Tag Archives: Lithuania

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in an intra-institutional tug of war

Nobody would have anticipated that a short, two-day long, scuffle between President Grybauskaite and prime minister Skvernelis that unfolded in early January would result in an intense intra-institutional tug of war a few months later, and that this intra-instutional infighting would widen to include the country’s parliament, Seimas, and Mr. Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Framers and Green Union Party, which holds a majority of seats in the Seimas. 

Conflicts between prime minister and the president came into the open in April. Skvernelis and Grybauskaite not only continued their escalation regarding potential reevaluation of Lithuania’s relations with Russia that began in early January (more on that below), but their first major confrontation involved a disagreement regarding Minister of Agriculture Markauskas’s political fate. According to the Agency Investigating Financial Crimes (FNTT), Markauskas had made illegal financial gains, which also included payments from the EU funds, while utilizing his neighbor’s arable land, allegedly without the latter’s consent. Based on FNTT’s information, presidential advisors called Markauskas into the presidential office and “ordered [the minister] to resign.” Since the agriculture minister refused, Grybauskaite decided to increase pressure on prime minister by using the media and by making their disagreement public. In her press communiqué she alluded to the prime minister’s continued reluctance to fire the compromised minister indicating that Skvernelis was “dependent [on receiving guidance from his political party higher-ups] and unable to make autonomous decisions.” Following the same communication pattern as the president, the prime minister gave a terse response to Grybauskaite also using local media outlets. “I’m the head of the government. I understand my responsibilities and duties regarding my cabinet members and would not evade them, but at the same time I will not succumb to the pressure by the president or anybody else. It will be my decision, and I will also bare the brunt of it,” declared the prime minister. Skvernelis reminded the president that it was his constitutional prerogative to accept resignation of his cabinet ministers and that he would not be pressured by anybody, not even the president, as to the decisions he would make or when they would happen. Not only did the prime minister show resentment toward Grybauskaite’s public pressure to fire the agriculture minister, but also he was equally irritated that the president sought to usurp the prime minister’s decision-making duties.  

The next political battle between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis ensued in late April when the president rejected the prime minister’s candidate, Mr. Danelius, to the post of the justice minister. Several senior parliament members and attorneys did not find president’s explanation of Mr. Danelius “clashes of interests” sufficiently credible and justifiable to reject his nomination. The conflict between the president and prime minister intensified as political analysts speculated that the presidential rejection signaled Grybauskaite’s “payback” to Skvernelis for his refusal to force the compromised minister of agriculture into an immediate resignation (even if the minister eventually resigned). 

Almost in a tit-for-tat manner, the prime minister further accelerated his conflict with the president when he decided to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several Lithuanian ambassadors for discussions about Lithuanian-Russian relations as well as Lithuania’s bilateral relations with the other EU Eastern Partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova). Although the prime minister’s office claimed that it had no intention to introduce any foreign policy revisions, the president perceived Skvernelis’ moves as another intrusion into her “sphere of influence” and promptly expressed criticism and disapproval. After the meeting with the foreign minister and ambassadors, the prime minister announced through the local media that his and Grybauskaite’s positions fully align, and that the purpose of the meeting was for him to hear directly from the ambassadors on how they evaluate situation in the countries where they reside. Allegedly, at least with regards to Lithuanian-Russian relations the prime minister decided to de-escalate existing tensions with the president. 

It appeared that Grybauskaite was winning the ongoing intra-institutional battles with prime minister as her favored outcomes were realized: the Minister of Agriculture ended up resigning (although not as quickly as the president preferred); she also made the prime minister suggest another candidate for the post of the justice minister; and “new” foreign policy initiatives regarding Lithuanian-Russian relations after Skvernelis’ consultations with ambassadors resulted in no changes. But then a political bombshell exploded. 

On April 28th and throughout early May, Lietuvos rytas, one of Lithuania’s major newspapers, published a series of articles about Grybauskaite’s electronic correspondence from an obscure email account tulpes@lrpk.lt with Mr. Masiulis, the former leader of the Liberal Movement (LS) political party, who since 2016 had been implicated in a major political corruption investigation. Published correspondence dated from 2014-2016 period and discussed a variety of politically sensitive issues such as potential candidates to the Prosecutor General’s office; the 2016 parliamentary elections and who the president would like to be chosen as prime minister; the role of LNK TV channel and particularly journalist Tomas Dapkus who voiced strong criticism about Grybauskaite’s preferred candidates for the Prosecutor General’s office; warnings about Skvernelis’ political ambitions and the president’s description of him as a “dangerous populist.” Interestingly, the timing of leaked correspondence between Grybauskaite and Masiulis coincided with the conclusion of the investigation of his political corruption case and the filing of a lawsuit by the Prosecutor General’s office against Masiulis and the Liberal Movement party he headed until 2016. 

