Freedom in the World
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In May 2006, Lithuania’s government resigned following a prolonged political crisis and the withdrawal of two parties from the ruling four-party coalition. Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas formed the country’s first ever minority government in July from a coalition of center-left parties. Meanwhile, the country was rocked by a series of corruption scandals, including those involving several high-level government officials.
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 USSR in 1991.
Lithuania became a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004, having joined NATO a month earlier. However, these accomplishments were marred by a series of high-profile political corruption scandals, including the impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas on charges of corruption and violating his oath of office and the constitution. In March of that year, the Constitutional Court had ruled that Paksas was guilty of unlawfully granting citizenship, leaking classified information, and meddling in private business affairs. Arturas Paulauskas, the parliamentary chairman, took over as acting president following Paksas’s impeachment.
Elections to select a new president were held simultaneously with the vote for the European Parliament. In a tight runoff contest, Valdas Adamkus defeated Kazimiera Prunskiene, the leader of the Union of Farmers and New Democracy (VNDS), and was sworn in as president in July 2004.
Parliamentary elections held over two rounds in October 2004 resulted in a right-wing coalition of the Homeland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (HU) and the Liberal and Center Union (LCU) capturing 43 seats (25 for HU and 18 for the LCU). The Labor Party won 39 seats; the ruling leftist coalition parties of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (SDP) and New Union (Social Liberals), 31 seats (20 seats and 11 seats, respectively); the VNDS, 10 seats; the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), 10 seats; the Electoral Action of Lithuanian Poles, 2 seats; and independent candidates, the remaining 6 seats. After negotiations between left- and right-wing parties broke down, a ruling center-left coalition emerged in November, with the Labor Party and VNDS joining the SDP and New Union (Social Liberals).
Political scandals, including those involving several high-level government officials, marred the Lithuanian landscape in 2005. In January, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis admitted to having once served in the Soviet KGB reserves. Consequently, Parliament set up an ad hoc commission to investigate his past and look into similar allegations about two other senior officials. The commission, which was also charged with determining whether any laws were violated when the officials were appointed to their present posts, ascertained that the former reservists are exempt from a Lithuanian law requiring former KGB agents to disclose their past to the public. In April, Finance Minister Algirdas Butkevicius resigned following a disagreement with the government over proposed tax reforms introduced to shift the balance of taxation from labor to capital; he was replaced the following month by Zigmantas Balcytis. In June, Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich was forced to resign as economy minister over allegations that his business dealings had breached ethics rules. He was accused of using his position to gain advantages in Moscow for several companies in which he holds a stake, as well as of making false claims about his level of education. Uspaskich was replaced by Kestutis Dauksys of the Labor Party.
The year 2006 was marked by continued political instability, including the collapse of the ruling coalition. On April 11, the right-wing opposition initiated a no-confidence vote in Speaker of Parliament Paulauskas of the New Union (Social Liberals) over revelations of abuse of authority in the parliament’s chancellery. The vote was supported by fellow coalition members from the Labor Party, who reportedly hoped to increase their overall influence in the government. The New Union (Social Liberals) responded by immediately pulling out of the government, which survived for several weeks as a three-party coalition. However, on May 31, the Labor Party withdrew all of its ministers shortly after prosecutors launched an investigation into misuse of the party’s finances; Uspaskich resigned his position as the party’s leader and subsequently left for Russia. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas of the SDP stepped down on June 1, saying that he did not wish to be responsible for putting together a new government under the current circumstances; his departure triggered the collapse of the government. After coalition talks between the HU and SDP to form a broad-based, left-right “rainbow” coalition failed, a new government was formed in July consisting of the SDP, LCU, National Farmers’ Union (NFU, formerly the VNDS), and Civil Democracy (formed following a split within the Labor Party). The four parties together held fewer than 60 seats in Parliament—which marked this as the first time since Lithuania regained its independence that the country had a minority government. Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas of the SDP was chosen to be the new prime minister.
