LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 3 - Fall 2007
Editor of this issue: M.G Slavėnas
The Presidential Crisis in Lithuania: its Roots and the Russian Factor
Richard J. Krickus
Richard J. Krickus is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington and has held the Oppenheimer Chair For Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University. He writes a column on world affairs for Lithuania’s leading national daily Lietuvos Rytas and his latest book was The Kaliningrad Question. The research for this paper was conducted while he was an East European Studies Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center For International Scholars in Washington, D.C.
The purpose of this paper is to address two questions associated with Lithuania’s political crisis in 2004. First, what were the domestic circumstances that led to the impeachment of Lithuania’s President, Rolandas Paksas? Second, what evidence is there that Russia has played a significant role in the crisis and what are the motives behind Moscow’s meddling in Lithuania’s internal affairs? Answers to these questions are pertinent to the fate of countries throughout post-communist Europe, given their common history and geography. In addition, they provide the framework for addressing a third question that must be answered by the European Union (EU), NATO and the United States: what can be done about these two-fold threats to the newest members of the Western alliance?
The Roots of the Crisis
As Lithuanians celebrated the New Year in 2003, scholars proclaimed that their country had achieved democratic consolidation.1 Since 1990, several free and fair elections had been conducted to choose the unicameral Seimas (Parliament) and to select a president. In every case there was a non-violent exchange of authority following elections. Polls indicated that while many Lithuanians expressed nostalgia for the economic stability they had enjoyed in the USSR, the vast majority supported democracy. A free media flourished and, unlike Estonia and Latvia, ethno-nationalism never escalated to become an issue.
Simultaneously, the Lithuanian economy was growing by a double-digit rate. During the first nine months of 2003 it soared beyond 13 percent before settling at 9 percent average for the year.2 Already in 2001, entrepreneurs started flourishing businesses akin to those in Western capitalist economies. For the younger well-educated urban residents, the transition from a command to a free-market economy had been beneficial. This was manifested in the appearance of a new business class that had gained prominence through entrepreneurial enterprise and not through illegal endeavors or political contacts that characterized the first phase of privatization.
As a consequence, incomes were on the rise and a burgeoning middle class fed an expanding real estate market and purchased automobiles and other costly consumer products that had been in scarce supply and unaffordable only a few years before. These “winners” enthusiastically supported the government’s efforts to join the EU and NATO and their productive endeavors helped Lithuania earn the label “Baltic tiger.”
However, they represented only one segment of Lithuanian society. The other included those who had suffered from the old economy’s collapse. Romas Lazutka, an economist at Vilnius University, claims that economic inequality in Lithuania is even higher than official figures suggest, since they do not include the income of the large percentage of Lithuanians who work “off-the-books.”3 In general, it is the well-educated segment of the population that derives additional income from unreported work while less-educated people rely upon their low wages and meager pensions to meet their basic needs. Those in the latter category labor in the countryside or in Soviet- style industries and subsist at or below the poverty line.
In Lazutka’s view, income inequality has its roots in economic theories that are popular among conservatives in the UK and US and claim that low tax rates for business and the wealthy are the road to national prosperity. Reforms have set the minimum wage low, at around 450 litas ($150) per month, in order to lure foreign direct investment. At the same time, the average monthly pension is 340 litas. Blue collar workers have been unable to press for higher wages because unions have become weak in a growing service economy and labor leaders have not adapted to new conditions. To make matters worse, one-third of the workforce is employed by the state, for which the average income is quite low – about 1,200 litas per month ($400). Unemployment is officially estimated at 8.9 percent but the real figure is probably closer to 11.5 percent, and because of strict regulations only about 15 percent of the country’s unemployed receive benefits. Social security taxes are highly regressive (about 33 percent), and the fund is in trouble because of a shrinking labor force.
As a result, about one-third of the Lithuanian population is poor, and therefore discontented. Moreover, there is a large category of discontented Lithuanians among educated people who once held prestigious professional positions in Soviet Lithuania but whose fortunes have plummeted with the USSR’s collapse. People belonging to this cohort have suffered throughout the former USSR. Assessments of the December 2003 Duma elections indicate that many Russian white-collar professionals voted for nationalist parties – e.g., the newly formed Motherland Party – in an expression of their dissatisfaction with the democratic, reformist parties.4
In addition to the economically dissatisfied are people unhappy with government, the existing political parties, and their leaders. Lithuanians claim greater distrust of their Parliament than in any other East European country. They accuse officials of using political authority to enrich themselves while ignoring their constituent’s problems. About one-third of the population deems corruption to be a pervasive problem. In addition to the Parliament, the police, health care system and land restoration systems are cited as areas where graft is especially widespread.5 The persistence of values and administrative practices associated with the Soviet system are often cited as providing the basis for corruption by government bureaucrats.
