A tale of 'two Lithuanias' – where life in the main cities is worlds apart from the country's periphery. President-elect Gitanas Nausėda has pledged to eliminate the divide – but can he do it?
In his victory speech, President-elect Gitanas Nausėda pledged to transform Lithuania into a welfare state where life is good for everyone – without glaring “social, regional gaps”.
Yet, the difference between the highest and the lowest average pay in Lithuania's regions is 55 percent and unemployment can vary three times, according to the Lithuanian Free Market Institute.
Gintautas Sakalauskas, a criminologist from Vilnius, has first-hand experience of the gap between Lithuania's centre and periphery. He and his wife, both of whom are not tied to an office, moved from the capital to Širvintai town nine years ago. Soon, they befriended local children.
“We were newcomers in the village, so they would come to us to play board games,” Sakalauskas says. “The children thought that, since we didn't keep cows or pigs, we didn't do much, so they could come over whenever we were home.”
He realized that Širvintos children didn't have much to do after school, so he set up a day centre seven years ago.
Sakalauskas personally does not like the term 'two Lithuanias', but agrees that children in the main cities and elsewhere have widely different life chances. He reckons that kids in the countryside have only one tenth of the opportunities their peers in Vilnius enjoy.
“They come home from school, do some housework or don't do anything – there's no cinema around, no music concerts,” Sakalauskas says.
Most importantly, there is no public transport that could take children to activities in nearby towns. When Sakalauskas founded the day centre, he had to procure a van just to be able to organise some activities.
Economist Romas Lazutka agrees that inadequate public transport is one of the main reasons holding Lithuania's regions back. Higher-earners who can afford cars can easily travel 20 or more kilometres for work or leisure, but others cannot.
“Coming to work as a checkout counter operator in a supermarket in Vilnius from another village or town is not worth it – you won't simply make enough money to afford a car,” according to Lazutka.
Neither is relying on public transit an option, since buses often operate only a few times a day, or finish the service before the end of a workday.
“It's the government's neglect that led to this atrophy of public transport,” Lazutka says.
Regional pay gaps contributes to a lack of services in rural areas. People in Vilnius make, on average, €800 a month, while the average pay in Širvintos is about 25 percent less.
Ieva Valeišaitė, an expert of the Free Market Institute, says that in some municipalities, half of all the people looking for jobs have been out of work longer than a year.
“It's a vicious circle – people can't find work, they become long-term unemployed, lose skills and competences, often leave for abroad, and then businesses won't go to these places,” according to Valeišaitė.
Part of the solution lies with local authorities rather than the central government, she believes, suggesting that municipalities could set lower tax rates for self-employment or do more to engage with potential investors.
In some cases, however, local authorities actively hinder new businesses, says Rūta Skyrienė, the managing director of the Investors' Forum.
“Local councils are often made up of local businesspeople who are not interested in the coming of new businesses for fear of competition,” according to Skyrienė.
These municipalities are not interested in either investment or change, Skyrienė says. “Or they talk about becoming tourist attractions, even though they've got nothing to show.”