Hunger strikers finally pack upÉ for now

  • 1998-12-10
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - A group of Lithuanian small-businessmen pitched a five-tent camp in a snowy yard near the Parliament building and staged an eight-day hunger strike protesting a law that requires small buisnesses to document the goods they trade.

The group packed up camp Dec. 6 only after some MPs, Bronislovas Lubys, the leader of the Lithuanian Industrialists Confederation, and the government agreed to mull over a solution.

The protesters, however, vowed to return again if the government does not belly up to the bargaining table soon.

The 10 hunger strikers claimed to have already bought a government required license to sell in the market. But a new policy that would require them to document their trades would, they said, create more bureaucracy that would only smother their businesses.

"Small traders often sell products which originally come from other countries," said Eduardas Sablinskas, chairman of the Small-Business Men and Tradesman Association. "Then the government decided that every product these traders want to sell should have a document which proves its origin.

"One thing we are against is the fact that one person, who buys from abroad and has proper documentation, cannot transfer those documents to another Lithuanian trader. So, for example, if one trader buys products from another one, he must fill out all new documents. We are also against the extremely high fines which the government can give us should we lack the proper documentation."

Other protesters, many of them pensioners, said their small businesses are their only means of survival. One older woman from Marijampole broke down in tears when she described her situation.

"I only get $70 a month as a pensioner," she said. "I have to pay for my flat and buy medicine. How can I live without my business?"

The protesters' actions, however, have not managed to cow government officials into revamping the regulations.

Kestutis Cilinskas, chancellor of the state counselor's office of the prime minister, said restrictions are necessary in the war against smuggling.

"This isn't so much a fight between small traders and government," Cilinskas said. "But a fight between big traders and small traders."

Andrius Kubilius, deputy chairman of the Parliament, backed up Cilinskas' arguments.

He added that a system which requires traders to purchase a selling license but does not require the extra documentation, simply means small traders would have to pay one price for the license but not have to pay taxes on what they sell. The deputy chairman hinted that this avoidance of taxes was one of the requests he "knows will never" be fulfilled.

Side show drama

Governments world wide rarely get away with launching restrictions on businesses without experiencing some sort of reaction by those adversely affected.

The protest in Vilnius, however, has jumped beyond angry signs and chants and into a full-fledged drama.

Dalius Bastys, a small- business man from Jurbarkas, made the highlight reel on Dec. 1. He became the first person in Lithuanian history to return a medal received for defending Parliament against possible Soviet attack on January 13, 1991. With tears in his eyes and a shaky voice, Bastys uttered he could no longer trust the government, before handing the medal to Kubilius.

"Lithuanian people and God, forgive me," Bastys moaned in conclusion.

Kubilius told TBT that he was actually a stand-in for Parliament Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, who was abroad at the time. Kubilius called the event both confusing and worrisome.

" I tried to speak with [Bastys] to see what the problems were," said Kubilius. "The week before, I had not heard of any requests and suddenly he came to my office saying he wanted to give his medal back. After that he declined to comment."

Kubilius also said the demonstration could possibly be linked with some kind of "political action." He noted that Sablinskas was the leader of the New Union's Vilnius branch office. The New Union (Social Liberals) was formed by former presidential candidate Arturas Paulauskas after he finished runner up to President Valdas Adamkus.

The icy weather also proved to be a player. Perhaps even the protesters would admit that the temperatures were colder than the shoulder the government was allegedly giving them.

Daytime temperatures have ranged from minus 10 to minus 20 degrees Celsius since the tents went up. Two hunger strikers had been whisked away to hospital after experiencing high blood pressure and heart problems.

According to mass media reports, Vilnius city officials said their concern for the hunger strikers' safety motivated the refusal of allowing them to stay outside the Parliament building. Ironically, the temperature rose by approximately 5 degrees the day after the protesters left.