The 2002 Presidential Elections
For the beneficiaries of the new market economy, the prospects looked bright as the first round of the December 2002 presidential elections approached. Several weeks later, they were shocked out of complacency when the man they hoped to re-elect, Valdas Adamkus, lost to Rolandas Paksas, a candidate many thought of as a “flake.” But Adamkus did not receive an absolute majority of the votes cast in the first round on December 22, 2002 (he garnered only 35 percent) and therefore had to face Rolandas Paksas in a run-off, who received 19.4 percent of the vote.6
Paksas was an engineer and stunt pilot and who had previously served twice as prime minister and the mayor of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. His detractors cited his proclivity for cavalierly deserting high political posts and his admission that he relied upon the advice of a psychic to support their claim that he was ill suited for the post. Nevertheless, on January 5, 2003, Paksas secured 54.9 percent to Adamkus’s 45 percent of the votes cast. In response to the electoral results, the political elites in Vilnius were not only surprised, but expressed anger and confusion as well.
It became clear that, unlike his detractors, Paksas understood that there were “two Lithuanias” and he adroitly appealed to the anger of voters whose concerns had been ignored for years. Paksas was popular among those who had experienced security and stability in the old system and longed for it after independence. For this group, the new economy not only threatened their jobs, it also upset the social order to which they had grown accustomed under the Soviet system. These people found Paksas’s promise to restore a strong state and social order appealing. Paksas was also popular with the ethnic minorities in Lithuania and captured most of their votes.7
Despite the fact that the Lithuanian presidency has little control over domestic affairs, Paksas discussed issues that preoccupied most voters – crime, corruption, education, unemployment and healthcare.8 Paksas’s voters saw him as a political outsider (despite his public service record) because he was not affiliated with the political clique in Vilnius. For Paksas’s supporters, the mainstream political leaders, such as Algirdas Brazauskas (the former head of Lithuania’s Communist Party), Vytautas Landsbergis (the Sąjūdis leader that led Lithuania’s rebellion) and incumbent President Adamkus, favored the status quo. Adamkus was at a further disadvantage with this group of voters because, as a Lithuanian émigré who had lived most of his life in the US, they believed that he had no real understanding of the problems that ordinary Lithuanians faced.
Adamkus’s campaign fell short in energy and organization, and was unprepared to face a well-financed opponent. According to Ona Volungevičiūtė, who led the Adamkus campaign, the president suffered a cold early in December 2002, which prevented him from traveling widely throughout the country. That infirmity gave credence to charges that he was too old to hold high office. Paksas, who was 42 years old at the time, routinely mentioned Adamkus’s age, 75, during the campaign.
Another unpleasant surprise for Adamkus was the massive funding that Paksas was able to attract to his campaign.9 Official figures indicated that he had a campaign war chest of $1 million, but many pundits believed he had garnered a far larger amount than that. Later, Lithuanian and Russian analysts estimated that Paksas spent $5 to $7 million.10 Most of this money could not be traced because it supported TV spots and the publication of newspapers that were bankrolled by sources outside of the campaign. There were widespread rumors that much of that money came from Russia.
Volungevičiūtė noted that one of Adamkus’s biggest liabilities was not having a party base. Under the Lithuanian Constitution, the president cannot belong to any political party, and as a repatriated émigré, Adamkus never belonged to one in Lithuania. But Paksas, by contrast, had not only served in elected office before, with party support, and had created the Liberal Democratic Party, which provided him with an organizational base in the 2002 presidential race. The conviction of the Adamkus’s camp that victory was certain led to complacency, which contributed to the incumbent’s defeat.
But most damning to Adamkus’s campaign was his association with the so-called “William’s Deal” scandal, which certainly tarnished his record. This was also the first time that Adamkus and Paksas confronted one another in the political arena. The scandal began when Williams International, a Tulsa- based oil company, purchased a controlling share in Lithuania’s largest enterprise, Mažeikių Nafta oil refinery in 1999. Many Lithuanian politicians, including Vytautas Landsbergis, lobbied for the sale of Mažeikių Nafta to Williams because other potential buyers were Russian firms. The thought that an independent Lithuania would have to rely upon Russia for its energy requirements did not appeal to many Lithuanian leaders and they welcomed an American firm running the country’s largest source of private employment.
The overt lobbying efforts combined with the lack of transparency led many to speculate about how the deal was brokered. Critics were also angered by Williams’s demand that the state provide funds to help reduce the company’s debt. Although Adamkus denied that he supported the transaction and said that he had reservations about it, many people believed otherwise.11 In response to the alleged corruption swirling around the Williams Deal, Paksas resigned as prime minister. His resignation was a blow to the conservative coalition (which included Adamkus himself) that nominated and appointed him. His former right-wing colleagues claimed that he had turned against the president and the conservatives because of his close relations with Russian oil interests – a charge that Paksas denies.
Later, Paksas’s resignation seemed prophetic: after several years of losing money due to mismanagement, and failing to get a guarantee from a Russian oil company to provide a steady flow of petroleum, Williams sold its shares to Yukos Oil, the Russian giant run by the young oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Moreover, Williams completed the transaction without first informing the Lithuanian government. Free-market champions claim that Williams failed to function in a profitable manner because it had little experience operating abroad and its management did not invest the capital necessary in the venture to make it viable.12 In any case, Paksas gained substantial political capital for having distanced himself from the deal. And this, combined with his well-financed and targeted campaign allowed him to win an upset victory against Adamkus.
