VILNIUS - Once again the government coalition stepped back from an abyss and at the final moment succeeded in reaching a deal on how bureaucrats should manage over 5 billion euros in EU funds designated for the country's coffers over the next seven years.
Ruling parties agreed to set up an eight-minister body that will monitor distribution of funds while allocating more responsibility to those ministries administering the money. The Finance Ministry, which is now controlled by the Social Democrats, will serve as the lead institution.
"The scheme has been revised, as the Finance Ministry does not plan on verifying every project, but under a certain risk module we will request or demand that every institution explains their decisions in certain cases. This is our function as the leading institution," Finance Minister Zigmantas Balcytis was quoted as saying.
"We reached a certain compromise," Economy Minister Kestutis Dauksys, a member of the Labor Party, told journalists.
The confrontation brewed for weeks, but unlike past standoffs, the latest involves billions of dollars, or the equivalent of a large chunk of Lithuania's GDP. The Laborites insisted that control over EU funds be decentralized for the sake of expediency. They also said the Finance Ministry was woefully inadequate in handling funds so far.
The Social Democrats and the Social Liberals, together with the president, voiced support for leaving control over the funds in experienced hands at the Finance Ministry, with other ministries serving as intermediaries.
The new scheme, Balcytis explained, will allow ministers involved to take part in the monitoring process. EU funds will be distributed by all intermediate institutions - eight ministries, namely Social Security and Labor, Interior Affairs, Transportation, Health, Economy, Agriculture, Environment and Education and Science.
For his part, Dauksys said the scheme hammered out by the government should still be discussed at Parliament. "We discussed administrative obligations among governmental institutions. These are, without doubt, governmental priorities, and if Parliament discussed directions of funds, sums and spheres, it would be beneficial for the Seimas, the government and Lithuania," he added.
He added that earlier proposals had been improved and consolidated. "There are no unhappy ministers today," he said.
Still, the row brought out all the old grievances and political differences in the coalition. At one point on Feb. 24, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said the government might collapse if no agreement was reached. His coalitional rival, Labor leader Viktor Uspaskich, responded by slamming such talk as "blackmail."
"The Labor Party's leader says that the party led by him is strictly against any political blackmail and is inclined to consider it to be an immoral political attitude," a party press release stated.
As usual, Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, who heads the Social Liberals, downplayed the standoff, saying that the entire emotional aspect of the discussion was exaggerated.
"I am surprised at such publicity stunts and the escalation of discussions on the scheme and mechanism of allocation. Today's discussions are focused on who will allocate and how it will be allocated, but the main questions of where that money will be invested are not answered," Paulauskas told national radio on Feb. 24.
But his outburst didn't stop with the prime minister. Prior to that he also accused the President's Office of blackmail after Valdas Adamkus said Labor Party pressure on the EU funds issue was "a kind of blackmail of the country, and its people."
The statement incensed Uspaskich, a millionaire real estate investor, who said he was considering the possibility of going to court over alleged rumors spread by the President's Office.
There have been reports that, since being fired from his position as economy minister, Uspaskich has become increasingly vocal about President Adamkus during trips around the country. The statement that caught the most attention was when Uspaskich suggested that the head of state was too old for his job.
Adamkus, who is currently on a tour of Asia, refrained from commenting on the agreement. "I cannot comment because I do not know the details. The agreement is interesting. I think I will have an opportunity to know more about it in a week," Adamkus told the national radio.
The president has frequently been forced to intervene in the recurring coalitional scandals, and on numerous occasions he has hinted of his disappointment in the government as a whole.