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UNESCO Adviser: “Leave the Curonian Spit in Peace, It Doesn’t Need a Bridge”

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Despite negative response from Lithuanian and Russian ecology experts concerning the construction of a bridge on the Curonian Spit Lithuania isn’t cancelling the project. It seems the threat of the cultural site losing its UNESCO World Heritage status has no effect on those who lobby construction on the spit. RuBaltic.Ru asked UNESCO Director-General’s Adviser Henrikas Juškevičius of what can influence the decision of Lithuanian authorities and about possible repercussions of the construction of the bridge.

Mr. Juškevičius, please, tell us, is UNESCO aware of all technical details of the project concerning building a bridge to Curonian Spit? How do you assess possible repercussions of that construction for the cultural site?

Officially UNESCO isn’t aware of anything. There’s only information received from former Minister of Culture of Lithuania Arūnas Gelūnas who’s now Lithuanian Ambassador to UNESCO. I personally had talks with him, and the current situation is that at the moment only Nida’s local authority has adopted a decision to build a bridge to Curonian Spit.

The construction of a bridge will undoubtedly cause ecological damage to Curonian Spit, and not only to Lithuanian part, but to Russian part as well. And this will lead the Curonian Spit to stop being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Similar case occurred with Dresden when the bridge over Elba was built without listening to international community. After that Dresden was removed from that honorable list. And there’s a lot of examples like that.

Building a bridge will increase the traffic of cars, that’ll be constantly driving through the spit – that’ll inflict damage on nature. The nature on Curonian Spit is very sensitive to such things. There are no such one-of-a-kind places neither in Lithuania, nor in Russia, so you got to apply careful treatment to it. Because it’s not simply a cultural monument with historical sites situated on it, but a monument of nature as well.

You’ve mentioned ecological problems which can happen on the territory of Russia. How will they reflect on the Russian part of the spit in case of the bridge construction in Lithuania?

The case is the same as in Lithuania. There will be an increase of traffic flow, for example, from Kaliningrad to the Lithuanian side. Because it’s more pleasant to drive through Curonian Spit than by other routes. It’s easier than ferry. You can just get in a car and drive through the bridge to Vilnius, Belarus, etc. It’s comfortable not only of tourists. There’s a possibility that the bridge will be also used for freight trucks, which will worsen the situation even more. That’s why ecological danger awaits not only Lithuanian, but Russian side too.

Lithuania and Russia pledged a number of obligations to international community when the Curonian Spit was awarded with a high status. What provisions will be violated if the construction will begin?

If any construction activities, possible of damaging the structure of the site, take place, their perspective must be evaluated by UNESCO experts. Alteration of visual appearance (cultural landscape) is just one of the violations. How serious is this violation – again, that’s for experts to decide. In my opinion, flora and fauna of Curonian Spit are subjected to the most dangerous risk.

Rūta Baškytė, the Head of State Service of Protected Areas of the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment, thinks that “the bridge to Curonian Spit is absolutely unnecessary”. Maybe, it’s just economically profitable for certain persons, its lobbyists, and there isn’t any special need for a bridge in reality?

Curonian Spit is a unique place. I’m disturbed by the fact that from time to time business people appear from Lithuanian or Russian side even ready to lay pavement of the dunes merely for sake of profit.

If the construction of the bridge indeed will be carried out, the costs will amount to 3 billion rubles. But Lithuania has many wonderful places where one could invest that money instead. Take Palangá, for example, which still isn’t developed to the right level. The same goes for the neighboring cultural and tourist site of Šventoji that also needs investments.

Go ahead! But leave the Curonian Spit in peace, it doesn’t need a bridge. There are ferries quite nicely handling the transportation of people wishing to view World Heritage.

I’m not against market economy, you know, but I have a feeling that also elements of market society have appeared in Lithuania and Russia. That’s not the same thing. It’s the market society we don’t need. Moral and cultural values must remain, people have to transcend them through generations. Luckily, civil society understands the role of such sites.

So it turns out that community and UNESCO via joint efforts can influence the Lithuanian government to make corporate lobbyists terminate the construction plan?

Of course! It’s outrageous that you’re writing about it. If a concrete danger for the Curonian Spit will emerge, I’m sure, that by people’s initiative an expert panel will be formed to assess all possible risks. That will enforce UNESCO’s influence in that regard. Generally speaking, I think that the situation around the spit isn’t really dependant on political views. Society, Lithuanian and Russian, does acknowledge not only the Curonian Spit’s national value, but its world value as well. So, I assume, the protests will follow.

Experts believe that all possible risks are largely based on ecology. But won’t the Curonian Spit become an apple of discord among Russia and Lithuania? Can complaints arise from the Russian side? Lithuanian Ambassador to UNESCO Arūnas Gelūnas thinks that “it’ll give Russia an argument to point fingers at Lithuania”. Do you share this opinion?

I hope that the Curonian Spit won’t be an apple of discord. On the contrary, it can become a space of combined efforts for Russian-Lithuanian cooperation. Positive signals of such considerate relations already exist. Like this year after filling out all the proper documents it will be possible to travel on a yacht down the whole Curonian Lagoon. Until recently there was a problem with crossing the borders between Lithuanian and Russian parts of the Curonian Spit.

Concerning the Ambassador’s statement we have the following situation. I’ll repeat, Curonian Spit is a World Heritage Site, not Russian or Lithuanian. That’s why the complaints against Lithuania may be made exclusively in that sense. When there was construction on the Russian side Lithuania also spoke out “against” it. So this not what you call “pointing fingers”, but more pointing out potential risks and expressing concern. I think that Gelūnas phrased it like that just to make his position against the bridge’s construction sound stronger.

Is there an agreement between Lithuania and Russia that allows one party to step in when matters of the Curonian Spit are concerned? Can Russia stop the bridge’s construction?

There isn’t an agreement like that. There’s only the site’s status as a World Heritage site and Russia has the right to voice its opinion about the construction being a threat to the ecology. Is something was done on Russia’s side then Lithuania would have had the opportunity to voice its concerns. You don’t need a special agreement for that. A different question is affecting the government by showing the Lithuanian and Russian communities’ initiatives. People can pressure the Lithuanian government by turning to UNESCO.

What actions can UNESCO take aside from taking the World Heritage status away? And how would the loss of that status affect Lithuania’s and Russia’s international reputation?

The international community can’t sanction countries. But it can add the object to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in danger list which will be shameful for both countries. This isn’t just some formality. To be added to the World Heritage Site list you need a lot of effort and years of work. It’s a whole procedure.

And here because of some bridge all of that work would be for nothing. It’s the same is a man had his medal taken back. A formality? No, it’s a disgrace!

The lobbyists no doubt will do all they can to justify and protect their project. Do you think that in the end construction will commence?

The Neringa self-administration, which actively lobbies the bridge’s construction are not the Lithuanian power-players. There have been no official decisions on the government level. So far it’s only the local administration’s initiative. Everybody understands that these investments could be sent to other sites that need them. And at the end of it all, not everything is measured by money.

And it’s not that simple as the local businessmen wishing to make a quick buck and quickly building a bridge. That won’t happen. I think Lithuania’s government and Lithuania’s population will have a big discussion over this before they take any actions. Lobbyist will be lobbyists, but there will also be anti-lobbyists. And also the civil society will oppose it both in Lithuania and in Russia.

Translated by: Pavel Shamshiev
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