A Political Crisis Rocks the Nation
The population is divided over the most serious political scandal to hit the country since independence
In early 2003 Rolandas Paksas was elected Lithuania’s president, winning a surprise victory in a run-off over the incumbent and favourite, Valdas Adamkus. Before that, Paksas had served twice as prime minister and twice as mayor of Vilnius, resigning from both of those positions.
Many journalists then joked that he needed to step down as president in order to have “a full collection of resignations”. But they hardly expected that the joke would turn into a real possibility less than a year after his election. In late October 2003, the country was plunged into what turned out to be its worst political crisis since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
President Paksas, the central figure in the scandal, had only one way to end the crisis quickly, by stepping down. However, the crisis has dragged on for months, as this time he has no intention of stepping down.
In October 2003, the State Security Department (VSD) delivered a report to the Seimas expressing its concern that the president might be susceptible to outside influences and so pose a threat to national security.
The Seimas set up a special committee to look into the allegations, which has led to the opening of formal impeachment proceedings. Paksas has thus entered the history books as the country’s first president to face impeachment.
Many consider this to be the most serious political crisis yet, as it has lasted longer than any other scandal that has rocked the nation. For months the crisis has severely hampered the functioning of the political system. Moreover, it erupted in an institution that is supposed to be a solid pillar of the political system.
In Lithuania, the presidency is one of the three cornerstones of political power, along with the legislature (the Seimas) and the executive (the government). Most political scientists agree that the political system could be described as “semi-presidential”. By this, they mean that the Seimas does not have the dominant role in the political system (as is the case, for example, in the United Kingdom); and neither does the president have wide-ranging executive powers (as in the United States, for example).
In a speech to the Seimas in late October, Mečys Laurinkus, the head of the VSD, warned that a Russian company, known as 21st Century, which has ties with Russian and international criminal groups, was active in Lithuania. The security chief, who at that time was planning to leave his post to pursue a diplomatic career, also said that international criminal groups were trying to influence the privatisation process.
The report did not get much attention from the public and the Seimas until a local television news programme reported two days later that the VSD had informed the leaders of the parliament about suspected links between Paksas’ national security advisor and international criminal groups.
Paksas appeared on public television later in the day to deny all the accusations, calling the reports “a plot against the president”. He never mentioned the word “plot” again, but his aides have often used phrases such as “a creeping coup” or “the elite’s attack on the president”.
The president himself has claimed, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, that he will never forget the names of his enemies. But the phrase was used without a hint of humour.
The Seimas held an extraordinary sitting in early November to hear the security chief’s report on possible threats to national security, including telephone conversations taped by security agencies. One of the secret tapes recorded Yuri Bori-sov, the largest contributor to Paksas’ election campaign, saying that the president had reneged on his election promises and calling him a “politically dead” man.
In another recording, Renata Smailytė, a business woman who was hardly known until she became one of the central figures in the scandal, said that she had seen a secret VSD report on her activities. She was heard telling Anzori Aksentyev-Kikalishvili (one of the founders of 21st Century, who has been declared persona non grata in Lithuania) that Laurinkus would soon be leaving the country to take up a new appointment as ambassador to Spain.
The media have dubbed her “a liaison between the President’s Office and the criminal underworld” and even “Mata Hari”.
The parliamentary session was broadcast live by several TV stations and attracted a lot of interest. Never before in Lithuania had so many secret tape recordings been made public. The Seimas immediately set up a committee to investigate the allegations in the VSD’s report.
Many of the allegations centre around Paksas’ relationship with Yuri Borisov. He is a Russian national and chief executive of Avia Baltica, the Kaunas-based helicopter repair company that contributed 1.2 million litas to the election campaign. Paksas granted him citizenship on 11 April 2003.
On 30 December, almost two months after the scandal broke out, the Constitutional Court ruled that the president’s decree granting citizenship to Borisov violated the Constitution, and he automatically lost it.
