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23 June, 2011

The Echo of the Scandal that Split the Nation

In 2003, a scandal emerged from a report by the Lithuanian State Security Department. It linked one of President Rolandas Paksas’s close advisers to a Russian businessman with suspected ties to organized crime. Others in the president’s inner circle were also alleged to have met with the Russian, Anzor Aksentyev-Kikalishvili, who was thought to have been interested in buying Lithuanian assets.

The report also found evidence that Paksas promised a job to a second Russian businessman (also his major campaign contributor), who was surrounded by allegations of illegal arms trading. On November 3, 2003 the Seimas, Lithuania’s Parliament, met in closed session to decide what to do next. Formally, the Seimas has the authority and power to impeach the president in the event of treason or violation of his oath of office. A special commission was set up to look into the affair.

On December 2, the commission released its findings, and its chairman Aloyzas Sakalas presented a summary. Paksas had placed himself in a “vulnerable position,” and, taking into account the president’s role in domestic and foreign policy, the affair “represents a threat to Lithuania’s national security.” The next day Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and Seimas Speaker Arturas Paulauskas both urged the president to resign.

These events hardly came as a surprise to dozens of politicians and political observers. Many had long had grave doubts concerning the transparency of the activities of Paksas’s supporters and donors – both in Lithuania and in Russia. These misgivings were heightened after the presidential election in January, which Paksas won by a landslide victory over the incumbent, Valdas Adamkus. The émigré environmentalist Adamkus returned to Lithuania and became its president in January 1998 – and had, ever since, enjoyed the reputation of the most highly esteemed and regarded politician in Lithuania ever.

Paksas’s victory over Adamkus in January 2003 was marked by some ugly details, as well. The symbols used by Paksas’s Liberal Democratic Party (later renamed the Order and Justice 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 the introduction of “iron order” in Lithuania.

The nasty rhetoric and Paksas’s populist dash 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, Paksas’s presidential campaign shamelessly exploited the immoral logic of populism.

During the election campaign, Paksas consulted the Russian public relations firms Niccolò 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 Avia Baltika, 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 President Paksas for Lithuanian citizenship and received it, which allowed him also to keep his original Russian citizenship.

During the campaign, Paksas hopped across Lithuania in an Avia Baltika helicopter, delivering fiery speeches about the better life to come to audiences in one depressed rural stopover after another. All these things now fall into the category of recent history. Paksas was impeached for what was described by the Constitutional Court of Lithuania as a threat to the state’s security and also a severe violation of the president’s oath. Hence, the verdict was issued to remove Paksas from office with a life ban from the oath-related political office, including that of president and the national parliament.

Ever since, much ink has been spilled arguing whether or not the verdict was fair with regard to the impeached president. Some saw in him a victim of a conspiracy of the political elite, yet a vast majority of political commentators and Paksas’s fellow politicians held him responsible for a blow he dealt to the reputation of the country all over the world.

Adamkus returned to his office for the second term after a marginal and hard-won victory in the 2004 presidential elections over Kazimira Prunskiene, a shadowy, albeit once high-profile, politician suspect by the Lithuanian media of having been repeatedly involved in Russia’s stratagems against Lithuania. All in all, Adamkus saved Lithuania’s reputation from another blow which would have been dealt had Prunskiene won the elections.

Whatever the case, what happened in 2003 was something that happened for the first time after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence in 1990 that the nation was split over its president, and the political atmosphere of the country remained highly charged for a long time. Having experienced ups and downs in his political career, Paksas was elected, in 2009, to the European Parliament.

Paksas was recently partly acquitted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decided that a life ban from national politics appeared as too disproportionate and harsh a response to Paksas’s abuse of office, since the right to be elected to the national parliament was and continues to be a constitutional right.

What’s next then? Another move in Russia’s undeclared psychological war against the rebel and break-away “republics” which richly contributed to “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”? That remains to be seen.

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