WASHINGTON - VILNIUS - Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis returned from a trip to the United States with mixed news, citing positive comments from official sources but relaying grave questions about the integrity of President Rolandas Paksas raised during informal conversations with Washington decision-makers.
While Valionis was all smiles as he finished his three-day trip to the American capital, during a Jan. 26 press conference in Vilnius he stated that unnamed government sources expressed their desire to see Paksas removed from office.
"Our Western partners view the Constitutional Court's judgment that President Paksas violated his oath and the Constitution ...as a decisive argument for his impeachment," Valionis told reporters after a meeting with Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas.
"They see the resignation of President Paksas as a successful outcome of the impeachment process. I cite unofficial conversations," the foreign minister said.
Valionis refused to name the sources of the comments.
Outwardly stunned by the minister's comments, President Paksas challenged Valionis' remarks as lacking evidence and unnecessarily provocative.
"Such things should not be tolerated in diplomatic affairs," Paksas told reporters during a rebuttal press conference the same day.
Indeed, Valionis' words had a snowball effect in the Lithuanian capital, and later on Jan. 26 U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Stephen Mull was forced to distance the United States from the minister's comments, saying that America was sensitive to the damage caused by interference by foreign countries in Lithuania's affairs in the recent past.
Mull insisted that the U.S. government maintained no official policy on the ongoing impeachment process.
Valionis' bombshell comments were all the more surprising given the business-as-usual appearance of his visit to the American capital. While in Washington the minister met with congressman, senators, ambassadors from the Vilnius Ten group of NATO aspirants and senior administration officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"It was very successful," Valionis said of his trip. "It was a good opportunity to [talk] with Secretary Colin Powell and other officials about future cooperation between our countries," he told The Baltic Times in Washington.
Valionis furthermore related that a number of issues came up for discussion during meetings with Powell, including the future of NATO, Lithuania's role as a country on the eastern border of the alliance and strategic issues in the region.
The foreign minister did admit that he discussed the impeachment proceedings against Paksas with Powell, one of the world's most powerful diplomats. According to Valionis, Powell was very interested in the state of the impeachment and expressed confidence in Lithuania's handling of the issue.
Prominent Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who also met with Valionis, said he was at ease with how Lithuanian officials were dealing with impeachment.
"I am hopeful that if a decision is made [to impeach], then there will be a smooth and quick transition of power," he said.
Republican Congressman John Shimkus, who has Lithuanian roots and met with Valionis on the first day of his visit, said Valionis also discussed impeachment with him.
In Shimkus' opinion, Lithuania is considered to be a good friend to the United States, and the impeachment issue was not affecting bilateral relations.
Despite this goodwill, Shimkus stressed the importance of carrying out the impeachment proceedings through democratic processes and gave a warning to lawmakers in Vilnius, saying that they must be accountable and adhere to the constitution.
Shimkus also said his own experience voting to impeach former U.S. President Bill Clinton showed him how important accountability is.
The congressman said he was putting together a trade mission to Lithuania that will likely visit the country sometime in May, signaling the successful completion of one of Valionis' goals of his visit.
Nebraska Congressman Douglas Bereuter, on the other hand, said his meeting with Valionis was "excellent" and played down the impeachment issue in Lithuania.
Bereuter said Valionis reassured him that impeachment proceedings were happening within the rules set out in the constitution, emphasizing that the country's willingness to support the U.S.A. in both Iraq and Afghanistan was appreciated in Washington.
Valionis' appearance in Washington followed the cancellation of a scheduled visit by Paksas himself, which the president called off in December as a result of the scandal. Paksas had originally planned to meet with U.S. President George Bush in addition to other Washington officials.