VILNIUS - Business tycoon Viktor Uspaskich's crusade to the top of Lithuania's political summit underwent a devastating tumble last week when he was sacked from his position of economy minister by President Valdas Adamkus upon a recommendation by the prime minister.
The decision came after Parliament's chief official ethics commission announced the unflattering results of a probe into conflict of interest accusations against Uspaskich.
The commission concluded that during his six months in office the minister violated the principal of separation of public-private interests twice 's the first time when he lobbied his company in Moscow and the second when he attempted to draw the Confederation of Business Employers, with which he has personal ties, into the administration of business information centers.
Uspaskich was forced out of both his ministerial post and parliamentary seat.
The ouster came after President Adamkus, speaking on national television, had asked the minister to resign voluntarily. Once Uspaskich learned of the commission's verdict, he reportedly faxed his resignation to Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and a follow-up statement to Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas.
"The decision wasn't a slapdash. Five minutes after I was informed about the commission's verdict while in Russia, I came up with the solution," Uspaskich told journalists.
Although Brazauskas showed nothing but reserve throughout the ordeal, people in his inner circle said the prime minister was visibly relieved when Uspaskich resigned. The two men came from different backgrounds, have vastly different careers and could not see eye-to-eye on many of the issues facing the government.
Uspaskich's political opponents were more open with their relief. "Uspaskich tried to ignore the president and morality as such. He tried, but failed. Lithuania has once again demonstrated that it is capable of finding political, moral and legal instruments to fight cynicism, stepping over people's heads and ignoring the law," liberal centrist Eugenijus Gentvilas said.
"What had to happen, happened. Lithuania's politics confirm the universal law that quick popularity is destined to be followed by quick political death. This happened to Vytautas Sustauskas, later to Rolandas Paksas, and now to Viktor Uspaskich," added conservative leader Andrius Kubilius.
Upon Uspaskich's return to Vilnius, the Labor Party's presidium held a meeting to discuss its future in the ruling coalition. Not only did the party stay with the group, but it rushed to find a replacement for Uspaskich, nominating party member and economist Kestutis Dauksys.
Dauksys is an alumni of Plekhanov Academy in Russia, the same school that Uspaskich has claimed he graduated from, though has been unable to produce a graduate certificate from.
In addition to raising speculation about a possible Labor Party split, Uspaskich's withdrawal caused many to wonder whether he would even bother returning to politics. Lauras Bielinis, a political scientist, was quoted as saying that even if he did return, Uspaskich would "even have a hard time controlling members of his own party."
Bielinis added that the Labor Party's future could be "bad or very bad." In his opinion, the party might divide in two or three groups: those who are controlled and want to be controlled by Uspaskich, those who might join the Social Democrats or Social Liberals, and a third group that could possibly leave politics altogether out of disillusionment.
Others, however, believe that Uspaskich might benefit from his resignation 's a leader of a party in the ruling coalition, he could continue lobbying in favor of his own interests while bearing no political responsibility.
Lietuvos rytas analyst Rimvydas Valatka commented that Uspaskich might not be aware that this was a perfect time for him to resign. While the EU struggles to agree on a future budget, Uspaskich could have been left with no money to redistribute as economy minister 's exactly what he came for in the first place, the analyst said.
The turmoil surrounding Uspaskich broke off when the former minister was suspected of conflict of interests in the negotiation with Moscow's government. The economy minister attempted lobbying for his own companies during an official visit to Moscow this spring.
The scandal surrounding Uspaskich dates back to April 19, when the minister signed a document facilitating economic and commercial cooperation between the Lithuania and Moscow that included companies closely related to him and his relatives. From there things worsened when he sent a letter to Moscow proposing a joint-venture, another blatant conflict of interest violation.
The crisis peaked in June when allegations were made that Uspaskich's university degree was falsified. Although the former minister still maintains that he studied economics at the aforementioned Moscow academy, institution representatives were unable to find his name on a student list.
This news seemed to be the straw that broke the camels back, causing uproar among political leaders, who pushed for law enforcement to investigate the matter. Although Uspaskich promised to show his diploma to media representatives, he failed to do so.
Not long after, journalists discovered a statement in the Kendainiai Court archives signed by Uspaskich during a criminal case in 1995 verifying that he did, in fact, graduate from a special secondary school.
What's more, on June 30 a Baltijos Tyrimai poll revealed that, for the first time, the Labour Party has fallen from its first place rating, suffering a 9 percent drop over the last month. Only 13 percent of respondents would cast their vote for the Labor Party if parliamentary elections were held today, the poll revealed.
A survey conducted by Vilmorus in early June showed that Uspaskich's popularity decreased from 44.1 percent to 37.5 percent over the past month.