Brazauskas era comes to an end

  • 2007-05-23
  • By Arturas Racas
VILNIUS - Lithuania closed a chapter of its modern political history on May 19 as Algirdas Brazauskas, the last leader of the Lithuanian Communist Party and the first president of the country after its restored independence, bid farewell to his last official position, stepping down from his role as chairman of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party. The 74 year-old politician has been the longest-standing and arguably the most influential figure in Lithuanian politics of the last two decades.

A government functionary since the 1960s, Brazauskas stepped into the political spotlight in 1988 when he was elected First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party.
Despite his roots in communist bureaucracy, Brazauskas was a savvy leader who didn't shy away from speaking to the massive crowds, often numbering upwards of a hundred thousand, that gathered at rallies organized by the popular pro-independence movement Sajudis. He earned his first political dividends with the announcement that Vilnius' main church, Vilnius Cathedral, which was turned into an art gallery during Soviet times, would be returned to its congregation.
He also backed the separation of the Lithuanian Communist Party from the Soviet Communist Party, which was an unprecedented challenge to Moscow's leadership at that time.

Brazauskas was a signatory of the March 11, 1990 act declaring Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union, and just missed out on being elected the parliament's chairman, then the de facto head of state.
He finally took the position in the autumn of 1992 and the next year, despite his communist past, was elected the first president of Lithuania in a general vote.

Polls taken five years later showed that Brazauskas could have won a second term in office, but he decided not to run, stating that it was time for younger people to come to power. In 1998, when he left office, many commentators said that the Brazauskas era was over, but that assessment turned out to be premature.
Brazauskas re-emerged in 2001, took over the reins of the Social Democratic Party (part of which grew out of Brazauskas' Lithuanian Communist Party) and later the same year was appointed Prime Minister, a position he held until mid-2006.
But he refused to give up his leadership of the Social Democratic Party until he found a worthy replacement.
The choice fell on current Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, who for 55 years was Brazauskas' junior fellow in Communist Party structures. Kirkilas was formally elected party chairman at the Social Democratic Party congress on May 19. But even long before the elections Brazauskas had no doubts about what the results would be.
"It will be as it should be," he said prior the vote, urging fellow party members "not to re-invent the bicycle" and to entrust the premier with the leadership of the party.

Few would dare to go against his advice, especially considering that the Social Democrats were electing their chairman in an open vote. Kirkilas beat his rival, Defense Minister Juozas Olekas, by 389 votes to 87.
"I now feel a free man," Brazauskas said after symbolically handing leadership of the party over to Kirkilas.
Because of Brazauskas' previous connections with the Soviet apparatus, it's likely that many Lithuanians also felt relieved by his departure.
"We in fact say good-bye to the last symbol of the Soviet era," Andrius Kubilius, chairman of the Conservative Party, said.