Small nation, big spanner in works

Observations on Lithuania

Lithuania may be a small country, but it has managed to inflict a significant wound on the Great Satan. Put simply, it elected the wrong president on Monday 6 January.

The warning signs were there at a rally in late November. It was supposed to be Lithuania's day of triumph. The country had been invited to join both Nato and the EU. George W Bush himself was going to address a grateful nation. At his side stood the father figure of the plucky ex-Soviet republic, President Valdas Adamkus, the 76-year-old who had returned from exile in the United States to steer his country out of its grim communist past and into a bright Euro-Atlantic future. But only 5,000 of the 20,000 tickets allocated for the rally were taken up.

Adamkus was running for re-election in the expectation that Bush's coat-tails would boost his vote. And, according to the opinion polls, he was coasting to victory with up to 70 per cent support.

Yet in the first round of voting in December, Adamkus took only 35 per cent of the vote. He was pushed into a humiliating second round and now he has been thrashed by an ex-premier, Rolandas Paksas, a 46-year-old who had lost office for challenging a privatisation deal with Williams, the US oil company. That deal epitomised post-communist market economics: the profits were privatised, but the costs of cleaning up Lithuania's oil refinery remained socialised.

Although Paksas insisted after his triumph that he supported both EU and Nato membership, his victory has sent shivers down spines in Brussels. Lithuania had been slated to be the first of the three Baltic republics to vote on membership. The west was confident that Adam-kus would set the pace for integration. Now it is not so sure.

As Lord (George) Robertson, the Nato secretary-general, is always reminding us, membership of the alliance is not cost-free. Although the Baltic states' economies are operating at only about two-thirds of their 1991 level, they have to buy modern American or British weapons if they are to play their part in Nato.

EU membership also demands a high price. Already, agriculture has collapsed across much of the region. At the same time, Brussels insists that world market prices be charged for energy and that Lithuania's sole domestic source of electricity, the Ignalina nuclear power station, be closed down for environmental reasons. Meanwhile, with Russia agreeing to shrink its sphere of influence to a radius of barely 50 miles from St Petersburg and with President Bush calling Vladimir Putin "my friend", Lithuanians wonder why they need to beef up their defences.

Behind the painted facades of Vilnius's picturesque baroque buildings, Bush probably didn't see the poverty. Official statistics as fanciful as any produced under Stalin boast of a boom that was invisible in the empty shops in the city centre in the run-up to Christmas.

Ordinary Lithuanians were coy about expressing political opinions to a westerner. However, circumlocutions familiar from the Soviet era revealed that poverty, fuel prices and corruption, not the 200 jobs in the Brussels bureaucracy promised to the lucky children of the elite, were on people's minds. Paksas tapped in to the real concerns, while Adamkus was a kind of Potemkin village whose own integrity covered up the graft and impoverishment that have flourished under him.

Counting the cost of Euro-Atlantic integration could set a bad example. It is only 12 years since the tiny Baltic states upset the apple-cart of history by starting the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could the defeat of the west's candidate in Lithuania be a straw in the wind for the coming round of referendums on EU and Nato enlargement?

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford. A full report on the Lithuanian elections will be published at: www.oscewatch.org