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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.