• 2005-06-01
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus took one of the boldest steps of his second term as president when he suggested that two of the country's most influential politicians 's Economy Minister Viktor Uspaskich and Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas 's resign.

The two men are engaged in a bitter war of words, with each claiming the other is using his public office for personal gain. Expectedly, Adamkus did not specifically refer to either individual in his televised speech, but the response by both Uspaskich and Zuokas made it clear that they saw the writing on the wall.

For now it appears that neither will resign. Zuokas, who heads the Liberal and Centrist Union, said he was considering stepping down, while Uspaskich, who is the founder and leader of the Labor Party, currently the most popular in Lithuania, stated he would postpone making a decision until the special parliamentary commissions have issued their verdict on the conflict-of-interest accusations against him.

No matter what the two politicians decide to do, the underlying issue will not go away 's i.e., whether it is wise to elect millionaires. As the current scandal demonstrates, businessmen in power can easily be tempted to help their own, or friendly, companies win lucrative contracts. In the dawning age of EU structural funds, the potential for political abuse is enormous. What's more, small countries such as the Baltics, where the number of companies is severely limited and everyone seems to know each other (it's almost as if a skillfully drawn flowchart can connect any two entities), are particularly susceptible to conflicts-of-interest cases.

On the other hand, having millionaires in positions of power defends those positions from abuse. They're already rich; they can't be bought as easily as a minister earning a thousand euros per month. Any government or bureaucracy filled with poor servants will be fertile ground for corruption. This is the main reason why, upon coming to power in October 2003, Latvia's Einars Repse, who billed himself as a crusader against a corrupt state apparatus, immediately tripled ministers' salaries. Expectedly, he was blasted for being out-of-touch, but there was a definite logic to his move.

By no means should constitutions or laws be amended to ban the wealthy from serving the state. On the contrary, much of the burden in solving this "millionaire's dilemma" lies solely with the electorate. Lithuanian voters knew that Uspaskich had tens of millions in property and other assets when they voted his Labor Party into power last year, so they have little reason to gripe if it is suddenly discovered that he is promoting the interests of friendly companies. Likewise with Zuokas, whose real estate investments in downtown Vilnius are well known.