Lithuania: Requiem For A Stuntman

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 18

On May 25, Lithuania’s Constitutional Court ruled that an ex-president who has been removed from that office through impeachment may not run again for the presidency. By closing this legal loophole, the ruling ends the presidential career of Rolandas Paksas, 48, who was a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for June 13. The ruling comes just three months after Paksas was impeached and removed from the presidency.

Opinion surveys indicated that Paksas was likely to reach a runoff in the split field of candidates. His candidacy was the latest political stunt for Paksas, who is a former Soviet Union multiple champion in acrobatic flying and still an avid practitioner of that sport.

Penetration of the presidential office by Russians linked to intelligence and organized crime led to the impeachment and removal of Paksas during the second year of his presidency. However, well before those facts were uncovered, Paksas posed a threat to the integrity and stable functioning of Lithuania’s political system. He capitalized on the anti-market, latent anti-democratic resentments of a minority of the electorate, whom he turned into a solid base of support for himself and the party he created. That minority of disciplined voters elected Paksas to the presidential office in January 2003. The record-low turnout in that election demonstrated that Paksas was the choice of slightly more than a quarter of the total electorate.

Paksas was elected president following success as a construction entrepreneur and mayor of the capital city Vilnius. He cut a dashing figure on television and enjoyed a high popularity rating. Drafted by the then-governing Fatherland Union/Conservatives in 1999 to the post of prime minister, Paksas promptly turned against that party and compiled a record as an erratic, unpredictable and divisive politician. He was forced to resign as prime minister after appearing to favor Russia’s Lukoil company over the U.S. company Williams International in the privatization contest for the Mazeikiai oil refinery and associated installations, which form Lithuania’s largest economic entity. Paksas switched parties and became prime minister a second time, then resigned again to launch his presidential bid.

Paksas ran a typically populist presidential campaign, exploiting the discontent of social groups that had been left behind in the transition to a market economy. The presidential campaign cast Paksas as a protector of ordinary people against the elites and foreign interests. As it turned out, Russian consultants had a hand in shaping that message.

In October 2003, Lithuania’s State Security Department uncovered evidence of hostile penetration Paksas’ electoral staff and presidential office, and entangled the president and some staffers in unlawful actions, ranging from corruption and favoritism to divulging state secrets. The dossier centered on a Russian public-relations company called Almax, and on Yuri Borisov, a Russian entrepreneur residing in Lithuania. An investigation uncovered apparent links to Russia’s security services and to organized crime. Parliament began impeachment proceedings in January 2004, concluding them on April 6 by removing Paksas from office and calling a presidential election for June 13.

However, Paksas vowed to recapture the presidency and launched his campaign, continuing in essence the efforts he made while in office to mobilize popular support against impeachment. His main tactic consists of holding meetings with sympathetic voters in small towns across the country. Paksas supporters are predominantly rural, low-income and aging. His message is tailored to these strata and calls for a socially “fair Lithuania.” Maintaining his innocence of the impeachment charges, he portrays himself as a defender of the ordinary people, and a victim – like the ordinary people — of the “establishment” and “special interests.”

Paksas has been support from local organizations of the party he created in 2002, which calls itself Liberal-Democrat. The party could count on a stable share of about one-fifth of the electorate before Paksas’ removal from the presidency. The party’s upper echelon includes obscure figures lacking a discernible vision for the country. These individuals played no role in the liberation movement or the reforms that ultimately brought Lithuania into the European Union (EU) and NATO. In fact, the Paksas faction represents a populist backlash against parties that pursued and achieved those goals.

Paksas also has the support of several fringe-left and fringe-right groups that have opposed Lithuania’s Euro-Atlantic orientation and “capitalism.” These groups have found it convenient to break out of isolation and flock to Paksas’ larger camp. One such group is headed by a left-wing academic who opposed Lithuania’s goal to join NATO, claiming the move diverts funds from education. Another group, headed by a parliamentary deputy from a rural district, opposes the European Union on the grounds that membership in the EU will ruin Lithuania’s farmers. Another group, led by a former big-city mayor, opposes privatization of Lithuania’s energy utilities by Western companies – although apparently not by Russian companies.

With a personal popularity rating of nearly 20 percent, Paksas had a good chance for second place in upcoming presidential election. The first election round is scheduled for June 13, with a runoff two weeks later. A runoff is likely, due to the number of first round candidacies. Frontrunner is former President Valdas Adamkus. The pack also includes former Parliament Chairman Ceslovas Jursenas, former Prime Minister Kazimira Prunskiene and others. However, yesterday’s ruling by the Constitutional Court may the odds for a runoff by laying to rest the Paksas candidacy and, with that, a potentially divisive and disturbing element in Lithuania’s politics (BNS, May 20 through 25).