Several corruption scandals involving senior government officials made headlines at the end of 2005 and in 2006. In late 2005, a parliamentary commission concluded that Arturas Zuokas, mayor of Vilnius and leader of the LCU, had received bribes in exchange for ensuring that city government decisions favored particular business interests. Zuokas refused to resign his post, which led to a split in the LCU in early 2006. The Supreme Court, in late 2005, cleared former prime minister Paksas of criminally leaking state secrets to a Russian businessman, although the decision did not annul his 2004 impeachment. In November 2005, the Vilnius prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into Brazauskas’s role in the privatization of a hotel in the mid-1990s with which his future wife had been involved. Prosecutors closed the investigation in January 2006 after concluding that Brazauskas had not influenced the privatization process and finding no evidence of criminal action. Two advisers to President Adamkus resigned in March amid allegations that they had engaged in suspicious real estate deals. In September, the prosecutor-general’s office issued an international arrest warrant for former Labor Party leader Uspaskich on charges of tax fraud. Uspaskich, who was now living in Russia, requested political asylum there; the case was pending at year’s end.
Lithuania is an electoral democracy. The 1992 constitution established a unicameral, 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. The prime minister is chosen by the Parliament, and the president is directly elected for a five-year term. While the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections were largely free and fair, there were reports of irregularities, including a lack of transparency in campaign financing. In 2005, three deputies were found guilty of vote buying in the 2004 legislative poll. Six members of ethnic minorities are represented in the Parliament.
The country’s political parties include the SDP, NFU, HU, Civic Democracy, New Union (Social Liberals), and the Labor Party. In 2005, the number of members necessary to register a political party was increased from 400 to 1,000. The Communist Party is banned.
Corruption scandals, including ones involving a former prime minister and the mayor of Vilnius, continued to plague Lithuanian politics during the year. According to a 2006 public opinion survey, about three-quarters of those polled believe that there are no or very few honest deputies in Parliament. On December 5, 2006, Lithuania’s Parliament ratified the UN convention against corruption; Lithuania had signed the document three years earlier. Lithuania was ranked 46 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of 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. Libel is punishable with a fine or a prison sentence. In September 2006, State Security Department agents briefly detained the editor of the Laisvas Laikrastis newspaper, seized the entire print run of the paper, and confiscated computers from the newsroom and the editor’s home. Government agents maintained that the issue, which included a story about alleged political corruption, contained information classified as a state secret. President Valdas Adamkus, the Lithuanian Journalists Union, and press advocacy groups condemned the action. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and largely enjoyed in practice in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected. There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations, and there were no reports of police abuse against demonstrators during the year. Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, to strike, and to engage in collective bargaining. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report, only 10 percent, approximately, of the workforce is unionized.
The country’s constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, which is respected in practice. The Constitutional Court serves as a powerful and independent body, and its rulings have become central arguments in political debates. Defendants generally enjoy rights of due process, including the right to be informed of the charges against them and the presumption of innocence. There have been credible reports of police abuse of suspects and detainees, although there were fewer such reports in 2006 than in 2005. While the government continued to upgrade prisons to meet international standards, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate access to health care remained problems. There were complaints during the year of prolonged pretrial detentions and corruption within the law enforcement system.
The rights of the country's ethnic minorities, who constitute approximately 16 percent of the population, are generally protected in practice. After regaining its independence, Lithuania extended citizenship to all those born within its borders, and more than 90 percent of nonethnic Lithuanians, mostly Russians and Poles, became citizens. Members of the country’s small Roma (Gypsy) community have complained of discrimination in areas including education, housing, and employment. The state prosecutes offenders under laws that prohibit intolerant acts against any national, racial, ethnic, or other group. In November 2006, Mindaugas Murza, a member of the Siauliai city council, was found guilty of inciting ethnic and racial hatred for founding a political party with an anti-Semitic agenda and for making verbal and written anti-Semitic remarks; he was fined $1,760.
Although men and women in Lithuania enjoy the same legal rights, women remain underrepresented in management positions and earn lower average wages than men for the same work. Of the 141 members of Parliament, 35 are women. Police are sometimes reluctant to act in cases of domestic violence, which remains a serious problem. Lithuania continues to be a source, transit point, and destination for the trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution. To help address the problem, the government conducts training programs for law enforcement officials and partially funds centers that assist victims of trafficking.