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Lithuania: President Cancels Visit to US - 2003-12-04

Lithuania's embattled president, Rolandas Paksas, has postponed an official visit to the United States as he gears up to defend himself against possible impeachment. Lithuanian lawmakers have initiated procedures that could lead to the president's ouster from office over a crime scandal.

President Paksas gave no official reason for postponing the trip, in which he was due to meet with President Bush and other officials in Washington for three days of talks next week. But the postponement comes one day after members of parliament launched their bid to impeach Mr. Paksas on grounds that he and his top aides have links with Russian criminal groups.

On Wednesday, parliamentary deputies began drafting a formal letter of impeachment after the legislature adopted a report stating the president represents a threat to state security.

The parliamentary committee report outlined six areas in which Mr. Paksas or some of his aides were alleged to have links with criminal groups or individuals who attempted to exert influence over the president and his policies.

Mr. Paksas has consistently denied the allegations, saying he is the victim of a political vendetta by his opponents. But amid the intensifying pressure for him to resign voluntarily, the president agreed to appear before the Lithuanian Constitutional Court to answer questions.

The court wants to hear about the president's controversial relationship with a Russian businessman who is his chief financial backer but who is also allegedly involved in illegal arms trading. The widening scandal has led other senior Lithuanian politicians to call on Mr. Paksas to step down. Most importantly, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas withdrew his earlier support for Mr. Paksas and urged the president to resign to spare Lithuania from having to go through a lengthy impeachment process.

Mr. Brazaukas also publicly stated that the U.S. visit would be of little use in the midst of the scandal. U.S. officials in Lithuania said President Paksas decided on his own to delay the trip.

The report on the president's alleged criminal links has rocked the small Baltic nation of three-point-five million citizens just months before it is to join the European Union and NATO.