Once in the presidential palace, Paksas led the country without incident until October 28 2003, when the head of Lithuania’s State Security Department (SSD), Mečys Laurinkus, informed members of Parliament that one of the president’s aides, national security advisor Remigijus Ačas had ties with Russian mobsters. Laurinkus claimed that Russian and Lithuanian criminals hoped to exploit Lithuania’s next round of privatization and looked with great expectation toward the spring of 2004 when Lithuania was scheduled to join the EU. Afterwards they hoped to gain access to Europe’s vast market by using Lithuania as a base from which to operate. Laurinkus claimed that Paksas had been informed of allegations regarding Acas’s ties to the mafia but ignored them. Many questioned the appointment of Acas, a businessman who managed a Lithuanian-Russian joint venture in Belarus, since he had no experience relevant to his post. Laurinkus made other damaging accusations about the president’s office including, among other things, that Paksas himself was responsible for leaking classified material.
Laurinkus provided several reasons behind Russian interest in Lithuanian affairs: first, Powerful Russian economic enterprises, criminal groups and security operatives, in league with compliant Lithuanian officials, hoped to gain control of strategic industries – especially energy but also transport and communications firms; second, Moscow hoped to use Lithuania as a pathway into the vast EU market as did Russian gangsters; and third, to achieve these goals, Russian provocateurs would buy or control Lithuanian police and customs officials.13
The focus of the inquiry soon centered upon the man who was the single largest financial supporter of the Paksas campaign, Igor Borisov (his official donation was 350,000 euros). Borisov is a Russian businessman who lives and works in Lithuania and owns Avia Baltica, a firm that sells and services Russian helicopters. After he was elected, Paksas used his authority to grant Borisov Lithuanian citizenship.
The SSD had phone taps revealing Borisov had complained that Paksas had not delivered on promises that he had made in exchange for Borisov’s generous campaign support. In question was a post in the President’s office even though he did not speak Lithuanian. In one conversation, he said that if Paksas did not fulfill his promises Borisov would make sure that he became a “political corpse.”
Further revelations indicated that Borisov’s firm had done business with the government of Sudan. Both the EU and the U.S. had deemed Sudan a terrorist state. Some news accounts indicated that American intelligence sources had reported that Borisov had attempted to do business with Iraq as well. Furthermore, in Borisov’s villa outside of Vilnius, searchers conducted by government investigators found a plan that was designed by Almax – a Russian PR firm – to discredit Lithuania’s major parties and their leaders.
Under mounting pressure, Paksas first asked for Ačas’s resignation and then did the same for most of his other key staffers. But Paksas’s troubles escalated with subsequent charges allegedly tying him to unsavory characters that wished to use the president’s authority to conduct profitable business transactions and to fire government officials who presumably could not be bribed to “look the other way.”
The Seimas organized an ad hoc commission under the direction of the Social Democrat, Aloyzas Sakalas, to investigate the case against Paksas. On December 1 it reported that there were six charges suggesting Paksas had committed impeachable acts and was a risk to Lithuania’s national security. A 12-person panel, comprised of six lawyers and six Seimas members, was then authorized to assess these charges – which had ballooned to 11 – and to determine whether they justified Paksas’s impeachment. If the panel answered in the affirmative, the Lithuanian Constitutional Court would assess the charges and if it found them legitimate, the Seimas would vote on his removal. According to the Constitution, impeachment required the support of 85 of the 141 Seimas deputies.
Prime Minister Brazauskas and Seimas Speaker Artūras Paulauskas urged Paksas to resign and spare the country further embarrassment. The Foreign Minister, Antantas Valionis, warned that Lithuania had become isolated as a result of the scandal. Paksas seemed to demure somewhat by canceling his December 2003 visit to the U.S. to meet with President George W. Bush. As the Constitutional Court was considering the case against Paksas, Brazauskas announced that he could count on 100 votes to ensure the president’s impeachment.14 Paksas continued to reject requests that he resign and traveled throughout the country rallying his supporters. Paksas refused to cooperate with the panel and obstructed its deliberations as he proclaimed his innocence. Initially polls indicated that he was having some success but as the months passed more Lithuanians supported his resignation.
On April 6 the Constitutional Court ruled that Paksas was guilty of three impeachable offenses: overstepping his powers by granting Borisov Lithuanian citizenship; releasing classified documents; and using his office to determine the outcome of a
15 private business transaction. Still, there was a certain amount of anxiety that the requisite number of Seimas votes needed to sustain the impeachment would fall short. On the weekend before the Seimas vote, however, Paksas made a crucial blunder. He first announced that he had appointed Borisov to a post in his administration and several hours later retracted that decision. As a result, the Seimas found him guilty on all three counts, although the margins were relatively small; 86, 86 and 89 votes respectively. Many Seimas-watchers believe that if Paksas had not committed his “weekend blunder,” he would have survived the impeachment process.15
The Russian Factor
While foreign observers have focused on the domestic factors behind the crisis, Lithuanian analysts have given equal time to Russian involvement. Conservatives, such as Vytautas Landsbergis, have been outspoken about Moscow’s hand in the affair. Given his deep reservations about any Russian government, his concern is not surprising but even analysts who customarily scoff at his “Russian fixation” believe that in this instance, it is warranted. Since these charges have been greeted with skepticism outside of Lithuania, it is important to find and examine evidence that Russian interests have tried to influence the election. In particular, if Russian officials were involved, what were their objectives and do they suggest that Lithuania faces “a new threat from the East?”
