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23 February 2004

The judge fails to stay bought

The corrupt president is backed only by the old and poor. In Lithuania, that's a lot of people

By Mark Almond

It was standing room only in the old Soviet house of culture in Sakiai on the evening of 12 February. More than 500 people filled its tiny theatre; scores more blocked the doorways and flowed out into the freezing street. After barely a year in office, Rolandas Paksas, Lithuania’s president, is fighting allegations of sleaze and packing them in as he tours rural Lithuania putting his side of the story.

Paksas has made a career out of resigning – until now, that is. Three times in Lithuania’s short post-communist history, he seemed to get almost to the top of the greasy pole before throwing in the towel, twice as prime minister and once as mayor of the capital, Vilnius. But now the iron nerve he showed as a stunt pilot has returned and he is refusing to bow out.

Paksas’s critics in parliament and the opposition media claim that the president is supported only by the old, the poor and the uneducated – a pretty formidable share of the electorate in Lithuania. It served Paksas well in defeating his predecessor, the American-educated postwar exile Valdas Adamkus.

In November, the establishment got its chance for revenge on Paksas and his voters. The Lithuanian security service bugged telephone conversations between Yuri Borisov, one of Paksas’s major financial sponsors in the 2002-03 presidential election campaign, and other partners. Arturas Paulauskas, chairman of the Seimas (Speaker of the Lithuanian parliament), gleefully revealed the contents in a televised session of parliament.

Paksas had signed a decree restoring Borisov’s Lithuanian passport: the 47-year-old Russian businessman had lived in Lithuania since the age of six; and previous presidents had used this power more than 800 times since 1991.

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But on the tape, Borisov talks of his disappointment with a president who did not live up to the promises he made before the election. His irritation with Paksas recalls Al Capone’s indignant complaint: “When I buy a judge, I like the judge to stay bought.”

With Lithuania about to enter Nato as well as the EU, Paksas’s critics say that he has been compromised by accepting campaign cash from a dubious Russian rather than one of Lithuania’s own ethnically correct dubious businessmen. With this allegation, they hope to appeal to the people’s fear of Russian influence. But if anti-Sovietism united Lithuanian society 15 years ago, it fails to cut much ice today.

Even Antanas Valionis, the foreign minister, seems to have it in for Paksas. Upon his return from Washington, Valionis let it be known that the State Department was eager to see the last of the troublesome Balt. The State Department was forced quickly to deny the statement.

The drawn-out impeachment process has paralysed politics in Lithuania without producing any new evidence to damage the embattled leader. Even one of Paksas’s most relentless critics, the newspaper columnist Valdas Bartasevicius, admits that “after the first tapes, nothing new” has come out to embarrass Paksas. Indeed, his supporters are dismissing the raking-over of his alleged past wrongdoings as sour grapes from an unloved political elite.

Paksas and his allies, meanwhile, have repeatedly implied that the president has dirt on leading members of the establishment. If they push the impeachment to a trial, then Paksas might open his own files on their extra-parliamentary activities.

The president is likely to point out the hypocrisy of his critics, who attack him for dealing with a Lithuanian-Russian businessman while they themselves endorse the entry into Lithuania of Russian oligarchical economic giants such as Gazprom and Yukos oil.

As the political intrigues grow un-checked, the country’s economy is stagnating. The propaganda about Lithuania being a Baltic tiger with 8 per cent growth is the consequence of a statistical blip, produced by one-off transfers of assets to foreign buyers such as the Russian gas monopoly. Any economy growing at 8 per cent must be starting from a very low base. And the underlying tendency is declining: the educated youth are emigrating and the remaining, ageing population does not make the natural demographic base for boom times.

Whatever happens now, Paksas seems poised to stay a fixture on the Lithuanian political landscape. He has remobilised the disappointed and poverty-stricken electorate which propelled him into office in the first place. Even if forced from the presidency by impeachment he could run again, unless his opponents move fast to plug the gap in the constitution that fails to ban disgraced presidents from seeking popular re-endorsement. And even if the Lithuanian establishment does pass a special law banning Paksas from running again, it runs the risks of turning the ousted president into a heroic outsider by doing just that.

With European elections due in June and parliamentary elections in early autumn, Paksas will have many opportunities to test his popularity with the

voters. The more the rest of the political class gang up on him, the stronger his own voter base grows.

Meanwhile, Lithuania will enter the EU and Nato under a cloud. The country’s reputation and its whole political class are tarnished by a half-baked scandal and political execution gone off at half cock. For the rest of us in the EU, questions will remain about a partner where bugged conversations can be broadcast, defying European norms of privacy, and where allegations of continuing KGB influence can be cast about without concrete evidence.

Welcome to the new Europe.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford

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