Aloyzas Sakalas is the John McCain of Lithuanian politics 's an old-school politician who is fervently loyal to his principles, unafraid to criticize his own party and among the populace, immensely popular. He was one of the few anchors of integrity during last year's Paksas scandal, and made headlines when he openly admitted that his own Social Democrats were corrupt along with all the other political parties. He has even criticized Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, something few would dare consider. Sakalas spent an hour with The Baltic Times to speak about the SocDem, the European Parliament and where present scandals are leading the country.
What are your impressions about the present situation in Lithuania?
Negative. The requirements of ethics have been forgotten long ago. Political leaders believe that ethics is something minor, while, on the contrary, ethics must be the major thing for politicians because people watch and follow them. An ordinary person may think, 'If politicians are allowed to do this, then why shouldn't I?'
Do you think the Social Democrats are being scrupulous in Uspaskich's scandal?
Not at all. Brazauskas wasn't scrupulous a bit earlier when a Social Democratic MP publicly said that only rich people should be in the Seimas [Lithuania's parliament]. The head of the party issued only a mild reproach. In my opinion, when an official is embroiled in scandal, he should leave office without a warning. This is how it's done in the rest of the world. But here, people get embroiled in scandals and later say, "I didn't do anything wrong 's please provide me with legal charges." But that means this would be a criminal offense.
In this case, everything is a matter of ethics. Ethics has been forsaken in Lithuania, and that's how we differ from the rest of the world.
How would you act in this situation if you had the power?
I would address the president immediately with a request to sack Uspaskich. He can't continue working if the president doesn't trust him. And the president doesn't trust him, not because he's had a bad dream, but because he has reasonable arguments. However, the Social Democrat leader is waiting to hear what the parliamentary commissions have to say. But as you know, the majority of the members in the commissions are Uspaskich's fellows from his party. Could they possibly say anything wrong about their party's leader? Could they say their leader is bad?
Then they'd have to answer themselves why they are following the leader if he is so bad.
When speaking about leaders, you yourself are one of the very few Social Democrats who dare to speak against their leader Brazauskas.
Well, not to speak against, but to tell the truth, or what I believe in.
What are your main reasons for criticizing the prime minister?
One of the biggest is that he has abandoned ethics. He doesn't pay attention to the standards of ethics as applied in the West. And the second thing would be 's when I was the head of the party, decisions were made in a different manner. First, the main principles were discussed in the party's bureaus and political council, and later the head of the party would execute the decisions.
Now it's the other way around, the chairman of the party makes the decisions, and later he asks the political council to discuss it and to vote as needed. The balance is different. I don't know if this is right or wrong. When I was the head, I was blamed that the party was too democratic. But now everybody says that the party has become too centralized and an ordinary party member is only a cog in the machine.
You were also one of the few Social Democrats who expressed an opinion before the party's convent in May that the party might need another leader.
I'll tell you why. The leader is not timeless; he will leave one day. Parliamentary elections will be held within three years. So, it was better to change the leader now so that the new one can demonstrate what he is worth. However, the situation now is that the present chairman is likely to withdraw from the party in two years, which means we will have a new party leader just before the elections, which isn't good.
When thinking ahead, is it healthy for the party to have a leader who, right after the elections, declared that he didn't care what the party had previously promised and that he would do whatever he thought was right?
My opinion is very strict here. A party must be very prudent when giving promises. Obviously, when the leader of the party says, "What I promised before the elections is rubbish," people won't believe him in the next elections. So what should I promise the people next time when I go to meet them? People will reply, "You are lying because your leader said that pre-election promises were zero."
And how can I respond to that? Such statements create a very complicated situation. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue, but it sounded like the leader of the party said he wasn't going to implement the pre-election promises. This makes us a party of liars.
Could you compare Lithuanian Social Democrats with other West European social democrats? Do they differ in terms of values and behavior?
Ethics would be the first thing that is different. Also, Western social democrats stick to the social democratic values. Being in a coalition makes it more difficult to pursue social democratic policy. Nevertheless, the party leaders should always say, "Okay, we've made the decision, but this is what we suggested ourselves. This is our opinion, but, due to the coalition, this is what we have."
However, even I, who has been active in politics for quite some years, do not know what the difference between our party and other ones is. What then can an individual not related to politics say?
