KLAIPEDA - The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been an ongoing enigma for many of Lithuania’s best political analysts and commentators. One of the wisest among these wise men is Vytautas Bruveris, a political analyst and senior staff writer for the daily Lietuvos Rytas, who stands out as one of the most balanced, insightful and respected analysts. The Baltic Times sat down with him to hear about the latest issues in Lithuanian politics.
No one believes today that Lithuania’s ruling coalition will break down before the term is over, despite their mutual suspicion and jibes. What, besides power, is holding the parties together?
As a matter of fact, there is nothing else that links them. Only the grip on power keeps the parties together. If they could stay on top, having dumped each other, they would do it without much hesitance. I’m not sure about the Labour and Justice and Order parties, but the Social Democrats (SD) have to stick with the other two for the sake of power, which is safeguarded only when they are together.
With only year and a half to go until the new parliamentary election, the incumbent Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius and his Social Democrats are polling strongly. Does it surprise you? Why is the political pendulum not now swinging against the Social Democrats?
I believe it is not that hard to explain the phenomenon of Butkevicius аnd his Social Democrats – there have been no major shake-ups in the country’s economy after the recession of 2008-2010. So not surprisingly, with the political elite shunning any jerky movements and taking assertive positions on any hotter issues, his ratings are even inching up. It seems the majority of the public likes things like that.
Does the SD’s popularity also demonstrate the other parties’ incapacity to take advantage of the Social Democrat-led government’s blunders - if there have been any?
Certainly it does. I am not certain whether we are being precise here when we us use the word “blunders”. As I said, the Government has been sailing quite smoothly, avoiding reefs. But I’d like to point out its incapacity and reluctance to coordinate its efforts and activity aimed at pursuing already “ripe” reforms in judicial, legal, social spheres and the field of healthcare, as well as in the state service and even the energy sector.
But as I said, many voters are disinterested in these issues, so taking on them could irk the public. Also, it remains in question whether the opposition could capitalise on any move towards the issues by the government.
I‘d rather note the weakness and incapacity of the opposition. It seems to be also incapable of earning political brownie points from the corrupt origins of the Labour and Order and Justice Parties, as well as the blooming protectionism, also influence and finance control-sharing in the state.
What do you believe will be defining moments for the parties and the public’s favours before the parliamentary election in 2016?
Frankly, I don’t believe that we will be seeing any particular “defining” factors and changes as a result throughout the remainder of the term. Well, you never know what may happen, but only a big thing, like a huge corruption scandal embroiling some ruling party, or all of them, could shake-up the coalition, deal a blow to its credibility and turn upside down the pan they are in. In the run-up to the election, it might happen that the ruling parties get in a heated row or brawl, which might end up with their running away from each other. But if this happened, I am not sure it would have a decisive impact on the election results.
How do you explain the Liberals’ noticeably stronger position and the Conservatives’ stagnancy in the polls?
The Liberals have managed to gather the crumbs from all the former liberal parties, like Vilnius mayor Zuokas’s Taip and the Liberal and Centre Party. As well as this, the Liberals have picked up some Labour Party voters and even some Conservatives, for which could be credited Antanas Guoga, an MEP and rising star in Lithuania’s Liberal Movement.
The latter cannot expand their electoral base beyond the traditional, most faithful circles of their supporters - senior-age people and some of the young. I’d say Conservatives cannot find a recipe which would pave their way into the wider population, especially in the provinces, where the present ruling parties reign.
How much is the party chairman, Andrius Kubilius, often lacking exuberance lately, responsible for its lukewarm position? Do you see the issue of leadership in Lithuania’s Motherland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (MU-LCD), known as Conservatives?
What you are talking about is what I reckon to be one of the reasons for the Conservatives’ stagnancy. As a matter of fact, the issue for them – I mean of a new leader and party chairman — is a very acute one for the party now. It obviously needs a new leader, but the MU-LCD is dealing with a deficit of leaders, which is, to some extent, an issue for other parties, too.
Well, let’s look at the names that are popping up now, who are supposedly able to replace Kubilius someday. Zygimantas Pavilionis, current Lithuanian ambassador to the United States? Vygandas Ucackas, the European Union’s ambassador to Russia? Or Gabrielius Landsbergis (MEP and grandchild of Vytautas Landsbergis, the patriarch of modern Lithuanian politics)? I personally do not believe any of them can tackle the acute issue I mentioned before – that is, expanding the party’s electorate. I think only President Dalia Grybauskaite has the capacity to take the Conservatives to new heights together in a bloc with the Liberals. Sure, once she finishes her presidency…
The ongoing graft probe into the Order and Justice Party and the scandalous departure of Valentinas Mazuronis — the party’s former deputy chairman and, now, an MEP — have not, contrary to the predictions, damaged the party. What is the explanation for that?
This party has always had its faithful voters. Now the party —alas! — consistently, deliberately, and successfully strives to become a key force uniting all anti-European, pro-Russian, anti-Liberal, provincial, nationalistic and isolation-keen public currents. And it keeps Rolandas Paksas, the party chairman, as the chief’s role in the force.
