292. The Presidential Crisis in Lithuania: Its Roots and the Russian Factor

By
Richard Krickus

Richard J. Krickus is Professor Emeritus at Mary Washington College in Fredricsburg, MD, and has held the H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the US Marine Corp University. He also writes a column for Lithuania's leading daily Lietuvos Rytas. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on January 28, 2004. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 292.

On the eve of the 2002 presidential elections, a growing number of Lithuanians had cause to rejoice. Scholars proclaimed Lithuania to be a consolidated democracy, while the economy had achieved a steady rate of growth—with declining rates of inflation and unemployment on the one hand and rising rates of investment on the other. Several rounds of legislative and presidential elections had been conducted since Lithuania reclaimed its independence in 1990, and there had been a peaceful exchange of authority between right and left more than once. A free press was flourishing and, unlike neighboring Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania did not have a minority problem.

After lagging behind Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania displayed new economic vigor over the last few years. Initial estimates proclaimed that during the first nine months of 2003, the country's economy was growing at the rate of 13 percent. In the capital, Vilnius, and the port city of Klaipeda there was a construction boom as real estate prices soared. Entrepreneurs provided an array of quality products that had been missing from stores only several years earlier. For younger, better-educated urbanites that had successfully exploited the transition from a command to a market economy and the political elite in the country, it seems to be only a matter of time before a wider cross-section of the population experiences better living standards. With prosperity and an expanding civil society, rates of crime and corruption would decline and complaints about the political system would subside.

In November 2002, President George W. Bush visited Vilnius to celebrate NATO's acceptance of Lithuania's membership bid. Lithuania will join NATO this spring, almost simultaneously with gaining EU membership. Moreover, fractious areas of dispute between Lithuania and its largest neighbor, Russia, had been resolved. Indeed, Yevgeny Primakov called Lithuania a "good neighbor." And while many Lithuanians feared that powerful groups in Russia still claimed the Baltic countries belonged to them, once Lithuania entered NATO and the EU "the threat from the East" would vanish.

There was, however, a darker side to the picture. More Lithuanians proclaimed that they were unhappy with the Parliament (Seimas) than any neighboring population in Eastern Europe. Polls indicated that crime and corruption remained a major national concern and over one-third of Lithuanians complained about corruption among the police and health care agencies. A little over 30 percent of the population endured poverty—pensioners, people residing in the countryside and those working in old Soviet-style enterprises complained that they had lived better in the USSR. Poverty and economic inequality had produced a large number of disgruntled Lithuanians.

The 2003 presidential elections

This was the backdrop for the presidential elections, which pundits predicted would result in the re-election of Valdas Adamkus. Adamkus had left Lithuania in his late teens and lived in the United States for over 50 years. After completing his career as an official in the Environmental Protection Agency, he returned to his homeland and narrowly won his bid to become president of Lithuania in 1997.

Even his political opponents agreed that he was an honest, decent, uncorruptable man who had provided a model for leadership that succeeding presidents would be wise to emulate. Polls indicated that he would easily win his bid for re-election against a wide field of candidates. But not having received a majority of the votes in the first round—he garnered 35 percent—he had to face his closest competitor, Rolandas Paksas (who received 19.4 percent) in a run-off.

Paksas is an engineer and stunt pilot who had served as mayor of Vilnius on two occasions and twice as the country's prime minister. His detractors cited his proclivity for deserting high political posts and his admission that he relied upon the advice of a psychic to support their claim that he was a "flake." It was beyond the realm of plausibility, the best and brightest in Vilnius reasoned, that Paksas would send Adamkus back into retirement.

But he did, beating the incumbent president by a nearly 10 percent margin. Paksas equaled or exceeded Adamkus in garnering a large campaign war chest and conducted an aggressive race that was focused and on message. What is more, Paksas spoke about things that really mattered to those Lithuanians who had not exploited the new economy—the pensioners, the poorly educated, those working in pre-independence enterprises and those residing in poverty-stricken villages.

Paksas understood that there were two Lithuanias. On the one hand were the young, educated urbanites and the old political elite who had exploited their political contacts to get ahead. On the other hand were the disgruntled groups described above. He adroitly manipulated their despondency to great effect. He spoke about issues that preoccupied most voters—crime, corruption, educational problems, joblessness and meager protection against old age and sickness—despite the fact that the Constitution gives the president little control over domestic affairs. Paksas's supporters saw him as someone who was not part of the political clique in Vilnius—including old communists such as Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas as well as his perennial adversary on the right, Vytautas Landsbergis, who led the Lithuanian rebellion more than a decade ago. In the eyes of the people who favored Paksas, the latter clung to the status quo, as did Adamkus.

