Who wants to be the Lithuanian president?

  • 2004-07-15
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - With President Valdas Adamkus' inauguration on July 12, The Baltic Times has traced the history and current status of the Lithuanian presidency in an attempt to find out the reasons why the president's office is so irresistible and why it provokes such epic battles between those who crave the stateliest role of them all. The following will hopefully help explain what exclusive powers the president enjoys and what ambrosia and nectar Adamkus can expect upon his return to the Presidential Palace.

Being situated in Daukantas Square in the center of the Old Town of Vilnius, the Presidential Palace is probably the best workspace in Lithuania. Besides enviable working conditions, the president strolls through the same corridors and offices that were once frequented by the nobility of Europe.
Some parts of the Presidential Palace foundation date back to the 14th century, when, after Lithuania's christening, Andrius Vasila, the first bishop of Vilnius, built his Episcopal palace on the same site. The palace was burned and devastated due to wars and upheavals several times over the centuries, but it has always been the residence of nobility.
In 1804, the palace hosted a future king of France, Ludwig XVIII, and later that century it became the residence of Russian Czar Alexander and a temporary home for Napoleon.
With the rebirth of the presidential institution in 1992, the palace was renovated to become the president's workplace.
In 1998 Adamkus became the first Lithuanian president to occupy the building in Daukantas Square. Previously, the president was housed in Kaunas, which was the interwar capital of Lithuania after it declared independence in 1918 and after Poland seized Vilnius in 1920. The new Presidential Palace was located between the Old Town and the pedestrian walkway of Freedom Alley.
Some of the most important turning points in Lithuanian history took place within the walls of the Kaunas Presidential Palace. It witnessed the military overthrow of President Kazys Grinius in 1926 that led to 14 years of authoritarianism. And with the Soviet occupation in 1940, the curtain was drawn on the presidency when Lithuania's interwar President Antanas Smetona was forced to emigrate from the country.
After receiving a five-year renovation, the historical building opened its doors to visitors last summer, and on June 1, its status was changed from that of being a museum to belonging once again to the incumbent president himself.
While the repair work has made the Kaunas palace more aesthetically fitting for a president, visiting the palace from now on may become more complicated since the building, which was a working place and residence for all three Lithuanian interwar presidents, will soon become the president's residence in Kaunas.

The majority of elderly Lithuanians are often prone to saying that prie Smetonos (during the times of President Antanas Smetona, who ruled from 1926 until 1940) everything was better. This may seem like a typical outburst of senseless nostalgia but if you consider the need many Lithuanians feel for a strong president, there is perhaps a little sense in this idealization of Smetona's authoritarian system.
The New Europe Barometer Survey in 2001 showed Lithuanians to be the most likely European people to support nondemocratic alternatives in politics. Fifty-eight percent of Lithuanian respondents backed strong-arm governing, again out-distancing the other new EU members.
In 1998, the Constitutional Court declared that the Lithuanian political system is primarily parliamentarian but with a weak presidency, in which the president has limited executive powers, such as in France.
The main characteristics of a weak presidential system include presidential elections in which every citizen may vote for his chosen candidate, certain constitutional rights, such as appointing the head of the army and nominating the prime minster, as well as the right to veto legislation and the right to dissolve the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament).
Despite this constitutionally-granted political muscle, various political activists and commentators have increasingly been critical of the Lithuania presidency.
However, Andre Krouwel, a lecturer of comparative political science at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, recently concluded that the Lithuanian president is likely to be the most influential of all the presidents from the new EU countries.
Analyzing the various characteristics of presidential power in 12 postcommunist countries, Krouwel identified the amount of presidential and parliamentary influence by using points. The power of the Lithuanian president was evaluated at 4.0 points and the power of the parliament 3.5 points, making the Lithuanian president the only one from the new EU countries that outbalances the legislative branch.
According to Krouwel's research, the opposite holds true in Latvia and Estonia, where parliamentary power exceeds that of the president by 4.5 and 2.5 points respectively. Poland is cited as the only country where the power of the president and Parliament are evenly balanced.
When it comes to the question of cash, the president has to make a living as much as the next man. The Lithuanian president doesn't do too badly in this regard - he is regarded as 12 times more important than his fellow citizens when it comes to monetary remuneration for his services to the state.
The president's salary is 12 times that of the average Lithuanian monthly salary, which means he currently earns some 13,750 litas (3,985 euros) per month. With this kind of disposable income to play around with, the president could buy a used 1997 Volkswagen Passat in good working condition, or make a 5-percent down payment on a renovated apartment in Vilnius' Old Town.
Of course, the president also receives an allowance to cover the costs incurred for his travel and meetings on official business.
After retiring, the Lithuanian president enjoys an exclusive pension, which is equal to 50 percent of the presidential salary. Moreover, he gets to enjoy the prestigious neighborhood of former presidents in Turniskes, a suburb surrounded by woods on the bay of the Neris River, where retired presidents reside in special houses provided for them by the state. This area for the privileged few is about 10 kilometers from the center of Vilnius, but the police kindly escort the president's limousine to the Old Town every morning.
Lest all the advantages of being a Lithuanian president persuade political hopefuls to make a stab at running for office, it is important to note that the presidency comes with its share of disadvantages as well.
Judging from a historical perspective, the Lithuanian president encounters an unusually high chance of being imprisoned. Three out of all six Lithuanian presidents were sentenced to jail for dabbling beyond their jurisdiction, and a fourth may soon follow.
Having finished his presidential tenure, Smetona spent a few days in prison in 1924 for publishing an article in a magazine criticizing wartime Lithuanian politics.
During Russian rule at the beginning of the 20th century, Grinius was imprisoned a few times for promoting Lithuanian culture. But Grinius' misfortunes did not end with imprisonment, and in 1926 he was ousted from office by military force, having ruled the country for only six months.
While President Aleksandras Stulginskis was lucky enough to dodge imprisonment during the interwar period, he suffered during his Soviet-imposed deportation to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where he was imprisoned for two years.
And finally, if investigators have their way, former President Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached on April 6, may soon join the ranks of Lithuanian presidents who have done time-prosecutors recently launched a pre-trial investigation against him on charges of corruption.