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Lithuanian MEP loses his immunity

  • 2010-09-15
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - On Sept. 7, the European Parliament waived the parliamentary immunity of MEP Viktor Uspaskich, a flamboyant millionaire businessman and a former economy minister, satisfying the appeal of the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s Office. He, as the leader of Labor Party, is suspected of financial crimes by keeping unlawful bogus accounts for the Labor Party, with the result that it is not possible to establish in full the extent of the party’s assets and liabilities during the years 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Uspaskich is accused by the Lithuanian authorities of having instructed a person in his party to undertake “double” bookkeeping for the Labor Party in spring, 2004. He is also accused of having issued specific instructions that certain commercial and financial operations should be carried out without being recorded in the party’s accounts. The prosecutors suspect that the Labor Party could have failed to include on the books over 24 million litas (7 million euros) in income and 23 million litas in expenditures and pay over four million litas in taxes. Uspaskich could face up to four years in prison. In 2006, he, to escape questioning by prosecutors, went in hiding for a year in Russia, where he received political asylum. After returning to Lithuania in September 2007, he gained legal immunity after being elected to the Lithuanian parliament. In 2009, the richest Lithuanian politician, Uspaskich gained further legal immunity after being elected to the European Parliament.

Uspaskich claims he is not responsible for any wrongdoing, as he had entrusted the party’s bookkeeping to his party’s members. Uspaskich described his case as a coordinated attack by the state. He even compared his case to that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of Russia’s Yukos oil company who was sentenced to eight years in prison for tax evasion in Russia due to being regarded as a political enemy by the almighty Vladimir Putin.

On the eve of the vote in the European Parliament on his immunity issue, Uspaskich did send an open letter to the MEPs. “In Russia, I received the official status of victim of political persecution […]. The case was started by the corrupt and politicized Lithuanian Security Department (former KGB), not by the simple police,” reads his letter, according to the Baltic News Service. Of course, the statement about the Lithuanian State Security Department as the “former KGB” is complete nonsense and propaganda for naive MEPs who, however, were not impressed by that epistolary creation.

Uspaskich tried to say something similar before the vote in the European Parliament, but he was not allowed to finish his speech. Uspaskich got so annoyed that he told the sitting that the European Parliament behaves like the Soviet nomenclature “in the times of Stalin” and decided to abstain during each vote there. His first abstention was during the vote on a resolution condemning the planned stoning of a woman in Iran for committing adultery.

The Russian-born Uspaskich also claimed in Brussels that he is being persecuted due to his ethnic Russian origin. Although his party is regarded as somewhat pro-Russian by Russia’s media, his party never spoke about some ethnic issues in Lithuania, mostly due to the fact that there is nothing to be spoken about on this issue in the rather mono-ethnic Lithuania. Ethnic Russians make up less than five percent of the population in Lithuania; all of them received Lithuanian citizenship in 1990 and almost all of them speak Lithuanian. There are more tensions with the Polish minority, which is bigger in Lithuania than the ethnic Russian community. Actually, Uskaskich is the only well-known ethnic Russian member of the Labor Party.

His main electorate are ethnic Lithuanians because, unlike in Latvia and Estonia where ethnic demographics are very different, there is not much anti-Russian sentiment in Lithuania (quite the contrary – there is a certain Russophilia among a big part of Lithuanians) and there is a rather clear distinction between Russians and the regime in Russia, which is not liked in Lithuania. Some part of the Lithuanian electorate likes Uspaskich’s personal Russian charm and the funny accent of his Lithuanian language. Uspaskich was the first Lithuanian politician who started to pay attention to the advice of PR specialists – for example, he was the first who started to gesticulate in front of TV cameras.

However, Uspaskich has not been able to shake off suspicions by political opponents surrounding his Russian origins and his ties to Russian business, despite his repeated public statements in favor of a strong NATO and EU. Uspaskich launched his business career by trading Russian gas on the Lithuanian market. “Who could guarantee that his Labor Party would remain loyal to Lithuania if Russia sought greater financial and political influence in our state?” wrote Brone Vainauskiene, columnist of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, back in November 2004, when the Labor Party’s glory reached its peak due to winning the largest bloc of seats in the Lithuanian parliament, and Uspaskich got the post of minister of economics. Now Labor is in the opposition. According to the Lithuanian media, the Labor Party has always been under close observation by the Lithuanian State Security Department and Andrius Usas, the now already dead participant of the scandalous alleged pedophilia case, was possibly the state security agent in that party, which he later left with a small group of politicians, splitting the Labor Party.

Uspaskich said that he will appeal the decision of the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. He also stated that he will take part in the municipal elections of 2011, trying to become the mayor of Vilnius or Kaunas.
“When confirmation of immunity will come from the European Parliament, the Vilnius court will start organizing its sittings. Uspaskich has the status of defendant and his participation in those sittings will be obligatory,” prosecutor Saulius Verseckas said during his press conference on Sept. 7. He also said that if Uspaskich will become a candidate in the municipal election, he will get legal immunity for the time of the political campaign. However, Uspaskich, even in the case of success in a municipality election, would get no legal immunity because members of municipality councils have no such immunity. The problem can be the Lithuanian parliamentary election of 2012, when immunity is guaranteed for candidates during the election campaign as well as in the case of winning a seat in the parliament. Verseckas said that he needs to hurry in this case because the time limit for prosecution in the Uspaskich case, according to Lithuanian laws, will finish in 2014.