As soon as the email correspondence became public, conflict between Grybauskaite and the ruling Framers and Green Union Party (LVZS) in parliament, particularly its leader, Mr. Karbauskis and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister, spiraled. Immediately LVZS MPs called for investigations into Grybauskaite’s activities, electronic correspondence, and the legality of her actions. Several parliamentary members and political commentators began hinting at the possibility of president’s impeachment, claiming that Grybauskaite’s emails not only directly tied her to Masiulis’ shady political dealings, but also exposed her to potential influences from MG Baltic, one of Lithuania’s largest industrial and medial conglomerates that sought political favors in return for provided financial support. Additionally, the president’s email messages, according to Skvernelis’ suppositions, reflected her alleged “pressure on the media.” This was derived from one of president’s emails written to Masiulis in which she asked him to “send her message” to the head of MG Baltic Darius Mockus, asking Mockus to “restrain his hound” [here, reference is made to journalist Dapkus who, in president’s view, “was speaking nonsense” about her proposed candidate to the post of the Prosecutor General and, as it became known, had direct contacts with MG Baltic top management that owns LNK station where Dapkus works). Additionally, Karbauskis claimed that president’s emails, if proven to be authentic, were not only scandalous, but also reflected unacceptable and potentially illegal political actions by the president.

Within a couple of days Grybauskaite gave a public interview in which she presented her interpretation of events, specifically answering questions pertaining to her correspondence with Masiulis. Although she did not deny using the tulpes@lrpk.lt email address and acknowledged that she had sent emails and text messages to Masiulis from this address, she claimed that she could not confirm the authenticity of these emails. Grybauskaite claimed that her correspondence with Masiulis was neither saved nor found on any of her office’s servers.  She also expressed a belief that the primary reason behind the publication of her electronic correspondence with the former LS leader was to politicize the current lawsuit against Masiulis, and she expressed concern that their correspondence may be used as evidence by the defense.  However, the president expressed her satisfaction that the fight against corruption had made a major breakthrough as three significant political corruption lawsuits were recently filed with the courts by law enforcement agencies, and that the public would get a better understanding as to how much influence large companies and powerful interest groups had amassed in the past decade over the country’s political system. 

Her political opponents, especially Karbauskis, dismissed the president’s “calculated” explanations about the emails’ “disappearance, “ suggesting he was inclined to ask parliament’s IT to check parliament servers in order to “discover” Grybauskaite’s emails that were sent to Masiulis, who was a MP until 2016. Karbauskis also stated that Grybauskaite’s sudden and active presence in the public eye and the media indicated the use of diversionary tactics as the president was allegedly trying to divert public attention from her scandal and towards Karbauskis’ Agroverslas company and potentially unconstitutional links between his business interests and his current lawmaking activities. Indeed, Grybauskaite during her interview alluded that investigations launched in parliament and led by Karbauskis’ party members could be perceived as “selective,” suggesting that she saw no political will shown by LVZS to achieve greater transparency in investigating how businesses interests (including Karbauskis’ own agricultural conglomerate) influence politics. After several terse public exchanges between the presidential office and the parliament that continued in May and June—for instance, Karbauskis announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until the new president gets elected next year—the parliament adjourned for summer recess with neither Karbauskis nor Skvernelis showing any apparent intensions to pursue president’s impeachment.  

Although Grybauskaite vehemently denied any involvement in any corruption cases, she felt it was necessary to launch a media campaign to present her side of the story. Despite her efforts to defend herself, political damage that the latest political scandal will have on her, her reputation, and, ultimately, her legacy is inevitable albeit the extent of it is too early to tell. Some prominent politicians voiced the opinion that Grybauskaite should resign as she had clearly compromised herself and could no longer serve as the moral leader of the country. Others expressed the opinion that because of her involvement in the latest political scandal Grybauskaite had killed off her chances to successfully run and be selected for a high-ranking post in the top EU governing structures. Moreover, headlines about impeachment produced a negative effect:  as expected, her public approval ratings experienced a significant fall within days of political scandal’s eruption and appear to be falling nearly two months later. More disconcerting for Grybauskaite, however, is what will happen after the parliament’s summer recess. Karbauskis has already hinted that he is not only determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, including Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair,” but he is expecting the president to respond to his ultimatum regarding the authenticity of her emails. The presidential office stated that Karbauskis’ intention to investigate Grybauskaite’s emails amounts to an open political vendetta and violates the Constitution. 

