Quo Vadis Lithuania?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 35

Lithuanian Social-Democrat Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, and voters who look to him for leadership, hold the key to the outcome of the June 27 presidential election runoff in Lithuania. Brazauskas, one of the founding fathers of the restored Lithuanian state and a successful president and prime minister is expected to retire this year. He would severely damage his reputation and place in history if he becomes an auxiliary to the election of presidential candidate Kazimira Prunskiene. Prunskiene’s stated policy preferences, obscure Russian connections, and disregard for the rule of law (see below) are serious issues and invoke concern over Lithuania’s political and economic orientation, were she to win a five-year presidential term.

Brazauskas has directly or indirectly aided Prunskiene’s political career. He has not explained his reasons for supporting her in the past or in her current presidential bid. At the same time, the Social-Democrat Party’s left-leaning faction – with origins in the Soviet nomenklatura — regards Prunskiene as “ideologically close” to its own orientation. Prunskiene is running against former President Valdas Adamkus (1998-2003), a Lithuanian-American, center-right politician without party affiliation, who seeks to return to the presidency in this runoff. Adamkus and the main governing parties — Fatherland Union/Conservatives, mainstream Social-Democrats, Liberal and Center Union — successfully managed Lithuania’s post-Soviet transition and integration into NATO and the European Union.

Prunskiene had no part in those efforts. Neither did Rolandas Paksas, who is now her main ally. Paksas was impeached and removed as president on April 6 by the Lithuanian Parliament. The Parliament and the Constitutional Court found that Paksas had violated the Constitution and his oath of office. The charges stem from findings that Russians linked to intelligence and organized crime had penetrated Paksas’ presidential campaign in 2002, and then his presidential office in 2003. Paksas wavered between denying the charges and conceding that he had been blackmailed into committing unlawful acts.

Following his removal, the Constitutional Court on May 25 barred Paksas for life from holding senior state posts. Nevertheless, showing little regard for the rule of law, Prunskiene promptly announced that she would help Paksas return to high office — possibly the presidency in 2009 — if she wins the presidential election this year. In return, Paksas endorsed Prunskiene’s presidential candidacy. They are also planning an alliance for the September parliamentary elections.

In the June 13 first round, Adamkus garnered 30.85 percent of votes, to Prunskiene’s 21.4 percent. Prunskiene seems to be inheriting most of the protest vote, which amounts to about 25 percent of votes cast in Lithuanian elections. That number jumped to a record 35 percent in recent European Parliament elections. Paksas was the main beneficiary of this vote in the December 2002-January 2003 presidential election; the Labor Party collected the votes in the June 13 European Parliament elections. Prunskiene seems poised to capitalize on those votes in the June 27 presidential runoff.

After the June 13 first round, Paksas and his allies established a coalition to support Prunskiene in the runoff and to contest the parliamentary election in September. Named the “Rolandas Paksas Coalition for Justice and Order,” this alliance includes: the Liberal-Democratic Party, created by Paksas in 2001 as his personal vehicle; the “Movement for Justice and a Democratic Lithuania,” a pro-Paksas front organization led by left-wing academic Rolandas Pavilionis; and the Prunskiene-led New Democracy/Farmers’ Union.

Prunskiene, born in 1943, and a signatory to the 1990 declaration on restoration of the state, was a member of the nomenklatura faction that jumped on the national movement’s bandwagon at that time. A political protégé of Brazauskas, she was prime minister from March 1990 through January 1991. She advocated postponing moves toward independence from Moscow through a “moratorium” on implementing the declaration on state independence. This move put her in conflict with the parliamentary majority of the Sajudis liberation movement. In January 1991, as the Soviet crackdown began in Lithuania, Prunskiene ordered a three-fold rise in food prices, which she justified on economic grounds, but which played directly into Moscow’s hands, undermining the national movement. Forced by Parliament to resign, she continued attacking the national leadership during the Soviet crackdown and afterward, both in Lithuania and from abroad.

During the 1990s, Prunskiene represented herself in Moscow as the Lithuanian politician best qualified for promoting relations with Russia. Her political alliances within Lithuania reflected that choice, even after Lithuania’s main political forces had embarked on a clear-cut Euro-Atlantic orientation. As leader of a small left-leaning party, she continually spoke of Russia’s importance to Lithuania, and made political alliances with other small groups that did not support Lithuania’s western orientation.

Brazauskas and the left-leaning faction in the Social-Democrat Party are partly responsible for setting in motion a chain of events that convulsed Lithuania’s politics. In the January 2003 presidential runoff, which pitted Paksas against Adamkus, the Social-Democrat leadership officially endorsed Adamkus, but made no serious effort to mobilize voters on his behalf. The result was a record-low turnout by moderate voters, which combined with the high turnout of the pro-Paksas protest vote, enabled Paksas to win the presidency by a slight margin. Paksas was the choice of slightly more than one-quarter of the total electorate. The Social-Democrat leadership almost certainly did not desire a Paksas victory. But it did hope to prevent an Adamkus landslide to clip his wings as president. It proved a costly blunder.

Just before the June 13 European Parliament elections, which were held in parallel with the first round of the presidential election, the Social-Democrat campaign published a long-dormant report on the privatization of the Mazeikiai oil refinery by the American company Williams International. Publication was clearly timed to enable Social Democrats to make gains at the expense of Adamkus and the conservatives in both sets of elections. Instead, Prunskiene and other left-leaning populists made gains at the Social-Democrats’ expense.

Lithuania cannot afford experiments with populist economics or illusory security arrangements outside American guarantees through NATO. Brazauskas has an opportunity in the presidential election runoff to firm up the country’s natural course by urging voters to support the Euro-Atlantic orientation. His voice carries a great deal of authority in the countryside, where Paksas, and now Prunskiene, collect votes by taking advantage of the Social-Democrat Party’s ambivalence. Many Social-Democrats are already rallying to Adamkus ahead of the runoff. Brazauskas can crown his political career by urging voters to make certain that Lithuania stays the Euro-Atlantic and democratic course. Never since the Baltic States regained their independence did any of those countries face the stark choices that confront Lithuania in the June 27 balloting.