Candles on 100-day cake burn 'sadly'

  • 2005-03-30
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - If the current Lithuanian government were a business enterprise, it would go bankrupt. Worse, it has largely ignored market regulations, and there's a chance the country will have to put up with its existence for an undetermined period of time.

At least that was how the Free Market Institute, a libertarian think tank, summed it up when congratulating the Algirdas Brazauskas-led Cabinet March 24 on the completion of its first 100-days in office.

Constant discord within the coalition, which includes four political parties from the center and left-of-center, have led many to believe that Lithuanians should not expect a swathe of resolute reforms any time soon.

Though he praised the government's work, Prime Minister Brazauskas was cognizant of his Cabinet's precarious position. He later admitted that the future of the coalition would depend on whether it came to a unanimous decision on tax reform. "Failed attempts to make a decision will prove the opposition's argument that the government might collapse," he said ominously.

Brazauskas added that he hoped the government would manage to deal with tax issues over the next 10 days.

"The amendments will influence whether Lithuania becomes a member of the eurozone in 2007. It is a matter of prestige 's whether the government manages to retain stability and join the eurozone," the prime minister said.

The final decision concerning the tax law will be the biggest test for the ruling coalition."

Previously, the crux of the reform amounted to a gradual reduction in the income tax on individuals 's from 33 percent to 24 percent 's and to impose a real estate tax on those possessing more than one residence. But even the prime minister himself admitted that the latter was unacceptable. Media reports have suggested that the real estate tax could be substituted with a provisional "solidarity tax" to balance the budget.

According to unofficial sources, the most resistance to the bill came from Brazauskas' own ranks 's the Social Democrats. They think it would mean a retreat both from their own platform and the government's program. Lawmakers also say that this tax is most beneficial to the Labor Party, which is thirsting to make good on its populist, pre-electoral promises.

The Social Democrats did, however, vote in favor of reducing income taxes for individuals who earn below 1,000 litas (290 euros) a month.

Brazauskas emphasized that any discord within Parliament over the euro's introduction could end in the government's collapse. The nation is bracing itself for the requirements of phasing in the common currency, and one step in the wrong direction could lead to a three-year postponement 's from 2007 to 2010. For many Lithuanians, this would signal a major defeat.

But the coalition was troubled from the get-go. The leftist Social Democrats and the Social Liberals were leery of the Laborites, and the distribution of posts was a painful process. Brazauskas was so scared by what he saw, he warned everyone in advance that he would not take responsibility for the actions of some ministers. The coalition's subsequent program 's abstract and ponderous 's seemed to confirm his fears.

Leonidas Donskis, director of the Political Science and Diplomacy Institute at Grand Duke Vytautas University, said the government 's Lithuania's 13th 's is passive, lacks strategic vision and cannot lead effectively.

"The current situation doesn't evoke optimism," he said. "I agree with those who say that in Lithuania's politics we see less politics. Continuous scandals show that [the government] finds it difficult to work on a level that's purely technical and doesn't require much effort. As the government even stumbles on flat surfaces, I highly doubt if the coalition is capable of achieving anything on a strategic level."

Donskis claimed that the present government could only survive its full four-year term if the prime minister managed to overcome the "crisis of leadership."

"If he manages to establish the balance of power in the government, then the cabinet has a chance to stay alive until the end of its term," the political scientist said.

Lauras Bielinis, from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, said ministers were split on different levels. "One of the problems is that that the government isn't unanimous when making decisions. It is not only divided because of economic interests, but also on political grounds," he said. "Moreover, the leader of the 13th government, to put it nicely, seems to be relaxed, unwilling or incapable of acting with responsibility in the field of competition."

He also added that the governments lacked support from the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament), which has also grown lethargic.

Meanwhile, oppositional MPs are wringing their hands and waiting for the fallout. Andrius Kubilius, leader of the Homeland Union, a right-wing party, said the government was leading Lithuania to a cul-de-sac.

"The 100 days have showed that we are on a road to nowhere, as the government has put forth no long-term objectives. If we managed to live those 100 days in chaos, we can go not live like that for a year and then for the whole term," he said.

Deputy head of the opposition Liberal and Centrist Party, Eligijus Masiulis, said that the government's inactivity was the result of an upset balance of powers.

"The candles on the 100-day cake burn sadly," he said. "It's obvious that the government isn't capable of formulating strategic aims, much less speaking about the realization of such ideas."

One way to kick-start the Cabinet, Masiulis suggested, was to give the Labor Party the prime minister's seat, since that group is the largest in Parliament 's two times bigger than Brazauskas' Social Democrats.

It wouldn't be fair, however, to say that the government has achieved nothing so far. It tried, for instance, to tackle the roots of the black economy, which is estimated to be worth 10 billion litas (3 billion euros). Moreover, small businesses noted there were attempts to eliminate some bureaucratic obstacles.

Besides, as dysfunctional as this government may be, it is difficult to see a viable alternative appearing anytime in the near future.