Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
The biggest stars of Lithuanian politics, including PM Algirdas Butkevičius, have allegedly splashed and caroused free in what many deem are five-star suites – inaccessible to others, in Aqua, a wellness and leisure centre in Druskininkai.
The resort town in southern Lithuanian has been known for years Social Democrats’ stronghold. Notably, the SPA centre is built for taxpayer money. The opposition does whatever it can to set fire amid the scandal, as Druskininkai authorities try to defuse it, insisting that big names from all the political parties enjoyed the treat.
PM denies allegations
At least five incumbent Social Democratic ministers and the Prime Minister himself reportedly basked the luxury and amenities off reach to the ordinary Aqua visitors. Among the other special guests allegedly were the former chief of STT, Lithuania’s Special Investigation Service and ,now, head of Lithuanian Parliament Speaker Loreta Graužinienė’s chancellery, local big shots and fat cats rubbing shoulders with Druskininkai mayor Ričardas Malinauskas, dubbed «tzar» for his long-term unchallenged ruling and ties with the country’s political elite. He is also a deputy chairman of Lithuania’s Social Democrat Party (SDP).
Following the revelation, Butkevičius’ advisor made statement that PM Algirdas Butkevičius has never used the centre. The other high-ranking Social Democrats mentioned by media mostly keep silence during the scrutiny.
Speaking to BNN, Gediminas Kirkilas, one of the leading members of the party, insisted «there is nothing to respond to.»
«I believe both the public and major of media outlets see that the whole story is stitched up with the seams from the SDP’s political opponents. In Druskininkai, we have always had strong positions and some try desperately to weaken them. If there’s anything illegal in the story, I’d like law enforcement to come forward and do their job,» Kirkilas told.
Off reach of ordinary folks
However, many people in Lithuania feel angry that VIP suites in Aqua are offered for exclusive guests and not accessible to ordinary customers.
«It is as if we are still living in the Soviet Union, where the apparatchiks (Communist party functionaries-L.J.) could enjoy amenities inaccessible to the grassroots,» a commentator posted under a story on Aqua.
The story first was broken out by LNK TV channel’s KK2 show producers.
Led by two Druskininkai councilmen, the journalists sneaked to the VIP suites on the wellness centre’s second floor.
The journalists exposed the posh elements of the rooms’ interior: expensive heavy chandeliers, sophisticated upholstery and embroidery characteristic to a five or six-star hotel, thick hand-made carpets and king-size beds, not to mention the royal space in the glitzy bathroom room.
Having found of the journalists’ visit, exasperated Druskininkai municipality heads asked law enforcement to start investigation in what they believe might have been a case of trespassing.
Opposition wants to see heads fly
With all‘s eyes set on Druskininkai, it also turned out that some of the municipality chiefs’ spouses were on Aqua board, pocketing lavish compensations.
Kaunas district prosecutors have already charged the Aqua director of abuse of power and misuse of the municipality’s resources, but the whistle-blowers, the councilmen, and the parliamentary opposition want see heads flying.
It is especially uneasy that corruption in Druskininkai might be wide-spread and suspect that some other Druskininkai officials might be mired in corruption, too. Recently, a head of the National Land Service’s Druskininkai affiliate has been apprehended on corruption charges.
With the investigation under the way, head of STT’ Kaunas branch has stepped down. Although he cited personal reasons, the suspicions are mounting that political pressure is behind the decision.
Reacting, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the chairman of the opposition Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, known as Conservatives, urged the parliamentarians to «thoroughly» investigate the case in Parliament’s Anti-Corruption Commission.
«Officials probing corruption crimes have to be completely protected from any political pressure, whatever party it comes from,» the Conservatives leader said.
But the Social Democrats and Labour Party are reluctant to give the green light for it.
Former Special Service head: «There’s nothing wrong about it»
Going back to the Aqua scandal, Žydrūnas Pocevičius, the former STT chief, was the first one to break silence and acknowledged he had visited the wellness centre four times.
«I don’t see anything bad in this, because there were events organized by the municipality and, therefore, one of the facilities run by it would provide accommodation for the guests later. I do not think there’s anything wrong about it,»Pocevičius defended himself.
With the brouhaha unrelenting, Malinauskas, the mayor, argues that not only his fellow party members, but high-ranking politicians from other parties have used the posh amenities, too.
He said Valentinas Mazuronis, the former Environment Minister and, now, the chairman of the Labour Party and MEP, as well as Vytautas Landsbergis, the Conservatives’ patriarch, were among the Aqua visitors who did not pay a cent for the services.
Who is right?
«There were so many various visitors- including Conservatives and Liberals- who came to the centre. It seems to me very weird when some people out there organize such kind of schemes in bid to avenge or make harm (to Druskininkai and personally to the mayor). Perhaps they are unclean themselves, therefore we will gather information and, when right time comes, we will make it public to all. If there’s need, we will submit proofs to the public, too,» the Druskininkai mayor said.
But a representative of Landsbergis denied that the prominent politician, who is also a piano virtuoso, has ever stayed in Aqua.
«As a matter of fact, Landsbergis has participated several times in the music festival «Music without borders» and he stayed in another sanatorium, which in partnership with the festival organizers, agreed to provide stay for the festival participants. You cannot invite someone and tell: hey, you will have to take care of your accommodation expenses yourself after you finish performing!»
PM is not behind contested decision?
What now the country’s special services focus on is the wide presence of the municipality’s senior officials’ spouses in the Aqua administration.
It appears that only the mayor’s wife toils in the wellness centre, but the spouses of the deputy mayor, administration director and some other high-ranking municipality officials are employed in it, too.
Malinauskas, the mayor and SD deputy chairman of, had to defend himself recently over the Social Democrats-led Government’s decision to abolish resort zones in the resort.
Long sought by the mayor, the decision is said to play into hands of town developers, not environmentalists and heritage protectors.
With many glancing to PM Butkevičius, Malinauskas denied any clout on the SD chairman and government head.
With the scandal still in the headlines, the mayor left for a business trip to Italy.
SDP is unscathed so far
Despite the adverse limelight the SD found itself in, the party seems to be unscathed so far in the polls.
«In fact, with the Aqua news already in the headlines, the newest poll shows that the support for Social Democrats has even increased. It’s truly phenomenal to see a ruling party ending tenure in Government to be enjoying support of over 20 percent,» Vytautas Dumbliauskas, a political analyst told BNN.
Asked what is behind the rock-solid support, he mentioned the buoyant economy and charisma of the leader, Butkevičius.
«All see that he an antipode to the previous prime minister, Conservaive Andrius Kubilius. Needless to say, the SDP leader is very optimistic, gregarious and able to rub shoulders with everyone,» the analyst pointed out.
He believes the Druskininkai scandal is too local and politicized: «Therefore the people just do not buy it.»
Kirkilas, of SDP, lampoons the oppositions: «It’s very weak, unfortunately. And very pesky, too.»