Civilian control or civil war?

  • 2002-03-14
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
Lithuanian military commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis got more than he bargained for when he spoke to a meeting of exiles in Los Angeles in February. The provocative title of his speech was "Does Lithuania Need a Second Liberation?"

Kronkaitis' words at the event, organized by the Congregation of Friends of the Lithuanian Front, a Los Angeles-based Lithuanian exile society, reached Lithuania before he did. Arturas Paulauskas, Social Liberal chairman of the Parliament, demanded the commander account for his statements that "The Soviet-era nomenclature's control of the press leaves the public in an information desert," and, "The political and financial influence of the Soviet-era nomenclature is the main barrier to the growth of small business."

Kronkaitis also said in his seven-page speech, "A multitude of various taxes are unbearable for even medium-sized businesses. But the socialist national budget drawn up by the (present) government requires them."

He responded to Paulauskas' demands by saying, "As the commander of the military I know I didn't violate Lithuanian laws, but I believe it is necessary to discuss the line between politics and civil rights for soldiers, and to explore the legal framework based on the economic experience of other democratic states."

In subsequent statements Kronkaitis and his right-wing supporters have tried to paint the issue as one of free speech.

"Lithuania's military personnel should be the highly-educated elite of the nation representing Lithuania, able and ready to freely express thoughts about the state's social trends," Kronkaitis wrote Paulauskas.

Lithuanian law prohibits political activity on the part of military personnel. But the incident raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the Lithuanian military.

The incident recalls one dark, little-known incident a few years ago. In the fall of 1993, then-President Algirdas Brazauskas, who is now prime minister, foiled a plot to overthrow the Lithuanian state by violent means in a story that is still a closely guarded secret.

Right-wing paramilitary groups, including members of the volunteer national defense forces, were involved in the conspiracy. Russian military rail transit across Lithuanian territory was the main target. The paramilitaries blew up the Brazuole rail bridge on the route used by trains to and from Kaliningrad.

Greater catastrophe was averted only by a local person who saw the bridge was damaged and ran ahead to warn an oncoming train to stop.

One publicly known casualty was the car-bomb assassination of State Security Department agent Juras Abromavicius, who managed to infiltrate the Black Crows paramilitary organization. Abromavicius was investigating the Brazuole bombing when he was murdered.

Although all fingers pointed to the official Lithuanian right wing - headed then as it is now by Vytautas Landsbergis - Brazauskas decided democracy was best served by nurturing real plurality among Lithuania's political parties, and that publicizing these dark events was not in the public interest in 1993. But as recently as two years ago, Adamkus was still calling for Abromavicius' killers to be brought to justice.

The essential thing to draw from these shady events is how much support the attempted coup had among the Lithuanian right-wing's leadership, which had just lost presidential and parliamentary elections to the resurgent "ex-communists" led by Brazauskas. From the beginning, Lithuania's conservatives have pursued policies based on nationalist and ideological goals.

Just as the Conservative Party doesn't really reflect the accepted values of conservatism, so too the Lithuanian ex-communists - the Social Democrats - have proven through deeds rather than words their commitment to democracy, human rights and modern principles of social welfare.

When he addresses the Parliament on the issue soon, Kronkaitis will assuredly receive as well as give a lesson on civics. The nation - and likely NATO headquarters as well - will be watching to see who comes out on top, the military's top man or publicly elected officials.

Just as in 1993 when Soviet troops were withdrawn, Lithuania has no alternative to NATO and EU membership. And just as then, it has no alternative to the leadership of its ex-communists, the only force on the horizon with enough political acumen, skill and maturity to realize those aspirations without driving the population to starvation and unrest.