According to U.S. officials, there is no evidence that Russian authorities have sought to subvert Lithuanian democracy and the FBI has indicated that the Russian mob has shown little interest in the country.16 Lithuania expelled two Russian diplomats and a commercial representative for spying in February 2004, but the Lithuanian government did not link this event to Russian efforts to destabilize Lithuania. And if a real threat existed, why did Lithuania not request help from Brussels and Washington? What’s more, polls indicated that ordinary Lithuanians did not deem Russia to be a threat and these findings suggest only conservative activists were concerned about this matter.17
In response, Vilnius University political scientist Raimundas Lopata and BNS editor Audrius Matonis claim that, not withstanding Lithuania’s attempts to enjoy harmonious relations with Moscow, Russia considers Lithuania a greater threat to its foreign policy interests than either Estonia or Latvia.18 Moscow sees Lithuania’s staunch opposition to Russia’s demand for a visa-free regime allowing Russian citizens to travel to and from Kaliningrad – while refusing to negotiate a special treaty to facilitate military transit to and from the Oblast – as an example of Lithuania’s ill will. The Kremlin also deems Lithuania’s membership in NATO as a provocation, and the deployment of NATO fighter aircraft to Lithuania – although modest – represents a threat to Northwest Russia. What’s more, there is no justification for Lithuania to remain outside of the Conventional Forces In Europe (CFE) agreement while Russia had abided by it.19
Russian defense analysts cannot forget that Lithuania took the lead in pressing for an extensive second round of NATO enlargement – the so-called “big bang.” The Russian Foreign Ministry accuses Lithuania of serving as a U.S. agent in Washington’s attempts to penetrate wide areas of the former USSR. Hard-liners in Russia bristle at Lithuania’s servicing (with enthusiasm) as an interlocutor for the EU and NATO in the Western campaign to influence developments in Belarus, Ukraine and former Soviet republics in the Caucasus. Moreover, some politicians in Vilnius, such as Landsbergis, have actively supported the cause of Chechen independence. Finally, Moscow resents the Lithuanian government portraying itself as a role model for other former Soviet Republics such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. It is in Russia’s interest, then, to tarnish Lithuania’s image as a vibrant democracy and to compel the proud Lithuanians to bow to the Kremlin’s dictates.
Russian political analysts have openly discussed Lithuania’s vulnerability to outside manipulation. Widespread voter unhappiness with the political process and doubts about economic reforms suggest that meddling in Lithuanian internal affairs could be successful. Confusion over the relationship between the president and government provide an institutional wedge that can be exploited as well. For example, since the president cannot belong to a political party, he is detached from the legislative majority and the cabinet.
The Russian Embassy in Vilnius has served as a strategic center for Moscow’s campaign to influence internal developments in Lithuania. Specifically, Lopata and Matonis see Yuri Zubakov, a confidant of Yvegeny Primakov, playing a key role in the plot under the former prime minister’s direction. In 1999, Zubakov replaced the incumbent ambassador even though his tour of duty had not expired. For most of his career, Zubakov served as Primakov’s assistant when the latter was the director of security services, foreign minister and prime minister. It was Primakov’s right-hand man then who would orchestrate the campaign to replace the American Valdas Adamkus as 18 Lithuania’s president with a compliant Rolandas Paksas in the 2002 election.
As previously indicated, a significant amount of Russian money was surreptitiously injected into the campaign – secretly, because Lithuanian law disallows foreign contributions in elections. Moreover, Russian PR firms, such as Almax, played a pivotal role in orchestrating Paksas’s victory and links can be traced between Paksas’s major financial supporters and the Russian secret service. Lietuvos Rytas reported that Borisov had been a member of a Soviet military intelligence unit in Afghanistan. 20 Borisov did not act on his own to curry favor with the Lithuanian president or simply to gain a commercial advantage. Anyone involved in the sale and servicing of Russian helicopters must have close ties with the Russian military-industrial complex, which has been involved in subversive activities in Georgia and Moldova.
Russian security services and energy interests used Almax to help Paksas craft and implement a victorious campaign strategy. The Almax plan was designed to discredit Lithuania’s political elite and promote Paksas’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the fall 2004 parliamentary elections. But one might conclude, as many analysts have, that its real aim was to destabilize Lithuania. Lopata and Matonis claim that the Paksas team had proposed an expansion of presidential powers. If they had succeeded in that effort and the LDP had formed a new government in 2004, a man beholden to Russia would be in charge of a high office with new authority to shape policy at home and abroad.
