Tomas Janeliunas is a much sought-after political analyst of the younger generation, an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science (IIRPS) of Vilnius University, where he obtained his PhD in 2006. He earned his Master degree in the same Alma Mater in European Studies in 2001 and a Bachelor degree in Political Science in 1999. His primary stint at the IIRPS includes lecturing on subjects for the Masters Program in International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. His particular interests consist of Peace and Conflict Studies, Strategic Studies, National Security Policy of Lithuania and Cold War Studies. In addition, the young scholar edits the academic journal “Politologija” and the Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review (www.lfpr.lt). He also contributes to “IQ - The Economist” and IQ.lt in the capacity of the politics editor. Janeliunas sat down with TBT to discuss the new government’s start and the challenges it faces.
What impression do you get from the new government?
Well, it has been a very short time since its swearing-in, so perhaps it is too premature to draw up far-reaching conclusions. On the other hand, we can already make some initial conclusions about it from its appearances and commentaries. What catches my eye is that the government’s make-up is very colorful and different in regards to competence and vision. Obviously, the ministries, and particularly ministers, have to tailor their styles of rhetoric into a more coherent, one-for-all-all-for one voice. It is obvious that all the ministers need a lot more time to “feel out” and “feel into” the ministerial fields that they have been assigned to and, ultimately, come out with their proposals and their own visions. So far I see a lot of abstract, dimmed commentaries that frankly do not suit a ministerial position. It seems to me that some of the new ministers perhaps have brought in their visions, but now they do not fit into the current situation. Therefore, they have to be immediately amended. I believe that, for most ministers, the first half-year will be sort of “a stretching-out and warming-up” before hitting the road. And that shouldn’t sound surprising, as they need to take the time to get to the core of the activities they are to lead and shape. So far, it seems that, with some “hot-potato” issues in the air, some of the ministers are not yet willing to grab a fire-hose and put out the fire.
Bearing in mind the “half-year’s run-in,” don’t you think that the start of Lithuania’s upcoming EU Presidency, scheduled from July1, might suffer?
I believe there is still enough time to get properly ready for the EU chairmanship. Furthermore, the heaviest part of the load will be put on the shoulders of middle-level state officials, who have been involved with their stint for a while. I am pretty sure they’re doing a good job in preparing Lithuania and the new ministers for the challenge. There’s no reason to doubt their competence.
Some of the new ministers, referring to the EU Presidency-related extra workload, are hiring more vice-ministers, four or five in total instead of having two or three, like their counterparts in the previous government. Are the new seats only about the looming EU chairmanship?
I really doubt that. The better explanation would be a quest to appease all the ruling coalition partners and their thirst for power. The number of the ministerial portfolios is quite limited, so the new seats for vice-ministers will do the job in sharing it according to all the partners’ will.
Doesn’t the new Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius stand out on the political map in the sense his image throughout the years in politics remains untarnished?
In that sense, he does. But that should not raise anyone’s eyebrows when we speak of such a high-level governmental post. What is bad for our politics is that many high-ranking politicians bear tarnished and cracked reputations, which often overshadow the so-called “clean” politicians. The less we have of the first kind of policy makers on all the levels, the better it will be for the state and us.
But maybe the fact that the new prime minister starts off with a “clean sheet” shows his propensity for shunning risky situations, and too big fears of blurring the image? Can risky decisions always be shunned in politics?
Well, there’ve been a lot of talk that Butkevicius has flip-flopped on a number of issues, or sometimes he simply doesn’t have any stance, when he should [have]. No doubt, for a high-ranking politician as him this is a shortcoming. Not speaking out does not really ramp up political capital and voters’ trust. I believe the current position that Butkevicius holds will make him voice his opinions a lot stricter and clearer. Certainly, the prime ministership will help him grow as a politician.
What is the most likely outcome in deciding the fate of the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant project? With the parliamentary commission set up to work out its proposals, don’t you get a feel that PM Butkevicius is perhaps mulling flip-flopping on the issue as well?
What has been said, it seems, is that neither Butkevicius nor the coalition want to scrap the project. I believe that, at the end of the day, the government wants to have several options on its table, including one foreseeing the continuation of the project as well. I think the latter would be quite a logical thing, as a lot has already been done in pursuing it, and the consequences from the fallout, provided we scrap the project, can be too big for Lithuania. The increasing pressure of the project partners should also be taken into account before making the final decision.
Do you personally believe Lithuania will go on with the Visaginas nuclear project?
Frankly, I will not be surprised if the government decides on pursuing it.
