VILNIUS - The ubiquitous scandal enveloping Economy Minister Viktor Uspaskich and Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas claimed its first casualty last week when the latter resigned his position as chairman of the Liberal Centrist Union.
The move seemed to be in response to a televised speech by President Valdas Adamkus on May 30, who called on the two men, who have accused one another of using their public offices to further private gain, to spare Lithuanians further turmoil and resign their positions.
The president did not mention the two by name.
Several days after the speech, Zuokas issued a public response in which he questioned whether the president's criteria for political morality weren't too high, and if they weren't impairing his "practical wisdom."
"Can we be equally judged in terms of morality and ethics when everyone has a subjective understanding of what morality is about when it depends on family, schooling and personal experience?" Zuokas wrote in the public letter.
"Moreover, who has a right and the perfect criteria to judge the morality of a decision? Today we need an open and fair discussion about political morality and not one on the level of populism."
Nevertheless, in deference to the president, Zuokas decided to suspend his duties as party chairman until ongoing legal investigations determine his culpability in a conflict-of-interest accusation leveled against him.
Adamkus hailed Zuokas' decision, saying that it was "only the beginning of the process," implying that he expected even more from the two politicians.
Uspaskich, however, continued to ignore the president's plea and has shown no inclination to resign. Rather, he responded by saying that Lithuania wasn't a presidential state but a parliamentary one. He said he would wait to hear the verdicts of parliamentary commissions set up to investigate him, since, in his words, they held more weight than the president's office.
"The president speaks about morality in politics. I do, too. I respect that he has resolved not to apply double standards and has urged law enforcement institutions to investigate facts that have been publicly disclosed," the economy minister said.
The ad-hoc commissions investigating Uspaskich's dealings have struggled to dig up answers to the story. During a hearing at one parliamentary commission, Uspaskich refrained from commenting on media information. He also failed to remember details, such as the percentage of shares he holds in the companies involved and the name of the firms he recommended to Moscow.
To other questions Uspaskich replied with irony, throwing darts at the opposition and requesting that questions be addressed in written form. He said he would reveal more information only in the absence of journalists, claiming that it was a matter of ethics.
However, the minister did say he would resign from both the chairmanship of the Labor Party and the position as economy minister if his party colleagues expressed a lack of confidence in him.
A Labor Party council meeting was scheduled for June 8.
"I will not show doubt for a minute because I believe the council's opinion is the most objective," Uspaskich said.
Political analysts have urged the ruling coalition of four parties to help the situation, which has become a political crisis and has paralysed important legislative work, by ousting Uspaskich.
"A premature parliamentary election would not save the situation since both the ruling majority and the opposition are experiencing a decline, so they'd have little chance of success in the elections," political scientists Vytautas Radzvilas was quoted as saying. "The Liberal Democrats would most probably garner the most votes."
The Liberal Democrats are a populist party led by former President Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached last year.
Although such a step would threaten the stability of the coalition, it wouldn't be too risky, as Uspaskich is no longer "the beloved hero" that he used to be several months ago, Radzvilas said.
Conservative Andrius Kubilius, who heads the opposition, went so far as to give an ultimatum on June 6 to the economy minister, threatening him with interpellation.
"If the economy minister doesn't resign by the end of the week, or if Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas doesn't suggest this to President Adamkus, we will start an interpellation initiative against Uspaskich with a single motive 's constitutional distrust in the minister," Kubilius told a press conference.
However, some conservative parliamentarians were hesitant about interpellation, implying that this could be a hasty move.
For his part, the prime minister said that the coalition was working efficiently despite the scandal. "I have no doubt about the efficiency of this government, just like about that of the new ministers that have arrived," Brazauskas told Lithuanian national radio on June 7.