VILNIUS - Former Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich, who has been on the run from Lithuanian law enforcement agencies for 18 months, was handcuffed as soon as he landed at Vilnius Airport on Sept. 26, marking what appears to be a dramatic attempt to return to the domestic political scene.
Uspaskich was detained immediately after disembarking from a flyLAL flight from Moscow, just as The Baltic Times was going to press. At the time, no word was yet available on where or how long he would be held.
The 48-year-old millionaire had been been living in his native Russia since he fled Lithuania in early 2006 after prosecutors began probing Labor Party finances. While the exact motive of his sudden return is unclear, it would appear that the erstwhile political titan who led Labor to victories in the EU Parliament and national elections in 2004 wants to make a comeback.
He is suspected of submitting misleading data on his party's income to both the State Tax Authority and the Central Electoral Committee.
Prosecutors eventually issued a warrant for his arrest last August and had been trying to extradite him from Russia, where he has applied for asylum. Russia, which is attempting to extradite a former oil executive from Lithuania, refused to cooperate.
Uspaskich recently registered as a candidate for a vacant seat in the Lithuanian parliament, which will be filled after an Oct. 7 vote. His return, though sudden, was not a surprise. At a Sept. 21 press conference in Moscow the former economy minister said that he had planned to return to Lithuania to run for the post.
"A commodity needs consumers. If I am needed, I will come back to the political life," Uspaskich said.
"Philosophers say that a teacher emerges whenever there is a student."
The conference was attended by current Labor leader Kestutis Daukys and 14 other Lithuanian MPs, a fact that drew intense criticism from other lawmakers.
Members of the opposition Labor Party have said they did not want to see Uspaskich behind bars, but that if he were in custody he would still be able run for the parliamentary seat.
"Uspaskich has the duty to win elections in Lithuania. He will be able to head the election campaign from custody," Dauksys said at a Sept. 24 press conference in Vilnius.
It could be, however, that Uspaskich won't be held for very long.
Labor Party member Loreta Grauziniene told BNS that the specific charges against Uspaskich was not so "grave" that a long-term detention is needed. "We see no grounds for keeping him in custody. The charges are of financial character for erroneous bookkeeping, such charges have been brought against a number of companies," she said.
Jonas Urdis, a member of the Central Electoral Committee, said if Uspaskich faces detention, it will not interfere with his election.
"In the current time frame, it's impossible to eliminate his name on the ballot because we have two weeks until elections. ...The fact that he is a suspect doesn't forbid him to be a candidate in the elections," Urdis said.
Parliamentary candidates are automatically given legal immunity, however, on Sept. 5, the Central Election Commission approved the Prosecutor General's request to remove that immunity. If Uspaskich wins the election, however, prosecutors would have to ask the permission of Parliament to continue the prosecution.
Uspaskich, a Russian-born millionaire, founded the highly successful Labor Party in 2003 and became Economic Minister in 2004. However, in May 2006 the party became the subject of a police investigation and Uspaskich fell under suspicion of committing fraud while managing the party's finances.
During the investigation Uspaskich returned to his native Russia to attend a funeral and had not been back since.
If elected, Uspaskich would represent the Dzukija constituency, replacing Conservative Algirdas Vrubliauskas who gave up his MP mandate this spring to become the mayor of the Alytus district.