It is a time of mixed blessings on the political front

Arnas Lazdauskas

In spring this year, Lithuania entered a new phase. It was a new phase in many senses, a time many people had been anxiously waiting for.

Integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union represent the achievement of two fundamental foreign policy goals. People believe that membership of these institutions will help Lithuania stabilise and consolidate its still fragile statehood, as well as increasing their well-being.

Yet the country and its people, a majority of whom supported entry into Nato and the EU as serving the national interest, were by no means as ecstatic as one might have expected. Neither, it seems, were its Nato allies and EU partners. People were more anxious to see the denouement of a five-month political scandal that split the nation. It was the question of whether the president should stay or go. The nation was on tenterhooks. It was clear that whatever the outcome, it would take a lot of time to get over this.

On 6 April 2004 the result came through. The Seimas delivered its verdict. Just over a year into his presidency, Rolandas Paksas was removed from office. The decision brought an end to the first impeachment process in European parliamentary history, and the first to result in the impeachment of a head of state.

The process started on 30 October 2003. On that day the State Security Department published a report saying that it suspected several of the president’s circle of having links with the international criminal world and the Russian secret service. It also said that international criminal groups were trying to influence the privatisation process.

The Seimas set up a parliamentary inquiry. Although the president himself was not implicated, the inquiry said he was vulnerable to manipulation.

Two months later, last December, the Constitutional Court decreed that the presidential decree granting citizenship to the president’s most generous election campaign supporter, the Russian businessman Yuri Borisov, was unconstitutional. It ruled that Paksas had followed personal rather than state or national interests when granting him citizenship.

Later, the parliamentary impeachment panel outlined charges against Paksas of breaching the Constitution. On 31 March the Constitutional Court identified three flagrant violations. These were the unlawful granting of citizenship to Borisov, deliberately informing the latter of the tapping of his telephone by the special services, and influencing the Žemaitijos Keliai road construction company’s executives and shareholders with the aim of having shares transferred to persons close to Paksas.
On 5 April these charges were presented to the Seimas. The following is a summary of the main events over the next two days.

5 April, Monday

The impeachment process in the Seimas begins in the late afternoon. The prosecution and the defence state their positions. The president is represented by six lawyers. The session ends at 10pm. Due to the extended and heated debates, the president’s address is postponed until the next day. At 6.40pm, Paksas addresses the nation in a 20-minute-long televised address.

6 April, Tuesday

The second session begins. Prosecutors and defence lawyers make their closing statements. At 12.00am, Paksas arrives. At 1.30pm, he starts his final address. At 2.05pm, after a short introduction to the voting procedures and having formed a seven-member commission to count the votes, the Seimas starts voting on the three charges. At 4.20pm, Vytautas Greičius, chairman of the Supreme Court and of the impeachment process, announces the results of the secret ballot:

• 86 members of the Seimas declare that the president unlawfully granted Borisov citizenship; 17 vote against;

• 86 declare that he leaked classified information; 18 vote against;

• 89 declare that he interferred in private business; 14 vote against;

• The parliamentary Liberal Democratic Party, which supported the president, declined to vote.
The impeachment, which needed the votes of 85 members of the 141-seat Seimas, was in the end only narrowly approved, with 115 members taking part. The result, though, is clear.
At 4.22pm, the flag flying over the President’s Office is taken down. After a few minutes the Seimas appoints the speaker, Artūras Paulauskas, as acting president until early presidential elections. It decides to vote on the date for early presidential elections the next week, but it looks as if 13 June will be the most likely date. Yuri Borisov, the main sponsor of Paksas’ presidential campaign and one of the main players in the scandal, calls Paksas “a weak politician”. In the evening the impeached president is taken to hospital. The reason for his hospitalisation is not announced. The next day he is released.

A strengthened democracy

The impeachment process has come to an end. The people have been through a very difficult and challenging period. In the words of the US ambassador, Stephen Mull, the process has shown the strength of democracy and democratic institutions in Lithuania.

Two things should be added. First, Paksas never admitted his guilt, saying he had fallen victim to a “corrupt system” and a “well-orchestrated plot”. In his address to the Seimas before it voted, he insisted that his mistakes did not warrant impeachment. Second, although he has been impeached, in the opinion of many it does not spell the end of his political career. On 1 May a stronger Lithuania enters the EU.