VILNIUS - The momentum behind the presidential scandal switched from Parliament to the streets, as thousands of Lithuanians took part in demonstrations across the country in support of President Rolandas Paksas, who will soon face an impeachment vote.
In a series of rallies held across the country on March 20, Paksas supporters urged parliamentarians to vote against the president's impeachment or abstain from voting in the impending ballot, which is tentatively scheduled to take place in late April.
In order for Paksas to be removed from office, a supermajority of 85 of the Parliament's 137 members must vote in favor.
Police reported that the main meeting, which was held in Vilnius' Municipality Square in front of the government building, drew up to 600 participants. Parallel demonstrations occurred in cities across the country, including Kaunas, Alytus and Siauliai.
The demonstrations were organized by For a Just and Democratic Lithuania, a pro-Paksas group billing itself as a "civic movement" whose origin and leadership are murky.
"I don't know who their leader is. I also don't know if our party has any connection to them," said Henrikas Zukauskas, leader of the Liberal Democratic fraction in the Seimas (Lithuania's parliement) and one of Paksas' closest political supporters.
The rallies occurred at a sensitive time in the now five-month-old impeachment process, as Lithuania's highest court began to consider some of the most important issues related to the scandal and its fallout.
On March 16, the Constitutional Court began an inquiry at the request of the Seimas into the six charges a parliamentary committee leveled against the president. Justices will then issue a verdict as to whether Paksas violated the constitution, with most experts expecting them to say that he has.
"Their job is a tricky one: They have to say that his actions did constitute a violation of the law, but they have to leave room for the Seimas to actually impeach him, as only the Seimas has the power to do this," said Egidijus Sileikis of Vilnius University's law faculty.
On March 22, court chairman Egidijus Kuris announced that justices would summon Paksas himself to clarify his participation in some of the incidents in question, including Paksas' alleged leaking of classified information to Yuri Borisov, his largest campaign contributor.
But during a March 23 press conference, Paksas stated his intention not to appear before the court.
"This is an issue somewhere between traditional practice and written law. Nowhere is it written that a president must answer a summons from a court. But at the same time it could be interpreted as highly disrespectful," said Sileikis.
The Constitutional Court will also soon consider a similar appeal from the Seimas to issue a judgment on an impeachment proceedings filed against Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas.
Earlier this month, Paksas accused Paulauskas of violating the constitution when he shared classified information with a group of fellow parliamentarians about the president when the scandal first broke in late October.
In spite of the harsh rhetoric from the Presidential Palace, few believe the challenge has any legal clout.
"The court will convene a committee, which will politely say that Paulauskas didn't violate the constitution. There's a big difference between sharing state secrets one time with lawmakers and repeatedly handing over such information to the very people who are being investigated," commented Sileikis.
The courts did hand Paksas one moral victory, however, when a March 22 decision from the Vilnius District Administrative Court ordered the migration department to review its deportation case against Borisov, who was stripped of the Lithuanian citizenship Paksas granted him last spring.
Yet with the balance of the legal proceedings weighed against him, Paksas continued a policy of public defiance.
Speaking to reporters at his weekly media briefing, Paksas said he believed the vote on his impeachment would fail even to reach the floor of the Seimas, a conviction even his closest supporters do not share.
"Of course there's going to be a vote. It's impossible that there won't be one," said Zukauskas.