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Lithuanian President Impeached - 2004-04-06

The president of Lithuania has been voted out of office by parliament on charges of corruption. The impeachment vote brings to an end the corruption scandal that has been hanging over Lithuania for almost half a year. The parliament voted the president out of office on three charges, each by a narrow margin.

President Rolandas Paksas spoke to the parliament just before the vote, asking for forgiveness for his mistakes and saying the effort to remove him from office was part of a revenge campaign because of his efforts to fight corruption. The controversy started last October, when a report by Lithuanian state security services accused President Paksas and his advisers of having links to Russian organized crime.

Then last week, Lithuania's highest court ruled that Paksas was guilty of violating the constitution. He was found guilty of illegally granting citizenship to a Russian businessman, Yuri Borisov, and of leaking classified information to him. Paksas was also found guilty of using his office for financial gain.

Mr. Borisov was the largest donor to Paksas' presidential campaign and is suspected of having links to Russian criminal syndicates. Paksas is the first European leader to be removed through impeachment.

The scandal and impeachment occurred while Lithuania is going through high-profile changes. The republic joined NATO last week and is set to become part of the expanded European Union on May 1. The Deputy Director of the Center for political technologies in Moscow, Boris Makarenko, says the Paksas scandal is not typical of post-Soviet Lithuania.

"This impeachment is a dirty spot on the white clothes of what is the best democracy in post-Soviet space, but the country remains stable and the government is not changing," Mr. Makarenko said. "It is a scandal about one particular politician, which is of course an embarrassment, but not a tragedy."

Indeed, at the Center for Current Politics in Russia, Dmitrii Polikanov says the way Lithuania handled the scandal will help its image among its new EU partners.

"This will be a positive step for Lithuania in general, because it will indicate the commitment of the Lithuanian public and of the Lithuanian authorities to combat corruption, including the corruption in the top spheres of Lithuanian politics," he said. "And actually this will only improve the Lithuanian image on the edge of its accession to the European Union."

The president's powers in Lithuania are limited mainly to foreign policy, while the prime minister is responsible for running the country. Paksas served as prime minister twice. By Lithuanian law, new presidential elections must be held within the next two months, and the impeached president is allowed to run. It is not clear whether he will do so. In the meantime, Parliament speaker Arturas Paulauskas will serve as acting president.