The case against Paksas

Upon taking charge, Paksas raised eyebrows when he threatened to go to Brussels and "clarify the situation on certain points that do not satisfy me." Once in the presidential palace, however, he did not oppose the EU or NATO and conducted his affairs without incident. This changed in late October, 2003, when the head of Lithuania's State Security Department, Mecys Laurinkus, informed members of the Seimas that the president's national security advisor, Remigijus Acas, had ties with Russian mobsters. In addition to being Paksas's advisor, Acas was also a businessman who managed a Lithuanian-Russian joint venture in Belarus. Journalists had questioned his appointment, since he lacked relevant experience to fulfill his national security duties. Laurinkus reported that Paksas had been informed of Acas's ties to the Mafia but that the president had ignored them.

Laurinkus's report followed Paksas's attempt to reassign him to the post of ambassador to Spain, in an obvious move to place his own person in the leading State Security position. After the scandal broke, the Seimas refused to sanction Laurinkus's transfer. Paksas's supporters questioned why Laurinkus, a close associate of Landsbergis, had waited so long to reveal these charges. In their eyes, his actions were part of a conspiracy to oust Paksas from office.

But the focus of the investigation soon centered on the man who was the largest donor to Paksas's campaign, Igor Borisov. He provided over 300,000 euros to Paksas, though the actual sum is believed to be far greater. Paksas's opponents cited Borisov's financial support as evidence that large amounts of Russian money had been injected into the campaign.

Borisov owned Avia Baltica, a company that sold and serviced Russian helicopters. It was soon revealed that this Lithuanian-based firm had done business with Sudan, which both the EU and the US had declared to be a terrorist state. The media reported that according to American intelligence sources, Borisov also had attempted to do business with Iraq. Furthermore, in a search of Borisov's villa outside of Vilnius, officials found a plan that was designed by a Russian PR firm, Almax, to discredit Lithuania's political elite and insure victory for Paksas's Liberal Democratic Party in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Almax was said to have close ties with Russian security services. Moreover, the State Security Department produced phone taps that had Borisov grousing about Paksas not honoring his promise to appoint him to a high post in the new administration. Borisov said he would ask for his money back and at one point said that if Paksas continued to spurn him, the president would become a "political corpse."

The State Security Department provided the Seimas with a memo outlining a full complement of charges against the president's office and Paksas himself. It was published by the Lithuanian daily, Respublika, on November 1, 2003. Its author, Laurinkus, claimed that wealthy Russian interests were attempting to exploit Lithuania's next round of privatization by purchasing profitable gas, oil and transportation enterprises. The purchase of strategic Lithuanian firms was also predicated upon the expectation that Lithuania would serve as a springboard into the massive EU market. Lithuanian and Russian crime groups—they were named along with individuals associated with them—were likewise striving to secure ties with high-level public officials in the hopes of buying favorable treatment. They too saw such activities as a pathway into the EU's economic space. Lithuania, the memo warned, was being used to sell and transport arms and launder money, all of which could be used "to finance international terrorism." Laurinkus cited Russia's western-most oblast, the poorly-guarded Kaliningrad exclave, as a point of access to Lithuania and the EU. Finally, he warned, "Persons directly connected to Russia's special services…are interested in the privatization of strategically important objects in Lithuania."

In response to the allegations, the Seimas organized an ad hoc commission, under the direction of the Social Democrat Aloyzas Sakalas, to investigate the case against Paksas. On December 1, it reported that there were six charges indicating that Paksas had committed impeachable acts and was a risk to Lithuania's national security. A 12-person panel, comprised of six lawyers and six MPs, was then authorized to assess these charges and to determine whether they justified Paksas's impeachment. If the team answered in the affirmative, then the Lithuanian Constitutional Court would assess the charges and, if it found them legitimate, the Seimas would vote on his removal. If 85 of the 137 deputies voted for impeachment, Paksas would be removed and a new president would be selected in 60 days.

In addition to Prime Minister Brazauskas and Seimas Speaker Rolandas Paulauskas, the head of the Catholic Church and leading intellectuals have demanded Paksas's resignation. A poll conducted in the late fall favored his resignation by a 19-percent margin, but he has refused, claiming he is not guilty. Since the Christmas holidays, Paksas has taken the offensive by traveling through Lithuania to rally support. He has had some success—a new poll released in mid-January shows him running second behind Brazauskas as the most popular politician in Lithuania.