Members of the administration denied that they sought help from radicals but the media reported that many of Paksas’s benefactors were tied to individuals with anti-democratic credentials and criminal associations. Several anti-democratic fringe groups that opposed the government’s pro-Western orientation supported Paksas in his campaign and afterwards as he resisted impeachment. In pro-Paksas demonstrations one could find evidence of a Lithuanian red-brown coalition of sorts. Lithuanian police officials indicated that the radical-right (brown) anti-Semitic deputy, Vytautas Šustauskas, sought the help of Henrikas Daktaras, the reputed Kaunas mob boss, to organize demonstrations favorable to Paksas. Also Valeri Ivanov was present at such demonstrations, providing the red component of the “coalition.” He had led the pro-Soviet Yedinstvo or Unity movement that organized anti-independence demonstrations in the early 1990s. At the time, the KGB had hoped that the demonstrations would provoke violence and provide Moscow with the pretext to crush the rebellion.21
While foreign observers have greeted
claims of a Russian
campaign to subvert Lithuania with skepticism, there appears
to be a consensus among the Lithuanian foreign policy
establishment that Moscow is trying to leverage its economic
assets to influence developments in Lithuania. Moscow has
long sought to exploit its economic assets to achieve political
gains in former Soviet bloc countries. Russian investment
in Lithuania is extensive but difficult to detect because it often
moves through third parties such as Swedish enterprises.
According to Margerita Starkevičiūtė, a leading expert on
Russian investment in Lithuania, Russia has had great success
in acquiring Lithuanian energy companies: in addition
to Yukos’s control of Mažeikių Nafta, Gazprom owns Lietuvos
Dujos and other natural gas outlets in Lithuania. Russian
companies are actively involved in all aspects of the
energy business including power plants. She estimates that
energy and related industries account for one-fourth of
GNP and its exports. Furthermore, Russian investors
are behind the exploding real estate market in Vilnius and
other cities and resort areas. She says that Lithuania’s
growth rate last year was linked to heavy Russian investment
in the country.22
Meanwhile, conservatives claim that Russian penetration of strategic industries is both an economic and political threat to Lithuania. Like Starkevičiūtė, former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius fears Russian interests now have their sights set on Lithuanian TV outlets. According to Landsbergis, the Kremlin began a decade ago to place economic operatives throughout the former Soviet Republics and satellite states with the hope of influencing political as well as economic affairs in these countries. He says that Lithuanian politician Victor Uspaskich, a Russian-born businessman from Kėdainiai, has been functioning in this capacity.23 For others in Lithuania who are of the same opinion, it is a source of concern that Uspaskich’s newly formed Labor Party won five of 13 Lithuanian seats in the European Parliament in the June 13, 2004 elections and is projected to do very well in the Fall 2004 parliamentary elections.
Some American analysts support claims of Russian influence as well, both outside of the U.S. government and in the public service. For instance, Steve Blank, a Russian analyst at the U.S. Army War College, has written: “Russian attempts to subvert East European governments through economic penetration, corruption of politicians, intelligence penetration, etc., have continued at least since 1997, if not earlier. The evidence from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltic states is overwhelming and points to a strategic decision in Moscow.”24
Analysts outside of the U.S. government, including former diplomats who have served in the region and some staffers in Congress, agree that Moscow does pose a threat to East Europe. For instance, Janusz Bugajski, Director of the East European Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that from the Kremlin’s perspective, “The Baltic states are considered a buffer against Western influences in former Soviet territories.” Like the “Central Europeans, especially Poland, (they) are perceived as a potentially negative source of influence over CIS neighbors and therefore in need of neutralization or containment.” In this regard, Putin’s two major foreign policy goals provide an answer to the question: Why is Russia interfering in Lithuania’s internal affairs? Bugajski notes: “The first goal is to achieve preeminent influence over the foreign policy orientations and security policies of nearby states…. Second, Russia seeks increasing economic benefits and monopolistic positions through targeted foreign policy investments and buyouts of strategic foreign infrastructure.” The new Russian projection of power, Bugajski claims, is not designed for territorial conquest. “Instead, it pursues selective domination in key areas such as energy, business and the military to enable primary influence over a country’s foreign, security and economic policies.” Bugajski argues Putin’s ultimate objective is to project power throughout the former communist lands over which Russia had control for a half century and ultimately to destroy the Trans-Atlantic alliance. He warns, “acquiescing to Moscow’s objectives is certain to generate conflicts in the years ahead.”25
Lietuvos Rytas has devoted considerable time covering the new threat from Russia – an alliance of criminal groups, economic warlords and special service operatives whose activities helped foster Lithuania’s political crisis. Since late spring 2004, the paper has run a series of articles authored by Yevgeny Limanov. The name is a pseudonym for a former Russian KGB operative that was assigned, a decade ago, to get involved in business affairs to promote the interests of his security service bosses. Now living in the French Alps, he has reported on the close association between Russian criminal gangs and government officials who work separately, along parallel lines, or together, to promote their economic interests in countries that formerly were in the USSR’s sphere of influence.26
He has called this group the “Ultra-Patriots.” At the top are those comprising the hard-core leadership or cadre; individuals associated with the “power ministries” but who at times may operate independent of those ministries – e.g., the Ministry of Defense. The second tier is comprised of individuals – “trustees” – i.e., individuals who do not belong to government agencies nor are they entrusted with inside information but they work closely with the “Ultra-Patriots.” A third group is comprised of “agents” who may not know who they work for and are clueless about the ultimate goals of the people at the top of the pyramid. They simply expect to derive economic or political gains from the relationship.
