Desperate step of NATO-skeptics

  • 2002-07-11
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

Lawmaker Rolandas Pavilionis is on a mission: to give Lithuanian voters the chance to decide directly on whether the Baltic nation joins NATO.

Calling for "democratically-minded" people to come forward, Pavilionis has kicked off a signature-collecting campaign that, if successful, would force a referendum on NATO membership.

Though he refuses to say whether he is actually for or against joining the alliance, Pavilionis says it's a basic issue of giving citizens the right to decide on crucial issues of national importance.

"A referendum would show that there are some free and democratically-minded people in Lithuania", Pavilionis said at a news conference last week." There are 17 such persons at the moment," he added, referring to the 17 people, most of them well-known public figures, who have already signed on.

Among them are Saulius Sondeckis, conductor of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, and Father Stanislovas, an elderly Franciscan monk and former prisoner of Soviet concentration camps.

Most lawmakers do not expect him to succeed. Support for a referendum in Parliament is thin, and Lithuanian law requires signatures from at least 36 members of the 141-seat Parliament or 300,000 eligible voters to initiate one. Signatures must be collected within three months after the registration of a special steering group at the Central Election Commission.

"A referendum is a good thing, but in this case I suspect some anti-NATO intentions," said Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas.

"Issues of collective defense should be discussed at the Parliament. The nation's representatives have a sufficient mandate, so a referendum is unnecessary," Social Democrat MP Vytenis An-driukaitis said.

Pavilionis says he would like to make his opinion about NATO known "by casting a ballot in a referendum." But he went on to praise the examples set by officially neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland.

Known as a great Francophile, Pavilionis is a former rector of Vilnius University and has earned a reputation as a sort of black sheep in Parliament. He is a non-party man but is connected to the Social Liberal faction, which along with the Social Democrats, comprise the legislature's center-left coalition.

But even if he should win his crusade, opinion polls suggest Lithuanians would back NATO. The latest survey by the Vilmorus research center conducted between May and June found 68 percent of respondents in favor of joining the military alliance, while 27.2 percent were against it.

"When 65 percent to 70 percent of the population express their support for NATO membership, such a referendum would be an unnecessary waste of money and time," said Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas.