Lithuania Behind the EU Wheel (with criminals in power?)
If the European Union was really looking for transparency and integrity in an EU presidency host, Lithuania might well be the least suitable candidate for that mission today. And maybe even less fit for the task than Hungary, gripped by its constitutional crisis during its EU presidency, was, or Belgium, which chaired the EU with an interim government.
But the approaching Lithuanian EU presidency (in the second half of 2013 – editor's note) stands out even in this setting. This is because of the criminal charges that new Lithuanian MPs in the ruling coalition are facing. Particularly in the Labour Party, which added nearly 30 seats to the 141-member Lithuanian Parliament in the recent parliamentary elections.
With its fate now hinging on the new parliament’s will to serve justice or partisan interests, a lot more is at stake for Lithuania, especially in wake of the EU presidency. Will the majority party, the Social Democrats, close its eyes to the accusations against the Labour Party, stemming from the black bookkeeping scandal in the 2004 parliamentary elections, and come to the rescue of its needed coalition partner?
So far this seems to be the most likely scenario. And watching how exuberantly Labour has suggested its ministers to the new government, fighting off the incriminations feels like it is just turning the page of its party’s shady history.
The Lithuanian paradox
You may wonder what the Lithuanian electorate is thinking by overwhelmingly voting for a party in trouble up to its neck. Well, that is the paradox of Lithuania’s political reality: Lithuanians love to embrace those “persecuted” by the law; particularly, if the prosecutors pummel a politician of notable size such as the Labour Party leader, Viktor Uspaskich.
Uspaskich, is an eccentric multimillionaire of Russian descent, whose fairy-tale “how-to-become-superrich-quick” story has been hard to believe for many, leading to the conspiracy theory that claims he is a KGB project for Lithuania. Investigations into fraud dating to 2006 have led to him being stripped of legal immunity in the European Parliament.
Stripping Uspaskich and some of his other party buddies (also new MPs) of immunity from prosecution in Lithuania would mean a major bump in the fledging new Social Democrat-led path of the government. Although the Social Democrats have repeatedly promised to serve the “cause of justice” when it comes to the fate of its coalition partners, such as Labour, one has to be extremely naïve to believe it will ever happen.
If the Social Democrats had indeed desired prevalence of justice, they would have not vehemently opposed the Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, who has tried an arsenal of constitutional means to keep the Labour Party out of the new government. The head-of-state has failed despite the wall of billowing smoke.
Instead of supporting her in the quest, the Social Democrats have lured the Polish Electoral Action, a minor parliamentary faction, into the new ruling coalition, thus securing a constitutional majority in parliament. This means the president’s further decisions can be overturned by parliament. Let us imagine that the Social Democrats’ unconditional love for the Labour Party, at some point, will evaporate and, with the prosecutors persisting, parliament will strip Uspaskich and other Labour MPs of legal immunity. Some political analysts predict that this could even lead to the prosecutors’ demand to dismantle the Labour Party itself.
It would be quite extraordinary in European politics if this happened, but the Labour Party’s lawyers have already scrambled to say that such a ruling “would not affect” parliament’s Labour Party faction.
“I really doubt whether any aggravation of the ruling coalition parties’ relations could be expected any time soon. For quite some time, the parties will be enjoying their status in the coalition and the ministerial portfolios. And, sure, the looming EU presidency will hold up from taking some radical strides. However, in the long-term, the Labour party incriminations is a ticking bomb, as there is always a possibility that the coalition’s unity will start cracking because of its tarnished partner,” Lauras Bielinis, a former top advisor to president Valdas Adamkus, said to New Eastern European.
Thus, we may see some ripples in Lithuanian domestic politics over the course of the EU presidency, but hardly any tremors will be felt on the surface. Especially with the EU presidency hosting privileges at stake: there are already 3,000 casual meetings scheduled, over 180 mostly EU-sponsored high-profile EU events, hordes of Europeans and guests from all over the world to Vilnius hotels, conference halls, spas, malls and boutiques and, certainly, everyday headlines in the western press.
There perhaps could not have been a better opportunity for Lithuania to advertise itself! And although the economic benefits of the EU chairmanship have been emphasised the most, other bonuses should also not be dismissed.
“Although an EU presidency is always unbiased officially, meaning that the host represents the interests of the entire European Union, it always allows the host state to address its painful issues,” says Remigijus Motuzas, EU Presidency Department director and ambassador at Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Lithuania’s top-priority, no doubt, has been the pursuit of energy security. But with the new government about to scrap the Hitachi-led Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant project, the rhetoric will have to change.
“I’d say energy issues will remain on the top priority subject list during the presidency, but with different tones. Perhaps Lithuania, cajoling to Germany and its green policies, will try to conjure up an image of a green-energy outpost country on the EU's eastern border. I believe the rhetoric of the necessity to have a larger EU financing for the decommissioning of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant will intensify. Particularly, with the EU member states still undecided on the EU budget for the 2014 to 2017 period,” says Virginijus Mykoliunas, a political analyst.
Highlighting benefits of regional cooperation may be another prevailing topic of Lithuania’s presidency. “Baltic and Nordic states’ regional cooperation could be an example, for instance, for southern EU member states. Considering our common past within the Soviet Bloc, we could be a role model for EU-membership seeking Georgia; as well as for other countries mulling over EU accession,” says Motuzas.
Besides the energy security and regional collaboration issues, many experts believe that enforcing EU outer-border security and promoting Baltic issues will also be at the top of the agenda.
Laima Andrikiene, a European member of parliament, notes that the competence of the president’s appointed ministers will be crucial in bridging Lithuania’s gaps with the rest of the EU. Perhaps vexed for not only being unable to keep the Labour Party out of power, but also the party’s choice of candidates for ministers, the president has announced President Grybauskaitė will only give the nod to candidates who show her their ability to speak fluent English in-person.
Although the Iron Magnolia (how the Lithuanian president is dubbed for her tough character) may have done quite a good job of checking English proficiency of the candidates, it remains to be seen whether the current Lithuanian political elite will have the guts to pluck out the criminals from parliament; despite the threat that the country’s much-anticipated EU presidency could be forever tarnished.
Linas Jegelevicius is a Lithuanian journalist and editor of a regional Lithuanian newspaper. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times, the only English-language weekly newspaper in the Baltics.