives – it is tragic on a personal level.

On the other hand, we should not be lulled into a fake sense of safety and believe that [current] measures will solve everything.

While measures Ireland took in October were successful and reduced the number of new cases considerably, new strains have reversed that trend and life has been shut down again in the country (recent information suggests Ireland has Europe’s highest case rate at 1444.44 cases per 100,000 residents – E. K.).

Public life is still closed in Israel despite the fact they have vaccinated the most people per capita.

A lot could have been done before, while that does not mean we can let our guard down. Had we not shut things down around Christmas, the number of new cases would have kept growing for two weeks after the holidays.

I am sorry that the previous government did not do what they should have done, while I also do not believe we would be in the clear today had they taken measures.

You have a background in economics. What about calls not to overlook the economy and seek compromises to keep certain sectors afloat?

The economy remains open for the most part. Industrial production is still there. Provided there is no major outbreak, production and vital services are going. A lot of businesses operate online. They have also not disappeared.

Our industry did very well in 2020 as production volumes grew considerably. Export also performed well. The economy is still there.

The problem is with activities that tend to bring people together and increase contact between them. We want to lower the number of contacts because that is how the virus spreads. Which is why [we have banned] mass gatherings, concerts and even eating out, visiting shopping centers and going to school.

We have results of studies published in medical journals that show how quickly the virus is spreading in different places and under different circumstances and are concentrating on places where the risk is greatest and not setting our sights on economic activity as such.

Of course, some companies are having major problems. It is a matter of survival if you are shut down for a few months or on a few occasions the same year. It becomes a question of whether you can come through und survive. Some will, while others most surely will not.

However, what would happen without closures and restrictions? Our healthcare system would simply collapse. It is also a part of the economy when people pay taxes in exchange for healthcare services.

We have dialed back regular healthcare services needed for other diseases and conditions than COVID-19. These people have been sidelined to an extent as more medical equipment and doctors have been assigned to address Covid. What should they do? They do not have the time to wait for the virus to pass.

Politicians must balance the interests of companies that want to work and make money and those of society in general that include access to health services.

People’s habits have changed. Even once Covid passes, it will take time for people to return to traveling, eating out and attending major gatherings as they used to.

We can see it in countries that did not have major closures during the first wave. Such as Sweden. Their economy suffered as much as everyone else’s because people refrained from traveling and eating out that changed the business landscape considerably.

We cannot say that everything would remain the same without government restrictions.

Considering that Lithuania is the least peripheral Baltic country and closest to the heart of Europe, how fond are you of the Rail Baltic project?

Very fond! It is reflected in how the project is coming along in Lithuania. We have no major issues with finishing the project on schedule. We are a major advocate of the project in Europe.

It could be a major EU success story if everything goes well. I discussed Rail Baltic with my Latvian and Estonian colleagues a few weeks back. I will also broach the subject with my new Estonian colleague once they take office.

All Baltic energy and transport infrastructure projects matter to us as they tie us to where we have always belonged, while it was attempted to drag us out 80 years ago. All of these links will make us stronger. I believe in all of these projects. Not only from an economic point of view but also politically.

To what extent are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania trying to cooperate in managing the coronavirus crisis these days? Moving from one country to the next, it seems everyone sports a different approach.

I do not agree. It is true in terms of local administration as there are country-specific details involved. We are at the top of the transit corridor as we are nearer to Poland, which is why we need to consider similar things. Estonia needs to consider different aspects.

We have done more than a few things in the few weeks our government has been in office.

The UK travel ban before Christmas. We got it done together and on the same day. There was perfect cooperation between our governments. It is clear that Riga Airport being open has an effect on Tallinn. We tried to coordinate efforts and I believe did quite well.

The Pfizer vaccine problems cropped up last week (week before last – E. K.). We voiced our concern together with the Nordics after Pfizer cut deliveries that caused at least some of those quantities to return.

We are pursuing good cooperation in matters that require joint action. We are looking forward to the new government in Estonia and hope we can move forward as successfully with them. Professional cooperation is working brilliantly.

Why couldn’t we have a Baltic travel bubble where our relatively small populations could travel freely without additional restrictions?

We are not allowing restriction-free travel from Vilnius to Kaunas. I do not know whether I would dare ask dear Krisjanis (Karins, prime minister of Latvia – E. K.) or the Estonian PM to let us come in a situation where we are not allowing people outside to see the sights.

