Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Vilnius recovers its history, plans for the future

By Marion Kaplan  /  THE OBSERVER , VILNIUS, LITHUANIA

In Vilnius, the architecturally exquisite capital of Lithuania, scientists and high technology specialists are putting together the last details of a project to develop marketing clusters for a "knowledge economy." Last weekend, Lithuanians celebrated the 750th anniversary of the coronation in 1253 of King Mindaugas, the founder of Lithuania.

There is no contradiction in these two happenings. Each reflects Lithuanians joyful recovery of their national identity and the determined leap since the restoration of independence in 1990 to a dynamic, modern society. Now well in the past are the long years of domination by Poland, partition, subjugation and horrific oppression by Nazi Germany and Russia.

Lithuania, with an area of 65,300km2, is the biggest of three Baltic states -- Estonia and Latvia the others -- and is among the 10 countries due to join the EU next May. The referendum on accession to the Union, held in May this year, produced an ultra-high 91 percent "yes" from the 64 percent of the population (total 3,692,600) who turned out to vote -- a result vindicating the efforts of the 46-year-old campaigning Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas.

Worried about their future, farmers in the lake-dotted lowlands have been encouraged to present projects and apply for support through the EU-initiated Special Accession Program for Agriculture and Rural Development (SAPARD), launched in 2001. By contrast, the half-million people of Vilnius are bursting with optimism.

It is Vilnius which has attracted much the most direct investment -- to the degree that the IMF, while praising Lithuania's economic performance, noted last month a widening development gap between the capital and other regions.

Vilnius is a gleaming vista of baroque domes and towers, of more than 30 lavishly ornamented churches. An impressive Old Town with medieval roots gracefully integrates with newer neighborhoods. Smart shops and classy hotels line the winding streets. There are international restaurants, cheerful bars, discos and strip clubs.

The past, art and architecture or unspeakable horror, is eloquently recorded in the city's museums. At the entry to a small Holocaust Museum, a "Complete List of Executions" carried out in just one area from April to December 1941 chillingly itemizes a total of 137,346 deaths. About 220,000 Jews lived in Lithuania in 1941; more than 90 percent were exterminated during World War II.

On the main Gediminas avenue, a building that today houses the law courts was formerly the Soviet KGB headquarters. In its grim basement, tourists may visit a Genocide Museum of bleak cells recalling the fate of some 250,000 Lithuanians arrested, tortured, deported or executed.

There are still prisons, yet things are rather different. In a beauty pageant in a women's penitentiary, a pretty 22-year-old (crime unspecified) won a silver diadem and the title of Miss Captivity.

Streets and parks are being refurbished and an entire Royal Palace rebuilt.

The palace was destroyed when Russia occupied Lithuania at the end of the 18th century and attempted to obliterate all national characteristics.

Vilnius is a UNESCO world heritage site so preserving the city's history and culture is considered crucial. Apart from UNESCO itself, funding for Old Town reconstruction projects came from a variety of private and public sources.

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