Lithuanian parties are like the mythological Janus, only they don't have two faces but as many faces as they want. Tell me: how are the Social Democrats different from the Labor Party, or the Liberals, for instance? Foreign policy is naturally the same. The liberals campaign for tax reduction to everyone in the market, but so do the Social Democrats. In other countries, social democrats promote a progressive tax system, but here they don't. In the field of social politics, both the Liberals and the Social Democrats support the idea of private retirement funds.
The only difference among us is our leaders. And that's a tough one.
Some political scientists have started speaking about early parliamentary elections. How, do you think, can this possibly happen?
No, this isn't a threat at all. Premature elections can be held only in two cases 's if two times in a row Parliament doesn't approve the government's program, or if Parliament decides to dismiss itself.
But a lot of people now sitting in Parliament for the first time in their life know that it's their last. They cannot risk not approving the government's program twice in a row. Some of the people came to Parliament to do business, and they don't want to loose the spot. They've transformed the Seimas into their private company and clearly they wouldn't want to liquidate their private company.
Parliament reflects the society, and unfortunately Parliament today isn't the best part of the society.
What are the perspectives of the present ruling coalition? Will it stay for the rest of the term?
It's difficult to say. Obviously, it will stay as long as possible even if Uspaskich has to leave his ministerial position. There are pragmatic reasons for that 's if the coalition falls apart, the Labor Party loses all its high ranking positions in the government and Parliament. But wait a second! No one came there to lose positions, but to do politics. So it's highly doubtful that the coalition will fall apart. Some people in our party believe that we should withdraw from the coalition, but I doubt that the leaders of the party could be courageous enough for this step.
Would you personally support such a decision?
I personally would. From the very beginning I did not support the idea of such a coalition. I am afraid it cannot produce anything meaningful. In this situation, a good thing to do is to let Uspaskich himself govern for while. The people should see how he implements his commitments. How can one heal the nation from false messiahs? Let the messiah himself work for a while. Otherwise, he has an argument [for future elections] 's I was in a coalition and could not do what I had promised to.
In one of your opinion pieces you wrote that Lithuanian foreign policy doesn't exist. I quote: "Curious people may find our position from the Internet having read in English what the head of the U.S.A. had to say, and several days after you'd have the same information in [our] Foreign Ministry in fluent Lithuanian." Why were you so critical?
When I wrote this, I had a different opinion about Turkey's chances of entering the EU. And as you know, the question of Turkey has made negative effects to the referendums in France and the Netherlands. This was one of the main arguments why the people rejected it. The constitution also declares that member states of the EU are European countries. And Turkey isn't. But the U.S.A. wished to see Turkey in the EU. So, if the U.S.A. wants it, Lithuania wants it too. That's what the statement was about.
How did you respond to Lithuania's initiatives in Ukraine?
In the case of Ukraine, Lithuanian diplomacy achieved a lot. It was also a positive turn when the president refused to attend the May ceremonies in Moscow. After these acts, the European Parliament approved new resolutions including new paragraphs regarding the end of the occupation. And I'm sure if our president would have gone to Moscow, none of this would have been achieved.
You are a member of the Belarus committee in the European Parliament. What is being discussed about Minsk in the EP?
We're trying to persuade the European Commission to find resources to finance radio programs from other countries to Belarus, so that Belarus residents can get more objective information. Everybody understands that not much can be done from outside; Belarus itself needs to find strength to change the situation. Also, the opposition needs to be strengthened in all possible legal ways. Society needs to be educated, and at some point people will realize that the time has come to overthrow the dictator.
There is a similar situation in Russia. The country is also being governed by a dictator. It's no longer a democratic country, because democracy is about separated powers. But in Russia, the Parliament is under Putin's control, the legal institutions are under Putin's control. Unfortunately, Russia is regarded differently although in practice everything is the same as in Belarus.
Under your initiative, the EP has achieved some positive steps in the field of children's rights.
Since the day of founding, the EU hasn't uttered a single word about children's rights. I was concerned that there wasn't a single document on the issue. Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite helped me meet Commissioner Frattini, who covers legal issues. He listened to me carefully and agreed with me. Frattini must have spoken to Mr. Barossa afterwards because I heard him mentioning children's rights in his speech. Recently a new resolution on human rights was approved and some 12 paragraphs were dedicated to the rights of children. This is a big achievement.