Mixed reactions as Brazauskas strikes centenary

  • 2001-10-25
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis and Tassos Coulaloglou
VILNIUS - On Oct. 20, the Social Democrat/Social Liberal government of Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas marked its first 100 days in office. Opinion polls show that it is the most popular government in Lithuanian history. But the right-wing opposition took the anniversary as another opportunity to criticize it.

Twice as many Lithuanians trust the current government's ability to make the right decisions as those who have no faith in it, a poll carried out by the Baltijos Tyrimai market research company shows.

At the end of September, 63 percent of respondents said they relied on the government's capacities, while 29 percent lacked confidence in its efforts.

These indicators have remained steady. In July, 58 percent of those polled trusted Brazauskas' Cabinet and 28 percent had doubts about its performance.

The government's high popularity is a headache for the right-wing opposition, which launched a fierce anti-leftist campaign on Brazauskas' very first day in office.

The Brazauskas government has made no progress during its first 100 days and instead has halted reforms and made mistakes, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas complained on Oct. 19.

Paksas, the head of the Liberal Union faction that earlier shared power with the Social Liberals, said one big mistake was the violation of an agreement among political parties on the privatization of gas utility Lietuvos Dujos.

Parties agreed in June that a 34 percent stake in Lietuvos Dujos would be sold to a strategic Western investor, 25 percent to a gas supplier, presumably from Russia and 9 percent on the Lithuanian Stock Exchange.

However, the Brazauskas government later decided that strategic investor and gas supplier would each be sold 34 percent, which is a copy of the model of the sale of the gas sector in Latvia and Estonia.

Paksas also criticized Brazauskas for not paying much attention to the social sphere, bemoaning the fact that the 2002 state budget makes no mention of financing the much anticipated computerization of schools. "The government doesn't care about the problems of ordinary people," he said.

But Paksas found it in himself to commend the government for keeping foreign policy unchanged in terms of integration into NATO and the European Union.

Brazauskas held a self-congratulatory press conference to mark his government's 100 days on Oct. 19. But he also showed pathos by awarding his government's work with a meager five points out of 10.

"Could you describe your government as leftist?" asked one journalist.

"What is the left? I cannot characterize my government with one word," he answered.

The Cabinet of 14 ministers is made up of only four Social Democrats and one Social Liberal. The others are not members of political parties.

"A hundred days in the life of a government is a short period," he emphasized. "Is it possible to accomplish anything at all in that time? It can only be a warming-up period."

But Brazauskas did admit to successes in starting to restructure the energy sector, preparing to privatize Lietuvos Dujos and establishing a minimum purchase price for grain.

Brazauskas said he has pushed ahead on the controversial issue of closing the Ignalina nuclear power plant, a key European Commission demand. But "under our government's pressure the EU finally recognized that Ignalina is a problem for the whole of the EU, not just Lithuania," he said.

Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius spoke next, "The direction of reforms remain the same."

This is reason for him to be happy. Defense is being showered with cash as never before on the eve of the anticipated invitation to join NATO. In 2002, 2 percent of GDP will be allotted to national defense - 84 million litas ($21 million) more than in 2001.

In comments made to The Baltic Times, Elena Leontjeva, president of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, said that while this administration is "not as leftist as expected," it has not yet managed to speed up reforms.

In 1999, the Conservative administration of Andrius Kubilius created the sunset and sunrise commission in an effort to reduce bureaucracy (sunset) and improve the business climate (sunrise). Leontjeva applauded Kubilius' work on corporate tax and value added tax revisions and streamlining bureaucracy. But she said that there was only a limited attempt to improve the bureaucratic wrangling that still continues.

In a time when new steps must be taken toward a free market environment, Brazauskas seems to be shilly-shallying, Leontjeva observed. While Brazauskas' plans to slash personal income tax are welcome, there is much concern about restoring a tax on reinvested profits and introducing a real estate tax for individuals.

Meanwhile, excise duties on chocolate, jewelry and similar goods are being replaced with taxes under different names and, worse, higher rates.

"Brazauskas and I spoke about restarting at least the sunrise commission and avoiding administrative pitfalls that paralyzed this initiative in the past," Leontjeva said.

As a result, the government is considering entrusting this work to a government commission with wider powers led by the chancellor rather than the Ministry of Economy.

But Leontjeva wants more fundamental changes. "There are still problems with how legislation is drafted, Cabinet decisions made and a real dialogue conducted with the business world. We cannot proceed with the outmoded governance we saw implemented 11 years ago."