Messing with the mob

  • 2001-02-08
Politicians are usually well aware of the perils of their profession. Maldeikis should have known better. But when he took office after the Liberal Union's election victory last October, his downfall may already have been inevitable.

The weak official reason Maldeikis gives for his resignation is that he doesn't want to compromise his party. But the Liberals are already heavily compromised, and prime minister Paksas will see his once healthy ratings, which rose to almost universal approval just weeks ago, plummet.

Paksas is suddenly left with few friends. His stubborn defense of his old friend clashed with increasing demands from all sides that the minister step down.

These demands also came from within the ruling coalition. Arturas Paulauskas, leader of the New Union, the Liberals' main partners, sees himself as a squeaky clean candidate for president when elections are held in 2002. He quickly followed president Adamkus' lead in calling for Maldeikis' head.

Maldeikis' personal business and professional interests collided. Documents obtained by Lithuania's High Commission of Service Ethics have proven that Maldeikis' expenses for an exclusive hotel in Moscow were paid by "the tsar of the Russian mafia", as The Washington Post calls Yosif Kobzon.

It is the sleazy style of his visit to Moscow that is most surprising. Lithuanian politicians are usually more careful. That he repeatedly lied about it didn't help. To what extent Maldeikis is involved with Russia's energy mafia, if he is at all, has not been revealed.

It also remains unclear how much Paksas and his party colleagues know about Maldeikis' Eastern connections. But the clear implication is that favors are being dished out so that Gazprom can get a good grip on Lithuania's gas market. The scandal may even have brought to light just how far Lithuania's new leaders are willing to go to get a cheap deal for their hard-up state's energy system.

Secretive, high-powered energy deals with Russia are a dangerous game for any of the Baltic states to play. Russia's foreign policy goal of keeping all the unwilling constituents of its former empire within its sphere of influence remains stronger than ever under president Putin.

Aging independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis continues to warn of the consequences of messing with Russia, where an organized criminal culture is firmly entrenched and where transparency is absent. But Landsbergis is largely a figure of ridicule in Lithuania. The more he says, the less people take his comments seriously.

As Russia builds nuclear reactors in Iran and plans to sell them to India, it seems unbelievable that Lithuania - the country that destroyed the Soviet Union - could invite its untrustworthy old oppressor back into the Baltic arena. After 10 years of independence, could Lithuania really be turning to Russia again?

Hopefully, the Lithuanian government will now make every effort to distance itself from shady mobsters.