Adamkus shocks and delights in annual address

  • 2001-04-26
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - Speaking for over an hour, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus delivered his third annual state of the nation address to Parliament April 19. In it he touched on a wide number of issues affecting the lives of Lithuanians and a number of sensitive issues facing the nation's politicians.

He characterized the ruling New Policy coalition of young liberal politicians he lent his support to in parliamentary elections last fall, as weak, and said there were few signs of anything new in the work of the new Parliament.

A strong democratic state is impossible without strong parties and strong political leadership, he said. According to Adamkus, the opposition parties on both left and right are aligning themselves for an attack.

"Our parties remain weak. Therefore their efforts both to merge and to renew themselves are welcome. The Social Democrats and the Conservatives are strengthening their positions in such a manner. The Liberal and Social Liberal parties, first behind the wheel of the state, are experiencing real difficulties," he said.

Adamkus heaped criticism on almost every major national political force and governmental institution in his address. Citing a study by the World Bank on corruption, he said a businessperson in Lithuania spends about 3 percent of revenues on bribes and 12 percent of working hours with government institutions.

Leveling special criticism on Lithuania's tax administration, the president said a special commission set up to hear complaints had ruled in favor of the public in 60 percent of cases - worth 34 million litas ($8.5 million) - and that the state budget was being collected in large part illegitimately.

"Our economy is not sufficiently effective. Our GDP is growing too slowly. The number of taxpayers continues to fall; according to estimates, about 230,000 people left Lithuania last year, most of them young. That's more than a tenth of all our tax-contributing citizens."

As in his speech last year, Adamkus called for bringing Lithuania into the information age. He said that while the number of PCs and Internet users was up this year, no sea-change had occurred, and the government had to take the initiative by ordering chaotic state databases and begin offering public services on the Internet this year.

He called for computerizing libraries and schools, and providing low-interest loans for setting up Internet caf├ęs and centers and purchasing PCs. Within two yeas, he said, there must be at least one PC for every 10 students at primary schools.

On foreign affairs, he devoted a good chunk of time to relations with Poland, calling for the conclusion of the electric energy bridge project between the two countries and improving transportation infrastructure.

Although Vilnius and Warsaw are separated by a short geographical distance (about the same distance as Vilnius to Nida) there is the public perception that "we, Lithuanians and Poles, live in separate worlds. Yet an express train would cover the distance in two hours."

However, he called the state of relations with Poland a major achievement of the last 10 years.

"Just as important is trilateral cooperation between Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev," Adamkus added.

He said these three countries' parliaments and governments should expand cooperation. The embattled president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, arrived in Vilnius April 21 to take part in a regional leaders' conference called "Dialogue of Civilizations." Poland's President Aleksandr Kwasniewski also attended.

The conference organizers told The Baltic Times that President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus had asked Belarusian Embassy staff to secure him an invitation as well, to no avail.

"Miracles in the Lithuanian-Russian relationship should not be expected, especially since it is escorted by a difficult past. We will not be able to restore what we have lost over the decades and centuries of dependence with one law or one meeting."

As in earlier addresses, the president stressed the central role of the individual in securing freedom, democracy and free markets. But this speech was more critical of the public at large than earlier speeches.

"It is as if two visions of Lithuania's development have become evident in the public mind at once," he said. "One associates a person's welfare with his independence, initiative, freedom. The other with government. A choice between these positions is essential."

After the hour-long speech, during which Adamkus mixed up words and faltered several times, the Parliament sat in session to discuss his proposals - something that has not happened after previous addresses. All major party leaders said they agreed with much of what the president had to say.

Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas said the president had confirmed the ruling coalition's platform, and called the speech "an exotic reality-check" on the current pace of reforms.

He said the Cabinet of ministers shared the president's priorities - a revival in the economy, taxes, educational reforms and slashing bureaucracy. The parliamentary Liberal faction, which Paksas heads, echoed these sentiments, calling the president's speech "objective and detailed."

Paksas has the most to lose from the speech. Some observers are predicting that it is only a matter of weeks before the government holds a confidence vote in the prime minister. Paksas' coalition partner, Social Liberals head Arturas Paulauskas, could then team up with the left-wing opposition Social Democratic Party.

The Social Democrats issued a press release saying Adamkus had become disenchanted with Paksas' government. "The head of state criticized the ruling coalition he himself initiated for its lack of consistency and intent," it read.

The left claimed Adamkus' speech reiterated their government platform, saying he called for reestablishing public confidence in the privatization process, government reforms and regional development. The Social Democrats called for radical changes, changes they claimed the ruling coalition was incapable of effecting.

Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of the Conservatives in Parliament, said Adamkus had set out fundamental landmarks and had made an interesting speech.

While he criticized almost every aspect of Lithuanian political life from the podium, Valdas Adamkus received only praise and pledges of allegiance in return. There was something for everyone in the annual address - the concerns of working pensioners worried their benefits will disappear, students apprehensive of higher tuition fees, truck drivers and sugar beet farmers all got a mention.