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Robert Nurden Guardian (2004.05.03)

Robert Nurden Guardian (2004.05.03)

Guardian Unlimited

Robert Nurden @ Vilnius
Monday May 3, 2004
The Guardian

An exact spot marks the centre of Europe. It's in Lithuania, 15 miles north of the capital, Vilnius. So it was inevitable that this tiny Baltic country, on the day it joined the EU, would make the most of its geographical position, pinpointed by the French National Geographical Institute in 1989.

Latitude 54 degrees and 54 minutes north, longitude 25 degrees and 19 minutes east is not a remarkable spot: a patch of boggy woodland just off the road to Moletai. On Saturday Lithuania's acting president, Arturas Paulauskas, presided over the unveiling of a white granite monument, with the flags of the 25 EU countries fluttering nearby. Speeches were made and the wind sighed through the silver birches before everyone piled back into their people carriers.

I asked our 21-year-old driver, Tautvidas Narusis, if he was proud to be a member of the EU. "Not really. Should I?" he asked. "It's a sensible thing but I don't feel I want to rejoice."

His less-than-enthusiastic response to his country's new-found role had been echoed by the events of the previous evening. As we walked towards Cathedral Square, with EU membership just 90 minutes away, the crowds were swarming in the opposite direction. "Where is everyone going?" we asked a reveller. "They are going home," she said. "The concert's over." These sensible Lithuanians were making sure of a good night's sleep, harbouring no sentiment for the symbolism of midnight. Besides, it was getting cold.

You can't really blame them. They've had a lot to think about recently. Lithuania's acceleration towards a market economy has not been matched on the political front. Parliament voted in early April to impeach its rightwing "kamikaze" president, Rolandas Paksas, for giving citizenship to Russian businessman Yuri Borisov in return for a financial leg up. Paksas's critics say the incident points to the way the Russian mafia plans to use Lithuania as an entree to the EU.

Given this constitutional upheaval, the lukewarm response to union makes sense. It is, as Tautvidas says, merely the right course of action, nothing to get worked up about. So national issues continue to predominate, particularly as their ousted stunt-pilot president has vowed to stand again in fresh presidential elections on June 13.

In the wider European community, the episode has raised fears of political instability within the accession countries. News, too, that the Paksas family regularly consult a cranky Georgian mystic, who claims to heal ailments by using strips of toilet paper, have only added to concerns about stability - in this case, those of a psychological nature.

Grutas Park must be one of the world's weirdest museums, a display of 70-odd Soviet sculptures of Stalin, Lenin and lesser-known local communists. The memorabilia are exhibited along with electric fences, wooden guard posts and loudspeakers blaring out Soviet propaganda. At the entrance you pass a cattle truck, one of many used to deport 360,000 Lithuanians to Siberia.

Millionaire owner Viliumas Malinaskas, ex-mushroom farmer and one-time wrestler, wanted to build a railway line to ferry visitors in a cattle truck so they could experience deportation at first hand. Lithuanians objected, and the project dropped.

Sporting a large, tasteless KGB tie like a 1980s footballer, Malinaskas claimed his theme park was "tasteful and educational", even as the turnstiles clicked.

We were lucky. To mark May Day, actors had been recruited to dress up and march around as Soviet pioneers, singing paeans to the dignity of work; Stalin waved his pipe and delivered tedious speeches; and Lenin sat on a bank fishing. Surreal it was, but suddenly Paksas seemed slightly less bizarre.

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