Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 140

Former President Algirdas Brazauskas, who took office on July 12 as Lithuania’s prime minister, may be in for an informal probationary period on the basis of his pre-1991 career. European Union officials, for example, will be watching–according to EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen–to see “whether Lithuania will continue to sustain the pace and quality level of [accession] negotiations.” According to the Vilnius ambassadors of Sweden and Belgium, the EU’s outgoing and incoming presiding countries, the EU “will closely follow every step taken by the new government” and “hope that it will follow the same policy as its predecessor, perhaps with some differences of detail, but basically staying in the same mode.” Mindful of such question marks, arising rightly or wrongly from his background, Brazauskas has decided to visit NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on July 24–his first visit abroad as prime minister.

Brazauskas, born in 1932 to a prosperous farmers’ family and trained as a construction engineer, rose steadily in Soviet Lithuania’s economic and party hierarchy. His highest posts were those of first deputy chairman of the republic’s State Planning Committee, Lithuanian Communist Party (LCP) Central Committee secretary responsible for industry and economic affairs, and finally LCPCC first secretary–the top party leader–from 1988 to 1990. Throughout that career, Brazauskas and some like-minded officials were chiefly concerned to reduce the transfer of Lithuanian resources to the Soviet central government and, insofar as possible, to squeeze resources out of the center for Lithuania.

In December 1989, Brazauskas and his supporters adopted a reformist platform that went beyond perestroika, split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KPSU) and formed a Lithuanian left-of-center, pro-independence party–the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Brazauskas became chairman of Lithuania’s last Supreme Soviet, lost that post as a result of the 1990 elections that brought the Sajudis national movement to power, but was elected a deputy to the new parliament, and joined the new, independent government of Lithuania as deputy prime minister in 1990-91. One key constituency of his at that time were industrial managers keen on taking over the enterprises and infrastructure owned by the Soviet central government.

Brazauskas’ DLP won in 1992 the first parliamentary elections in the restored state, unexpectedly defeating the Sajudis movement. The following year he easily won the presidential election and, in accordance with the constitution, resigned his DLP membership. The separation ultimately protected him against the political fallout from the DLP’s failed 1992-96 governance. His high personal popularity has been one of the most consistent factors in Lithuanian politics for the past decade.

Although favored to win re-election to another five-year term in 1998, Brazauskas chose to step down and retire from active politics. He cited the need for politicians such as himself, with Soviet-era career backgrounds, to make room for representatives of younger generations, unencumbered by that ballast. And he expressed the wish that his successors not fit the description “one-time communist” pinned on him. That label tends to stick to this day in international media.

Yet Brazauskas’ record as president shows, on the whole, a clear break with that past. In 1994 he applied for Lithuanian membership in NATO and the European Union. At the end of his presidential term he signed for Lithuania the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Charter, which laid the basis for what is in many ways a special relationship. During Brazauskas’ presidency, then Foreign Affairs Minister Povilas Gylys and then Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius–the latter to serve also in subsequent governments, including the present one–helped set Lithuania irreversibly on the path to NATO and the EU. The Conservative-led government in 1996-2000 and President Valdas Adamkus since 1998 have continued and accelerated that progress.

Last year, Brazauskas unexpectedly came out of political retirement to lead the Social-Democratic Alliance–consisting of a somewhat refurbished DLP, the Social-Democrat Party (SDP) and smaller groups–in the October 2000 parliamentary elections. The left-of-center bloc took first place with fifty-one out of 141 parliamentary seats, due in no small measure to Brazauskas’ personal popularity, which usually exceeds that of the party he leads. The DLP and SDP fused as SDP in January 2001. This month, the unified SDP acceded to government as senior partner in a coalition with the left-of-center New Union/Social Liberals, under Brazauskas as prime minister.

It is not Brazauskas’ record but that of elements in the SDP that has raised some question marks about the consistency of the government’s orientation. The party includes a small but seemingly influential leftist core. It also includes elements that favor substantial state control over “strategic” industries and infrastructure, as opposed to full and transparent privatization; that mindset was partly responsible for the DLP’s failures when in power. Finally, a few individuals and groups in the SDP–and not only in that party–have entered into opportunistic and risky combinations with Russian business interests. Most recently, Brazauskas himself has waffled on the critical issue of privatization of the oil sector in partnership with the American company Williams International.

The new government’s program focuses on accession to NATO and the EU as the top national priorities, reflecting the national consensus. In order to reach that destination by 2002 as intended, the prime minister will have to discipline leftists within the SDP, promote transparent privatization, and address conflict-of-interest situations, some of which involve SDP supporters linked to Russian business interests. Brazauskas possesses an unassailable political basis from which to accomplish those tasks. Therein lies a challenge to his statesmanship in the decisive months ahead (Roundup based on recent Lithuanian media reporting; see the Monitor, January 29, March 22, May 11, June 21, July 2, 12, 20).