As regular and numerous media headlines about ongoing political tug of war between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis and, more recently, between Grybauskaite and Karbauskis suggest, her last year in office may be an ongoing fight for her reputation, fending off one political scandal after another as the “reigning in” of the president will likely continue. The winner of these intra-institutional wars is unclear at the moment. However, it is safe to assume that this is probably not how Grybauskaite anticipated she would spend her last year in office.

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.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius – Where rules are lacking, presidents prevail: Explaining presidential influence in Lithuania

This is a guest post by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’ that will be published in Government and Opposition

Despite more than two decades of research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister (PM) and her cabinet on the other. With some exceptions, even country studies have not probed the regular interaction between the executives. Our fresh case study of Lithuania seeks to partially fill that gap.  As part of a comparative project on semi-presidentialism granted by the Swedish Research Council, we use official documents and interviews with key civil servants and ministers for examining in detail how executive coordination has worked in Lithuania since the early 1990s (Raunio and Sedelius 2017).

Our research was driven by two inter-related questions: how does coordination between the president and PM actually work and how institutional design influences the balance of power and level of conflict between the two executives. The basic premise was that institutional design is related to the level of conflict between the cabinet and the president, and that conflicts over policy, legislation or appointments are manifestations of coordination problems. By institutional design we mean those rules, organizational arrangements and conventions that structure routine coordination between the two executives.

Challenging previous accounts of the Lithuanian case, our article argues that the existing modes of coordination facilitate presidential dominance. Absent of written rules or otherwise strong norms guiding intra-executive coordination, Lithuanian presidents have clearly enjoyed a lot of discretion in designing their own modes of operation. The transition period from authoritarian to democratic rule presented the opportunity to set rules about coordination, but there was insufficient political will for constraining the presidency through more precise legal rules or regular cooperation mechanisms. In line with institutional theory, the adopted approach has become the appropriate course of action, with each new president bringing her own staff, personality and leadership style into the equation. The presidents also have the power of initiative regarding cooperation, with forms and levels of intra-executive coordination essentially always determined by the president. For example, while joint councils or ministerial committees might facilitate better coordination, presidents do not need such bodies. As one of our interviewees put it: ‘Presidents that have enough powers do not create such councils, they do not need such kind of institutions, they just arrange ad hoc meetings despite the fact that it is not foreseen in any law.’

The obvious challenge stemming from lack of rules is that power is very much ‘up for grabs’, particularly given the Lithuanian personality-centred political culture which favours strong leadership and presidential activism. As another of our informants expressed it: ‘one side might ask “where is it written?” and another can argue “where is it forbidden?”’ There is a rather broadly shared expectation, especially by citizens, that the president is the ‘political authority’, and the successive presidents have repeatedly leaned on their popular support to intervene in questions falling under the government. Presidents have also essentially hand-picked various prime ministers and have forced PMs and other ministers to resign. Like in other semi-presidential regimes, much depends on party politics, with periods of cohabitation reducing the influence of the president and bringing about a more strict division of labour between the executives. At other times, such as when the current president Dalia Grybauskaité entered office in 2009, the economic and political conditions facilitated subsequent assertive presidential behaviour.

Another example of a ‘power grab’ is EU policy. Constitutionally European affairs are the domain of the government, with the PM leading Lithuanian integration policy. The cabinet is thus responsible for coordinating EU matters and for preparatory work ahead of the Council and the European Council. During the presidency of Adamkus the president participated in those European Councils which featured foreign and security policy while the PM would cover other matters. Often both executives would attend the summits. Grybauskaitė in turn participates in the meetings of European Council, even though constitutional provisions about division of labor clearly suggest that the PM should represent Lithuania. Again, this power of interpretation shown by Grybauskaité and bending rules in her favour can be explained by lack of formal regulation. The constitution, secondary laws, or the rules about domestic EU coordination do not detail who should represent Lithuania in the European Council.

