Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 19
1 February 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Who Runs Lithuania?

Mel Huang

A month into the new year and the ever-present question of "who runs Lithuania" has re-surfaced. This time the ongoing feud and power-struggle between President Valdas Adamkus and Seimas (Parliament) Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis revolves around the nomination of the state controller. Conveniently, during this latest feud, Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius extended his holidays in sunny Sri Lanka.

The Conservative Party, to which Landsbergis and Vagnorius both belong, sternly opposes the president's nominee to the post of state controller, Constitutional Court Justice Kestutis Lapinskas. The Conservative leadership, including Landsbergis, cited lack of economic experience on the part of Lapinskas. Also, the frivolous argument of age was even used at one stage, suggesting that the 62-year old jurist was too old to hold the five-year long posting (as the law stipulates retirement at the age of 65). However, the nomination was supported by all other parties in the 141-seat Seimas, including the coalition partner of the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats. However, the vote in the Seimas on 14 January 1999 fell short by 3 votes, with 62 for and 62 against (with 129 members present at the vote, it needed a majority of 65 to pass) the nominee.

Quickly President Adamkus re-nominated Lapinskas for the position, earning more public wrath from Landsbergis. The president countered, stating that the state controller should be politically independent - hinting that the real reason for the Conservatives' disapproval was political and not about qualification. The row intensified, with newspapers giddily reporting the heated face-off. The Seimas is likely to vote on the nomination again in early February as the returning Prime Minister Vagnorius failed to convince either side to compromise.

Going back to the question of who is running Lithuania, it seems that Landsbergis would answer "me" at any given time. Since his return to the role of Seimas Chairman after the 1996 general elections, Landsbergis focused his activities towards the presidential elections of December 1997-January 1998. He frequently overshadowed Prime Minister Vagnorius on many sensitive issues and was clearly at loggerheads with then-President Algirdas Brazauskas.

Landsbergis defined the role of Seimas Chairman in 1996 similar to the role in 1991, when he previously held the position. However, those early years preceded the re-establishment of the presidency (Lithuania had not had a president since 1940, when President Antanas Smetona fled the country with impending invasion from Moscow) and the Seimas Chairman was seen as the de facto head of state. So upon his return to the post in 1996 he executed his duties as the head legislator closer to Newt Gingrich than Betty Boothroyd.

The feuds began almost immediately upon election of Adamkus as president in January 1998. Though the Conservative Party (party of both Landsbergis and Vagnorius) supported Adamkus in the run-off vote, it appears that Landsbergis has a hard time accepting his decimation during the first round of the presidential election. Coming in a dismal and distant third, Landsbergis's presidential aspirations were deflated once again. However, he simply retreated to his chairmanship of the Seimas with business as he finds usual.

However, times have changed since 1992. There is now a fully-functioning presidency - a position he coveted but failed to gain by election. With this current crisis over the nomination of the state controller, Landsbergis has even called to water down the powers of the president, starting with a limitation on the frequency the same candidate can be nominated. This, remember, comes from a person that pushed for a strong executive in the early years. With ongoing disputes including several other key nominations (such as the commander of the military) and pieces of legislation (for example a lustration law), it seems clearer by the day that Landsbergis has not reconciled with his failed goal of becoming president.

This should be of concern, if not to Landsbergis, then to his Conservative Party colleagues, especially Prime Minister Vagnorius. Much of the government's work has been superseded by Landsbergis's own personal agenda; issues of the past, such as lustration and a recent declaration on the fact that Lithuania was never in the USSR (which has been legally factual in Lithuania and most of the world for a long time already), has been gaining more attention than much needed legislation, such as land reform and harmonisation with the EU's acquis communautaire. Also, poll results from the magazine Veidas has shown that 61 per cent of the people back President Adamkus on this current nominations row while 63 per cent believe that the Conservative Party is either attempting to monopolise political power or trying to belittle the president's authority. It perhaps is no surprise that another poll indicated that trust in the president is at 68 per cent while trust in the Seimas is at a dismal 29 per cent (the government ranked a little higher at 36 per cent). With the bad PR over the expelling of two former cabinet ministers and party founders in absentia, as well as polls showing their public support falling below ten per cent, can the Conservative Party afford to keep Landsbergis on as the driving force? A general election looms next year and it looks more and more unlikely that the Conservatives will retain their current plurality.

The row over the nomination of the state controller is just but one example of the tense relationship in Lithuania among the power 'triumvirate', most especially the two 'heads of state'. The current situation supersedes the agonising condition so adequately referred to in French politics as cohabitation, and it appears that neither Landsbergis nor President Adamkus will give in. At this stage, it seems that Landsbergis is waging a lost battle with the past (both the nation's and his personal) and will probably doom the Conservatives in the near future. So who is running the country? Sri Lanka is a long way away from Vilnius, Mr Prime Minister...

Mel Huang, 1 February 1999


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