From bogeyman to defender of public interest

  • 2004-12-01
  • by Milda Seputyte
It is rare when one of the Baltic countries makes international headlines, but this past year Lithuania managed to generate a plethora of coverage when it became the first European country to impeach its head of state. For many the event served as irrefutable evidence that the rule of law worked - though not without flaws - and that democracy, where all are held accountable for their actions, had established deep roots in the region. The Baltic Times, for one, supported the removal of President Rolandas Paksas.
For others, however, the six-month long ordeal boiled down to a mockery of procedural democracy and an abuse of parliamentary and judicial power. As Paksas himself told The Baltic Times in a recent interview, vested interests had been frightened by his unexpected rise to power and were willing to go to any lengths to overthrow him.

After the Vilnius District Court's decision to acquit you on leaking state secrets, you said that you were regaining confidence in the country's judicial system. But immediately afterward prosecutors appealed the verdict. How do you regard the system now?

I'd like to begin from the beginning. On Oct. 30 last year, the scandal broke with such high-sounding phrases as "threats to national security," "relations with mafia and organized crime," "terrorists obtaining guns from Lithuania," et cetera, et cetera. Different television stations had similar headlines, and it all seemed as if this were the end of Lithuania. Again, I want to repeat that this was played out intentionally, to frighten society, to sow the seeds of distrust, to prepare society for an impeachment.

Absurdities and slander were thrown in, but they dissolved later on. Once [the case] reached the Constitutional Court, there was nothing left. Only three points - granting citizenship, an accusation that I deliberately let a person know that his phone conversations were taped - which was known to everybody - and that there was a sort of influence on Zemaitijos Keliai [a road repair company - ed.].

Now, in regard to the alleged influence on Zemaitijos Keliai, the prosecutors closed the case. Secondly, the Vilnius District Court, after a lengthy examination of the evidence, issued an innocent verdict. So, since [Oct. 25 - the date of the acquittal - ed.] my only criminal offense is granting citizenship to a person who has been living in Lithuania since the age of six. Due to this citizenship I lost the presidency.

Society is polarized, the world receives a message of what happens here, and the image of Lithuania breaks down. I won't even mention what my family has to endure. I'm speaking more about the state and about its image in the EU and the rest of the world. Everybody observed a process that was based only on a single citizenship.

Although it is bad manners to compare oneself with others, I just want to point out that [President Valdas] Adamkus and [former President Algirdas] Brazauskas granted 847 citizenships on exclusive decrees - exactly the same decree, under the same regulations. And I also want to say that Lithuania's constitution reads that this is an exclusive presidential right. If I want to, I grant - if I want to, I don't. Another point in the constitution is that the one responsible for legitimacy and fairness of a decree signed by the president is the minister who countersigns the president's decree.

So, when you put all of this together, I believe [the impeachment] was a coup and a conspiracy.

That is the prehistory. Why are the prosecutors defending their position? I believe they are defending the honor of their epaulets. Furthermore, I'm not sure how precise the information is, but to my knowledge the Constitutional Court became interested in the district court's ruling, and I believe they made extra effort so that the case would be reopened. Well, we will have to continue further to higher judicial institutions. I believe we might have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. But if you are innocent, at some point it will stop.

You have also registered a plea with the European Court of Human Rights. You question the Constitutional Court's decision, which, according to Lithuanian law, cannot be appealed. What were the grounds of the plea, and what do you intend to achieve? Do you doubt the constitutional functions of the court?

The main aim is that my example could spur Lithuanians to be active and defend their personal opinion to the end. If the system was strong enough to overthrow a president, you can imagine what a simple person must feel like. I believe that the case will be solved in my favor. I have no doubts about this.

But the most important thing here - something I repeatedly say - is that my aim is to prevent Lithuania from a predicament whereby a small group of authorities, media representatives and politicians can oust a president who has been legitimately elected by the nation. Never again must such things occur.

And I won't mention the fact that my children and my grandchildren should not wear the tag, "Children of the Impeached President."

Moreover, irrespective of the court - be it the constitutional one or some other court - [the case] has to be objective and impartial. Each court and each judge is obligated to avoid partiality. When one of the impeachment's initiators, Deputy Chairman of the Seimas [Lithuania's parliament] [Ginataras] Steponavicius met with the chairman of the Constitutional Court, the judge's objectivity was put to doubt.

And the third point: why this particular sum? The sum was not determined by me. Attorneys have calculated the sum according to their methods. But most significantly, I would like to donate the money to law students, so that they could help establish a more just society upon their completion of studies.

If you were to evaluate the impeachment trail now, what was its impact on the state?

Certainly, it had a very negative influence on the country's image - a catastrophic blow. And I think those who actively participated in the trial would do anything to block different opinions.

However, I've noticed that the situation is changing. People are waking up slowly but surely and starting to question why, who and how - and for what criminal offense? Cases are being closed one after another - there is no argumentation left. The flood of misinformation is over. And when you open a refrigerator door, Paksas doesn't suddenly jump out.

The [tone of criticism] has certainly changed over the past six months. I think it was the system that holds the money and the legal institutions at their disposal that got scared when I came to office. They got scared of tomorrow and decided to get rid of me so they could peacefully continue to function.

