Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 33
10 May 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
And This Round Goes to the President

Mel Huang

The latest round in Lithuania's ongoing boxing match between the ruling Conservative Party and President Valdas Adamkus was won by the President. Though not quite a knock-out, the resignation of Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius on 30 April came close to being a good, solid eight count - but as the bell sounded. What will the next round bring to this thrilling bout?

Problems for all

As entertaining as that may sound, not many are enjoying this chaos. The popular President, though victorious for the time being, clearly dislikes the difficult position in which the crisis has placed him. The Conservative Party, despite taking some pot-shots at the President, lost even more popularity in doing so. As the junior partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats are stuck with no safe route to salvage dwindling support. And most of all, Lithuania is sending out a very negative message right at the moment of NATO's Washington Summit and before the Helsinki European Council meeting later this year.

Privately the opposition parties are also not enjoying this fiasco, despite their public outbursts. The former Communist left-wing Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP) clearly enjoyed the outcome, being the chief critic of the Conservatives since they lost to them in the 1996 Seimas elections. However, the LDDP did not gain much in the polls with the fall of the right, signalling that the right-left shifts prevalent to Lithuanian politics are a thing of the past. Though the opposition Centre Union is likely to make the most significant gains in the political battle, they are trying to avoid taking part in any new government before elections. They are nearly assured of the top spot in the next Seimas, whether elections are held early or on-time in 2000. They know full well no one wins running a caretaker government.

The Conservatives have stated that they will not lead the new interim government, putting all the blame for its fall on President Adamkus. The party holds 68 seats out of a current 138 in the Seimas (three seats will likely be declared empty due to consistent by-election failures to obtain the minimal turnout). This gives the party a dominant voice, and it could easily use it to embarrass the new government - and the President. Even the President's overwhelming 88 percent approval rating may be jeopardised by further chaos in the government.

If there is no possibility of forming a new government that has some sense of stability, then a snap election is inevitable, though it will not help anyone. As 71 of the 141 seats are decided by single-district mandates (the remaining 70 by proportional representation), there is no assurance that challengers can mount a strong campaign to dislodge the established incumbent in such a short time. That could easily result in a hung Parliament and the creation of either a large, unstable coalition or a minority government. Such a scenario would be disastrous in Lithuania, where polarisation is much more intense than in Latvia or Estonia. The chances for a centrist coalition without either the LDDP or the Conservatives is very slim.

What goes with the Conservatives

In many ways, the behaviour of the Conservatives has been non-constructive and confrontational since the 1996 Seimas elections. Their attitude seems to be one of "our way or no way" in most areas, even in foreign policy. When Lithuania failed to gain entry into the "first wave" of EU candidates which includes Estonia, they publicly blamed the European Commission for its "mistake" and for using faulty numbers. They failed to realise that the "faulty numbers" used by the European Commission came straight from Vilnius. Even after realising that and submitting the newer, more positive numbers, the failure to be leap-frogged to the top of the tables unleashed some damaging rhetoric from leading Conservatives such as Seimas Speaker Vytautas Landsbergis. It is safe to say that did not endear Lithuania to the European Commission.

The tension between President Adamkus and the Conservative leadership became apparent during the 1997-98 presidential elections. Vytautas Landsbergis was soundly rejected by voters in the first round and ended up supporting Adamkus just to prevent a victory by leftist lawyer Arturas Paulauskas, whom Landsbergis associated with the LDDP and former Communists, including his arch-enemy, out-going President Algirdas Brazauskas. The relationship since has been deteriorating, from various feuds between Landsbergis and Adamkus to the current Vagnorius and Adamkus battle. When Adamkus sent legislation proposed by Landsbergis, such as the lustration law, to the Constitutional Court for review, the Seimas speaker took that as a personal insult, despite the fact that the court itself later requested changes which the Seimas promptly adopted. The Vagnorius government rejected many nominees for various government positions proposed by the President, especially when the nominees were not in close agreement with the Conservatives. The nomination process became a farce, as one-by-one they were shot down by the parliament or withdrawn fearing the same outcome.

Though the President is not blameless in this whole mess, the Conservatives did what they could to destabilise the situation even more. Rhetoric hinting that Adamkus wants to create a presidential state is offensive, and that itself damages Lithuania's reputation abroad more than anything Adamkus can do. And seeing they cannot get "their way" on matters, the task is set for "no way" to prevail with their dominant parliamentary bloc.

Current developments

Since President Adamkus appointed Conservative Irena Degutiene as caretaker Prime Minister, Vagnorius returns to the Seimas under his original mandate. Degutiene stressed she does not want the job full-time, feeling that she is not experienced enough in politics. The chaos surrounding the creation of a new government has alarmed some, and queuing at banks has been reported.

Whichever way the scenario plays out, it is safe to say the departure of Vagnorius removes some of the most troubling aspects for the President. For one, the influence of powerful industrial magnate Bronislovas Lubys, the president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, has been scaled back. The President's exposure of this questionable link between the Vagnorius regime and the Confederation was a key reason for his distrust of the outgoing prime minister. Whether the caretaker and successor to Vagnorius can limit that influence further will be seen after the appointment of the new cabinet. One benchmark would be whether Economic Minister Vincas Babilius, in essence appointed by the Confederation, is removed and if so, when.

However, most analysts are predicting early elections. The majority of the political parties has already been acting as if the campaign is in full swing. It looks like what President Adamkus was trying to avoid might happen after all. If that is the case, the Conservatives may have the last laugh - at least until the election results.

Mel Huang, 10 May 1999


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