Baltic Prime Ministers are frequently depicted as either picaresque nincompoops or tin-pot politicos. But at the moment the Baltics seem blessed with some pretty capable people in the top jobs.
I’ve already waxed lyrical about Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, but in the last few days I’ve had more of a chance to watch Lithuania’s Andrius Kubilius in action.
Perhaps “action” is the wrong word. With his hooded eyes, bald pate and rather lugubrious low voice, Kubilius seems at first encounter to be anything but action-packed. But after a while you realise that this is simply a very smart political facade. By taking things in a laid-back manner, Kubilius gives himself plenty of time to think about what he is saying so that he can eject an answer that is either relevant or fudge, as circumstances dictate.
In fact Kubilius is rather droll. Intelligent, well-read and somewhat ironical, you get the sense he would be an excellent man to share a glass of wine with over a long meal.
Quite often the mask of seriousness slips almost imperceptibly and Kubilius cracks the sort of joke that only about 10 per cent of any given audience is likely to “get.” I suspect he relishes the fact that everyone else either misses the joke completely or takes it far too seriously.
A prime example in recent weeks was when some eager-beaver hack asked him when the economic crisis would be over.
“June 21st,” Kubilius replied, completely non-plussing the press pack who had expected some waffle about the third quarter, a gradual recovery and so forth. What Kubilius was really saying was “your guess is as good as mine, so let’s just pick a random date” but inevitably the newspapers printed his words as solid economic prediction.
That’s the trouble with irony – it usually doesn’t transfer well from speech to print.
He made a similar, though weaker gag at the Swedish Lithuanian business awards. Asked what would happen if Latvia devalued its currency, he replied:
“I get asked this question six or seven times a day. Sometimes I get a bit fed up with ‘What if, what if’, so I say what if a meteorite crashed into the Baltic Sea?”
Today I saw another side to Kubilius’ character that was both endearing and slightly worrying. Speaking at the Baltic Economic Forum in Riga, he was in a determinedly upbeat mood. You could tell he was excited because you could actually see his eyes.
Whatever he was talking about, one word kept cropping up: “dream”. He must have said it at least twenty times. I started to suspect he had a bet with PM Dombrovskis alongside him to get 10 lats every time he said the word.
So we had “the dream of Scandinavian social services” and “some kind of dream of how the whole region will look in five or ten years’ time” followed by a “dream of the Baltics as a single economic entity” and a need for young people to “have a clear vision or dream of what the situation will be.”
Then to round it all off on a suitably uplifting note came a hope that “people will start to believe that their dreams can be implemented.”
It all sounded like it was straight from a motivational seminar – and in a way it was. Kubilius revealed that he had just finished reading The Dream Society by Danish economist Rolf Jensen. It seemed as if he must have finished reading it last night, because he was still full of enthusiasm for its mumbo-jumbo about companies selling “dreams” rather than products. All very Californian, Googly and reassuring in a “Capitalism can be cuddly” kind of way.
But Kubilius’ schoolboyish enthusiasm (it was reminiscent of a 13 year-old who has just read Lord of The Rings and imagines himself to be some sort of elfen wizard) was at least as worrying as it was entertaining. Can a veteran politician who is in charge of a whole nation’s economy really be so smitten by such a book? As one of the reviewers on Amazon.com puts it:
Had Jensen stayed within the boundaries of a conventional management book, i.e. simplified descriptions and corporate nice-to-know facts, The Dream Society would have been a fair effort, if slightly trivial. The big misstep that Jensen makes is that he, like too many other colleagues, starts to add a philantrophical aspect to his ideas. Not only can the striving towards a dream society be applied to goods and services, but also on the modern family, on the third world, on modern labour, globalization, urbanization etc. In fact, so amazing is Jensen’s Dream paradigm that there is no area or phenomenon that is left unexplored.
The Dream Society may be an entertaining and thought-provoking read for the average reader and even for a Prime Minister. But for the PM to put the book down one minute and appear to be using it to form his entire economic project the next suggests a gadfly tendency that’s not at all consistent with the long-termism everyone seems agreed is the only way forward.
I can’t help wondering what is currently perched on Kubilius’ bedside table/toilet roll holder for regular reading. Given the figures currently coming out of the Baltics, maybe Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Taking A Loan From The IMF (But Were Afraid To Ask).