The impeachment drama in Lithuania has taken a slight turn for the worse in the first days of the new year. Whether or not it turns into a full-blown constitutional crisis remains to be seen, but judging by the dogged intransigence of President Rolandas Paksas we may be in for some rather ugly weeks ahead.
On Dec. 30 the Constitutional Court ruled that the decree signed by Paksas last April granting businessman and presidential backer Yuri Borisov Lithuanian citizenship was unlawful. The decision automatically stripped Borisov, who is being accused of threatening the president in a taped phone conversation, of his citizenship and led Paksas to decry the court. The president said the country's highest court made its decision "based on politics rather than the law."
Another attack on the court came from Paksas' lawyers - there are six of them - on the first working day of the year. Having gathered representatives of the Lithuanian press, lawyer Kestutis Stungys said that the court's decision on the presidential decree granting citizenship was not final and that it could be changed, if not appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Both the court and independent experts claim the decision is final.
Essentially Paksas and his lawyers have mounted an attack on the integrity of Lithuania's judiciary. As far as the defense tactics, this is an old one: when you can't defend your client, discredit first the witnesses and then the entire system. However, when this method is applied to the three branches of power in a sovereign nation, the ramifications can be dangerous. At best it smears the very institutions that require the people's trust; at worst it will incite a constitutional crisis.
The court responded sharply to Paksas' criticism, reminding the executive that it was obliged to obey the court's ruling. "The mentioned rebukes of the president...were an evident attempt to plant doubts about the Constitutional Court and constitutional justice in general, to arouse mistrust in the Constitutional Court's judgments, question their power and the obligation to obey them."
Paksas and his lawyers should listen to the court. And they should also listen to Polish President Alexandr Kwasniewski, who, speaking of Lithuania's ongoing crisis during a radio interview last week, said, "What is very important is that everything is in keeping with the constitution and that democratic procedures are operational."
That is what a rule-of-law based society is about, and it is part of Paksas' oath of office that he adhere to it unquestioningly.