Our article also highlights the role of advisors. The size of the president’s office may be small, but, interestingly, the staff of each president has comprised mainly policy advisers in areas falling under the competence of the government – including social policy, economic policy, education, culture, religion etc. Such advisors can be important for the presidents, not least through forming contacts with political parties and MPs, individual ministers and ministries or civil society stakeholders.

However, we should not exaggerate the powers of the Lithuanian president. The balance of power between the Seimas, the government and the president ensures that the president can achieve very little alone – and this in fact explains the strategic behaviour of the president and her advisers. Despite the lack of rules, intra-executive coordination does exist and in most instances conflicts are avoided. This applies particularly to foreign and security policy – an issue area that is both highly salient in Lithuania and where the president and the government constitutionally share power. Also the perceived role of the president as a ‘constructive statesman’ constrains the incumbents. But while Lithuanian semi-presidentialism has functioned by and large smoothly, the personality-centred politics commonly found in Central and East European countries does create favorable conditions for presidential activism. While one might argue that institutional flexibility has served Lithuanian politics quite well, the apparent lack of constitutionally regulated coordination between the two executives can prove a profound challenge during a long-term political and economic turmoil.

References:

Raunio, Tapio and Sedelius, Thomas (2017): Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania. Government and Opposition   https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.31.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite’s Anti-Zapad campaign

Lithuanian President Grybauskaite identified the joint Russian-Belorussian military exercise Zapad-2017, which took place on the borders of the three Baltic States and Poland, as one of the most important events of 2017. In and of itself this military drill was nothing new since Russia carried out similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, and the Kremlin had announced that it plans to continue drills every four years. However, a yearlong public relations campaign launched by Grybauskaite against Zapad 2017 and alleged Russian aggression was quite unprecedented, especially if compared to Zapad 2013 and 2009 drills that produced no such presidential reactions.

Starting in February, when she met with US Defense Secretary James Mattis, Grybauskaite declared that Zapad 2017 exercises were a clear demonstration of Russia’s preparations for warfare with the West. Lithuanian President’s first accusation of the Kremlin’s “demonstrative preparation” for war on the West quickly made headlines in the American press. “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe,” proclaimed Grybauskaite to Foreign Policy.

Anti-Zapad/Russia campaign continued through the summer and peaked in September as Grybauskaite used high-level meetings to highlight Lithuania’s “aggressive neighborhood.” For instance, during May and July meetings between the heads of state of Central and Eastern European countries and President Trump, Grybauskaite informed Trump of specific threats and challenges faced by Lithuania and of country’s imperative defense needs. Regional threats from the East, especially Russia, topped Grybauskaite’s agenda following her official visits to Estonia and Ukraine. She also talked about threats posed by Russia’s drills during a U.S. Congressional delegation visit in Lithuania and while meeting with NATO and U.S. European Command generals alleging that “[Russia’s] attempts to redraw states’ borders by force.” It was probably not surprising that her 2017 State of the Nation Address identified Zapad 2017 drills as one of the top threats to Lithuania’s national security.

As the official date of military exercises (September 14-20) approached, major Western news outlets became the primary focus of Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad/Russia pronouncements. In a Wall Street Journal article Lithuanian president observed, “We see a very, very large scale offensive exercise that demonstrates hatred against the West.” Grybauskaite also expressed country’s trepidation to Reuters. “We are worried about the upcoming ‘Zapad 2017’ exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force [on our borders] that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West.” Then, in her interview with CNBC Grybauskaite suggested that there was a “very large” probability that part of Russia’s equipment, including troops, would be kept in Belarus after the military exercise. “Russia is still very, very unpredictable, and it has proved this unpredictability with its activities in occupying Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia. History teaches us that we need to see and watch and prepare for the activities of Russia,” she said.

Her scathing criticism of Russia, however, was reserved for the international audience in a speech she delivered at the UN.

“As we speak [September 19, 2017], around one hundred thousand Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ on the borders with the Baltic States, Poland and even in the Arctic. The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West. […] the Zapad exercise is just one symptom of the Kremlin’s inability to finally end its hatred towards the West.

