Opinion: Lithuania's and my leap from rouble and “zoo-tickets” to euro(1)
What kind of a country bids farewell to its currency for the third time over less than 25 years?
That is the question I’ve recently heard from a cranky hotelier in the resort town of Palanga on the Baltic coast.
The agile senior treated me to an irksome rant on the adverse side of the euro adoption, while I was advocating in favour of the euro.
Perhaps it is a generational thing, but at 43, I’m really a staunch backer of the EU currency - and everything else that comprises the core of the European Union and its values.
But I also can totally relate to the concerns by the 70-year-old hotel owner: A currency changeover ALWAYS brings some undesirable side effects like higher prices, lackadaisical consumption and, for some time, a lingering uncertainty afterwards.
That is exactly what Lithuania is experiencing now.
For me, it’s amazing - and exasperating - to see all the prices in Palanga restaurants and cafeterias twitched up and rounded up.
Oh, please, the market economy had nothing to do with the upping.
When I see all the new, “rounded-up” prices in euros glaring into my eyes from recently reprinted menus, I feel like giving a loud scream: “C’mon, business folks, just stop it! Imagine you’re about to see not the euro, but a descending Messiah who is annoyed by the euro hoopla and might kick away the stools in your bar and stomp on the dye-smelling menus!”
Seriously, I reckon the restaurateurs should have been a lot sneakier going around the prices not to shoo away the changeover-wary customers.
Ironically, with the new prices piercing the eyes, perhaps two-thirds of the eateries have locked their doors until the New Year’s Eve, when, sure, business booms no matter what the prices.
But it's hardly my place to rant against local entrepreneurs over “price-tampering”.
As a matter of fact, as a small businessman myself (I reckon my occupation as a regional newspaper's editor and director gives me the honours), I also gave in to the trend and slightly rounded-up the newspaper subscription price to the nearest ten euros.
Well, you’re right, it's all for the sake of keeping the math and book-keeping simpler and marketing more eye-catchy (the 2015 subscription special offer is EUR 30 versus the EUR 27.69 if it were in litas) and, sure, due to the invincible desire to make some extra bucks from the swap.
During our chat, the Palanga hotelier also reminded me of what I hadn’t given much thought. Since 1990, when Lithuania seceded from the USSR, the country is now to see the fourth currency.
“Really, have we had so many of them already?” I chuckled.
“Gee, time flies,” I let the senior give me a short lecture on Lithuania’s currency history over the past 25 years.
It turned out that if I were to go over my life, I could really discern four different pennants signifying the epic shifts that marked both the country's history and currency.
First there was the Soviet rouble. I remember it most vividly from as early as 1978, each morning before departing for school I, a first-grader, would be handed by my parents 30 kopecks to buy lunch and dinner at the school canteen.
I still feel the yucky smell of grease that permeated the place nauseated me during dinner hours.
But, astonishingly, at lunch, the hall was filled with a scent of cinnamon, undoubtedly coming from the 5-kopeck pastry rolls that I loved and therefore stuffed my pockets with them.
Back then, my daily finances comprised of the daily 30-kopeck allowance, but, routinely, my grandmother would hand me a one-rouble coin, which, notably, bore the face of the Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
Meanwhile my dad would squeeze into my palm an all-red and also Lenin-bearing 10-rouble bill for my birthday. Not too bad a present from a wage of 120 roubles.
It had not been until my teenage years that my relatives, who had family members in the United States, undermined my previously unwavering confidence in the rouble by proudly exhibiting an armful of Western goods bought in a special foreign-currency-only store in Vilnius.
That was when I learnt that the American currency, the dollar, can buy you anything in the glimmering store and that the US currency was sold for several hundred roubles a piece in remote alleys of the local market.
America had completely infatuated me by the early 1990s, when the Lithuanian National Movement Sąjūdis, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika’s offspring swept away the communist regime and brought the new currency of free Lithuania - the talonai, or talons in English.
With inflation in 1992 rolling well over 1000 percent (correct!), I remember carrying around stacks of talonai bills that featured drawings of various native birds and mammals. If I am not mistaken, the highest-denomination bill was embellished with a bear figure, a rarity in Lithuanian forests.
Dubbed “Vagnorkės” or “Vagnoriukai” after the-then Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, who spearheaded the transitional currency also known as “zoo tickets”, the talonai were small bills printed on low-quality paper and plagued by astronomic inflation.
Still, at 1100% in 1992, it was less than half the inflation in Russia, and through the tumultuous financial times, the talons paved the way for the litas.
On 25 June 1993, the litas was introduced at the rate of 1 litas per 100 talons. The near-worthless bears, lynxes, moose and foxes were recycled into toilet paper in the Grigiškės paper factory.
Over the years thenceforth, Lithuanians have certainly learnt well the stories of the national heroes pictured on the litas bills. For me, the most amazing is the one of Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, a couple of Lithuanian pilots who flew over the Atlantic in 1933 only to be shot down by presumably Nazis 650 kilometres from their destination, Kaunas.
But now it’s high time to bid the Lithuanian litas a warm farewell and get ready to take a keen look at the euro bills.
Having started off with the “zoo tickets”, Lithuania is about to make a huge leap into the realm of the world’s financial powerhouse, known as the euro zone.
The euro marks the country’s economic prowess and new business prospects.
Euro, you’re welcome in my pockets!
I just don’t cherish any feelings for the past of your predecessors, frankly.