• 2005-05-18
Less than a month after Lithuania's government suffered its first casualty 's the finance minister suddenly resigned over what he said was the coalition's wishy-washy tax policy 's it has suffered another crisis, this one far more serious.

Economy Minister Viktor Uspaskich, about whose populist policies so much ink has been spilled, is, well, in a pickle. His detractors have uncovered documents that, as they claim, prove beyond a doubt that he has lobbied his personal business interests while working as minister. Apparently during a meeting with Moscow city officials last month, Uspaskich suggested forming a joint venture with Krekenavos with the aim of establishing a wholesale food business in the 14-million market of Moscow and the surrounding region. Not a bad business model at all. The problem is that Uspaskich owned a 17.4 percent stake in Krekenavos Agrofirma last year, and it is unclear which of his relatives and friends are currently part of the company's ownership structure.

This is a quintessential conflict of interest case. It is also evidence as to why Lithuania scores so low in transparency and corruption rankings. As expected, the right-wing parliamentary opposition has lunged at the opportunity, and more than one ad hoc commission has been set up to probe the allegations. After a lame series of excuses, Uspaskich finally said that his enemies/competitors were out to get him 's this is beginning to sound very familiar 's and that, if so compelled, he would resign as both minister and MP. "If it happened so, Uspaskich should not stay on as MP either," he said.

Never mind the psychological attributes of a politician who speaks of himself in the third person. Viktor Uspaskich, millionaire and founder of the highly popular Labor Party, is in deep trouble. And so is the government. While this is far from another Paksas-gate, it does have the promise of becoming a debilitating political drama that will tax the ruling coalition for all its worth. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, just five months in office, is struggling to come up with meaningful policy that will facilitate continued economic growth. He increasingly finds himself on the defensive, and it is a matter of time before public trust erodes.

Still, the coalition itself is likely to survive Uspaskich for the very reason that, should it not, the right-wing parties Homeland Union and the Liberal Centrists will call the shots. And that is something neither Brazauskas' Social Democrats nor Uspaskich's Laborites want to see happen.