Despite Russia’s special responsibility to protect international peace as permanent member of the Security Council, it violated the UN Charter by attacking Georgia, illegally annexing Crimea, and directly participating in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s arsenal does not stop at conventional weapons. Russia continues to meddle in elections of other states, conducts cyber-attacks and uses its ‘sputniks’ to spread fake news and destabilizing propaganda.”

Not surprisingly, the Russian delegation walked out the General Assembly hall before Lithuanian president’s speech.

Although her UN speech received a positive evaluation in the local media, several Lithuanian MPs criticized Grybauskaite over the chosen timing of her visit to the UN. One MP stated that the Lithuanian President has “[…] trumpeted to the entire world the message about possible military invasion of Lithuania, so it is utterly bizarre to learn that when the threat may be at its highest, the Lithuanian head of state, who is also constitutionally carries the duties of the commander in chief, decides to leave the country and not somewhere nearby, but heads as far as over the Atlantic.” Another MP rushed to introduce a resolution mandating all high-ranking state officials to remain in the country during the drills. In her defense, Grybauskaite claimed that “an opportunity to go the UN and to address two hundred nations from its rostrum to draw attention to the problems of our region today when the whole world thinks only about conflicts with North Korea” could not be missed. Additionally, the president’s press office claimed that Grybauskaite was “the only leader of the states directly exposed to the threats by Zapad who has a possibility to present the situation directly to the Secretary-General during the Assembly.”

Anticipating that her leaving the country at the time when Lithuania, according to her, would be facing the gravest threat, Grybauskaite suddenly expressed a marked restraint in her public pronouncements, unexpectedly announcing that she saw “no threats” associated with the drills because the country was well militarily prepared and suggested that Zapad 2017 would be beneficial for Lithuania in the future as such drills would allow to identify potential security gaps. She also urged the public to “[…] not get frightened, because this is what the goal of the Zapad exercise is: to frighten us, to break our will to defend ourselves so that we are paralyzed and can do nothing in our state.”

Arguably, Grybauskaite’s concerns about Zapad’s impact on Lithuania’s national security had some merit. First, the president and defense ministry were deeply concerned about the scope and size of the military involved in the drills. According to the official numbers provided by Russia, only 12,700 soldiers were involved, but Western defense analysts and Lithuanian military intelligence officials claimed that the numbers were closer to 100,000. Moreover, since the exercises were directly on the border with Lithuania, increased risks due to potential provocations could not be ruled out. The second concern was build on fear that a “little green men” scenario in the aftermath of similar smaller drills, resulting in the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, could plausibly unfold in the Baltic. “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been particularly concerned about Russia repeating its strategy in Crimea on our soil,” reasoned Grybauskaite.

Despite some justifiable merits to raise awareness around the world about aggressive Russian actions, Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad campaign cannot be considered as an astounding success. Over the span of a year, her position swung from one extreme: Russia is a threat, it hates the West, and may go to war with NATO and occupy Lithuania, to another extreme: Zapad and Russia are not a threat, Lithuania is militarily ready and will not be frightened or intimidated. The message was clearly inconsistent. Furthermore, this campaign had local and international repercussions.

Domestically, presidential pronouncements of how dangerous Zapad 2017 would be for Lithuania and agitation build up by top policymakers that alleged occupation scenario was nearly imminent led to heightened public anxiety. Local media, building on public presidential pronouncements, also fanned public panic flames with headlines such as “Grybauskaite claims that Russia’s military exercises is a demonstration of its readiness to fight war with the West;” “Nearly half of the Lithuanian population perceives Russia as a threat;” “Discovery of a Zapad drill scenario: Lithuania is given a role of an aggressor with a strange name;” “Russia tops the list of greatest threats to Lithuania’s national security;” and “Save yourself, if you can: Grybauskaite departs to the US during Zapad-2017 military drill.” Even former chief of country’s internal security agency expressed a view that “manipulation of public feelings in the name of security [was] totally unacceptable.”

Local analysts eventually had to admit that worries about the extent of Zapad’s threat were clearly exaggerated by Grybauskaite, government officials, and several other MPs, who, instead of showing restraint when addressing both national and international audiences, chose to advance the “apocalypse is coming” message. Presently, no policymaker issued an apology for causing public anxiety; rather, they “credited” the Kremlin with sowing public panic.

