Grass-roots support keeps Paksas afloat

  • 2004-02-12
  • By Steven Paulikas
RIETAVAS - While political momentum has picked up over the past three months to impeach President Rolandas Paksas, the head of state has engaged in a breakneck tour of the country's provinces to secure his rural base, which was crucial in propelling him to office just over a year ago.

On the evening of Feb. 6, Paksas made his 36th such visit in the western town of Rietavas, defending himself before a meeting hall packed with residents eager to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see the president.
During his two hour visit, the president treated Rietavas to a spectacle he has repeated almost identically across the country since last autumn, when suspicions were first raised about his connections to controversial supporter Yuri Borisov and various aides, some of whom are currently under criminal investigation.
"Raise your hand if you support the president!" yells presidential aide Sigitas Jacenas in his introductory speech. Immediately the hall turns into a forest of upheld arms, with some going so far as to raise both hands.
Then, as the president who is accused of violating his oath and the constitution enters the hall, the audience leaps to its feet, shouting and applauding in concert-hall delight.
"I see this hall is too small. We'll just have to build a bigger one," says Paksas amid wild applause.
"One of my goals in coming here tonight is to explain to all of you what has been happening over the past three months," he stresses before launching into his hour-long speech.
After recounting what he considered to be some of the highlights of his 11 months in office, Paksas unleashes vitriol on his political opponents and leaders of the impeachment. He accuses many in Vilnius of a political conspiracy - fueled by personal ill-will against him - to oust him from the President's Palace and destabilize the nation.
"My duties as head of state do not allow me to reveal specific names of people. But I tell you now that the time will come when all will be made clear, and you will know the people behind this," he says with a tone of gravity.
Paksas implicates political elements hostile to Lithuania's membership in NATO and the losers of last January's presidential elections as the actors behind the conspiracy while naming the "chief of the State Security Police," Mecys Laurinkus, as one of the chief conspirators.
Nonetheless, the president admits that he has made errors.
"If you don't work, you don't make mistakes. But my conscience is completely clear. I have never signed any agreements with my sponsors," he says.
A burst of applause marks the end of Paksas' speech, and residents rush to the stage to shake the president's hand and present him with flowers.
And thus Rietavans came to share a moment with a man who, for some in this remote hamlet, has come to embody the fight against politicians in a distant capital out of touch with their needs and interests.
Surveying the Rietavas meeting hall on this evening, one would find it difficult to believe that 230 kilometers away in Vilnius, a parliamentary committee was expected to issue a formal recommendation to impeach.
"We're for the president because he believes in us," said Aldona, a farmer.
"I came here to greet him with flowers. I want him to be our president because he's good. He's conscientious, fair and true," said Zofia, currently unemployed.
Participants in the meeting had much harsher words for Paksas' opponents, including Parliamentary Chairmany Arturas Paulauskas.
"Paulauskas is hardly a person. All he wants to do is harm Paksas, the man we elected. I want Paksas to be president for all five years," said Danute, a pensioner.
In spite of the good will directed towards the president in Rietavas, a small group of young protestors provided a reminder of the political turmoil Paksas currently faces.
When the students rolled up a large sign they had been holding that read, in English, "We Respect the Constitution, Mr. President," Paksas attempted to make light of the situation.
"I see your arms have gotten tired of holding that thing up," Paksas said to them.
"No, it's just that bedtime in Rietavas is pretty early," replied 17-year-old Povilas, who wore an army helmet with a note reading, "Don't hit me because of my opinion," in reference to a similar Paksas town-meeting in mid-Jaunary, overzealous supporters of Paksas attacked a student protestor.
When Paksas had answered questions many of the residents raised on topics that varied from the scandal to pension reform, the president made his way out a side door.
Within minutes, Paksas' black automobile was ready to return to the uncertain future awaiting him back in the capital.