Master helmsman back at the wheel

  • 2001-07-19
  • Brent W. Walsh
Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas, a construction engineer by profession, was appointed to the Politburo of the Lithuanian Central Committee in 1977. In 1988 he became the Communist Party of Lithuania's first secretary, the country's top political post. As president of the Republic of Lithuania from 1993 to 1998, and head of the Lithuanian Social Democrat Party since 2000, Brazauskas has been the country's most popular figure for many years. Immediately after being sworn in as Lithuania's new prime minister on July 12, The Baltic Times went to discover the secret of his charm. Interview by Brent W. Walsh.

The Baltic Times: Today marks your formal return to the world of politics. You said in 1997 that you would not run for a second term despite a lead in the polls. Why did you decide to return now as prime minister?

Brazauskas: The duties of prime minister are different to my past position as president. I have a real motivation and felt that it was my responsibility to accept the position as leader of Lithuania's government. The government is an ever-changing organ, and I have a lot of experience through my past political life. That's why I felt I could be an asset to Lithuania at this time.

Of course, I'm not being capricious. I'm not playing politics. I feel it is important to support my party and the society in which I live. Our Parliament voted 81 in favor of my nomination and 32 against. I was viewed as the best-fitting candidate at this time, and that's why I decided to accept this post. I did not want to disappoint the people.

TBT: As you are the 12th person to hold the office of Lithuanian prime minister, do you feel this gives the rest of the world an impression of instability within the Lithuanian government? The majority of Western democracies do not see the same level of constant transition.

Brazauskas: We are far from being an exception; you can look at the Italian example in Western Europe for proof of that. I truly believe we have stability within our government. But you also have to take into account that we are a relatively new democracy, and the political parties themselves are still in the formative stages. The parties are all reasonably small and very competitive among themselves.

This of course affects the stability of any coalition government. However, the individual mandates of those elected to Parliament are stable and Adamkus's presidency is very stable, so it's not a problem if the governing coalition changes.

TBT: Also, regarding Western impressions: impressions are often as important as fact. Two recent New York Times articles have been critical of "returning old communists to power" in the recently independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The question is not whether you are a communist, but it is a question of image. How do you plan on fixing and changing this? Do you feel you need to?

Brazauskas: Obviously the only way I can change this image is through my present actions. I believe that after five years as president of Lithuania I should not still have to deal with this problem. I was elected by popular mandate after all, by the people. The people of Lithuania would never have elected a communist. This I guarantee you.

TBT: If that's the case, what was life like for Lithuanian Communist Party members during Soviet times? Was it a double life? Did members truly believe in the Soviet system, or were you always secret patriots?

Brazauskas: You can't make these kind of categorical divisions; 97 percent of the people who worked in government (at that time) were working for the benefit of their country. Only about 3 percent were truly communists. That's just the way things were; there was no alternative.

I would say that there was a silent resistance throughout those 50 years, except of course for the partisan resistance following the war. The Communist Party was just a formality. People came to work each day to do their jobs, but very few people were actively involved in party politics. I was also a Communist Party member, but I was never extremely involved in party activity. I held many positions in government, but I just did my job.

TBT: It has been reported that you have been studying English. Has that become important to you? For example, the French leader Jacques Chirac can afford not to speak English. But, of course, Lithuania is not in France's position. All Scandinavian prime ministers and the current Baltic presidents speak English. What would be your position on communication?

Brazauskas: Of course it is important to be able to speak English, there is no doubt about this. But I am from a generation of people where this was not an issue. I have a basic understanding of spoken English, but I can't speak about serious issues in English. I understand this is a weakness of mine. And given my present duties and my age, it would be difficult to remedy this situation. A leader is a leader, regardless of language. Helmut Kohl, for instance, didn't speak a single word of English.

TBT: Regarding your new government's platform, many are complaining that there is very little remaining from the old Social Democrat platform during the past elections. They are saying that your new stance is extremely similar to the most recent leftist government under Rolandas Paksas. It is asked whether various "social guarantees" remain. Is this true?

Brazauskas: No, absolutely not. There are many changes. Our present platform is the platform of two parties (Social Democrats and Social Liberals); you must bear in mind that the Social Democrats did not have a clear majority, and we have an agreement with our parliamentary partners, the Social Liberals. There are ministers from both parties in this government, and the platform reflects that composition.

TBT: You have repeatedly been quoted as saying you support a "socially oriented market economy." What do those words mean?

Brazauskas: The Social Democrat policy is oriented toward the class of people who are living in the worst economic conditions. It is our goal to help these people with every possible step and policy. We are referring to social guarantees – things like tax subsidies that would constitute the beginnings of a progressive taxation policy.

A "socially oriented market economy," in the traditional sense, defines the free movement of capital, a labor force with no barriers, and the freedom of investment. We are talking about a free economy with an orientation toward those people who truly need economic attention. Germany and Scandinavia are good examples.

TBT: Your new government is taking over from the Liberals. Regarding economic policy changes you expect to implement, what effects will this have on business owners?

Brazauskas: Of course we want to promote the growth of small- and medium-sized businesses in many different ways, including implementing favorable economic policies. We are for giving tax breaks, subsidies, and loan guarantees to promote additional growth within this sector. I feel there are too many bureaucratic barriers for business in this segment of our economy.

TBT: Regarding Lithuania's bid for both NATO membership and European Union integration, in what ways will your new government approach things differently?

Brazauskas: We will do absolutely nothing different from the Liberals. I think that both of our parties agree about the importance of European integration. We will stay on the exact same path.

TBT: I would like to ask about the Williams-Nafta-Yukos situation. What effect will the government change possibly have upon this issue?

Brazauskas: Our fundamental goal is to make sure this company has the opportunity to be profitable, that it can produce a competitive product for the European market. I reject the claims of others saying we are trying to drive away American capital. That is a complete bluff on their part.

Lithuania has a $50 million stake in this company and it is therefore important that it be well managed. It is important that Lithuania receive the pay-back from our loan guarantees. Also, it is mandatory that they have a steady supply of crude oil, and this most likely will come from the east. There are expensive alternatives, but there are no cheap alternatives.

TBT: Is there a downside to having a Russian firm own an extremely large stake in such an important national industry?

Brazauskas: It is up to these companies to come to an agreement on their own. Actually, 50 percent of Yukos is owned by American and foreign capital. I have no personal biases. The businesses will bring the best result by negotiating between themselves.

TBT: How do you feel about the current Lithuanian gas privatization? Are you under pressure from wealthy Lithuanian businessmen who want to get a piece of the action?

Brazauskas: I'm personally not under any pressure; until now, no Lithuanian government has addressed this issue. But now, the government must address it.

TBT: So, the competition will continue?

Brazauskas: Of course it will, and it will be a transparent privatization. The Germans and French are still in the running, and whoever else would like to participate will also be allowed. We will make sure the proper conditions will be in effect, and the most worthy bidder will receive the project.

TBT: What is your position on the Ignalina nuclear power plant closure required by the EU? You have said recently that Lithuania does not have the funds to close the plant on their own, that it would require EU funding. Are you planning to take a strong position with Brussels on this issue?

Brazauskas: As regards the second reactor at Ignalina, we will negotiate and prove to the EU and to the leaders of the larger European countries how difficult a problem this is for Lithuania. It is very expensive to shut down such a huge power plant; Lithuania cannot do this using its own financial resources. This becomes a Pan-European question. We understand that we have to close the plant, but the whole point is that we do not have the resources. We are talking about the loss of 35,000 jobs. A lot of this closure depends on support from the European Union.