Lithuania – President Grybauskaite on an extended “vacation”?

The extent of visibility that Grybauskaite commanded both internationally and domestically before joint Russian-Belorussian military exercises “Zapad 2017” carried out in September was quite unprecedented. Since then, for the past six months or so, Lithuanian president appears to have almost completely “disappeared” from political engagements apart from occasional ceremonial duties and a minor clash with prime minister she had in early January, which appears to have soured their relationship.

The new year began with a short, two-day long, scuffle between the prime minister Skvernelis and Grybauskaite, when the former made an unexpected announcement during a radio interview calling to revive an intergovernmental commission between Lithuania and Russia. The prime minister suggested that it would be a practical move, based on Lithuania’s economic and national interests, and would be a beneficial step to open dialogue in such areas as trade, energy, logistics, agricultural products, transportation, and Lithuanian language teaching in Kaliningrad. “We are a unique EU state as we don’t have any—and let me reiterate—absolutely no contacts of any kind with the [neighboring] state [here, Russia], while other [EU] states, including our Baltic neighbors, are actively engaged in economic dealings,” claimed Skvernelis. Prime minister insisted that the current bilateral situation could not be viewed as a normal state of affairs. Skvernelis suggested that a revival of an intergovernmental commission would be highly beneficial for Lithuania’s economy concluding that “open and principled conversation is better than no conversation at all.” Indeed, Lithuania is rather unique in this regard as it is the only EU state that maintains no contact on any official level with Russia since the latter’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014. 

Since Skvernelis’s initiative clearly broke with the official foreign policy direction established and maintained by Grybauskaite, her office issued a staunch retort to the prime minister. “Lithuania’s position remains consistent and is based on principles, meaning, we seek mutually beneficial and respectful relations with all our neighbors. When Russia will change its aggressive policy towards the [neighboring] states, when it returns occupied territories, and when it cedes violating international law by meddling into other countries’ elections, then we will be ready to start a closer cooperation,” announced Grybauskaite. Such a presidential response suggested that a revival of intergovernmental commission would neither be possible nor desirable unless Russia met established “preconditions.” Furthermore, Grybauskaite indicated to the prime minister that his initiatives were not welcomed, that such proposals were irresponsible from the national security standpoint, and that as a head of state in charge of foreign policy she had no intention of changing the status quo that Lithuania finds itself in with Russia.

Skvernelis softened his stand a little bit the following day, when he announced that his and president’s views on Russia were the same and that they both “held almost similar principles [toward Russia].” Thus, there would be no need to find some sort of compromise between his suggestion and the presidential response on this issue. He also pointed out that he was not advocating for any reset in bilateral relations. “Friendship and partnership are two separate things,” he indicated. Grybauskaite countered this by saying that prime minister shows a large degree of naiveté by assuming that “economic relations with this country [here, Russia] can be separated from politics.”

Some political analysts suggested that the prime minister had badly miscalculated with such a spontaneous initiative, which he did not coordinate either with the presidential office or the minister of foreign affairs, and, in the end, was surely destined to suffer a bitter defeat from Grybauskaite. After all, since her arrival to the presidential office in 2009, Grybauskaite has trounced everybody eager to challenge her “absolute” rule in foreign affairs. Actually, it was not the first instance when Skvernelis publicly hinted about his discontent for being sidelined in decision-making on EU matters and about Grybauskaite’s “unilateralism” in foreign policymaking. For instance, in late December of 2017, he pointed out during a radio interview that “certain political decisions are made without any knowledge by, or information being shared with, the government. […] Voting in the UN showed that there was no collaboration [between the government and the president]. Furthermore, the government did not [even have a chance] to debate this matter.” Skvernelis appeared to be dissatisfied with a lack of cooperation shown by Grybauskaite on such a politically charged issue as voting in the UN, which pertained to Lithuania’s unexpected voting in favor of the resolution that condemned the US formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Potentially this spontaneous initiative regarding revival of Lithuanian-Russian intergovernmental commission was some sort of payback by prime minister, even if an unsuccessful one. 

Still others thought that Grybauskaite’s several months long absence in the public eye allowed Skvernelis to feel emboldened and eager to play a more prominent role in the foreign policy making of the country. After all, the president was absent in political arena since September 2017, and after a short January scuffle she had with Skvernelis, Grybauskaite disappeared once again from the public eye until Lithuania’s centennial celebration on 16 February. Although her reappearance for the centennial celebration was purely ceremonial and celebratory in nature, she ended up being criticized for garnering too much attention for herself, for sidelining other high ranking state officials (i.e., in particular the speaker of the parliament and prime minister) and for not inviting other Lithuanian officials to meetings with visiting foreign heads of states and EU’s highest officials. It may not be surprising that that same month (February), prime minister felt comfortable to be daring and provocative when he issued another snarky public supposition that Grybauskaite’s occasional criticism of his government inability to implement several laws could be viewed as a smoke-and-mirror tactics to actually cover up and compensate for both her and her office’s inactivity.

Meanwhile, Grybauskaite’s several months long absence prompted some analysts to suggest that the president has engulfed on an extended vacation of sorts. Surprisingly, her involvement in recent discussions on domestic issues such as taxes, tax reform, economics, and pensions reform—long considered as Grybauskaite’s primary areas of expertise—did not become more noticeable on the president’s agenda until after critical reviews of her inactivity became a matter of political debates. 

Likewise, president’s very limited involvement was evident in the most recent domestic crisis that unfolded in March. For the first time the country’s parliament had blatantly disregarded a Constitutional court decision and failed to remove a member of Parliament who violated Lithuania’s Constitution and parliamentary oath by concealing secret contacts with a KGB officer. Grybauskaite’s comment was communicated through a press statement in which she stated: “By trampling Constitutional Court’s decision and by ignoring state’s national security interests, the parliament has shamelessly discredited itself.” Such presidential detachment in the face of what one may consider a constitutional crisis is puzzling, particularly in light of an extensive work that Grybauskaite carried out to achieve greater transparency in governing structures and to fight nepotism and endemic corruption, especially in the country’s courts system. 

Despite Grybauskaite’s efforts to counter a growing number of unflattering public views, stipulations continue that president has lost her “steam,” that she does not have any new or exciting ideas, and that she clearly lacks determination to advance necessary changes and reforms. One prominent political commentator even suggested that time maybe right to institute a one-term presidency and to initiate necessary constitutional changes to that effect. In the meantime, speculations in the local media and by politicians continue to abound that Grybauskaite is already much more focused on finding a cushy position, allegedly in the EU structures, rather than being actively engaged in important domestic political matters and economic issues.

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