Activists of the New Union collected almost 100,000 signatures of Lithuanian citizens on a petition demanding a change of the state budget 2000 law - a transfer of 147.7 million litas ($36,925,000) from defense spending for education and science. According to Lithuania's constitution, 50,000 citizens have the right to initiate hearings in the Parliament on proposed changes of laws.
Parliament gave the New Union's demand to the government for analysis. On April 26 the government rejected Paulauskas' idea to cut defense spending. Parliament will make its decision on this issue on May 9. However, the ruling Conservative Party already expressed its negative attitude towards the initiative of the Social Liberals.
The New Union has no MPs at the moment. It had one MP, Vida Stasiunaite, but recently she was elected mayor of Siauliai and left Parliament. Observers say that the change of law, proposed by Paulauskas' party, has no chance to pass in Parliament.
However, the New Union received a boost in popularity among the electorate because of the signature-collecting. The New Union has the highest rating according to a survey conducted by the social research firm Vilmorus in April. Some 20 percent of the electorate are ready to vote for the Social Liberals if the elections would be organized now, said the survey. The party coming in second, the Liberal Union, was far behind with 12 percent.
Rasa Alisauskiene, director of the social survey firm Baltijos Tyrimai, explained why Paulauskas' initiative for cutting defense spending is so popular.
"It is popular to take from someone and to give to someone else. There are more people connected with the sphere of education than with the military system. Our survey shows that eight out of 10 persons polled support giving extra money to the education and cutting defense spending," Alisauskiene said.
Algimantas Norvilas, one of the leaders of the New Union, did not hide the fact that his party seeks popularity with its sound initiative on defense cuts.
"Yes, we are populists in the sense that we see the opinion of our society, and we support it. We are for the country's NATO membership. But the Lithuanian defense system works perfectly. Why it is worth it to put so much money in a perfectly working system? Maybe it is worth it to give more money to the faltering educational system," Norvilas said.
Military officials are disgusted with the New Union's initiative. Some 20,000 servicemen are currently doing their service in the Lithuanian armed forces. Povilas Malakauskas, defense vice minister, said that the adoption of Paulauskas' initiative would shrink the Lithuanian army by 3,000 servicemen.
"NATO would not understand it. If we do not join NATO we'll become a deep province without economics and investments," Malakauskas said.
Rasa Jukneviciene, Conservative MP and chairwoman of the parliamentary NATO affairs commission, expressed a similar view. She described Paulauskas' initiative as "populist" and said that it is harmful to Lithuania's intentions to join NATO and to the country's welfare. Recently Jukneviciene returned from the Czech Republic, a fellow Central European state which joined NATO a year ago.
"The example of the Czech Republic proves that membership in NATO brings a significant practical benefit for each person, new jobs and consistently growing living standards," Jukneviciene said. She emphasized that NATO membership is a signal to investors that the country is totally secure. The investment rate doubled in the Czech Republic after it joined NATO, said Jukneviciene. She emphasized that Lithuania should contribute its money to a collective defense if it wants to join NATO.
The president's office also rejected the initiative of the New Union (Social Liberals).
"Today we should not slow down the pace of Euro-Atlantic integration because of anti-Western outbreaks or election tactics of some political parties," President Valdas Adamkus said in his annual report in the Parliament on April 20.
On April 21 in Kaunas, a conference of rectors in 14 Lithuanian universities said that NATO membership guarantees Lithuania's independence. At the same time they urged the state authorities not to spend on defense more than the country's financial possibilities allow.
According to the state budget 2000 law, Lithuania will spend 6.1 percent of GDP on education and 1.7 percent of GDP on defense this year.