Limanov says, “I have no doubt that Almax is one of many organizations that work under the orders from special services or some groups of ‘Ultra patriots’ and represents their interests.” He is not sure whether Ana Zatonskya, an Almax associate who worked both in the Paksas campaign and then later arrived in Lithuania to prevent his impeachment, is directly employed by an Ultra-Patriot group or is a mere trustee, but he would not be surprised if she belonged to the former. Of Borisov, Limanov says, “I know for sure that he is directly connected to the GRU (military intelligence) group of Ultra-Patriots… not as an officer on the payroll… but rather as a trustee.” Finally, he believes that Paksas was under the control of Borisov without knowing that he was being used as a pawn to help Russian interests gain access to the highest reaches of the Lithuanian government. Moscow, however, had been watching him for years and concluded that he could be easily compromised. Limanov has reached these conclusions on the basis of sources that he is currently associated with and that belong to strategic agencies in Moscow – they are not based on past relationships.
Not all Lithuanians concerned about Russian attempts to penetrate their country accept the claim that Borisov and Uspaskich are Russian operatives. In this respect, the comments of one former high level Lithuanian official with close contacts in NATO, is instructive. He claims that the Kremlin is attempting to destabilize Lithuania and with the largest of the Baltic countries compromised, Estonia and Latvia will become even more vulnerable to Moscow’s machinations. He says that the political leadership in many NATO countries is in denial on this matter although their defense analysts may be aware of it. However, he believes that Borisov and Uspaskich are driven by monetary considerations and political ambitions and are not part of a Russian campaign to compromise Lithuania. Indeed, while he is an avowed conservative, he does not believe the vast majority of leftists in Lithuania welcome a return of Russian rule or its control over Lithuanian affairs. The simple reason is they have done quite well financially and politically under existing arrangements and have no reason to change things.27
If one accepts the claim that Russia has a political and economic agenda that seeks to destabilize Lithuania, what specific goals does it have in mind? In keeping with the analysis outlined above, four come to mind:
1. Moscow’s activities in Lithuania are driven by mundane commercial considerations. That is, they hope to consolidate Russian economic interests throughout former Soviet-bloc countries and to use Lithuania as a pathway into the vast EU market.
2. Moscow wants to punish Lithuania for joining NATO and to discredit it in the eyes of former Soviet entities that might emulate it as they seek EU and NATO membership.
3. Moscow hopes to Finlandize Lithuania. That is, Russia hopes to use its economic and political assets to dominate Lithuania’s foreign policy and have a veto over what Lithuania does outside its borders including its activities within the EU and NATO. In short, Lithuania will be used by Moscow to influence developments in the West in the same fashion that Russian analysts believe Washington has used Lithuania to penetrate areas in the East.
4. Moscow wants to destabilize Lithuania to achieve all of the objectives above and to force the country back into Russia’s sphere of influence.
Most observers of Lithuanian-Russian relations accept the first two objectives as plausible; indeed, they already reflect facts on the ground. But many express skepticism about the last two and claim that there is no evidence to justify either claim. Russians may be involved in Lithuanian’s political affairs, but there is no evidence that Moscow’s involvement is extensive and bent on subverting the Lithuanian state. The real issue is that the parties in power have badly underestimated just how angry large segments of the Lithuanian population are about conditions in their country and their personal economic plight in particular, which has allowed Paksas and other populists to win elections.
President and the European Parliament
Once Paksas was impeached, preparations for another presidential election were initiated. Because the next scheduled elections were for the European Parliament, the presidential elections were linked to them, and held on June 14, 2004. Since there was no legal limitation specifically barring an impeached president from running for that office again, Paksas voiced his intention to run once more. Adamkus stated that if Paksas ran, he would have no choice but to follow suit in the hope of restoring moral authority to the presidency. Homeland Union leaders split their support between Adamkus and 41-year old Petras Auštrevičius, who had recently served as Lithuania’s lead negotiator with the EU. Kubilius rejected claims that the two men would divide the conservative vote but analysts believed, like many who had supported Adamkus in the past, that Kubilius had reservations about the “American’s” ability to govern if elected. Besides, he reasoned, the country needed some new faces.
After the Constitutional Court ruled that Paksas’s impeachment barred him from running for high office, the Homeland Union announced that it was supporting a single candi25 date – Auštrevičius. Its leaders complained that Adamkus had gone back on his word when he refused to drop out of the race as he said he would if Paksas was not a candidate. Two other candidates joined the race as well: Social Democratic Party leader Česlovas Juršėnas, Social Security and Labor Minister, Vilija Blinkevičiūtė, and Kazimiera Prunskienė, the head of the Farmers and New Democracy Union.