The Labor Party was bitter when, with the support of the Social Democrats, three of their MPs were stripped of legal immunity, but it seems it has not visibly strained both parties’ relations. Do you believe that might jolt the Coalition later under other circumstances? What the Labor Party couldn’t forgive the Social Democrats?
So far, it seems to me the Labor Party is willing to take advantage of the possibilities that being in power gives them. I believe that, considering the Lithuanian president’s determination to keep the party off the wheel of power, for the party, it is a big win being in it. It would be weird to see the Laborists abandoning the coalitionship any time soon. Regardless of whatever circumstances may loom ahead. I believe the Labor Party will try to escape any conflicts with the first fiddle-playing Social Democrats. Speaking of the conditions that may dent the unity, we have first to see what happens if the Laborist leader, Viktor Uspaskich, and his two party colleagues are sentenced in the Labor Party black bookkeeping case.
If the party chairman will be made to pull out from active political life, that can radically change the situation, both in the Labor Party and the coalition.
Do you believe the court will be able to come out with an unbiased, political pressure-free decision in that case?
I believe that our judicial system can pass fair verdicts and not give in to the pressure. I really do not have any doubts that the decision - whatever it will be - will be passed having deliberated the collected evidence and nothing else.
If the judges braved up for ruling on the Labor Party’s dismantling, would this be an adequate decision? Particularly in the European Union where perhaps such a thing would be unheard of in its contemporary history?
I am not a lawyer and, therefore, I am not in the shoes to comment on this. Especially when I am not familiar with the evidence the court has.
Are you very familiar with the Butkevicius-led government Action Program?
If you were to compare it with the Kubilius government program, what similarities and differences do you see?
As far as the current government’s program is concerned, its prevailing characteristic is the absence of any detail. What really surprised me in it, is that it is very hard to find any concrete number or a time frame. Most of the provisions in it are of a declarative and imperative character. In that sense, I would call it a declaration rather than an action program. There were a whole lot more details in the Kubilius government’s program. In fact, they had stitched it up even before the 2008 parliamentary election, so after winning, they just had to change its name.
Are you saying there’s nothing attention-getting in the current government’s program?
As I was saying, it is really hard to single out anything or criticize anything in it when there is an absence of concrete detail. In fact, that fact exasperates many. Me too.
With the latest 2013 Lithuanian economic growth prognosis being dimmer and with the ruling Social Democrats’ resolution to shell out more budget money for some public services, funded until now from the private pocket, isn’t there the risk of a new economic bubble? Can Lithuania loosen up its belt?
I believe that the government is well aware of the economic reality and the need to have a well-balanced budget. The latter, by the way, is deemed a priority in the government program. No doubt, however, there will be a lot of attempts to put an extra strain onto the budget, asking for additional funding. The requests will be streaming in from all the sides trying out the ministers. It remains to be seen how the government copes with these kinds of requests and the itching to chip in.
Do you think President Dalia Grybauskaite has put up with the government and, for now, is not brandishing her sword against it?
At this stage, I really do not see a threat to the government from the president or the opposition.
How would you comment on the new Parliament speaker Vytas Gedvilas’ remark that “America is too far and Russia is here”? Can this be a cue that the leftist government will seek closer ties with Russia? A recharging of the relations?
For me, it shows that even such a high-ranking official like the speaker does not have any values or clear political direction. It seems that such controversial remarks come from a misunderstanding of what should be done and pursued. The idea of “relations’ recharging” can hardly really excite anyone, as there have been plenty of all kinds of “relations’ recharging” before. But some missteps in that direction are possible.
Do you think Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, a former ambassador, is prone to misjudgment?
No, I don’t think so. I really believe he is a seasoned politician. I’d perhaps see some danger coming from some new ministers who, in trying to appease the electorate, may make some vociferous statements without tuning their positions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Do you believe that President Grybauskaite’s public support ratings will bounce back after spiraling down through the establishment of the new government?
It is hard to tell as every event can potentially yank it up or down. I believe that the government, as every previous one, has got a certain credit of the public’s trust, chipping away the president’s ratings. It remains to be seen how they will fluctuate in the near future. But I believe that very soon, in a few months or so, the new prime minister’s and his government’s support ratings will inevitably go down, quite a usual trend for all governments.
Do you see any people around who are able to throw the gauntlet against the incumbent president in 2014?
Undoubtedly, there will be plenty of people willing to participate in the race. It is hard now to tell how many of them will be equal rivals to her, but one thing is obvious: the race will be a lot less predictable than it was in 2009.