What characterises municipal council elections? What are the chances that the mayors of the three largest Lithuanian cities will hold their seats?
In fact, the election, although historic in the sense that mayors will be elected through direct primaries for the first time, does not otherwise seem unique.
As always, there’s shortage of new leaders, faces, and ideas, and the election campaign is tedious and poor, as always, too. Due to the abundance of mayoral candidates, as well as larger parties and new electoral formation list, we might see even a bigger political hodge-podge after the election. Particularly in those municipalities, where the new mayors won’t have a political back-up in the municipal councils. I believe that the incumbent mayors - both in the largest cities and elsewhere - stand the best chances of being re-elected.
Will the municipal council election results signal the outcome of the parliamentary election next year?
Definitely so. The election will show whether the parties in opposition - the Conservatives and Liberals - have a chance in a joint list to overtake and outstrip the now ruling three parties: SD, Labor and Order and Justice. To remind everyone, the gap between them and the opposition was hopelessly big in the last European Parliament elections in Lithuania. I really wonder whether it has decreased by now.
How accurate is the UK Defence Minister’s warning that Russia is “a real and imminent” threat tp the Baltic States?
I believe that he made the statement in order to signal that the UK “views the matter gravely” in response to the changing – unfavourably to Russia and his party in the United Kingdom –conjuncture.
The possibility that the Kremlin would resolve on war against NATO – even on “hybrid war” - is, I believe, slim. I really do not think that what the Kremlin is doing in Ukraine represents part of some “global” strategy that also foresees the annexation of the Baltics. I think the Kremlin’s tactic is ad hoc: i.e., responding to a current situation, although it definitely also uses what I call ready “cribs”, which the Kremlin, depending on the situation, activates swiftly, like, for example, the ones in the Crimea or Donbas.
I reckon the Kremlin would brave up for aggression against the Baltic States only upon extreme conditions within the regime itself: if it was in dire straits: for example, and its most brutal and insane part had come to power.
That for it such conditions can be laid out there rather sooner than later is quite plausible. Look, the Russian dictatorship is evidently rolling down and, in fact, has entered its last phase. But it could be replaced, most likely, with an even more brutal dictatorship.
Do you find the rhetoric of the Lithuanian President and our Defence Minister to sometimes be too bellicose? Especially in comparison with that of Latvia and Estonia? Do you see any link between the harsh language and Russia’s retaliatory measures?
I think in terms of the language used the Latvians and Estonians can be understood because of their considerable Russian communities. But, also, I also do not find the rhetoric of the Lithuanian Defence Minister, though it has changed greatly since the Social Democrats’ EP election loss, to be in any way exceptionally harsh. The other thing is some of President Dalia Grybauskaite’s public statements, which although objectively right, sometimes harm Lithuania’s position internationally because of their sharpness, creating the belief that Lithuania is too “impartial” to Russia. To go into the details, her statement that Russia is a terroristic state is namely of that kind. The bottom line is neither harsher nor softer statements change the aggressive nature and behavior of the Russian dictatorship as they depend only the calculations and interior logics.
You are a famous journalist. How reliable information in our media on the Russian and Ukrainian conflict does seem to you? Do you agree that “white propaganda” Lithuanian media often now employs in offsetting the Russian propaganda is justifiable and, in terms of journalism, right?
Our media, I believe, gets too easily excited when talking about the menace from Russia, making it seem as if the “green little men” are already in the Vilnius region, and is too quick in spotting everywhere Russia’s misdeeds, “hand” and its “fifth column”. To go on, our media too quickly and too enthusiastically sees signs of the Russian regime crumbling and slumping, too often moralises at the “stupid”, “short-sighted” and “rotten” West for ostensibly “selling off” Ukraine and usually lacks criticism when broadcasting propaganda coming from the military structures, right-wing politicians and the Ukrainian authorities.
No “white propaganda” is by no means a way-out, as, simply speaking, no propaganda can be “good.” The advantage of democracy is its freedom and being critical.
What do you believe to be the most plausible scenario in Ukraine‘s east?
The Kremlin won’t stop, even if it decides to pause for a little bit tactically to get the incurred loss compensated, especially if Ukraine disagrees to finance the occupied regions. The Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to annihilate Ukraine as a state, both territory and economy-wise and politically, too. So, to sum up, the war will continue and its development will depend, first, on Ukraine – whether it will be able to respond to aggression militarily - and, sure, much relies on the behaviour of the West. Will it finally “write off” the current Russian political establishment and resort to “all-or-nothing”-type sanctions, like disconnecting Russian from the SWIFT banking system and providing Ukraine with all necessary economic and military aid. Particularly important, it seems to me is the latter, as it would mean, although only symbolically, that the US has entered the battlefield.
Is Lithuanian society ready for resistance if Russia invaded us?
The society is very multi-layered and different, though the most determined and patriotic part of its dominates in the air now. I believe that, in the case of aggression, we would see a civil resistance in any case, but it would probably be of a lesser scope than that following the Russian occupation in the 1940s. The half-century of totalitarianism we have been through and the open borders we now enjoy would affect our decisions.