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Writing On The Wall

  • 2007-10-03

Cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

For more than a year now Lithuania has been the dull man of Baltic politics. And deservedly so. After years of drowning in dirt and grime 's and even treating Europe to its first-ever presidential impeachment 's Lithuania has taken a back seat in the Baltic political theater. With riots in Tallinn and Latvia's economy about to implode, the excitement has migrated northward. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas 's a.k.a. "Mr. Promise Everything" 's Lithuania has become uncharacteristically boring.

Over the last week of September, however, we were treated to a glimpse of Lithuania's old self 's or worse, what it could become. Viktor Uspaskich, millionaire pickle-manufacturer and political maverick, returned to Vilnius. Uspaskich absconded in disgrace after allegations arose that his party 's the Labor Party 's was awash in accounting irregularities and suspected of bribery. As economy minister, the Russia-born Uspaskich is said to have been ensnared in a conflict of interest case involving one of his many businesses. Also, it is still unclear whether he ever studied at a Moscow university; he claims he did, but there is plausible basis to believe that he did not.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Uspaskich fled Lithuania and sought asylum in Russia. As he explained at the time, he couldn't trust the Baltic state's security forces. Now he's back. He touched down on Sept. 26, in Vilnius Airport, where he was immediately handcuffed and carted off to jail. He was released the next day but placed under house arrest at his home in Kedainiai. His lawyers have appealed the decision, while prosecutors are requesting that the Labor leader be tossed back into pre-trial detention.
There's no mystery why he returned. He is vying for a vacant MP seat in a southern district. His darling, the Labor Party, has been marginalized and desperately needs to be reinvigorated. Certainly his myriad business interests also require urgent attention. Apparently Uspaskich is also confident that his lawyers can outmaneuver prosecutors, since there is no other logical explanation why his distrust of Lithuania's law enforcement structures suddenly vanished.

For Lithuania, Uspaskich's return is truly a test of mettle. Can prosecutors bring closure to the accusations against this man whose party won the 2004 elections? Can the courts provide an objective forum for determining guilt or innocence? No less important, will Lithuanian voters 's certainly not the sharpest bunch of pencils in the box 's once again demean their sense of judgment and vote into power this populist extraordinaire? Because this is what Uspaskich is counting on: mass sympathy for the small guy who's been scapegoated by the establishment. It is the same societal pulse former President Rolandas Paksas taps into, and quite successfully. Paksas' Liberal Democrats now control city hall in Vilnius 's not bad just three years after the disgrace of a presidential impeachment.

Uspaskich's ultimate motive is the national elections that will be held in exactly one year. He needs time to beat the rap, rally the troops, and reestablish his party's grass-roots. There's no reason to believe that he won't succeed. The fact that 14 Lithuanian lawmakers traveled to Moscow to attend his press conference shows the kind of loyalty he enjoys. They can now troll about the countryside, claiming their king has returned and is locked up in his Kenainiai castle, biding his time until he can return to his faithful followers. Sounds rather kooky, but then again, that's Lithuanian politics.