Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 200

The electoral debacle of Fatherland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (FU/LC) marks the end of an era in the politics of the restored Lithuanian state. The Conservatives and the allied Christian-Democrat Party are the direct successors to the 1988-91 Sajudis liberation movement. Winners of the 1990 and 1996 elections, in charge of the government in 1991-92 and from 1996 until now, the two rightist parties have been reduced to only nine and two seats, respectively, in the newly elected parliament.

The party led by Vytautas Landsbergis and the cabinet of Andrius Kubilius–prime minister from October 1999 until now–chose sound economic policies over opportunistic politics in the runup to these elections. Rather than slowing down, they accelerated market reforms, in spite of the attendant social costs, even as the elections drew near. During most of its four-year tenure, the governing majority was faced with the task of recouping the lag inherited from the predecessor left-of-center government in terms of reforming the economy. State controls, hurdles to Western investment, and residual dependence on the Russian market were parts of that legacy. As a result, Russia’s financial crisis hit Lithuania harder, and with longer effects, than in the case of Estonia or Latvia. The spillover severely interfered with Lithuania’s economic reform efforts, forcing the government to focus on anticrisis measures, which only began bearing fruit in recent months.

The left-of-center opposition’s electoral campaign exploited the popular backlash against the social costs of delayed reforms. The Conservatives acted as if in a race against the clock to enact the reforms ahead of the elections. The Kubilius government initiated the overdue privatization of state-owned energy companies and shipping firms with Western investors; balanced the budget by cutting the state’s social spending, hurting many interests in the process; supported a constitutional amendment to allow foreign citizens and companies to purchase agricultural land in Lithuania; and slashed agricultural subsidies, alienating the large mass of rural voters.

Yet while cutting government spending overall, the government increased defense spending to levels consistent with NATO requirements. Before the election, Conservative leaders warned that any reversal of reforms by a successor government would only postpone the day of reckoning for the country and jeopardize its accession to NATO and the European Union.

The austerity policies bucked the public opinion polls and virtually predetermined the Conservatives’ electoral defeat. Yet these policies have bequeathed to the new government a solid basis from which to advance and successfully complete the transition to a market economy in the next four years. Should the new government follow that course, the defeated Conservatives will ultimately be seen as moral winners for having pushed the transition almost to the point of no return at the cost of their own political fortunes.

The results of this election almost certainly mark the end of the Landsbergis era in Lithuanian politics. More than any Lithuanian leader, Landsbergis symbolizes the political rebirth of the nation and the state during the final years of the Soviet occupation. Born in 1932, by profession a professor of musicology, he became the founding leader of Sajudis, chairman of the parliament which proclaimed the restoration of Lithuania’s independence in 1990, and in effect the head of state until 1992, and chairman of the Conservative party afterward. With the Conservatives’ electoral triumph in 1996, he returned to parliament chairman’s post. The following year, his support made the election of the Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus as president possible.

Due to Lithuania’s constitutional setup as well as his own record with Sajudis, Landsbergis was undoubtedly the singlemost influential political figure in Lithuania for the better part of these last twelve years. Ultimately, the Lithuanian electorate and some outside observers displayed a sense of Landsbergis fatigue. His standing in public opinion surveys plunged even as he continued exercising unmatched influence on government policies.

In the process, Landsbergis confounded some foreign pundits who came close to stereotyping him as an old-fashioned Central European nationalist. In fact, it was the Conservatives under his leadership who launched the de-etatization of the economy, opened the country to foreign investment, solidified permanent reconciliation with Poland and took the lead in condemning anti-Semitic sallies from fringe groups. All this is generally recognized now.

If the Landsbergis era is over, his political career is not. The Conservatives will use their residual strength in the new parliament to support the continuation of market reforms and, as a top priority, the twin goals of admission to NATO and the European Union (BNS, ELTA, Vilnius Radio, Ziniu Radijas, October 19-25; see the Monitor, March 28, July 6, August 4, 11, October 6, 9, 20).