VILNIUS - The Special Investigations Service has launched an investigation into possible vote tampering by Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, causing accusations of presidential interference in municipal governance and reigniting a political controversy that began last spring.
Zuokas was questioned by investigators on Jan. 22 as part of a pretrial inquiry into allegations of vote tampering in the contested April mayoral election.
Upon emerging from the interrogation, Zuokas confirmed that he had been asked questions about the election and questioned the investigators' motives, implicating President Rolandas Paksas as a possible initiator of the inquiry.
Initial media reports speculated that Vilnius City Council member Vilmantas Drema, a member of Zuokas' own Liberal Party, had tipped off investigators, though Drema later denied the allegation.
Also under investigation is the Rubikon Group, a conglomerate of 20 companies with 150 million litas (43.4 million euros) in assets that recently acquired the Vilnius regional television channel.
On Jan. 26, Paksas invited prosecutor Algimantas Klimavicius and Valentinas Junokas, head of the Special Investigations Service, to the Presidential Palace for a consultation on the inquiry.
But at a press conference held following the meeting, all attendees denied any presidential involvement in the investigation.
"I categorically deny any accusations related to this issue. Each institution is conducting its job without regard for any political scandal," said Paksas.
Junokas likewise rejected charges of reacting as a result of political motives. "The Special Investigations Service has not initiated any investigation or criminal case upon the suggestion of President Rolandas Paksas," he said.
Junokas further stated that the inquiry was of a preliminary nature only and that Zuokas was not officially being accused of any wrongdoing.
In spite of assurances from the executive administration and from investigators, Zuokas' supporters view the recent developments with suspicion.
"I think we have to conclude that when the president is interested in a case enough to invite the special investigator and the prosecutor to speak with him that he must have some involvement in the case," said Vytautas Bogusis, a member of Zuokas' ruling coalition on the Vilnius City Council.
Bogusis also defended the Vilnius mayor against the allegations, officially classified as obstruction of the right of City Council members to vote in a mayoral election.
"I myself participated in the elections, and I saw with my own eyes that everything was in order. Besides, voting is done by secret ballot, so it's impossible to tamper," he said.
Ill will between Zuokas and the president began over a dispute involving inaugural celebrations soon after Paksas, who formerly held Zuokas' post, was elected to his current office. In April, Zuokas lost a re-election bid in a last-minute reshuffling of political allegiances among City Council members that many considered retaliation for the inaugural spat.
Mayors in Lithuania are elected by City Council members.
After a protracted struggle that left the capital without a mayor for several months, Zuokas eventually defeated his opponent, Social Democrat Gediminas Pavirzis.
"What's happening now does recall the events of this spring," Pavirzis, now deputy mayor, told The Baltic Times. "We had put this all behind us long ago. This, of course, doesn't give us any peace," he said. Pavirzis is not under investigation.
Bogusis agreed with his colleague that the investigation was doing little to heal prior wounds and threatened to plunge the municipality back into political chaos.
"I'd say that by August the entire scandal had been forgotten, and the work of the municipality was going on as usual. We're working now too, but without a doubt what's happening now isn't useful to anyone-not to us, not to Lithuania and not for the residents of Vilnius."