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5 November, 2012  ▪  Leonіdas Donskіs

Lost in Transition

After the 2012 parliamentary elections, it is tempting to describe Lithuania as a victim of a series of ugly and unscrupulous manipulations undertaken by political cheats like Viktor Uspaskich and his party, the Labor Party, which is among the major winners of the elections along with Lithuanian Social Democrats and Motherland Union (Christian Democrats). Yet on a closer look it appears a simplistic perception of Lithuania’s political reality.

What happened in Lithuania over the past two weeks with the recent triumph of the populist Labor Party and its scandalous leader Viktor Uspaskich? Nothing sensational, to be honest. The man was in the system as early as 2000 when he, having been elected to the Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) as a non-affiliated member on behalf of the New Union, became an influential player. The New Union was the title of Social Liberals, then one of four political parties that assumed the sonorous title of liberalism. Therefore, for Uspaskich, to start acting now a stand-up comedy as a newcomer to the Lithuanian establishment would be as ludicrous as would be, for the opposing camp, to begin playing funeral music for Lithuanian democracy due to the seemingly shocking facts of corruption. As if this would be something new under the sky.

Ironically, the then influential and quite promising party New Union (Social Liberals), led by Arturas Paulauskas who once served as the Speaker of the Seimas and who acted as temporary head of the state during the Paksas affair and impeachment scandal, eventually crumbled to the ground and vanished in the air leaving no trace in Lithuanian politics. Paulauskas was dismissed as the Speaker due to the outcome of interpellation and was relegated to the margins of political life. Yet, astonishingly enough, Social Liberals merged with the powerful Labor Party which was set up by Uspaskich himself as his pocket party, which allows now for speculations on a possible return of Paulauskas to the office of the Speaker of the Seimas.   

This is to say that Uspaskich, from 2000 onwards, was on the rise. In 2004, the Labor Party won 39 seats in the parliamentary elections, which allowed Uspaskich to have the final say on many things including five ministries for the Labor Party and the office of the Minister of Economics for himself. The miracle didn’t last long, though. Numerous scandals over his party’s tax evasion and “black accountancy,” accompanied by grave doubts of journalists over his higher education diploma supposedly earned from the Plekhanov Academy in Moscow and also M.A. diploma from Kaunas University of Technology, dealt a blow to Uspaskich. In 2005, he resigned from the post of minister which destroyed the center-left coalition in the government. The story was far from over, however. In 2006, Uspaskich resigned from his office as the leader of the party and temporarily disappeared in Russia.

What happened afterwards remains a mystery even in present Lithuania. Every sound person would assume that there were a thousand ways to get Uspaskich arrested and jailed or to bring him to justice giving him a fair trial. This was not the case. Whereas Uspaskich kept playing hide-and-seek, the Lithuanian system of justice kept playing a cat-and-mouse game. Each time a mouse was caught, a cat would release her as if to say that it is preferable to have the mouse half alive than to eat her immediately. A skeleton in closet continues to be the most precious property in Eastern European politics. The same perfectly applies to blackmail which still holds as the most powerful and efficient weapon of political struggle and rivalry. For how else can one control those ambitious folks for who a good and untarnished reputation is something far beyond their reach? It is only possible to don so by holding them on the tight dog-lead, as a Lithuanian winged expression goes.

In fact, the Uspaskich story reads like an exciting crime novel. He was arrested, yet he was released. He sought a political asylum in Russia which was not only a slap in the face to Lithuania whose former minister not simply implied but instead put it black on white that he was a victim of a conspiracy and a hostage of Lithuanian Russophobia (said this a former minister who had access to classified materials of the state!). On 21 September 2007, Uspaskich and his pocket party went so far as to organize a press conference in Putin’s Moscow (!) on how all of his human rights, dignity, and civil liberties were severely violated in Lithuania. To add insult to injury, his party members came to Moscow to testify and passionately support their leader, including all their MEPs from Brussels. Keeping in mind that, as we know, the Devil safely lurks in the detail, suffices it to say that, without a further ado, a former minister of a NATO and EU state, escorted by MEPs who represented that state in the European Parliament, slandered and insinuated on their country clearly implying that its human rights record called for an action in a third country (and, apparently, the most friendly one), rather than within the EU.

So much ethos and pathos for Uspaskich’s logic and ethic. For how else and better can you slap your country discrediting its institutions and its system of justice? Even if you happen to be disenchanted with your state, as no state is deemed to be perfect, the question arises as to what kind of ethics or, to be more precise, what sort of political agenda forced Uspaskich to overtly vilify his country nowhere else but in Russia whose president from 1999 refused to visit the Baltic States, thus sending a clear signal that Russia does not regard them as an unquestionable fact of life and world politics.                

In fact, Viktor Uspaskich is a colorful character. A Russian immigrant to Lithuania who still keeps his legend of a welder-turned-to-tycoon going, Uspaskich, as mentioned, became a presence in 2000 when his pocket party turned out to be one of the most successful and popular political parties in the country. One of the richest persons in Lithuania, Uspaskich cherishes his story of how he, a poor boy from a town of political exiles in Arkhangelsk area (Urdoma), managed to become a highly qualified welder who was even commissioned to work in Finland. Then, as a legend goes, he made a fortune as a self-made-man becoming an entrepreneur and settling in Lithuania.

