15min spoke to Eligijus Masiulis, 37-year-old liberal leader who is finishing his 4-year term as the Minister of Transport and Communications.
- Lithuania is the last Baltic country and one of the last EU member states to introduce digital television. There were no technical obstacles to do it several years ago. Why the delay?
- Several factors contributed to this. First of all, the EU set the final recommended deadline at the end of 2012. The decision to switch off analogue television on 29 October 2012 was made by the previous Government. We discussed the matter a lot in the new Government, but finally decided to leave the date unchanged.
Initially, we tried to agree with all market players, to sign an agreement pact with them. However, their opinions differed. Leaders in the analogue market wanted to keep their leadership for as long as possible, since with the introduction of digital TV there will be more suppliers and, obviously, the market will change.
Second, bringing digital TV to Latvia was a very bumpy process and somewhat of a fiasco. Lithuania has chosen a more socially responsible plan, earmarking funds for a publicity campaign, compensations of up to 100 litas to the socially vulnerable.
Our transition takes longer, but I hope it will go more smoothly.
Sure, we've already pointed out certain problems. The main one arose when Parliament changed laws and granted two digital channels to the national broadcaster (Lithuanian Radio and Television, LRT) and the right to operate it independently. According to what we know, the national broadcaster is not yet ready to make the switch to digital TV. We sound the alarm bells and urge them to do as much as possible during the time still left to make sure that on the day analogue TV is switched off, some of the people in Lithuania are not unable to watch LRT.
- According to data from the beginning of this summer, a fifth of all households in the country were not ready for the switch. Are there any new data about how the people – as opposed to TV channels – have prepared?
- It is in our nature that we do everything on the last day. The current case is no exception. Preparations will peak in autumn, just as we planned. People watch less TV in summer, so we think that purchase of special adapters and other means will start in autumn. By the end of October, the share of prepared households should be 95 percent, our target.
- Returning for a moment to the market players, is it true that the late switch to digital TV had to do with specific commercial TV channels – LNK and TV3 – resenting the prospect of losing a lot of their audience as people will be able to see niche channels and shows? That has happened in Estonia – after switching to digital TV, ratings of the three biggest broadcasters dropped by one fourth.
- I do not wish to name specific broadcasters. All I want to say is that we got everyone to sit at the table and did all we could to settle the matter in a civilized manner, to make them come to an agreement. They failed and the Ministry of Transport and Communications did not want to support either side, so we just left the pre-agreed date.
- So 29 October 2012 was an optimal date?
- Doubtlessly, since if we had acted differently, we would have been accused of protecting the interests of certain media outlets.
- Let's talk about another hot topic – roads in Lithuania. Why are there so many ruts? In other countries – in Western and even parts of Central Europe – there is more cargo traffic, speed limits are higher, but not so many ruts.
- Take a look at Latvian or Polish roads. I do not think that ruts in Lithuania are any bigger than elsewhere. And these appear on roads built 8-10 years ago. In places with heavy traffic, transit roads. The builders must have miscalculated the load on the paving.
Now we apply much higher standards for important roads. It costs more, but segments that were built or reconstructed two or three years ago are of the same quality as in Western Europe.
- Perhaps they chose a wrong technology?
- It is less to do with technology than with efforts to cut costs, thus neglecting quality standards. Besides, there's a thing like warranty period: If a rut appears before warranty expires, developers must remove the defect on their own funds. Before my term, the Lithuanian Traffic Roads Authority hardly ever applied the rule. Now, all contracts include clear developer's responsibility clauses.
I have to drive around quite much myself – there are segments that are quite old and could probably use a repair, but it all comes down to finances. You cannot repair everything at once, it costs a lot.
- Are trucks the main culprits for these ruts?
- Without a doubt, especially in summer, when road surface heats up and becomes softer. Lithuania has a limit on maximum cargo weight – 40 tons. Overweight is a painful problem in our country.
The State Traffic Inspection does all it can to prevent it, but these things are hard to control, so we have decided to install intelligent measures – electronic scales. Next year, they will be installed in the country's main highways with most transit traffic. If a vehicle with excess weight passes a checkpoint, a camera takes a snapshot of its licence plate. I believe that similar measures will reduce overweight significantly.
- And what is your opinion on plans of setting up a coordination centre for management of public companies? Also on proposals by the Ministry of Economy to establish a controlling firm, Visuomis Holding Company, that it failed to justify the need for.
- My opinion is that many of the things suggested by Visuomis and modern management principles are very good and there's a desperate need to change the way public companies are run. Say, inviting experts from business. I'm talking about standardized reporting, setting of indicators, operations, etc.
But there is no need for centralization. For instance, the decision to revamp publicly-owned real estate through Turto Bankas was a fiasco. From what I've gathered, public institutions can hardly renew themselves even today.
Centralized structures usually have very long decision making processes. The content is what counts, not the form in which to do it.
- Handing public companies over to Visuomis Holding was a suggestion by Swedish experts. Does that mean we should not follow the Swedish example? On second thought, who could run such a holding?
- There are many models to choose from: Swedish, Canadian; we do not have to copy everything identically, though. I think we should use best things from the western experience and simply put forward unified criteria for running public companies, demanding that each minister in charge of companies within his or her area sticks to them.
Under the current system, the head of Visuomis is the Prime Minister. In this case, I do not think everything would change overnight if we centralized everything. As I've said, the content counts.