The VSD recommended that Borisov not only be denied a residence permit, but also that he be declared persona non grata. The security services investigated allegations that Borisov had illegally supplied military helicopter parts to Sudan, a country subject to international sanctions.
Paksas has not openly dissociated himself from his financial backer, despite the calls to do so, claiming that he could not renounce him, just as he could not renounce his own children.
In early December, the parliamentary investigative committee published a report saying that “the president was, and still is, vulnerable” to influences because of his links, which “pose threats to national security”. It also concluded in its report that classified information had been leaked by the president himself and by his office.
It added that not only had presidential aides but also the president himself had “exerted impermissible influence on the privatisation of companies and on individual private business entities”.
The speaker of parliament, Artūras Paulauskas, and the prime minister, Algirdas Brazauskas, urged Paksas to resign after the committee published its report. All the parliamentary political parties, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, who supported the president, also called on him to step down.
Some journalists called on him to follow the example of the West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, and resign. The president denied any wrongdoing and refused to go.
The Seimas then started to prepare for formal impeachment proceedings against him.
Under the Constitution, the president can only be removed from office by impeachment if he violates the Constitution or his oath, or if he commits a crime. The signatures of 36 members of the Seimas are enough to initiate impeachment proceedings.
A committee of lawmakers and lawyers has to be set up to consider formal charges against the president. If the committee concludes that there are sufficient grounds to impeach him, the Seimas votes on the articles of impeachment. At least 85 votes are required to remove him from office.
In mid-December, a petition to initiate impeachment proceedings was signed by 86 members of the Seimas, sending the signal to Paksas that there is enough political support in the Seimas to impeach him. Some politicians saw it as his last chance to resign before the process began.
But Paksas was still confident that he could win the vote. Some of his aides resigned due to the scandal, but the remaining members of his team have adamantly defended him in the face of the allegations, sometimes even quoting from the Bible.
The Battle for Public Opinion
A battle for public opinion has been raging between the president’s supporters and his opponents since the scandal erupted.
Most of the media have called on him to quit and have raced against each other to be the first to report any new piece of information about improper conduct on the part of his aides. They have also openly criticised him for the way he has handled the crisis.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets to call for his resignation, while his supporters have held counter-demonstrations to express their support.
Paksas saw public confidence in him slump to 18 per cent in December, the lowest ever rating for the presidency, in an opinion poll released by Baltijos Tyrimai. A survey by Vilmorus, another polling company, found that 31 per cent of respondents had no confidence in him.
To win back the public’s trust, the president used the tactics that had proved successful in his campaign. Accompanied by aides and leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party, he began to hold what he called “face-to-face” meetings with voters in small towns across the country.
His efforts to rally supporters started to bear fruit and his ratings began to rise again, although slowly. However, political analysts, the media and even senior Catholic clerics warned that the president’s actions were threatening the polarisation of society.
New fears over deepening rifts in society were raised after ultra-radical activists started to attend rallies in support of Paksas.
Paksas received another setback in his struggle to stay in office on 19 February when a damaging report by a special impeachment panel was read out in the Seimas detailing six gross violations and concluding that the accusations were based on reliable evidence. The Seimas has moved to impeach him. The Chairman of the Seimas, Artūras Paulauskas, said an impeachment vote against President Paksas could be held before the end of March.
Whatever the outcome of the impeachment process, the vote will hardly put an end to the crisis. If Paksas is removed from office, it is probable that he will run in the next presidential election, unless the Seimas passes a law to bar a person who has violated the presidential oath from running for president again.
If he survives the vote, he will have to try to work together with the Seimas or risk political isolation, at least until the next elections to parliament in the autumn of 2004.
So far, the continuing political crisis has had no adverse effects either on Lithuania’s economic performance or on its strategic foreign policy goals. The country is firmly on its course to join the EU and Nato.
Nevertheless, local politicians and foreign diplomats expect that the crisis will be resolved as soon as possible. Paksas’ resignation would contribute greatly to the stabilisation of the political system, but he seems to be unwilling to add one more resignation to his rich collection.
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