How Vilnius became the safest yet emptiest capital

How Vilnius became the safest yet emptiest capital
Up to 12,000 people, including officers and Lithuanian and Nato troops, will take care of the security of the Vilnius Summit. / bne IntelliNews
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius July 11, 2023

Ahead of the Nato summit this Tuesday and Wednesday (11-12 July) in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital has become the globe’s safest yet emptiest capital.

Vilnius is expecting an unprecedented group of high-profile guests, including US President Joe Biden, who was set to arrive in Vilnius late on July 10. In all, 48 foreign delegations – about 2,500 people and 40 heads of state – are coming to the Lithuanian capital for the Nato summit.

Up to 12,000 people, including officers and Lithuanian and Nato troops, will take care of the security of the event. Some police officers, like those belonging to the anti-terrorist operations team Aras and the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, will be wearing civilian clothes. Latvian and Polish police officers will also help maintain order in Vilnius.

Customs officers as well as Latvian and Polish border guards will be deployed for checks at the internal EU borders, while the Lithuanian Armed Forces, members of the Lithuanian Riflemen Union as well as Estonian and Moldovan border guards and additional forces from Frontex will assist in guarding external borders with Russia and Belarus.

Amid the preparations, Vilniusans and their guests are scrambling to shun trips to central Vilnius or abandon the city for the two days.

“Because of my car being parked some two and a half kilometres from the centre, I received a text message warning that, due to security reasons, it will be towed away if I do not take care of it swiftly. This is crazy,” Arturas, a dweller of Vilnius, told bne IntelliNews.

The largest Baltic country sees the event as a great opportunity to enhance its image internationally. Hence the enormity of the city’s face-lift: potholes in the streets and sidewalks have been patched, sidewalks scrubbed, street rubbish bins repainted or washed with a strong stream of water, and even the old Czechoslovak trolleybuses have been taken off the streets, while the shabby fountain at the country’s parliament, the Seimas, on the capital’s main artery, Gedimino Avenue, has beenpartly covered.

Upon seeing dozens of policemen and city workers hurriedly titivating the city’s public squares and streets, Cristine Mucro, an Italian woman living in Vilnius, shrugs in disbelief.

“Milan and Rome and some other metropolises outside Italy where I’ve lived have held many important security events, but the locals’ life was not subject to such constraints as here in Vilnius for the Nato event. But, yes – Russia and Putin are much closer to Vilnius than to Milan or London,” she told bne IntelliNews.

Bicycles and scooters will not be allowed in the city centre on the days of the event, and the pedestrian part of the Old Town will be closed on July 11.

Officials advise residents headed to the city centre not to bring large backpacks and suitcases, as passers-by's belongings may be checked at any time anywhere.

Due to traffic restrictions, couriers will not be able to deliver parcels to residents and postmen carrying pensions will not be able to reach some residents.

During the length of the event, hailing a taxi will be impossible – taxis and shuttle cars will not be allowed in the prohibited areas, covering around 75% of central Vilnius.

During the two-day summit, public transport routes and schedules will be altered to bypass zones under traffic restrictions. However, all public transport will be free between July 10-13. 

Areas around the Litexpo centre, the main venue of the summit with 43 rooms equipped for this purpose, will be completely sealed off for non-authorised access between July 7-12. Adapting the Litexpo spaces for the summit required about €17mn.

The participants of the Nato summit will live in 4-5 star hotels in Vilnius Old City.  Reportedly, security services checked everyone who works in the hotels and the restaurants and all the employees to observe the most important requirement – confidentiality.

Evalda Siskauskiene, head of Lithuania’s Association of Hotels and Restaurants, told bne IntelliNews that hotel bookings in central Vilnius are 100%, and the prices in those still available on the outskirts of the city shot up three times.

“Unfortunately, those restaurants that are located in the traffic restriction zone will have to close, while others are waiting for the event and preparing for it very much. Problems can arise only when delivering products,” she emphasised.

Vidas Ksanas, interim CEO at Lithuanian Airports, acknowledges that the event is a ‘serious test’ for the city’s airport. He says it took about half a year to get ready for so many guests and so many different aircraft at the same time and to properly service them.

In making sure that extra-large aircrafts, including the US president’s Air Force One, can fly into an unimpressive Vilnius Airport – whose main building is still Soviet-style – necessary upgrades and adjustments have been made.

As a result, several lighting poles had to be removed, so that a plane with a wingspan of 80 and over metres could turn around in the airport. On the days of the meeting, about 50 delegation planes are expected, and cargo planes will land and bring additional equipment. Special attention will be paid to aircraft safety.

One of the most advanced Patriot air defence systems, costing more than a billion euros, has been installed on the territory of the airport.

Airspace closure for nearly 30 hours is expected to disrupt – cancel or delay – about 120 flights.

Geraldas, a 28-year-old Lithuanian who is wrapping up his holiday with his Dutch girlfriend, is still on tenterhooks: will their flight to Amsterdam on Wednesday will go ahead as scheduled?

“KLM [the Dutch airline] informed us they got an exception from the overwhelming flight constraints, but now I am not sure we will leave Vilnius that day,” he told bne Intellinews.

All the planes of the delegations will need to taxi to a specially designated and fenced area. In a separate area, next to the VIP terminal, 350 limousines will be lined up to transport guests to event venues.

A total of about 800 vehicles will be needed to serve foreign delegations, some of which will also be driven by troops.

The Lithuanian government has been criticised by local media for accepting exorbitant bills from some of the service providers.

Lithuanian media revealed among other things that audio equipment has been rented for €553,000 from rental company Up Records, whose annual income is typically €120,000.

Reportedly, the constructions of the scaffolding were rented for €630,000 from rental company Topaz, which whose annual income is €409,000. Video conference equipment was ordered for €1.6mn from Screen Service, for which this contract is twice the annual income. Lighting equipment for €1.5mn will be supplied by Muzikos ekspresas, which is also twice the amount of its annual income.

On the evening of July 11, high-ranking guests will gather in the President’s Palace, where the official reception and protocol dinner of the heads of Nato states will take place. For it, the President’s Chancellery signed a €36,000 contract with some of the country’s A-list restaurants.

Reportedly, for the reception, the President's Office has bought thin porcelain tableware from a Kaunas-based company for €54,500. A total of 600 plates of several sizes were ordered with gilded edges, each with a gold presidential coat of arms embossed on them.

The exact menu of the two-and-a-half-hour dinner has not yet been announced.

The country’s President Gitanas Nauseda rejected the criticism over what some say is a splurge of tax-payer money, saying: “Let's not beat our chests for deciding to paint our lips a little bit.”

“I hope that even the additional euros that have been invested are very meaningfully invested, because the Vilnius summit has a lot of indirect consequences for the image of Lithuania,” the president said last week after visiting the Litexpo congress centre.

“Lithuania’s visibility will grow exponentially, I have no doubt about that, the curiosity and interest in Lithuania will surely increase in the world not only on those days, but also for a long time afterwards. We will not only have hotel occupancy rates, but also an increased flow of tourists,” he said.