Lithuania’s former Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis: "In the Seimas elections in October, we will strive to get enough seats to make it difficult to form a new coalition without us"

  • 2024-04-12
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Saulius Skvernelis, former Prime Minister of Lithuania and now chairman of the opposition  Union of Democrats "For Lithuania", is tearing the outgoing Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats and Liberal government to shreds. "I believe that this Conservative-Liberal government will go down in history as having failed to deliver on its promises and disappointed the Lithuanian people. I would formulate the question as follows: not what has it failed to do, but what has it done at all?" - Skvernelis told The Baltic Times, adding, "In the new Parliament Seimas elections in October, we will strive to get enough seats to make it difficult to form a new coalition without us."

Andrius Kubilius, former Chairman of the Homeland Union– Lithuanian Christian Democrats and now MEP, has said that this conservative government is doing such a good job that he would not be surprised if this cabinet, with the Prime Minister at its head, would be entrusted with the helm of the government even after the new Seimas elections. Do you think that is realistic?

In life, you can't reject anything. And yet no one can say how people will vote in October. But if they turn out to vote, and don't stay at home and do not throw up their hands, then we won't see this Government again. It has certainly not been the best, on the contrary, it has been completely grey and lame. I can only single out Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte as the leader who was and is the most visible and who is doing the work of some of the other ministries, because their ministers do not "pull it off". But the Prime Minister has also been overwhelmed by constant tensions, which makes her feverish, makes her decisions unpredictable, and the stories of ministers who have been unconditionally defended and are now hastily, inappropriately dismissed –and I am talking about the story of the Minister of National Defence - testify to this.

I believe that this Government will go down in history as having failed to deliver on its promises and letting down the Lithuanian people.

What went wrong for the Government?

I would rephrase the question: what did the Government manage to achieve? Maybe this Government has been guided by high standards of transparency? 

Nothing of the sort - ministers have compromised themselves, they have been embroiled in scandals, they have failed to deliver on their promises made in 2020.

Yes, in foreign policy, this Government has managed to cause a big stir – we have become the European Union's pariah. I am not just talking about China, but also about this Government's aid to the Putin regime without him even asking. I am referring to the Government's initiative to close, in a non-transparent manner, the export of Belarusian potash fertiliser through the port of Klaipeda. Our railways and the port suffered enormous losses, and, incidentally, the sales volumes and profits of Russia's Uralkaly potash fertiliser have increased a dozen of times over. With this money, Russia is buying arms and destroying Ukraine.

Has this Government implemented the tax reform it promised? 

It promised to deliver it to us within six months, but it has not done so. Has it solved any social issues? No, because the investment environment in Lithuania is such that both foreigners and Lithuanians are afraid to invest in Lithuania, as they say, because of the war, the plague and the famine. Again, because of the actions of this Government.

Also, the pensions and benefits that have been slightly raised by this government have long since been "eaten up" by inflation. Record inflation, as high as 20%. The inflationary money has been used to collect the budget and VAT, while we ourselves have not invested anywhere sustainable to earn anything. This Government is only happy that it has doubled the defence budget, but that was easy to do during the war. It was done with borrowed money.

Discussions are underway on how and from which sources to provide additional funding for national defence. The Prime Minister has mentioned increasing VAT, increasing personal income tax, even revising the line allocated for municipalities. In your opinion, where should we look for more funds for defence?

This issue – more defence funding – is not even as topical as the Conservatives want to make it out to be.

Let us be clear: this issue has become a central plank of the Conservatives' election campaign (the European Parliament and presidential elections will take place in May – L.J.). Their narrative is clear: "The war is tomorrow and only the Conservatives can defend against it". 

But this is not true. Let us remember that when Russia was waging war in Georgia (the Russo-Georgian War (also the war in South Ossetia, the Second South Ossetian War) – the 2008 military conflict between Georgia and Russia and the unrecognised republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – L.J.), our army was virtually wiped out under the Conservative-led government of 2008-2012 – with old weapons, half-empty military units and very little defence funding.

I say otherwise: we are not under any threat now, we are under the NATO nuclear umbrella and all the other defence umbrellas, and we have strong and reliable allies.

We, the Union of Democrats "For Lithuania", are categorically opposed to raising VAT or GPM. We propose to talk about raising the corporate income tax. Especially since some Lithuanian businesspeople have come up with a new initiative - to allocate four per cent of the country's GDP (gross domestic product – L.J.) for defence. This sounds to me like a propaganda initiative. Let us start with them - let us raise corporate taxes by five per cent, even though our parliamentary group was talking about two per cent. 

We think it is very important to collect taxes in general. It has been calculated that every percentage point of VAT that is not collected takes about 70 million euros out of the budget.

As regards other sources of funding for defence, our Union is considering raising excise duties on alcohol and tobacco, and taxing gambling more.

Recalling that during the COVID pandemic, the European Union set up an Economic Recovery Fund, we are proposing that a (European Union) Defence Fund be set up now. 

It would help to ensure the defence needs of the whole of the European Union, with arms purchases being carried out in a transparent manner, without competing with each other.

What do you think about the new Minister of National Defence, Laurynas Kasciunas?

I am of a good opinion about him. He is experienced, has shown himself as the Chairman of the National Security and Defence Committee, speaks English, is energetic. I hope that as a minister he will not change.

He should also not succumb to the electoral rhetoric of the top of the Conservative Party, which, as I said, is spreading panic and anxiety that there will be a war, and that there is only one question left unanswered: tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or two years from now. 

If this line holds, it will be extremely difficult for us to sit down. We have to look at everything objectively and adequately – Lithuania is safe as a member of the Alliance. The war narrative must end. We have a lot to do as a country, we have to be able to defend ourselves.

Will you review Lithuania's relations with China, which have deteriorated significantly, when you are in power again?

I think it will have to change – it will have to get better, although I am not talking about a radical change that would restore the level of relations that we had before this government.

We will do this in line with the common position of the Member States of the European Union with regard to China, and also in line with the policy of the United States.

I am in favour of improving relations between Lithuania and China by diversifying existing risks and seeking new markets. However, we must not forget the markets that work well – I am talking about China and its enormous economy. By removing China from our transport map, no one has offered any other alternatives. That has to be recognised.

I am not saying that we have to hug and kiss China, but the pragmatic basis that we had, should reappear in our relations.

How many seats in the Seimas would be a good result for you? And in the European Parliament elections?

In the autumn parliamentary elections, the party is inclined to entrust the leadership to me. In the parliamentary elections, we will aim to win enough seats to make it difficult to form a new coalition without us. I believe that the political forces of the centre and the left, of which we are a part, will have this opportunity in the autumn. It will be a difficult election to predict – we will see a number of new political forces. Even in the centre-left political field. We certainly do not want to deal with very radical, populist or pro-Russian political forces. Unfortunately, there are some of the latter.

In the European Parliament, it is important for us to be represented, and one or more seats would do that.

As you know, the political council of the Union of Democrats "For Lithuania" has put forward the candidacy of NATO Deputy Secretary-General Giedrius Jeglinskas for the presidential elections (to be held in May – L. J.) and we deem him the most qualified presidential candidate among the others.