• May 16, 2015
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Will the historic Vilnius Region be divided?

“They attack our folks!” — once more Polish minority raises the alarm. This time it is caused by a governmental motion to divide the Vilnius County (Vilniaus apskritis). Preliminary approval was given to propositions prepared by the Ministry of the Interior during deliberations of Lithuanian government on Monday (11 May). The propositions stipulate that local governments of district municipalities (rajono savivaldybė) ofŠvenčionys, Širvintos andUkmergė will be joined to the Utena County(Utenos Apskritis) and the local government of Šalčininkai District Municipality (Šalčininkų rajonas) will become a part of Alytus County(Alytaus apskritis). Vilnius, the Vilnius District Municipality, Trakai District Municipality (Trakų rajono savivaldybė) and the city Elektrėnaiwill remain in the Vilnius County.

It is beyond doubt that joining Polish local governments to counties dominated by Lithuanian local governments is not the best idea. Nevertheless, it would be good to know what are the causes of such a proposition. In spite of appearances, that decision is not unequivocal, let alone, unequivocally anti-Polish. If you do not know what it is about – it is always about the same thing. It is about money. And about NUTS.

NUTS (Nomenclature des unités territoriales statistiques) is a geocode standard developed in the European Union for referencing the subdivisions of countries for statistical purposes. The NUTS classification appeared in the UE in 1988. In 2003 the European Parliament and the Council issued the Regulation on the NUTS classification. Modified many times the regulation applies to his day. The NUTS was created in order to solve the problem of diversity of administrative divisions in the EU. Each country has different territorial division (voivodeship, region, powiat, local government). Those divisions are often changed and therefore it is difficult for European officials to compare statistical data from various regions from different countries and to award grants to those who need them the most. In order to solve those problems all of the regions in the EU were divided into three levels (categories) the NUTS 1, 2 and 3. That division does not always correspond to country’s’ administrative divisions (i.e. the NUTS region may be composed of one subdivision or several subdivisions).

The most important in this division are NUTS 2 and NUTS 3 because they signify regions which need European structural funds the most. On the NUTS 2 level regions which are at a low level of development are supported and on the NUTS 3 level regions which require restructuring and border regions. Levels the NUTS 1 and the NUTS 2 cover whole Lithuania and the NUTS 3 counties (powiats). And now begins the difficult part. Support of the European Union depends on GDP per capita in each NUTS. If the level of GDP in a NUTS exceeds 75 % of the average in the EU, support is automatically withdrawn. In 2013 the average of GDP in Lithuania reached 73 % of the European average. It is predicted that it will exceed the 75% threshold and therefore if changes of division of particular Lithuanian local governments among NUTS 2 and NUTS 3 regions will not be implemented, Lithuania will be recognized as a country of a transitional period. The support for Lithuania from structural funds will be reduced by €2.7 billion which constitutes 40% of the funds provided to Lithuanian regions presently. The need for additional funds for regional development projects from the State budget will increase by €1.2-1.4 billion. It means that those additional funds will have come from tax payers’ money.

Paradoxically, the biggest problem is…Vilnius’s rapid economic development. It inflates the GDP average in the Vilnius County and makes it higher than the average GDP in the European Union. Consequently, Vilnius County, including prosperous Vilnius and Šalčininkai which is in a poor financial and economic condition, is classified as NUTS 2. Because of this, the EU may provide less money from structural funds for less developed local governments in the Vilnius county (Šalčininkai, Širvintos , Švenčionys, Ukmergė) and at the same time, Lithuanian government has to support such EU projects in 40% instead of current 15%. In consequnece, there will simply be less such regional development projects.