Several days before the election, Paksas proclaimed his support for Prunskienė. She was the only prominent politician that had not supported his impeachment. She had been prime minister during Lithuania’s struggle for independence in the early 1990s, but left the government under mysterious circumstances. More recently, her opponents accused her of a pro-Russian bias and alleged that she had been a KGB agent. With the help of Paksas’s supporters, Prunskienė captured 21.3 percent of the vote, second behind Adamkus with 30.3 percent. Auštrevičius, who displayed little charisma, came in third with 19.3 percent. One could argue that if the younger man had dropped out of the race Adamkus could have won a first round victory.
Those who led the campaign to impeach Paksas were shocked by Prunskienė’s second-place finish and were equally unhappy with the outcome of the European Parliamentary elections. As expected, Uspaskich’s Labor Party received 30.3 percent of the votes cast giving it five mandates in the European Parliament (EP). The Social Democrats garnered 14.4 percent with 2 mandates, the Homeland Union won 12.4 percent of the vote and 2 mandates. The four remaining mandates were divided among the parties that did less well.28
With his Labor Party having won the majority of seats for the EP vote, Uspaskich bragged that the candidate receiving his endorsement would be Lithuania’s next president. He refused to commit himself, although he admitted that his wife had donated 5,000 euros to Prunskienė, who was their daughter’s godmother. Brazauskas adopted a similar position, and did not endorse either candidate. Adamkus had hoped for the prime minister’s endorsement but was unpleasantly surprised when just days prior to the election, Brazauskas’s Social Democrats in the Seimas created a special commission to investigate Adamkus’s role in orchestrating the infamous Williams Deal.
To make matters worse for Adamkus, just days before the June 27 run-off elections, agents of the Special Investigative Service (SIS) searched the headquarters of several political parties supporting Adamkus. The raids were intended to provide evidence of corrupt practices but everyone wondered why they had taken place on the eve of elections when the information surrounding the charges had been available since 2001. Kubilius interpreted them as part of the Almax plan to discredit Lithuania’s leading parties. The raid spawned a special meeting of the Seimas and the president’s defense council. Further intrigue was introduced by Artūras Zuokas (the mayor of Vilnius, leader of the Liberal-Center Union and a strong Adamkus supporter), who fled to Poland just before the run-off. He returned the next day explaining that he had left Lithuania after being warned that he might be arrested, fearing that it would compromise Adamkus’s electoral success.
On substantive issues, the candidates were clearly split on the economic front: Adamkus was unstinting in his support for a free-market economy, although he made a special effort to campaign in poor areas of the country. Prunskienė made no secret that she was an advocate of collectivist solutions to the problems that confronted needy people. Adamkus said he would not make any changes on the foreign policy front and was forthright in his pro-Western orientation. Russian commentators indicated that Prunskienė would be the best choice for Russia, although she rejected the “pro-Russian label” that her opponents had fixed upon her. She said that she would continue the country’s foreign policy course and maintain good relations with Washington.29
Her words were greeted with skepticism. Several days prior to the election she met with Stephen Mull, the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania. She said she opposed the war in Iraq and favored withdrawing Lithuania’s troops stationed there, but would follow the course that the government had taken. Immediately afterwards, she met with reporters and indicated the opposite. Specifically, she would follow the EU’s lead on Iraq and pay close attention to public opinion to consider what policy she would adopt. Pro-Western Lithuanians did not take much comfort in these words since she undoubtedly was talking about the French and German position on the matter. Also, since 67 percent of the people polled favored the withdrawal of Lithuanian troops from Iraq, it was clear she would follow their preference if able to do so.30
Meanwhile, the Adamkus campaign expressed concern that the opposing camp was buying votes, that 20,000 illegal ballots were in circulation and that Prunskienė’s strategists were prepared to distribute campaign literature targeted to the villages after the deadline for campaigning had past. (The electoral law stipulates that no campaigning is allowed the day before elections.) It is a strange coincidence that Paksas had committed the same infraction in the last presidential election.
About 52 percent of the 2.6 million Lithuanians with the right to vote turned out. Adamkus captured 52.6 percent while Prunkienė received 47.4 percent. As expected, Adamkus did well in the largest cities – Kaunas, Šiauliai, Panevėžys and Vilnius. Prunkienė did best in the countryside, among poorer lesseducated voters and in Polish and Russian areas. For example, in the predominantly Russian city of Visaginas she captured 91 percent of the votes cast and in Polish areas of eastern Lithuania, ethnic Poles awarded her over 80 percent of their votes.31
Lithuania’s political crisis was settled in a manner consistent with the rule of law without violent demonstrations, attempts to disrupt the special election or mass actions to protest its final outcome. But the resolution of this crisis, while peaceful and democratic, did not address its root causes: corruption and Russian interference in Lithuania’s internal affairs.
Under pressure from the EU, anti-corruption laws and procedures have been adopted at the national level. But for most Lithuanians the corruption they witness is at the municipal level of government. At the same time, they are not happy with their national political institutions. Most Lithuanians continue to distrust Parliament, believing that their representatives in Vilnius have ignored their grievances. When asked to identify a political party it trusts, the conservative Homeland Union and the center-right Liberal and Central Union have slipped below 10 percent in the polls. Likewise, Brazauskas’s SDP has suffered from the pandemic corruption associated with the current government and now a mere 11.5 percent of the electorate expresses trust in it.32
Meanwhile, Lithuania today is a window into societies once associated with the USSR and its recent political crisis provides lessons for the EU. The sources of that crisis exist in many countries throughout Eastern Europe and further to the East. It is EU policy not to interfere in the domestic political affairs of member states and the principle of subsidiarity is enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. But Brussels must consider the possibility that when EU members face problems of pandemic corruption, intervention may be necessary. In short, the EU must address problems where the victims are too small or too poor to do so on their own.
