Lithuania: High Flyer

Rolandas Paksas
Vilnius: Newly elected Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas arrives for his first press conference as president, Jan. 6, 2003 (Photo: AFP).

In a surprising rebuke of  Vilnius’ political establishment, Lithuanians elected populist challenger Rolandas Paksas as their new president in January, sending incumbent Valdas Adamkus into retirement.

The new president—an engineer and businessman by profession, a stunt pilot by avocation—has declared that he will continue Lithuania’s foreign policy line toward the European Union (E.U.) and NATO.  At the same time, he has promised to pay more attention to the domestic economy. The Lithuanian press is united in its skepticism regarding many of the incoming president’s domestic promises: reducing taxes and pressing the E.U. to allow higher agricultural subsidies and greater compensation for the closure of the nuclear power plant in Ignalina.

Some critics have noted that Paksas’ platform extended beyond the presidential mandate. “We must understand that the president in Lithuania is not a czar, emperor, or dictator, and he can’t make any solo decisions,” Respublika commented in an editorial (Jan. 2). “We must understand that in a parliamentary republic the president can’t distribute budget money to poor people on his own. This is possible only with the acceptance of government and Parliament.” Writing in Verslo Zinios (Jan. 7), Vaidotas Cucenas quoted Bo Hendriksson of the Swedish company ABB as saying, “[T]he reform of a tax system is not an area of activity for the president.”

How did Paksas beat Adamkus, an English-speaking U.S. émigré who comfortably won the first round of voting in December and was favored in the second? This subject was of greater interest to the press than Paksas’ political prospects. “Voters lost respect for the political parties because in 13 years they couldn’t implement radical reforms, especially in the most sensitive areas of social security and health care,” Lietuvos Rytas, the biggest daily, observed (Jan. 7). “Naturally, the expectations of more radical social changes brought more success for the younger candidate, Paksas.”

The Baltic Times
observed (Jan. 7), “Adamkus’ cavalier approach to the campaign relied on his record of bringing stability to the country and leading E.U. and NATO negotiations. Paksas, on the other hand, ran a flashy campaign—some said aggressive—which included displaying his skills as a daredevil stunt pilot.” Lietuvos Rytas commented (Jan. 11): “People who expected the president to be more extensively involved in domestic affairs were very proactive in these elections.”

According to some publications, the elections indicate that the “fight between the social classes” is increasing. Lietuvos Rytas (Jan. 11) cited the well-known Lithuanian historian Alfredas Bumblauskas: “We must accept that social differentiation in Lithuania is very big. There are two social classes in Lithuania; in fact, there are two different Lithuanias.”

In Omni Laikas, Jonas Valatkevicius questioned Paksas’ financial backing, which is said to be double that of his competitors (Jan. 7): “The reality is that when somebody becomes a high-ranking official, he automatically becomes clean.”