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Lithuanian Presidential Crisis May Impact Relations with Europe and Russia - 2004-02-09

Lithuania, one of the most successful of the former Soviet Republics, will become a full NATO and EU member later this year. But on the eve of its integration with the West, the country is gripped by a serious corruption scandal with international and security implications. The outcome of the crisis may shape the future relations of the small Baltic state with both Western Europe and Russia. In this edition of Focus, VOA’s Jaroslaw Anders looks at the roots and possible consequences of the Lithuanian quandary.

The story that has been unfolding since the last fall has all the trappings of an international mystery novel: organized crime, shady business deals, corruption in high offices and a possible breach of national security. At the center of the controversy is Lithuania’s dashing, 47-year-old president Rolandas Paksas, a former stunt pilot and mayor of Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, who a year earlier won an upset victory over the incumbent, Valdas Adamkus.

In October 2003 Lithuania’s chief of state security sent a confidential memorandum to the Lithuanian parliament, or Seimas, warning of corruption and foreign infiltration of Mr. Paksas’ campaign. Richard Krickus, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Mary Washington College, explains that Mecys Laurinkus, chief of the Lithuanian State Security Department, released a memo to the parliament warning that Russian organized crime in league with Lithuanian criminals, powerful Russian economic enterprises, Russian public relations firms and Russian security operatives participated in what looked like an attempt to buy into the Lithuanian market as a new phase of privatization takes place.

Investigation prompted by the memorandum focused on a Russian businessman, Yuri Borisov, who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Paksas campaign. Mr. Borisov deals in dual-use Russian helicopters and is accused, among other things, of selling them to Libya and Sudan in violation of international embargos.

Nida Gelazis, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says that Borisov’s involvement with the presidential campaign was widely interpreted as an attempt to buy economic and political favors at the highest government level. “It seems that he [Paksas] had a quid pro quo relationship with Borisov, in terms of Borisov giving him sizable financial contributions to his campaign and requiring certain acts of the president in return for those things,” says Ms. Gelazis.

A parliamentary committee found the charges against President Paksas serious enough to start impeachment proceedings. The articles of impeachment include violating the constitution, jeopardizing national security, leaking state secrets, mishandling conflicts of interest, abusing his powers to influence private business, discrediting state institutions, and allowing his aides to abuse their office. President Paksas maintains his innocence and says the accusations are a political vendetta by his opponents. Professor Krickus explains that underlining the charges against the president is a concern that a combination of powerful Russian forces, possibly directed from the Kremlin, has been trying to use Lithuania’s presidential office in order to gain high-level influence on the Lithuanian economy and politics. In his view, many people in Lithuania fear that this represents a new form of the old from the East.

But how serious is the threat from the Russian neighbor? Most analysts agree that the Russian mafia, Russian business and Russian intelligence have all attempted to establish themselves in Lithuania on the eve of the country’s membership in NATO and in the European Union. But are they working in concert? Are they part of a large Moscow-run conspiracy to destabilize the pro-Western former Soviet republic or to bring it back under the Kremlin’s sway? Professor Krickus says he would be unable to prove that someone in the Kremlin is trying to undermine the security of Lithuania. But he adds that in Russia, “you don’t have a person selling helicopters who doesn’t have some association with the security services.”

Nida Gelazis of the Wilson Center points out that Lithuanians themselves are not sure whether they are dealing with a simple case of greedy officials and shady businessmen or with an intricate political intrigue directed from Moscow. Some want to believe that Lithuania is too small and insignificant to figure in Russia’s strategic plans. Others think that everything bad happening in their country is linked to some kind of Russian conspiracy.

Janusz Bugajski, Director of the Eastern European Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the possibility of calculated Russian interference in neighboring countries cannot be dismissed as mere conspiracy theory. He points out that Lithuania is only the most poignant of many instances that have come to light in recent months and even in recent years regarding Russian political, economic, security, intelligence and criminal penetration of neighboring countries in search of political influence. According to Mr. Bugajski there were less prominent examples of such meddling in Bulgaria, in other Baltic states, and even in some Central European countries. In his view, Moscow is no longer trying to prevent those countries’ integration with the West. But it wants to maintain a degree of control over their foreign and security policies. “The idea is to gain influence of policies that may not be, let’s say, “in sync” with American policies -- policies that can favor Russian positions in different parts of the globe, policies that can favor Russian business, Russian economic and energy expansion.”

In Mr. Bugajski’s opinion, Moscow is also trying to warn the West against further eastward expansion. It has reconciled itself with the former Baltic republics joining the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. But it signals it will not tolerate more incursions into what it considers its sphere of interest. “In other words, Russia is putting up the barricades around the Baltic states, occasionally firing into these countries, wanting some longer-term impact over foreign security policies, but really defending its own front garden -- what used to be called the ‘near abroad,’ in other words Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.” As the result, says Mr. Bugajski, both NATO and the European Union may conclude they have reached their ultimate borders in the Baltic States.

As far as Lithuania is concerned, analysts agree that the present crisis is a serious test for Lithuanian democratic institutions. Nida Gelazis of the Wilson Center says the first task the Lithuanians face is to cut through layers of confusion and innuendos, to find out the truth about their president, and to adopt strict standards of transparency and accountability: “The media has to take a clear stand. The panel has to be clear about what he has done. The Constitutional Court has to be clear what the president has done, and what should happen.”

President Paksas has resisted demands to resign by the political opposition, intellectuals, the media and the influential Catholic Church. His case will likely move to the Lithuanian Constitutional Court. Later, the Parliament will vote on his impeachment. Most analysts believe Lithuania’s democracy will survive the current crisis, and the country will join the European Union and NATO on schedule. But they also point out that the Lithuanian example shows that a combination of high-level corruption, porous borders, confusing business laws, and Russian interference can pose a continuing problem as former communist countries strive to integrate with Europe and the West.