Since the anticipated apocalyptic scenario did not materialize, the bigger concern now for the President is the potential of a negative impact anti-Zapad campaign may have on Lithuania’s credibility internationally and on Grybauskaite’s legacy. The danger is that any future “crying wolf” type campaigns voiced on an international stage by top Lithuanian officials may be ignored at best or completely brushed off as groundless at worst, depriving the next Lithuanian president of valuable future opportunities to communicate to the world about serious threats faced by the country. The anti-Zapad campaign could also tarnish Grybauskaite’s foreign policy legacy. To control potential damage, she is already suggesting a new “military Schengen” project, which would facilitate and free the movement of military equipment among the EU member states and could potentially continue enhancing European security by ensuring air defense and rapid deployment of NATO support into the region. It is unquestionably a tall order for her to succeed in fulfilling this project, given that she merely has a year and a half left in office.

Lithuania – Reshuffle of deputy ministers as President Grybauskaite is sworn in for second term in office

After her successful reelected in May 2014, president Dalia Grybauskaite was sworn in for her second term in office this Sunday, 12 July. As I have previously remarked in other posts, the Lithuanian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in Central and Eastern Europe. This powerful position stems not only from the popular mandate and the constitutionally defined leading role in foreign policy, but also finds expression in an interesting stipulation about the government’s mandate after presidential elections which has now allowed Grybauskaite to force changes in a number of government ministries.

President Dalia Grybauskaite during her inaugural speech for her second term, 12 July 2014 | image via president.lt

Art 92 of the Lithuanian Constitution states that The Government shall return its powers to the President of the Republic after the Seimas elections or after the elections of the President of the Republic. The president then has 15 days to present a (new) candidate for Prime Minister to parliament who has to pass a vote of confidence. Although the president’s potential courses of actions are naturally restricted by parliamentary arithmetic, the stipulation theoretically  allows her/him to try and install a government which is closer to her own policy preferences or at least to extract some concessions from an incumbent Prime Minister and their cabinet.

Dalia Grybauskaite had already played a very active role in the appointment of the current centre-left government led by Algirdas Butkevicius in 2012 and had even refused to nominate him before conceding that he was the only candidate capable of mustering a majority in parliament. While she remained critical of the government as a whole as well as individual cabinet members, she has not been successful in effecting any changes to the cabinet composition since – also because there is no alternative to the current government coalition. As her inauguration approached it was thus clear that she would re-appoint Prime Minister Butkevicius. Nevertheless, two week ago Grybauskaite announced that she would not reappoint cabinet ministers on the Prime Minster’s request if they failed to sack deputy ministers (MPs with the rank of secretary of state) that appeared on a ‘blacklist’ of people with suspicious financial activities. Representatives of the government protested against the move as the president formally has no authority to influence appointments below cabinet level. However, coalition parties soon agreed to ask all deputy ministers to resign – a call which was eventually followed by all involved.

The resignation of all deputy ministers can be seen as a great success for Grybauskaite, particularly over the Electoral Action of Poles whose only deputy minister refused to resign until last night and was also not fired by the respective cabinet minister from the same party. The fact that she has been able to force changes below cabinet level cannot only be attributed to the stipulations of Art 92. Grybauskaite also certainly benefited from her ‘fresher’ legitimacy and her popular mandate which let her act independently of the government. While her actions are partly a way of fulfilling the promises of her electoral campaign and improving her public image (the topic of corruption remains very salient in Lithuanian politics), her activism can also be explained by the fact that she will not want to become a lame duck towards the end of her term. By referring to the precedent she has just set, it will be easier for her to influence political decision-making even after the parliamentary elections next year have brought a new and freshly legitimised government into office.

Lithuania – Incumbent president Dalia Grybauskaite elected for second term in office

On 25 May 2014 Lithuania held the second round of presidential elections. After incumbent president Dalia Grybauskaite had already dominated the first round of voting, she also won the second round as expected. Nevertheless, she was not able to significantly increase the total number of votes and her opponent Balčytis finished with more than just a succès d’estime. lithuania presidential elections 2 In the first round of voting, Grybauskaite won 45.9 % of the vote, compared to only 13.6% won by runner-up Zigmantas Balčytis, leading many analysts to predict a victory close to the 69% that earned her the presidency in 2009. Given these prospects both candidates hardly engaged in any further campaigning during the last two weeks. In their last TV debate President Grybauskaite continued her rather aggressive rhetoric with regard to Lithuania’s security interests and criticised the government for not setting a higher defence budget. Balčytis tried to defend the government and overall presented himself as the more conciliatory candidate. The eventual result is in so far surprising as Grybauskaite was only able to increase the number of votes by 88,009 (a 14% increase), while Balčytis was able to attract an additional 304,276 (167% increase). Nevertheless, it also reflects the fact that Grybauskaite was the only credible candidate from the beginning. Not only because of Grybauskaite’s certain victory, Balčytis motivation to actively engage in the campaign was somewhat limited. Already two days after the first round of elections, the Prime Minister Butkevicius sparked speculations about Balčytis becoming Lithuania’s candidate for EU commissioner. Although the approval of parliament and president is needed before Balčytis can be nominated as an official candidate, given his background as former minister of finance and MEP (as well as the good election result) his nomination seems very likely.

