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Russian-Born Millionaire Wins Lithuania Ballot  - 2004-10-11


Lithuanian election officials say a party led by a Russian-born millionaire has won the initial round of the country's first parliamentary ballot since it joined the European Union and NATO earlier this year.

The Election Commission in Vilnius said Lithuania's Labor Party, which was founded last year by Russian-born millionaire Viktor Uspaskich, won the first round of the elections with more than 28 percent of the votes.

Lithuania's ruling coalition of the Social Democrat and Social Liberal parties, led by Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, was in second place with roughly 20 percent of the vote. The Conservative Party came third, followed by smaller parties.

A second and final election round will be held October 24 in those constituencies where no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.

The populist party's success has been linked to widespread anger about corruption and the center-left coalition's perceived failure to improve living standards.

Average monthly income in the small Baltic nation of 3.5 million people is about $435, which is several times less than in Western European countries.

Mr. Uspaskich has promised to raise pensions and salaries and to tackle corruption. But some Lithuanians are concerned about the prospect of a Russian-born politician running their daily affairs. Critics also question Mr. Uspaskich's Russian business ties.

The 45-year-old businessman was born in Siberia and came to Lithuania in 1985 to manage the construction of a natural gas pipeline. He later worked as an intermediary between the government of newly independent Lithuania and OAO Gazprom, the worlds biggest natural gas producer, to arrange payment for gas supplies to the country. He also heads a group of 40 companies mostly involved in food processing that employs 4,000 people.

Addressing those concerns, Mr. Uspaskich has suggested he would be prepared to accept the job of vice prime minister, even if his party wins most of the 141 parliamentary seats.

Mr. Uspaskich told reporters that he could participate in a coalition of current 72-year old Prime Minister Brazauskas who he described as a politician with "a huge amount of experience" that in his words "could be very useful for the country."

Whoever wins, no major changes are expected in Lithuania's pro-Western foreign policy. But the prime minister has suggested that he will only be willing to cooperate with Mr. Uspaskich, if he accepts his program.

The country has seen 12 governments come and go since 1991 when it gained independence after decades of Soviet rule.

Analysts say the elections have been closely watched by Russia, which still ships most of its European oil exports through the Baltic states.