Winter of Lithuania's discontent

  • 2004-01-15
  • By Leonidas Donskis
The immense political scandal that erupted over Lithuania at the end of October dealt a shocking blow to the cohesion and civic solidarity of Lithuanian society. The country is divided over its president-should he stay or should he go?

Is he open to the charge of treason? Great uncertainty hangs over Lithuania's future. As the presidential scandal shows, there are still all too many temptations to talk of two Lithuanias. On one hand, there is the Westward-looking and dynamic Lithuania, waiting its turn to join the European Union and NATO; a "Baltic tiger," as Poland's Leszek Balcerowicz recently described it. On the other, there is the elite-abandoned, long-suffering, divided and depressed Lithuania, longing for something like the equality-in-misery it knew in the Soviet Union.
To cut a convoluted tale short, the scandal emerged from a report by Lithuanian State Security. It linked one of President Rolandas Paksas' close advisors to a Russian businessman with suspected ties to organized crime. The report also found evidence that Paksas promised a job to a second Russian businessman (also his major campaign contributor), who is surrounded by allegations of illegal arms trading...
Paksas's victory over Valdas Adamkus in January 2003 was marked by some ugly details, as well. The symbols used by Paksas's Liberal Democratic Party caused great unease-especially their eagle logo, stunningly (and hardly accidentally) similar to the Luftwaffe eagle, and their torch-lit rallies where speakers called for an "iron order" to be introduced in Lithuania. The nasty rhetoric and populist dash of Paksas were accompanied by an aggressive and cynical PR strategy, which appealed to the lowest instincts of the masses. They described Adamkus as representing the interests of the West and the rotten political and intellectual elite in Lithuania. In brief, the presidential campaign of Paksas shamelessly exploited the immoral logic of populism.
During the election campaign Paksas consulted the Russian public relations firms Nicollo M and Almax (the latter having been instrumental in Vladimir Putin's victorious run for the Russian presidency). Paksas's most generous campaign contributor was a helicopter sales-and-rental company called AviaBaltika, which Lithuanian law-enforcement agencies had investigated in connection with illegal arms sales to Sudan. Immediately after the election, company chief Yuri Borisov applied to Paksas for Lithuanian citizenship and received it - in addition to his original Russian citizenship.
We can draw several conclusions from what has happened in Lithuania-or rather, how it has happened. First, we should not mock Belarus, nor explain away the tragedy that has befallen it merely by referencing the low political culture of society or the prevalence of a Soviet-type mentality among the nation. Alas, as we see, our political culture is very similar to that of our Eastern neighbors, and we thus have no grounds for a naive belief in either our superiority, or our larger degree of "Westernness."
The second point, perhaps, is a consequence of the first. The larger part of Lithuanian society has totally lost its immunity to political manipulation. The low level of political culture (and absence of any political awareness of the powers and functions of the country's president) paved the way for a victory, by means of simply telling the voters what pleases their ear or by rewarding them. Well, our susceptibility to manipulations is good news to our large Eastern neighbor. The task of destabilizing Lithuania and redirecting its political orientation-even that of its whole civilization-is not only possible but apparently far easier than anyone would ever have believed.
Third, we have no real political left - let alone leftist values. The fidelity of the Lithuanian political left to social-democratic values is nothing but a lamentable fiction. In any democracy of Western Europe, social democrats would have marched their electorate through the streets and would have been the first to stand against a presidential candidate who employed quasi-Nazi symbols. In Lithuania, a part of the left showed its open support for such a candidate, while the most powerful and best-organized left-wing party, the Social Democrats, played a double game, declaring its favor for Adamkus while secretly blessing Paksas' road to victory.
Lithuania stands at a crossroads. The pivotal question is can Lithuania pass this examination of Western democracy and get rid of the regrettable populism it suffers now, or is it on the way to a new status as a European Union member de jure yet a protectorate of Russia de facto? o

Leonidas Donskis
is professor of philosophy
at Kaunas Vytautas
Magnus University.