Simultaneously, EU development experts acknowledge that the poorer states in East Europe require the same level of support that Greece, Spain and Ireland had received in previous enlargements. The economic and social problems that the East Europeans are confronting as they move from command to free market societies are daunting. Attempts to economize at this point, to enlarge on the cheap, may guarantee even more extensive investments in the future if serious political disruptions are to be avoided.
Meanwhile, neither the EU nor its major member states have publicly commented on the claims of pro-Western Lithuanians that there is a new threat from the East. But Starkevičiūtė observes that the EU could countervail the Russian economic threat by applying its own rules. For example, EU law dictates that no member state can receive 60 percent of its energy from a single source – a rule that she claims is being violated in Lithuania. Furthermore, the EU can do much more to help Lithuania deal with money laundering and crime and corruption than it has up to this point.
The aggressive activity of criminal organizations in Lithuania with ties to Russian mobsters suggest further that both the EU and NATO cannot afford to ignore the stark truth that organized crime jeopardizes democracy and the free market – especially in the poorer East European countries. Western governments have not paid proper attention to the fact that criminal organizations provide an infrastructure that can be exploited by terrorists. And if national authorities do not have the capability to address powerful criminal organizations or cope with pandemic corruption, both the EU and NATO must provide them with the intelligence, finances and manpower to do so.
As Europeans, the Lithuanians look toward the EU and not the U.S. to help them resolve their soft-security problems. They harbor doubts, however, about a robust EU response to Russia’s meddling in their affairs. They realize that Europe sorely needs access to Russia’s energy and does not want to anger Moscow. Also, the major European powers deem it in their interests to adopt bi-lateral relations with Moscow, and not follow a common policy toward Russia. Consequently, they may ignore efforts to retain Moscow’s old imperial control of neighboring countries. Under these circumstances, Lithuanians with hard security concerns look to the U.S. for help.
In spite of popular opposition, the Lithuanian government has sent troops to Iraq and has supported the U.S. on this highly controversial issue, earning criticism from some of its European neighbors. It is disheartening to pro-American Lithuanians then that the Bush administration has not been sufficiently outspoken in chastising Putin for his war on the media, misuse of the legal system and interference in elections. They concede that it is in Washington’s vital interest to co-operate with Russia in combating global terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But it cannot remain silent when Putin savages the same democratic institutions in Russia that the U.S. is seeking to establish in Iraq. Clearly, the imperial-minded in the Kremlin who deem the Baltic democracies an integral part of Russia’s geo-political space are encouraged by Washington’s myopia.
Although they have been reluctant to speak out forcefully in public forums, many Lithuanians have expressed puzzlement that the Bush administration has not displayed outrage at Russian attempts to interfere in Lithuania’s internal affairs. They reason that American intelligence sources provided much of the information about Russian efforts to penetrate Lithuania as revealed in Mečys Laurinkus’s October 2002 memo. They find it incomprehensible therefore to accept Washington’s claim that Lithuania does not face a “new threat from the East.”
Like many of their American counterparts, they believe that to avoid a serious clash with Russia, the West must confront Putin and convince him that such efforts to influence the “near-abroad” will not be tolerated. Russia will never wield the power that the USSR did and it is not in Putin’s interest to embark upon an imperial campaign in the first place. If he seeks to project power similar to that which the USSR enjoyed, he is bound to fail and in the process he will compromise his primary goal of making Russia a modern, prosperous society.
Finally, and contrary to what one hears from commentators in Moscow, President Adamkus knows that harmonious relations with Russia are a priority, as he stated in his inaugural address. But he also knows that they rest on bi-lateral not unilateral acts of good will. Toward this end, Lithuania must take advantage of its EU and NATO membership to give it leverage with its largest neighbor. How skillfully Vilnius handles its triangular relationship with Brussels, Moscow and Washington will have a profound impact upon Lithuania for years to come.
Blank, Stephan. “The Baltic States and Euro-Atlantic Enlargement,” Sabina A.-M. Auger, The Transatlantic Relationship: Problem and Prospects. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center For Scholars, 2003.
Bugajski, Janusz. “Russia’s New Europe,” The National Interest, Winter 2003/04.
Clark, Terry D. “Introduction: The Democratic Consolidation of Lithuania’s State Institutions,” Journal of Baltic Studies 32, No 2, 200l.
“Corruption and Anti-corruption Policy in Lithuania,” Monitoring The EU Accession Process: Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policy. Budapest: Open Society Fund, 2002.
“Corruption Manifestation in the Selected Counties and Municipalities at a National Level in 2004,” Lithuanian Branch of Transparency International, Vilnius.
Delphi, the Lithuanian Website