Dismal political culture, but Lithuania is learning

  • 2004-07-01
Lauras Bielinis is one of the most high-profile political commentators in contemporary Lithuanian society, and his insights were practically unavoidable in the run-up to June's series of elections, a significant turning point in the country's postindependence history. Bielinis talked to Steven Paulikas following the June 27 re-election of President Valdas Adamkus about the factors underlying the vote and new trajectories in the nation's political life.

When President Rolandas Paksas was elected there was much talk of "two Lithuanias." Do the results of this election confirm the assumption that the country is split between the satisfied and dissatisfied?
Yes, I think this difference exists. There is a difference on the level of values. People look at Lithuania and their own opportunities very differently. There is a difference on the social level: about half of society is in a very difficult economic situation.
But to me the more important of these two criteria is the difference in values, as it divides society much more deeply than economic factors. It's not difficult to change social differences-one only needs a year or two to balance economic figures. But differences in values represent completely divergent ways a person views the world, and changing these perceptions takes a long time. This will be an incredibly difficult task for Adamkus.

Is Adamkus himself responsible for this split?
I don't think he is. I'd say that the people most responsible for introducing the idea of this divide are Rolandas Paksas' campaign managers and advisers. All of Paksas' contact with society and politicians was formulated on the principle of this difference. Paksas came to power through this contrast of values.

Do you think that if Kazimiera Prunskiene had been elected that Paksas would have become one of her advisers?
I don't think he would have been an adviser, but I think he would have been involved in the formulation of important decisions and policies. Because according to his personality, he wouldn't want to be on a level below the presidential level. On the other hand, I don't think Prunskiene would have behaved the same way as Paksas. Her connections to the east would have been expressed much more subtly.

What exactly do you mean when you say that Prunskiene is "oriented toward the east?"
In realizing the state's foreign policy priorities, we can use investment, agreements and help from the East or investment, agreements and help from the West. Diplomatic activity on one or the other side also demonstrates this orientation. If Lithuania had not come directly under the influence of countries to the east, it would have become a staging point through which the East could attempt to influence the EU.

If voters knew about Prunskiene's eastern orientation, why did no small number of them vote for her?
Most people in Lithuania have a low level of political culture. Understanding of politics and what politics is capable of is highly distorted, and most of the people who voted for Prunskiene think in concrete and narrow terms. They believed that Prunskiene would change the social benefits system, meaning she would raise pensions, lower taxes and lower unemployment, in spite of the fact that it's been said repeatedly that only the government can change these policies.
On the other hand, I wouldn't say that those who voted for Adamkus did so for loftier reasons. Many people decided to vote for him based on completely irrational criteria. For instance, I don't deny that many voted for Adamkus simply because he is a man. To be a female politician in our country is an immediate minus.

What kind of president will Adamkus be the second time around?
Based on what he has said already, Valdas Adamkus views the task of forming his team with great caution. He will do so using his experience and that of the impeached president with the understanding that now the presidential team is an extremely sensitive and important factor in the work of a president. And this will be even more difficult than before. Adamkus isn't a young person, and the influence of age, to put it subtly, will make it even more difficult for him to make decisions. But I think he understands this, and he has been very careful in selecting a team that will be, above all, professional.

What kind of president will he be at the end his term, when he will be 83 years old?
I imagine he will be a sort of patriarch, the Basanavicius of the 21st century. Our constitution doesn't give the president much power to influence internal politics, but with a well-organized team, I think he will still be able to realize the foreign policy priorities that he, as president, is required to realize.

How did the ruling Social Democrats fair in this set of elections? Their presidential candidate took last place in the first round of presidential elections, and they only took two of 13 seats in the European Parliament.
The fate of the Social Democratic party is hanging by a thread. This series of elections showed that they have several shortcomings. First of all, they have no leader to replace [Prime Minister Algirdas] Brazauskas. Internally, there are several different groups that are engaged in fighting to replace him.
On the other hand, they demonstrated their pragmatism. They pushed aside their ideology in the name of certain interests, such as retaining power in the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament) and control over economic and political spheres. But in doing so, they shot themselves in the foot and showed the electorate that they are not worth voting for.
This means they have a lot of work to do to fix these mistakes before the Seimas election [this autumn], and I don't think they'll be able to recover.

What about the upstart Labor Party, which has led the polls for many months now?
To [party leader Viktor] Uspaskich, the presidency is of no value. He used the presidential election to do something more useful for him, which was to attract attention to the Labor Party. For three days after the first round, all attention was focused on whether he would support Prunskiene or Adamkus, not even on the candidates themselves. In this way, he was very successful.

What do these elections, in general, say about Lithuanian democracy and the party system?
These elections showed once again that Lithuania truly is a young democracy, that political culture in Lithuania isn't of a high level, that it is difficult to expect rational decisions from society. More encouraging is that the electorate isn't sleeping, that it's participating in the political process. Also, all of these crises and intrigues serve as a lesson for the future, and I think that people have already learned not to elect scandalous figures like [MP Vytautas] Sustauskas. Of course, populism is still a great threat.
But what do you expect? We've only been using this democratic system for 15 years.