We will certainly coordinate matters once we reach a somewhat more sustainable level. We have discussed it before and will again at the Baltic Council of Ministers of which Lithuania holds the presidency this year. Vaccination and travel coordination.

Approaches differ in different places. Some of us have not closed schools while we did. There are a lot of local factors that matter.

This summer was a good example of cooperation. I had nowhere to go and so I decided to drive to Latvia for a few days to see places I had not yet seen. I visited the seaside, Liepaja for instance.

It is about the rather complicated situation today. But we are still coordinating efforts and staying in touch. We are trying to gauge where the Estonian and Latvian governments stand on what people coming from abroad are required to do, especially in light of new mutations that are troubling everyone.

The bubble still exists, even though we find ourselves in a more complicated situation than six months ago. We are trying to coordinate matters as much as possible.

You have been in politics for over ten years, while you still have not joined a political party.


Why is that?

I do not know. It does not really matter to me.

I do not believe in movements that come and go, that are created by charismatic people who cannot find a place in existing parties. I believe in traditional right- and left-wing politics, a right- and left-center party system.

I am afraid of people who are right-wing on social issues and leftists when it comes to the economy. It is populism in the worst sense where one plays on people’s fears.

People are afraid of “the others” who do not talk like them, look like them or attend the same religious rites. They are also afraid for their financial situation. Which is why people like that promise to ban immigration and give the money to the people. It will never happen as these projects always fail. However, it sounds good to a part of the population who cannot understand that it is too good to be true, which is how these politicians get elected.

I am a right-centrist politician and have always occupied this political corner. But I cannot tell you why I have not joined a political party. I keep saying that perhaps one day I will wake up and think that I will join a party today – and then do it.

It is not that important to me, even though I realize it might sound crazy for some people.

There are people who change their political ties. It is not something I would like to do.

And the party – Homeland Union – has not contacted you to suggest you should join?

I believe they have not used the word “should.” I am sometimes asked if I will join the party, but I believe that parties – not just ours but everywhere in the world, especially more traditional ones – should think about how to attract the public.

People used to think there should be a clear party career. That everyone who becomes minister or holds elected office should be a member of a party. However, this sometimes makes it impossible to involve others who share the same values and approach.

I believe that openness is rather important. Sticking with the traditional hierarchy runs the risk of people saying that parties no longer matter at some point. They are already saying it to an extent as all of these movements seem not like parties but a group of people with a single idea – sometimes a very bad idea, for example, the desire to ban immigrants and gay people – which is all they can offer.

I deeply believe in traditional parties because they can offer a program. They are not built on a single issue. They have their values, understanding of taxes, public sector, social security that is placed in certain context.

If you are right-wing, you want less governance, while you want more of it as a left-winger, but other topics are also in line with the general way they think. I am afraid of single item movements that are usually very factious and emotional. Floating such things at a single election could not be easier in the social media era.

But what will happen next if you lack a program for everything else? It is something traditional parties should seriously ponder to remain socially relevant in the long run.

You came to politics in the team of Andrius Kubilius. Do you still consult him as a former prime minister today?

I was not a politician back then and still thought to some extent that politics was not for me. I believed I was an expert on some matters, but public attention that comes with politics is not something I am comfortable with.

I would prefer to walk around in a pair of jeans and do not feel comfortable when everyone knows who I am. Attention is not a bad thing in itself, while I do not feel like a celebrity. That is not what I enjoy about politics.

But I decided that times are tough. I would not have accepted under different circumstances. I thought that someone has to do it in a situation where everyone kept saying no. Which is why I decided to come and do the best I can to clear up this mess and then close the political chapter in my life. I initially thought it would be for about three months.

How did it make you feel to learn that a ruling party in Estonia has doubts concerning the legitimacy of elections in Lithuania?

I would have needed some assistance had these allegations been made against Lithuania alone. But because they had gone after U.S. elections before that… (Laughs for a spell.) I shrugged.

I immediately received a call from your prime minister who said that the position was not that of your government. I would have guessed it was the position of a few ministers and not the cabinet myself. I treated it as a personal opinion as I do not believe it has the potential to go beyond that. It was a little peculiar, while some of our politicians are saying similar things. We treat them as anecdotes.

Translation by Marcus Turovski.