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Detailed election results can be found on the website of the Lithuanian Electoral Commission http://www.2013.vrk.lt/2014_prezidento_rinkimai/output_en/rezultatai_vienmand_apygardose2/rezultatai_vienmand_apygardose2turas.html

Lithuania – Incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite wins first round of presidential elections but has to enter run-off

On 11 May 2014 Lithuania held the first round of presidential elections. After incumbent Dalie Grybauskaite had won her first term with 69% of the vote, she now also entered the race for re-election as the clear favourite out of seven candidates. Despite more than twice the amount of votes than the runner-up, she failed to repeat the first-round victory from five years and will enter a run-off against Zigmantas Balčytis on 25 May.

lithuania presidential elections

Commentators criticised the campaign as ‘boring’ and superficial as all candidates were aware that they were unlikely to win against Grybauskaite or even enter the second round. The latter was particularly true for Naglis Puteikis (independent MP), Valdemar Tomaševski (MEP, candidate of the Polish Electoral Alliance), Bronis Ropė (Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union) and Artūras Zuokas (Homeland Revival and Perspective Party). The question was rather whether MEP and former minister of finance Zigmantas Balčytis or former speaker of parliament and one-time acting president Artūras Paulauskas would enter the second round. While Grybauskaite, who runs as an independent (yet her candidacy is supported by the conservative Homeland Union), was not able to win a second term in the first round of election, her result is better than could have been expected only half a year ago. She now benefitted from the fact that parties generally did not propose their most popular candidates. Grybauskaite was also able to capitalise on the Ukraine crisis in the context of which she was able to represent herself as the defender Lithuania’s security interests against hypothetical Russian aggression.

Grybauskaite is set to win the second round of the elections and another term in office. While there is hardly anything that would be able to ruin her chances, Balčytis might still be able to reduce the distance between the two.

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Detailed election results can be found on the website of the Lithuanian Electoral Commission:
http://www.2013.vrk.lt/2014_prezidento_rinkimai/output_en/rezultatai_vienmand_apygardose/rezultatai_vienmand_apygardose1turas.html

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite’s veto activity

On Thursday last week, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė vetoed amendments to the ‘Law on Fisheries’ enumerating several legal problems with the regulations on how to assign and transfer fishing quotas. A strong involvement of the presidents in legislation as well as executive decisions is nothing in semi-presidential Lithuania. Nevertheless, as Dalia Grybauskaitė’s first term in office is coming to an end in May this year, this post will use it as an opportunity to give a brief overview of her veto activity and explain the regulations on presidential vetoes in Lithuania.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė's signature under her most recent veto | source: www.e-tar.lt

President Dalia Grybauskaitė’s signature under her most recent veto | source: www.e-tar.lt

Articles 71 of the Lithuanian constitution gives the president the right to send any bill back to parliament for reconsideration. The president returns the bill with ‘relevant reasons for considerations’ – a term likely introduced to avoid vetoes for other purely partisan reasons – within ten days of receiving it (which gives the president relatively little time compared to other Central and East European counterparts, most of whom are allowed at least 15 days). Parliament can override any presidential veto with an absolute majority (i.e. 71 of its 141 members). However, parliament also has the possibility to adopt or incorporate any changes proposed by the president. This – as Tsebelis and Rizova (2007) have noted – gives the president an advantage over parliament as it is easier to adopt the president’s so-called ‘amendatory observations’ than to override the veto as a whole.