In the present situation there are two ways of dealing with the issue. One possibility is to leave territory and administrative division just as it is now and lose a lot of EU funds for regional development. The other one is to change borders of the counties. The government and the Ministry of the Interior propose to create a new NUTS 2 region (Lithuania will be then divided into two NUTS 2 regions). The new region will include Vilnius and the more developed local governments of the Vilnius and Trakai District Municipality and Elektrėnai. The rest of the local governments of the Vilnius District Municipality will be joined to less developed neighbouring counties: Utena County and Alytus County which are classified as NUTS 3. Consequently, the EU support and the concessionary rules according to which those money are granted will not change for Šalčininkai, Širvintos, Švenčionys. According to the EU law, NUTS 3 region shuld not have less than 150 000 inhabitants. Since Šalčininkai District Municipality does not border Ukmergė, Širvintos and Švenčionys District Municipalities it is physically impossible to create a separate county from those less developed but to a greater or smaller degree Polish regions.

There is however one more solution. It is the most radical one because it involves changing the old territorial and administrative division of Lithuania and creating more counties in the place of the current 10. In this way, in the whole Vilnius Region (Vilniaus kraštas) there could be even 3 small counties instead of just one. After the implementation of the government’s propositions the Vilnius Region will be divided between three district municipalities anyway but with the majority of Lithuanian population, with the exception of the Vilnius County which will become more Polish. We should remember that the bigger the number of district municipalities is the bigger the number of officials is for whose work we have to pay. There are also the UE requirements for NUTS and regions which constitute them and therefore the new territory and administrative division is going to be much more difficult to get approved by the EU than the Ministry of the Interior’s propositions…

The local government of the Šalčininkai District Municipality has already protested against it. But it protested more against the “bulldozer” policy typical for our country (i.e. making decision without public consultation) than against the proposition itself. It results from the fact that those who govern Šalčininkai are not certain what would be better for them: remain as a part of the Vilnius County and loose the EU support or enter the Alytus County and retain the funds. What are the prima facie threats for Poles living in Lithuania caused by the new administrative division? Borders of local governments, gminas (one of the administrative units) or particular towns, villages and cities will not change. The division of constituencies will also remain unchanged. It will not be necessary to declare one’s place of residence anew. There are de facto two cons. Firstly, the distance to the centre of the county will be almost two times longer for inhabitants of Šalčininkai and Širvintos(the distance will be almost two times smaller for inhabitants of Švenčionys). This may be burdensome, especially when one has to go to a central county office and there is no subsidiary office in Šalčininkai or in Širvintos. But with the majority of the matters the inhabitants go to local governments and counties are rather institutions of regional development. Without doubt, the new division will result in diminution of EAPL’s (Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania) power in regional development county councils. However, EAPL’s current influence is not that significant either (currently, there are 6-7 representatives of EAPL in Vilnius region development council but that data refers to the situation before the election to local governments. After the upcoming elections, EAPL will lose some of the seats because it may no longer be in the Vilnius governing coalition. After the reform EAPL will have 1-3 seats in the three regions). Secondly, there will be second division of the historic Vilnius region. No as drastic as the one from 1939 when it was divided between Lithuania and Belarus, but nevertheless it will be divided between three State counties and two European ones. For me, personally, as a Vilnius Region patriot the last one division is particularly disagreeable but if it means quicker development of particular parts of my “heimatu”(a region to which one is emotionally attached) maybe this is worth the risk?

Of course, I do not like the fact that the propositions were not consulted, even preliminary, with the local government authorities whom the changes may concern. Anyway, currently this is just government’s preliminary decision. Those who think that that decision is premature are wrong because the EU regulations concerning NUTS is changed every three years. The next change will possibly be in the end of 2016 so there is not that much time left for consulting the new division with the European Commission. Let us not forget that there is also much to be done in the national law. By the 30 September this year, the Ministry of the Interior will have to have opinion polls carried out among inhabitants of local governments which are going to be joined. Moreover, it will have to have obtained opinions of local government councils, prepared amendments to the Act on territorial and administrative units and their borders and discussed it with institutions concerned and presented them in the Seimas. It seems that the government, local government and the society will have time to assess the situation properly. The most important thing is to evaluate all the pros and cons wisely without making any prior assumptions.

Translated by Barbara Żur within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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