Meet Lithuania’s John Oliver
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s deadly serious about political satire.
By Dan Peleschuk
In a small country like Lithuania, says veteran TV newsman Andrius Tapinas, it’s common for public figures to dabble in several different professions. Tapinas himself is a journalist, civic activist, science-fiction writer and, curiously, the world’s youngest-ever translator of The Lord of the Rings (a title he claims to have earned before turning 18). But one role puts a slight blush on the 40-year-old’s face: the John Oliver of Lithuania. “I would be really proud of this nickname,” he says.
Humility aside, Tapinas is consciously modeling himself after one of television’s most popular late-night personalities. But as if emulating Oliver’s biting, comic criticism weren’t challenge enough, he seems to be taking it one step farther. Through his public commentary and social activism, Tapinas is positioning himself as a moral leader in a country where trust in political institutions traditionally runs low. Many speculate he’s gunning for high office, a suggestion he denies.
Tapinas enjoys a formidable reputation built over nearly two decades on TV. Educated as an economist, he began working as a reporter and later anchored his own business program — he compares it to CNN’s Quest Means Business — on LRT, Lithuania’s public broadcaster, for 12 years. Currently, he’s enjoying a long-held dream: hosting an intellectual game show, Golden Mind, currently in its fourth season. Well-educated, intelligent and, says colleague Rita Miliute, gifted with a great sense of humor, Tapinas is a made-for-broadcast personality. “He is a person who is designed to be liked in public,” she says.
His social commentary and public work have prompted observers to assume he’ll be a contender for the presidency in the 2019 election.
His newest project, however, may become his most important media legacy yet. As the founder of Liberty TV, an online network, Tapinas is joining the global race for sustainable digital media that doesn’t sacrifice quality content to attract and retain viewers. “I think we are on the brink of very interesting times — not only here in Lithuania, but worldwide,” he says. “Online TV will be the winners, and we want to be these winners.” Almost entirely crowdfunded and broadcast on YouTube, Liberty TV offers an array of well-produced content, including political satire as well as more traditional investigative journalism.
On his flagship program, Hang in There With Andrius Tapinas, now in its second season, Tapinas has skewered Lithuanian officials, political parties and public figures, and, from thousands of miles away, poked fun at President Donald Trump, “welcoming” him to Lithuania with a sardonic rundown of need-to-know local facts. During last year’s general elections, Tapinas says his coverage of a xenophobic party helped knock the group out of Lithuania’s parliament, while also forcing the leader — who made a bet with Tapinas his party would sweep the election — to publicly acknowledge his loss. Liberty TV is fast becoming a formidable player in the media landscape, Tapinas believes, proving a “completely free press” is a distinct possibility in Lithuania.
The photogenic personality, who comes from a family of writers and was raised in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, just as Lithuania was fiercely asserting its independence from Moscow, uses his high profile to wade into an array of political and social discussions. He has spoken out in favor of LGBT rights, launched social media campaigns, including one against Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and organized prominent events, such as a recent festival promoting free speech, that have attracted leading public figures. Those critical of Tapinas say he seizes on public debates and other topical issues merely to further boost his profile. “That’s his MO,” says Lukas Ramonas, a Vilnius-based political satirist. “He sees an opportunity, and he acts on it.”
Others, however, believe he’s an impassioned, progressive force that’s helping the ex-Soviet republic develop along Western standards. Case in point: Tapinas has decamped from the capital to embark on a countrywide tour of Lithuania’s schools. There, he’s given pep talks — often bringing along famous people from politics and culture — aimed at emphasizing the importance of education, as well as instilling a sense of pride and purpose in a generation he believes will help define the country’s long-term future.
It’s the sort of guidance and support that could prove crucial to the country’s progress. Money from the European Union may have paid for new roads and more modern buildings, but Lithuania still features a startling wealth gap between its primary cities and the sprawling countryside. It’s also plagued by mass emigration to Western Europe, a trend Tapinas says has become ingrained in the minds of local youth as a logical and desirable end goal for them. “While we wait for our government to do something,” he says, “maybe every one of us should do something on a micro level.”
Taken together, his social commentary and public work have prompted observers to assume he’ll be a contender for the presidency in the 2019 election, after President Dalia Grybauskaite reaches her constitutional term limit. But Tapinas refutes the suggestion, preferring instead to identify himself simply as a “civic activist.” Even if he does decide to run, however, critics say he’ll still need to prove he’s not a populist who’s just ingratiating himself with his fellow Lithuanians. “Idealism is not bad,” says Ramonas, the political commentator. “It’s just not a policy.”
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk