Lithuania is facing a triple crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic, the migrant flows on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and now war in Ukraine. Could any of the adversities have been prevented or mitigated if the policies by the Liberal-Conservative government had been different? “None of these crises are isolated for they all have certain common threads. The societal impact of these crises, especially stemming from the pandemic, the continuing economic fallout from COVID and Belarusian border crisis, revealed a level of passivity in the ruling bloc’s response,” says Gintautas Paluckas, a Social Democratic legislator of the Lithuanian Parliament, Seimas. He sat down in April with The Baltic Times Magazine to reflect on the ongoing crises.
Have the ruling Liberal-Conservative government gone too far with some of the decisions?
The technocratic and centralizing tendencies from the right-wing government are well known. However, the COVID crisis revealed that centralization of health services is an ill-advised project, considering that the most serious work in fighting COVID has been accomplished on the municipal level. At the same time, the current energy crisis—at least some aspects of it—could have been averted if our central state institutions had anticipated, in a timely manner, the significant economic disruption that rising gas and oil prices would bring about. Social democrats have been consistently pushing the government to take concrete steps and soften the economic fallout but nothing of substance has been achieved. Such a passive outlook can also be seen in other developing crises - due to sanctions that were imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine a certain number of businesses (for example Lifosa) are no longer able to operate in Lithuania. Instead of looking for creative ways to preserve jobs that are going to be lost, the government is lingering. It seems, therefore, that the ruling bloc, when presented with an amalgamation of crises, simply counts on these problems to sort themselves out. One has to understand that the ruling coalition is bound to stand still at the moment of crisis, since they are afraid that any decisive action could further fracture its unity. After all, some of the decisions that it may take might not be understood by their political base, for example, if it nationalizes a company like Lifosa and, in so doing preserves thousands of jobs.
As a vocal member of the Seimas opposition, do you believe Lithuania has taken too tough a stance on Belarus since the presumably rigged election in the country in late 2020, and, later, on China over Taiwan?
The problem with the Lithuanian government’s policy towards Belarus does not lie in its toughness per se, but rather in its myopic and quite spotty implementation. There is no doubt that—in the case of Belarus and China—we are dealing with authoritarian structures wherein such principles as the rule of law and freedom of speech are all but absent. That is, however, not to say that Lithuania’s national interest is served well when virtue signaling and deliberate obstruction of all ties with said countries become top priorities of our country’s foreign policy. In other words, Lithuania’s recent foreign policy decisions were inadequate not because they were too ‘tough’, but because these decisions were absolutely reactionary i.e., they inflicted more damage on Lithuania’s economy and our international credibility than they ever did on Belarus’ or China’s authoritarian regimes. Take, for example, the well-known ‘Belaruskalij’ fertilizer scandal, when the Lithuanian Government was not able to meet US sanctions against the Belarusian fertilizer giant with reciprocal action. Here it became clear that Lithuanian decision makers did not even have a plan as to how they would follow through on their ‘tough’ position towards Lukashenko’s regime. Instead of reciprocating US sanctions on ‘Belaruskalij’, the ruling bloc allowed freight wagons to continue chugging-along Lithuania’s territory - so much for their purported ‘tough’ stance on Belarus.
The same can be said for Lithuania’s rather surprising decision to open a Taiwanese (not Taipei’s) representative office in Vilnius. A decision that was clearly never put up against a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. It was, in other words, always clear that Lithuania’s ministry of foreign affairs did not even try to estimate how China would react to such a hot-button decision. When China finally did react and enforced an informal trade embargo on Lithuania, our deputy foreign minister Mantas Adomenas only had this to say: ‘there is no way we could have predicted China’s reaction’. I, for one, believe that any person with at least the most rudimentary awareness of China’s history could have predicted that reaction. This is precisely the problem with Lithuania’s purported ’tough’ stance against Belarus and China - it doesn’t carry any substance, since it was made to serve the conservative party’s PR goals rather than Lithuania's national interest.
As you represent the Lithuanian Parliament Seimas' Committee of Economics, can you share any assessment made by the Committee on damage to our economy by very strained relations with Belarus and China and, now, relations being cut with Russia?
The Seimas’ Committee of Economics does not get any privileged information, but as your readers should know, there were estimations on the impact of trade disruptions with China (0,1-0,2 percent of GDP). These estimations were always speculative, as were most statistics provided regarding Lithuania’s trade with China, because they failed to include countries which often act as proxies for Chinese businesses (Hong Kong, Singapore, even, paradoxically, Taiwan and others). However, all estimations of damage inflicted by straining relations with China seem more or less irrelevant, because the undergoing Russian aggression against Ukraine has invalidated most of the previous prognoses. The length of the conflict and the final solution to the wider dispute between the collective West and Russia are now the main factors that will decide Lithuania’s economic situation. At least 3 months ago we could not even have imagined the serious possibility of widespread famine in the developing world next autumn or winter, while—at this moment—it looks like this may be a regrettable consequence of Russia’s actions. We could say that the return to the status quo in relations with Belarus and Russia is now an impossibility, while the wider disagreements with China could be mitigated, as it was done during the Cold War.
If we look at trade relations with China from the perspective of business, Lithuanian companies are now forced to move their activities out of Lithuania, because Lithuanian production or products that contain parts made in Lithuania are no longer acceptable in China. In summation, although official sanctions were never held, however, silent ones still took effect.
Have the Seimas, and the Committee, worked out a mechanism to offset the economic fallout from the crises?
Discussions are on the political agenda of the Economic committee, where the suggestions of all political fractions are included. At this moment, the Government is attempting to create various packages to help the population, however, none of these are adequate and sadly, they are quite late. Social democrats presented their proposals on temporarily reducing value added tax on fuel, gas, electricity and certain food items, but in all cases, they were rejected by the ruling coalition.
Can you please talk of your legislative initiatives in the tenure?
From the very beginning we have worked on initiatives to combat the problem with mobbing and psychological abuse at workplaces, also concentrated on the economic and social sphere, with various proposals which might help working families. We have recently registered a proposal to create an income tax deduction on people who rent and have no property.
I would also like to mention my proposal to end the automatic inclusion of people into second-tier private pension funds. Currently, if a person does not express his decision to refuse participating in a second-tier pension fund, he/she will automatically be included in it. This, I believe, strains our government’s social security system, because it has to deal with extra administrative tasks when acknowledging people’s decision to participate or not in a second-tier pension fund. But more importantly, such a system deprives a lot of people of the freedom to choose how best to invest their hard-earned money.
Since we are dealing with an extremely high level of inflation (Lithuania’s yearly inflation rate is highest in the EU, currently at 15%), it is absolutely crucial for legislators to increase people’s purchasing power. For this reason, I proposed that the income level above which income tax kicks in should be raised; i.e., tax-exempt income level should be made equal to the minimum wage threshold. This decision, if approved, would be a huge help for low-income households, who are now struggling to buy bare essentials.
You are also a member of the parliamentary Committee of European Affairs. How much do you believe the war in Ukraine throws Georgia (Sakartvelo) and Moldova back on the 'europeanization' path? Towards the EU membership? How do you comment the former's supportive stance on Russia during the war?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered fears among ex-Soviet countries that they may be next - both Moldova and Georgia formally applied to join the EU soon after the invasion. For years the EU has focused on pushing those countries to gradually adopt democratic and legal reforms that would bring them closer to the bloc. It is quite hard to imagine that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova can suddenly deliver on reforms they have struggled to implement until now. That said, the present moment requires us to look at the EU's neighborhood policy differently in that we no longer have the luxury to solely focus on incremental reform, when—at least for Ukraine–accession to the EU has become a matter of survival. We should, therefore, never underestimate the symbolic power that the official process of accession to the EU carries to the people in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Most importantly, the EU should not get bogged down in technical procedures of accession but rather do everything in its power to meet the moment and come up with a realistic time frame during which an accelerated accession procedure could succeed. This, as we know, is already in the works as the Commission has been preparing a kind of a privileged partnership agreement for Ukraine, Georgia (Sakartvelo) and Moldova.
Moldova and Georgia haven’t joined anti-Russian sanctions. We must therefore understand that the risks, associated with countries that have territorial disputes involving Russian proxy regimes, are much higher than those faced by all other EU or NATO countries. If the EU fails to provide some meaningful and specific plans for partnership development, this could be seen as a reason to keep these countries neutral.
Do you believe it is right to include the much-divisive gender-neutral partnership law in the spring session's agenda? Where are you on the bill?
I have personally always supported the right for same-sex couples to formalize their relations and to have legal protections. However, now we have a situation wherein the addition of the gender-neutral partnership bill to Seimas’ agenda is merely a face-saving exercise. In my estimates, unfortunately, the initiators of the bill do not have the votes to both pass the law and to avoid the inevitable attempt by the President to veto the Law if the Law does not pass the 71 vote veto-proof threshold.
What issues of Ukrainian refugees' integration do you see? How can they be addressed?
There is already some pressure on public services, housing and education. Without additional funding this pressure could become a political issue - we can already see signs that some political parties are using rhetorical tricks to blame Ukrainian migrants for problems that are caused by the lack of funding. Our enthusiasm to help Ukrainians should now be followed with a clear-cut plan on how to ease the process of integration in the long haul. Lithuania’s provinces desperately need more workforce, indeed, there are plentiful places to work in manufacturing and services there. For this reason, we now need a policy that would help people relocate to places in Lithuania where the workforce is lacking, accommodation is abundant and schools are accessible. At the same time, a lot of people coming here are vulnerable and hurt and, for this reason, we need additional funding to provide medical, psychological and care services for them.
How would you respond to the remark that the opposition, which the Social Democrats are a part of, is weak and fractured?
The problem with some of our opposition parties is that they believe that the mere fact of being in the opposition—without any shared political principles and values—is enough to form a meaningful collective discourse. Social democratic politics were always based on clear-cut dedication to left-wing politics and we are ready to support all such initiatives, no matter where they come from – ruling parties or opposition.
There are very few spheres of policy which the parties in opposition share. One has to overcome the tendency of the traditional method of categorizing the political parties in Lithuania. We should be honest here - the majority of opposition are right-leaning, or, if we are charitable, they could be considered centrist parties and, as such, they share very little in common in terms of agenda. Social democrats, since the very beginning of this term, took the stance that any cooperation in the opposition has to have substance. There were cases where other opposition parties did not support our proposals, so any political cooperation is done on a case-by-case basis.