Farmers create political divisions

  • 2001-03-22
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - President Valdas Adamkus was hissed and whistled at for the first time in his career during a speech he gave at a congress of Lithuanian farmers held in Vilnius on March 13. The farmers are demanding greater financial support from the state and protection of the Lithuanian market from cheap imports.

Adamkus said the Lithuanian state simply cannot afford to give its farmers the same amount of support as the countries of the European Union give to agriculture. He also said that Lithuania cannot erect tax barriers for EU food products because the EU could respond by imposing duties on Lithuanian goods.

The venue for the farmers' congress was the Concert and Sports Palace. This massive arena was at standing room only with nearly 6,000 farmers in attendance.

Adamkus spoke to kick off the proceedings. At first the farmers met him with standing ovations, but the mood of the rural Lithuanians soon changed.

"In 1999 the state budget and the budget for Sodra (Lithuania's social security organization) took in almost 400 million litas ($100 million), while the state gave out subsidies to agriculture worth some 450 million litas. It is high time to face reality. It is obvious that the agriculture sector can't expect the same financial support as it gets in the West," Adamkus said.

The president's words evoked an immediate sharp hiss and foot stomping in the audience. The same reaction followed Adamkus' words on new laws pending in the Parliament to allow foreigners to purchase land.

The arena soon turned into a kind of chaotic Speaker's Corner. Farmers began speaking out about their hard situation. Jonas Ramonas, one of the organizers of the congress, said that Lithuanian farmers receive between 10 and 20 times less financial support from the state than their counterparts in the EU.

According to Adamkus' adviser Audrius Rudys, a farmer in the EU in the same climate zone as Lithuania is given $17,000 to $27,000 in support per year, while a Lithuanian farmer gets just $2,700.

Ramonas called imported products cheap in both senses. He said that Western farmers use far more chemicals in production. Western food products have a poor reputation in Lithuania. The imports are often sold with fake documentation as Lithuanian products.

Ramonas said Lithuanian farmers cannot compete with cheap, state-sponsored Western agricultural exports. He said that those Lithuanian farmers who took loans to create farms that meet the highest EU standards now find themselves in deep water.

They have no market for their products, while the repayment on the loans is due.

Farmers also pleaded not to allow the sale of land to foreigners until the process of restoring land to those whose land was seized during the Soviet occupation from 1940 is complete.

Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas did not repeat Adamkus' mistake. Quoting U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Paksas lavished a number of sentimental and poetic phrases about hard work on the farmers.

He spoke in a diplomatic manner, promising "subtle" defense of the domestic market, low interest on loans and help in the search for foreign markets for Lithuanian agricultural products. Paksas' speech was met with applause.

According to Jonas Rekesius, a spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, Lithuania suffers from enormous over-production in the agricultural sector. The local market for milk and meat is completely cornered by Lithuanians. Western competitors lost out in competition because of the poor quality of the products they were offering.

There have been achievements on the Lithuanian exports front. For example, Lithuania is the sixth largest exporter of cheese to the United States.

On March 14, the day after the congress, Paksas asked the Agriculture Ministry to come up with 29 million litas to pay farmers who were not getting money because of bankruptcy at food processing firms where farmers sold their production.

Vaidotas Vysniauskas, assistant editor at the daily Lietuvos Rytas, wondered why Paksas supports the noisier farmers but not the more silent workers at the bankrupt factories.

Adamkus explained such populism in a rather direct way in an address to the nation on March 16, saying, "Some politicians have already started their presidential election campaigns," although the president did not mention any names.

Almost all media observers supported Adamkus' rather than Paksas' position. They supported Adamkus' call to the farmers to take care of the modernization of their farms and to seek greater diversity in rural enterprises.

On March 17, Lietuvos Rytas published the results of a survey on the differing positions of Adamkus and Paksas at the farmers' congress.

Lietuvos Rytas Internet readers were asked whether they supported Adamkus or Paksas at the farmers congress. More than 86 percent said that they supported Adamkus, while less than 12 percent supported Paksas.

Adamkus' call to face reality in agricultural issues did not find understanding among opposition Social Democratic MPs.

"The president did not understand the farmers. The farmers don't want to build a fence to defend themselves from the rest of the world. They just want equal conditions for competition with foreign farmers. Some 50 percent of the EU budget is going to support EU farmers," said Social Democratic MP Mykolas Pronckus at a press conference in the Parliament on March 16.

"How does our state manage to find a billion dollars to support Williams (the American company operating Lithuania's Mazeikiu Nafta oil complex) and not find any money for our farmers?" Pronckus asked rhetorically.