For most of her presidency Grybauskaitė served alongside the government of Andrius Kubilius whose Homeland Union had supported her candidacy in the 2009 presidential elections despite her running as an independent. As there were no major policy differences between the government and the president, intra-executive relations can be described as neutral, even friendly. However, the relationship with the Butkevicius government has been far from free of problems. Already in the formation phase, Grybauskaitė actively intervened and showed her dislike for the inclusion of the Labour Party into the government, highlighting the beginning of a period of cohabitation. Interestingly, this change in government appears not to have affected the president’s veto activity. While cohabitation is usually associated with a more frequent use of presidential powers, Grybauskaitė vetoed  1.8% of legislation (28 vetoes) under Kubilius and only 0.2% (10 vetoes) more under Butkevicius.

Even though several key predictors of presidential veto use (such as parliamentary fragmentation or the size of the government majority) did not vary during Dalia Grybauskaitė’s presidency, it is a look at the abovementioned ‘amendatory observations’ that reveals an interesting characteristic of presidential vetoes in interplay with legislation in Lithuania. Not only in the case of the ‘Law on Fisheries’, has president Grybauskaitė made use of amendatory observations to constructively influence legislation (that is, apart from her right to introduce legislative initiatives). All of her vetoes were also accompanied by suggestions for further amendments. Furthermore, in all cases were these suggestions were (at least partially) incorporated despite the fact that the governments disposed of an absolute majority in the assembly. This veto success shows that rather than for partisan/ideological reasons, Grybauskaitė returned bills to ensure their quality. This becomes even clearer when looking at the justifications for vetoes which almost exclusively list concrete legal problems such as incompatibility issues (rather than alleged non-compliance with relatively vague principles). 

Lithuania – Smear campaign against the president or pre-election tactics?

Since Lithuania took over the six-month rotating European Union presidency on 1 July, the country and particularly president Dalia Grybauskaitė’s efforts to convince her Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovch to sign an EU association agreement at the Eastern Neighbourhood Summit in Vilnius this week have frequently featured in the European press. While the president’s mission proved to be unsuccessful due to Russian blackmail on Ukraine, Russia also exerted pressure on Lithuania (e.g. by banning the import of Lithuanian dairy products) to derail the negotiations. More recently, the leak of a secret report alleging that Russia would start a smear campaign against the president has dominated the headlines. Nevertheless, commentators have questioned the fact basis of the report and it appears that president Grybauskaitė (who is seeking re-election next year) is actually benefiting from the issue.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė | photo via wikimedia commons

In late October, the Baltic News Service (BNS) reported that according to a confidential report of the Lithuanian secret service Russia was trying to obtain or falsify compromising information about president Grybauskaitė. The secret service subsequently confirmed the existence of the report and the president stated that she had been made aware of the alleged plans. Yet while the chairman of the parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee, Arturas Paulauskas, declared that reports about the possibility of covert Russian attacks were ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ and were received by government members and committee chairmen on a regular basis, the Lithuanian prosecution started a criminal investigation about the source of the leak and obtained a court order to force the BNS journalists to disclose their sources. The move was naturally criticised by journalists who subsequently received support from the main parliamentary parties and cabinet members.

Although a provocation from Russia does not seem unlikely given its record during Lithuania’s EU Council presidency, commentators have questioned whether the leaked report (which has not been made publicly available by BNS) was based on actual facts or mere speculation (the fact that the presidential office only received a hard copy of the report several days after the leak was reported suggests the latter). In any case, Grybauskaitė generally appears to be benefitting from the issue. An opinion poll released shortly after the leak of the secret service report showed that Grybauskaitė is clearly heading for re-election. While still far away from the 69% she won in the first and only round of the 2009 elections, 41.6% of respondents indicated their intention to vote for her while her strongest contenders only polled between 12 and 14%. After speculations about her past as a Communist hardliner and her pro-Soviet stance during Lithuania’s break-away from the Soviet Union in 1990/91 had characterised the last presidential campaign[1], she has managed to successfully established herself as a leading conservative politician (albeit non-partisan) and defender of Lithuanian independence. Furthermore, similar to the neighbouring Baltic Republics Latvia and Estonia, the relationship with Russia is high on the public and political agenda and anti-Russian rhetoric still has the potential to mobilise a significant part of the electorate. Irrespective of the actual content of the leaked report and its current effect on the president’s approval ratings, it is thus likely to become a key issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.


[1]  Krupavicius, Algis. 2010. ‘Lithuania’. European Journal of Political Research 49: 1058–1075, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6765.2010.01962.x