The Presidential Crisis in Lithuania: Its Roots and the Russian Factor
January 28, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES noon discussion with Richard Krickus, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Mary Washington College and former EES Short-Term Scholar

While many of its neighbors make final preparations to become full-fledged members of NATO and the EU, Lithuania has been consumed by internal unrest, as a scandal in the presidency threatens to destabilize the country. Richard Krickus offered insights into the origins of the scandal, presented the evidence against President Rolandas Paksas, and addressed the possibilities that this scandal reveals lingering Soviet-era ties and tensions between the Baltic States and Moscow. Krickus asserted that the conditions that led to the current instability are not unique to Lithuania, and similar problems could visit its neighbors soon.

Krickus explained that despite the fact that academics unanimously declared the country's democracy consolidated, despite the country's good relations with all of its neighbors, and despite its surging economy, dark clouds were gathering in Lithuania by 2002, which foreshadowed the current scandal. Polls revealed that Lithuanians were highly distrustful of the Seimas (Parliament) and that they were gravely concerned with the rise of crime and corruption in the country. Krickus asserted that the fact that one-third of the population continues to live in poverty points to the fact that there are two ‘Lithuania's.' That is, while one part of the country has successfully reaped the benefits of the political and economic transition, another part lives under the same—or even worse—conditions than they had under communism. Krickus asserts that this socio-economic cleavage allowed Paksas to win an upset victory in the 2002 presidential elections.

Allegations that Paksas is involved with Russian organized crime figures and that his government leaked state secrets have led to calls for his resignation since November 2003. Currently, a Seimas panel is reviewing these allegations to decide if the case should be brought to the Constitutional Court, which would determine whether or not the allegations constitute an impeachable offense and ultimately bring it to a vote in the Seimas.

The case has brought back concerns about the extent of Moscow's influence in the country and its intentions, though little is really known about either. While there is no doubt that Russian mobsters, media and economic interests operate in Lithuania, there is little evidence that they are working in concert beyond their narrow interests. After all, what does Russia seek in gaining influence in Lithuania: Access to EU markets? The ability to punish Lithuania for separating from the USSR? Or to force Lithuania to do Moscow's bidding? Although on the one hand, experts such as Stephen Blank continue to see Russia as just such a threat, on the other hand much of this smacks of conspiracy theory with little evidence to back it.

Russian involvement aside, Lithuania must now focus on resolving the current political crisis. Krickus spelled out four possible outcomes. First, Paksas could simply resign. Second, Paksas could be impeached. Third, Paksas could be found innocent by the Seimas panel and/or the Constitutional Court. Finally, the Seimas panel and/or the Constitutional Court could find him guilty, but the Seimas would not garner enough votes to impeach Paksas. The last scenario, Krickus contends, would be most worrying as it would imply that Seimas members were afraid of impeaching Paksas because of his great popularity with the ‘other' Lithuania. This would allow Paksas to continue to exploit poverty and inequality for political gains and allow corruption and organized crime to continue unchecked, opening the country up to possible Russian influence.