Freedom in the World
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Less than one year after regaining the premiership, Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas stepped down in June 2001 in the face of a deepening government crisis. Two days earlier, a key ruling coalition party had asked for his resignation following differences over economic policy, particularly plans for privatizing the country's major utilities. Paksas' successor, former Lithuanian Communist leader Algirdas Brazauskas, pledged to continue reform efforts to secure the country's membership into NATO and the European Union (EU).
Lithuania merged with Poland in the sixteenth century and was subsequently absorbed by Russia in the eighteenth century. After gaining its independence at the end of World War I, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 under a secret protocol of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. The country regained its independence with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
In the 1992 parliamentary elections, the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP), the successor to the Communist Party, won 79 of 141 seats. Brazauskas became the country's first directly elected president in 1993. With two LDDP-led governments tainted by financial scandal in the wake of a banking crisis, the Homeland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (HU/LC) secured the most votes in parliamentary elections in 1996, followed by the Christian Democrats. The two parties formed a center-right coalition government, and Gediminas Vagnorius of the HU/LC was named prime minister. In January 1998, Lithuanian-American and independent candidate Valdas Adamkus was narrowly elected president over former Prosecutor-General Arturas Paulauskas.
Following months of growing tensions between Adamkus and Vagnorius over political, economic, and personal issues, Adamkus called on Vagnorius in mid-April 1999 to resign. After stepping down on May 3, Vagnorius was succeeded by Vilnius mayor and HU/LC member Rolandas Paksas on May 18. However, Paksas' term in office lasted less than six months, when he resigned on October 27 in protest over the controversial sale of part of the state-owned Mazeikiu Oil complex to the U.S. energy company Williams International. On October 29, President Adamkus nominated HU/LC member and parliamentary First Deputy Chairman Andrius Kubilius as prime minister, the same day on which the Williams deal was formally concluded. On November 2, parliament approved Kubilius by a vote of 82 to 20.
Faced with the public's dissatisfaction over its economic austerity policies, the ruling HU/LC experienced a resounding defeat in both the March 2000 local elections and the October 2000 parliamentary vote. In the municipal poll, the newly created center-left New Alliance (Social Liberals), led by Arturas Paulauskas, captured the most seats. In the national legislature, the Social Democratic Coalition, which united four leftist parties, including the LDDP, secured the most votes, while the HU/LC came in a distant fourth. The coalition, led by Brazauskas, had campaigned on a platform of greater attention to social issues and increased support for the country's agricultural sector. However, the informal New Policy electoral bloc, which was composed of the ideologically diverse Liberal Union, New Alliance (Social Liberals), Center Union, and Modern Christian Democratic Union parties, bypassed the Social Democratic Coalition to form a new centrist government. The bloc obtained a bare parliamentary majority by also securing the support of two smaller parties. In late October, parliament confirmed Paksas as the new prime minister, returning him to the post one year after the end of his previous tenure in that position. Paulauskas was named parliamentary chairman.
After just eight months in power, the unstable national ruling coalition of right- and left-wing parties collapsed in June 2001. On June 18, the New Alliance (Social Liberals) called on Prime Minister Paksas to resign following disagreements regarding the budget and privatization plans for the country's energy sector. Paksas stepped down two days later and was replaced in July by Brazauskas, the chairman of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP), which was created in January from the merger of the LDDP and the Social Democratic Party. The more ideologically compatible - and thus theoretically more stable - LSDP and New Alliance (Social Liberals) subsequently formed a new ruling coalition government.
Brazauskas' history as Lithuania's last Communist leader fueled speculation that he would slow reform measures necessary for EU and NATO membership. While stressing that he would place a greater emphasis on social programs than his predecessors, Brazauskas also maintained that his government would continue with various economic and social reforms. By the end of 2001, Lithuania had completed 23 of 31 chapters in EU accession negotiations and had become a member of the World Trade Organization.
Lithuanians can change their government democratically. The 1992 constitution established a 141-member parliament (Seimas), in which 71 seats are selected in single-mandate constituencies and 70 seats are chosen by proportional representation, all for four-year terms. A July 2000 amendment to the electoral law changed the single-mandate district contests from majority (more than 50 percent of the vote) to plurality, or first-past-the-post, races. The president is directly elected for a five-year term. The 1996 and 2000 national legislative elections and the 1997-1998 presidential vote were conducted freely and fairly. In August 2001, parliament adopted a constitutional amendment granting all permanent residents the right to run and vote in local government elections.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press. There is a wide variety of privately owned newspapers, and several independent, as well as state-run, television and radio stations broadcast throughout the country. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and enjoyed in practice in this largely Roman Catholic country.
Freedom of assembly and association is generally respected. Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, to strike, and to engage in collective bargaining. However, ongoing problems include inadequate or employer-biased legislation, management discrimination against union members, and the court system's lack of expertise in labor-related issues.
While the judiciary is largely independent from the executive branch, there is a severe lack of qualified judges, who consequently suffer from excessive workloads. There have been credible reports of police abuse of suspects and detainees, and overcrowding in prisons and pretrial detention facilities remains a serious problem. In February 2001, Kazys Gimzauskas became the first person in Lithuania to be convicted of war crimes against Jews during World War II. However, he was released into the care of his family and medical personnel because he was terminally ill. Another alleged war criminal, Antanas Gecas, died in September in Edinburgh after Scotland refused to extradite him to Lithuania on the grounds that he was too ill to stand trial.
The rights of the country's ethnic minorities are protected in practice. In 1992, Lithuania extended citizenship to all those born within its borders, and more than 90 percent of non-ethnic Lithuanians, mostly Russians and Poles, became citizens. Women are underrepresented in upper-level management positions and earn lower average wages than men.