If we could speak more precisely, who are the guilty ones? What is the system you are mentioning?

This is another thing that has to be examined. If the impeachment trial had not started, there would have been steps to find out who was behind this - who paid and who organized it and who hired the children to light the candles. But the investigation needs to be done employing legal instruments. For now I can only go on assumptions.

But do you have particular suspicions?

I do. I have concrete suspicions, yet they are only in my mind. This would not be the opinion of an institution that has investigated the matter.

Despite the political damage, it seems that you don't intend to give up politics. How do you see your future as an active politician since the Constitutional Court's ruling earlier this year that banned you from holding political office [for five years]?

Because of the impeachment trial initiators, I cannot take any political position for this period. But there is another very suitable example: Once there was a time when our parents were deported to Siberia with a written statement saying "without the right to return." And how did that end? They returned, and Lithuania returned. Independence returned, [and] the Soviet Union that once deported them fell. Time puts everything into place.

Currently I am going through a rather difficult period in my life. Perhaps it will change. We will see.

Do you believe that everything is lost?

Certainly not.

Are you considering regaining the chairman's position at the Liberal Democratic Party?

Yes, the party's council suggested my return to the chairman's position. On Dec. 10, the party's congress will decide on the proposal. As for myself, I'm still considering it. I don't deny the possibility.

By way of concluding the impeachment subject, if you had a chance to go back in time and change your actions or put some effort to prevent the country from impeachment, would you change anything?

If I were to say that I would not want to change anything, this would mean that you are absolutely right. There is no way I could say that. Everybody makes mistakes when working - they are unavoidable. Other presidents, as well as me, did not escape mistakes. But my mistakes were not so great that they could bring damage to the country or its citizens. I did not sell a little piece of Lithuania, none of my decrees were against the country or its citizens. There were some mistakes, but they could not merit impeachment.

The result of the impeachment was already determined before my oath. It was the second or third day after the presidential election [Jan. 5, 2003] when I heard rumors spread by my opponents that I was not the one who should have won, that I was not the one they had prepared for the presidency. "We're going to organize an impeachment for him." What I did or could have done was not essential - the impeachment trail was already delineated.

Would you have made any changes on your team? Apparently it had received the largest share of incriminations.

Regardless, the team could have been better or worse. But, believe me, this was not the determinant factor. The team simply became a step toward "target number one." If they had stood on the side of some other president, they would have been excellent advisers, and no one would have paid attention to them. They were a tool to reach me. As one of my advisers once said, if [Boris] Borisov had not existed, there would have been a necessity to create him.

How do you regard the results of the last parliamentary elections and the new government?

We still do not have the new government, yet of course we have the ruling coalition. But I will sum it in one word - nothing has changed. People who voted for change have ended up in the same predicament - the same president, the same parliamentary chairman and obviously the same prime minister. The same path and the same tasks. So nothing has changed in the state.

What outcome did you expected for your party?

Yes, we were hoping for better results. Voting by mail has shown that it is beneficial to the ruling majority. If it had not been beneficial, the ruling coalition would have taken measures to prevent those disturbances that occur when voting by mail.

I believe these were exceptional elections in the history of Lithuania due to highly anti-democratic elements. The election had a smell of manipulation. What does the 8 percent who cast their ballot via mail mean? Eight percent of the electorate voted by mail when there were no holidays, when there were few of those traveling. The post became a political instrument to buy votes.

And tainted politicians took use of people's economic difficulties. Quite a few rumors were spread that people sold their votes for 10 or 20 litas [3 - 6 euros], for a bottle of alcohol. Poverty forces them to act this way.

The Liberal Democrats are now in the opposition together with their political enemies - the Conservatives and the Liberal Centrists. Do you intend to cooperate with the right-wing and to fortify the opposition?

First, to form an opposition we need to know the program of the approved government. There are two versions: Either the Liberal Democrats stay in the minority, or they declare themselves part of the opposition. But I don't think ideological differences divide Liberal Democrats and the other two [opposition parties] - rather, varying approaches. The Conservatives were not satisfied when I decided to leave their party. Similarly, the Liberal Centrists whom I had brought to the Seimas the last time were upset by my decision to leave their party.

Therefore, it is not the ideas that alienate us but some circumstances involving my past. I do not deny that we could join the opposition, but we similarly could stay in the minority.

On their last day in Parliament, the former MPs ratified the EU Constitution. You personally, and the Liberal Democrats, had suggested caution and to adopt a slower pace. Why?

Either we have the [Lithuanian] constitution, or we don't. If we do, MPs should uphold its provisions. One of the chapters states that Parliament should consult the nation via referendum on the most important questions of state. So if we adhere to the constitution, we must approve the EU Constitutional Treaty in a referendum. But now we have shown that the EU Constitutional Treaty is not an important question of state. To my mind, there were no doubts on the necessity of the referendum and an explanation to the people.

If I were a journalist, in the first place I would have asked the MPs if they had read the constitution. Ratifying the EU Constitutional Treaty without even reading it shows disrespect to the constitution itself and EU citizens. We are not against the Constitutional Treaty. I believe the document is good, but this is not how things should be done.