Few believe this story and few take it seriously, as there is ample evidence that Uspaskich was, from the very inception of this miraculous giant’s leap as a businessman, a proxy of Gazprom. His success story barely differs from all deeply conventional, standard, and predictable accounts of all those intermediaries and proxies of Russian capital that are an inescapable passage in the story of how the business class and even a large segment of the political class was built in present Lithuania. Without Russian oil, gas and energy supplying business in general, la classe politique of Lithuania would have been significantly different. Recall Rolandas Paksas and all noises and scandals behind him concerning the sources that financed his campaign pursuing the Russian interest in the Baltics. Virtually, the same applies to the entire power structure of Lithuania with some minor exceptions. For how can you build a truly independent, patriotic, and civic-minded political class if the internal fight continues among its members as to who can best serve Gazprom earning the money for their parties? It appears as a rhetorical question.

Widely discussed as an enfant terrible of the Lithuanian political class, if not a disgrace of Lithuanian politics in general, Uspaskich contrived to consolidate his power and support. What doesn’t need any discussion is his spell as a political performer and a hero of the masses. Incredible as it sounds but a ranking politician, who speaks extremely poor Lithuanian (this is more of a matter of embarrassingly poor vocabulary and content, rather than heavy accent) and who shows no respect for Lithuania in terms of culture and international reputation, is one of the most popular persons in Lithuania. Sociological polls don’t lie. Even if they do, the results of the elections don’t. Period. This tells something deeply disturbing not only about the political culture and preferences of some segments of Lithuanian electorate, but about a disenchantment of citizens with their state, the rule of law, justice, and plain decency in political and public life. Otherwise, we would be confined to a rather depressing assumption that the votes of protest reflect a fiasco of the state and something like sadomasochistic responses of society to their traumatic past and present.

Yet Uspaskich has never quite disappeared. Appearing on Lithuanian TV with his simplistic and rude humor, dancing, singing or otherwise amusing the folks, the leader of the Labor Party has firmly established his reputation as far and away the most successful Lithuania’s political clown, manipulator, and, most importantly, as the leading political entertainer. Far from merely a political buffoon with zero judgment in economics and public affairs, Uspaskich appears as an unusual blend of demagoguery, clownery and successful political entrepreneurship. The man in question is quite knowledgeable of business and mechanics of government. However, that Uspaskich was able to pursue his goals appearing in the media and never withdrawing from TV channels tells something disturbing about the Lithuanian media, TV, and their code.

And the same perfectly applies to Lithuanian political class. Had it been principled and had it kept its fidelity to the founding principles of the Republic of Lithuania, such a political crook would have been jailed a hundred times. Yet Uspaskich has always had his advocates among more or less civilized politicians who argued that they would have been unable to pursue their strategic goals for the benefit of Lithuania’s energy security and independence without the support and the voices of the Labor Party as a major force in the Parliament. This is the very roots of his success, persistence, resilience and political longevity. It clearly lies in the cynicism, pragmatism and lack of principle of the mainstream parties and their leadership in Lithuania. That our politicians woke up after the 2012 elections with the heart-breaking cry for justice after the scandals of bribery and buying of the votes during the elections (sufficient evidence supports the claim that the Labor Party did this on purpose and that this was far from a couple of isolated incidents) is preposterous and ridiculous. It was a public secret, un secret de Polichinelle, so to say, that political corruption has become a method and a policy in Lithuania, instead of an unpleasant deviation.   

In addition, there is one more – and no less repugnant – aspect of this story. As an MEP on behalf of Lithuania elected in 2009, Uspaskich did little more than desperate fight for keeping his immunity as a member of the EP, as he was solely motivated by his objective to escape from justice when he chose to run for the EP. The Labor Party was not only accepted into the political family of ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), the third largest group in the EP; it is going to be accepted into the European Liberal and Democrat Party (ELDR). As an MEP, a liberal, and a member of ALDE myself, I felt that such a travesty could only be scorned by all decent and real liberals. More than that, Uspaskich had his advocates among ALDE colleagues who went so far as to imply that he was politically persecuted in Lithuania. This was an outrageous and sinister lie. In this case, I cannot help recalling a crie du cœurof one of my Canadian friends and fellow liberals who said once about a profoundly illiberal person who did his utmost to pass for a liberal: “If he is a liberal, God help us all!”

The outcome of the elections brought the only piece of sensation – several mandates won by an anti-establishment and, in general, anti-structural social movement The Road of Courage which was registered as a political party. A nebulous story of an allegedly molested girl, whose father may have killed two persons whom he suspected to have abused his little daughter, and who died – or was killed – himself in unusual, not to say mysterious, circumstances, paved the way for a wide popular movement against the corruption within Lithuanian judicial system (supposedly run by a certain clandestine clan of pedophiles). The movement gained momentum successfully consolidating much public bitterness, anger, frustration, and discontents with Lithuanian General Prosecutor’s office, courts, and the system of justice. Run by the attorney at law, Neringa Venckiene, the movement has translated its conspiracy theory or resentment into a nebulous populist political program. It had much success in terms of robbing Paksas’ party of many votes (as they apparently targeted the same segment of electorate) and getting some mandates in the Seimas; yet it was a total failure judging by those unrealistically high expectations that its members, enthusiasts, and supporters had concerning a supposedly landslide victory that they expected to win. This was not to happen.            

Yet the fact remains that Viktor Uspaskich and the Labor Party will be in the Lithuanian government again – along with the winning party of Social Democrats, the Paksas party of Order and Justice, and, in all likelihood, with the Polish Electoral Alliance. As Karl Marx said, history repeats itself twice – once as a tragedy and then as a farce. I suppose that the tragedy is over, and for now we will face a farce – and a short-lived one. Yet this doesn’t absolve us from an inconvenient question as to whether Lithuania deserved something better in these elections. I am afraid that that answer is no, and that we got what we deserved. Something remains inexorably lost in transition here, alas.        

Charles Fourier wrote that like two negatives that make a positive in grammar and logic, two prostitutions in one family make a virtue for its morality. This seems the case within the political class of Lithuania.       

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