The Russian factor

Lithuanian officials and members of the media agree that the Russian mafia, powerful Russian economic interests, Russian media organizations and members of the Russian security services are active in Lithuania. There is no question all of these entities see that the penetration of Lithuania as beneficial even if their motives may not be identical and they are operating on a non-collaborative basis.

The big, as yet unanswered question is: does the alleged involvement of Russian operatives indicate that Moscow is attempting to exert pressure on Vilnius to secure Lithuania's cooperation on a range of economic, political and security matters? There are related questions: Does Russia hope to penetrate Europe's economic space through Lithuania? Or is the motive driven by hard-security concerns—for example, to punish Lithuania for entering NATO? Or worse yet, is there a plot to destabilize the Lithuanian government and thrust into authority officials who will do Moscow's bidding? The plan designed by Almax could be interpreted as not merely an effort to promote the political welfare of Paksas and his party, but to achieve that objective.

There are some American analysts who have reported powerful Russian economic interests and crime groups collaborating with Russian officials. According to Steve Blank, a Russian analyst at the US Army War College, "Russian attempts to subvert East European governments through economic penetration, corruption of politicians, intelligence penetration, etc., have continued as least since 1997, if not earlier. The evidence from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltic states is overwhelming and points to a strategic decision in Moscow." The success of hard-line nationalists and the rout of democrats in Russia's recent Duma elections, Putin's war on democracy and Moscow's meddling in the affairs of former Soviet states provide additional reasons for Russia's neighbors to be wary of the Kremlin's activities.

Conclusions

Lithuania's democracy will survive the current presidential crisis. But the fears that many Lithuanian academics, journalists, and officials have displayed concerning political unrest in the country cannot be ignored. Consider in this connection four plausible outcomes of the current political crisis in Lithuania: Under mounting pressure, President Paksas resigns; President Paksas is impeached by the Seimas after the panel finds him guilty and the Constitutional Court endorses that finding; President Paksas is found innocent after the panel finds no evidence of his guilt and/or the Constitutional Court reaches a similar conclusion; The panel finds him guilty, as does the Constitutional Court, but the Seimas fails to remove him from office. It can be argued that the democratic rule of law system will be maintained in each of these scenarios, but how might the EU and NATO countries interpret the fourth outcome? Many observers believe it is likely since members of the Seimas, who previously indicated they would impeach Paksas, have since changed their minds because they have been intimidated or see political advantages in doing so. Although being denied membership to either the EU or NATO is unlikely at this stage, how confident will EU officials be about Lithuania safeguarding the EU's eastern borders? What reservations will NATO military planners have about sharing sensitive information with Vilnius? Why should European and American leaders feel confident about cooperating with high-level officials in the Lithuanian government?

It is clear that the Lithuanians must resolve the crisis and cannot expect foreign friends to do it for them. Likewise, democrats from all parties must address problems of the disadvantaged and develop the political capacity to prevent demagogues from exploiting their despair and anger. But Lithuanian democrats who have looked to the US in the past to help them deal with threats to their security are asking: why is the US standing on the sidelines? From the perspective of cautious American analysts, only time will tell whether or not the Russian government is seeking to influence developments in Lithuania with the intention of undermining the government and not simply exerting influence to achieve more mundane objectives, such as economic gain or ad hoc political leverage. The Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has observed that his sources in the Kremlin claim that President Bush has told President Putin that he recognizes that all of the former Soviet republics are in Russia's sphere of influence—albeit with one exception, the Baltic countries.

It is also clear, however, that the root causes of Lithuania's presidential crisis exist in every post-communist country in Europe, and in most cases they are even more serious in nature—e.g., in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, Ukraine and some countries in Eastern Europe. For instance, anti-democratic forces on both the extreme left and right in these countries will exploit poverty and economic inequality to advance their political objectives and place democracy at risk in the process. The collaboration between organized criminal groups with economic warlords, corrupt local officials and Russian security operatives constitutes an internal security threat to many countries in the "new Europe."

Both the EU and NATO must provide material and on-the-ground assistance to combat the activities of trans-national criminal organizations and powerful economic warlords who threaten former communist countries. They must do so with the knowledge in mind that the entities responsible for this new threat consciously or inadvertently provide the infrastructure that terrorist organizations can exploit. Clearly traditional military assets and doctrine may be of little help here as Javier Solana argues in his so-called "Solana doctrine." It may be beyond the capacity of traditional national law enforcement officials alone to cope with the threat, and a new Trans-Atlantic response must be considered.
 

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