Why does Lithuania attract so much bad press?

  • 2004-10-20
  • By Thomas Hviid
VILNIUS - It is not very often that Lithuania hits the headlines in the international press. But when it does, the news is almost invariably bad. Despite the fact that the country boasts the highest economic growth in Europe and has become a fully paid-up member of the EU and NATO, the international image of Lithuania seems to have become even bleaker in 2004.

Just last week there was a furor in the Spanish press when the Spanish soccer team came to Vilnius to play Lithuania in a World Cup qualifying game. The Spaniards refused to train at Zalgiris Stadium, saying that the standards were simply too low. The Spanish media published a barrage of negative press about the stadium and Lithuania in general and, once again, the country's reputation was dragged through the mud.

Of course, Lithuania has made a particularly notorious name for itself in the political sphere. The impeachment of former President Rolandas Paksas was widely reported in the international media, not least the fact that he was the first European president to be impeached. The foreign press was quick to adopt the term "Paksasgate."

And after the first round of the recent parliamentary elections, the stability of Lithuanian politics has once again come under scrutiny in several foreign newspapers. Although Viktor Uspaskich and his Labor Party's victory did not come as a surprise to the many foreign journalists who had been flown in to cover the election, some voiced concerns about the victory of the populist politician.

"His (Viktor Uspaskich's) wealth amounts to $54 million, and he is one of the most important politicians in the country. His election program? All Lithuanians should have a life similar to his," the Swiss daily Le Temps reported.

The German newspaper Die Welt characterized his politics in this way: "In his extensive election campaign, the 'Cucumber King' was generous with his proposals. First and foremost, he appealed to those voters in the countryside and in the suburbs, who have not felt the Lithuanian 'Wirtschaftswunder' (economic miracle)."

East-West fears

Raimundas Lopata is the director of the International Relations and Political Science Institute in Vilnius. He closely followed the international media coverage of the Lithuanian elections and is in no doubt that the overall view of it from abroad was negative at worst and suspicious at best.

"The foreign media are quite suspicious about Uspaskich. Some people find it hard to understand how a populist party can win power in a country when it seems that conditions there are getting better," Lopata explained.

Although Uspaskich has stated that he intends to strengthen ties with the EU, a lot of the foreign press was more concerned about his relationship to Russia.

"Is Uspaskich a Trojan horse for Moscow?" the Swedish news agency TT asked, referring to his connections with the state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom.

Some commentators in the Russian media hardly helped to allay this fear. The business daily Kommersant stated in a headline: "Lithuania is heading toward the arms of Russia" and went on to suggest that the country will have more influence over Lithuania affairs in the future.

In part these fears of Russian political clout over Lithuania are doubtless an aftereffect of the whole Paksas scandal, in which the ex-president was found to be extending political favors to his Russian adviser Victor Borisov that went way beyond the law.

Crime wave

But it is not only in politics that Lithuania suffers from a bad image. Lithuania steals a lot of foreign headlines in connection with crime, especially in Scandinavia. In Norway for example, Lithuania has almost become a byword for crime after no less than 250 people were arrested there last year.

"When we started investigating internationally related organized crime in Bergen, it did not take long before a pattern emerged. A large number of incidents have links to this small country with 3.7 million inhabitants on the other side of the Baltic Sea across from Sweden. The same result was found in other regions of Norway and for that matter also in Sweden. So when 250 Lithuanians were detained in one year, how many were not caught?" the Norwegian regional newspaper Bergens Tidene said.

The situation is so bad that some Norwegians reportedly alarm the local police automatically whenever they spot a car with Lithuanian number plates.

The recent arrest of two Lithuanians for the murder of a Swedish doctor only went to enhance this extremely negative image of Lithuania.

"Killed for a few hundred," a headline ran in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, which described the brutal murder in shocking detail. According to the paper, the doctor begged the two Lithuanians to spare her life and just take her belongings, but they still stabbed her several times and dumped her in a near-by forest.

The two Lithuanians, a 37-year-old taxi driver and a 20-year-old female student, managed to escape back to their home country with about 166 euros, the victim's car and a mobile telephone.

The Swedish media came to Lithuania to

try and explore the backgrounds of the two murderers, which led them to a depressing block of flats in Kaunas. They also reported that the 37-year-old was probably involved in the trafficking of women for prostitution, which is another widespread prejudice that the Scandinavia media holds about Lithuania (and the other two Baltic states).

Changing picture

Although Lithuania's bad reputation abroad is by no means unique among the former members of the Eastern bloc, it nevertheless constitutes a thorny problem for the country, which is desperately trying to improve its image in order to continue attracting tourists and foreign investment.

"How the outside world looks at Lithuania is a very important criteria for us. Not only is it important for our own national identity, but it also sets the framework for the young people who will represent Lithuania in the future," Lopata said.

So how can Lithuania actually improve its image? Or has it just been given an unfair treatment by the foreign press?

Raimundas Lopata believes that the only way to change negative opinions about Lithuania is to improve the country itself:

"It is not only about avoiding scandals in political life. What we need is to stabilize the economic and social conditions in our country. We also need a change in the Lithuanian mentality. Nevertheless, it will be a major challenge for us," Lopata said, somewhat vaguely.