Freedom in the World
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The Social Democratic Party, a member of the ruling coalition, and the opposition Homeland Union captured the most seats in February 2007 local elections. Controversy surrounding Lithuania’s highest law enforcement agency resulted in the replacement of the agency’s chief in June. Meanwhile, Parliament passed legislation that abolished private sector employment restrictions for former KGB officers.
Lithuania became independent at the end of World War I, but it 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 Soviet Union in 1991, and it joined NATO and the European Union (EU) in April and May 2004, respectively.
Also in April 2004, President Rolandas Paksas was impeached on charges of corruption and of violating his oath of office and the constitution. Arturas Paulauskas, the speaker of Parliament, took over as acting president until elections were held in June. Valdas Adamkus defeated Kazimiera Prunskiene, the leader of the Union of Farmers and New Democracy (VNDS), in a tight runoff contest and was sworn in as president in July.
In parliamentary elections held in two rounds in October 2004, a right-wing coalition of the Homeland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (HU) and the Liberal and Center Union (LCU) captured 43 seats (25 for HU and 18 for the LCU). The Labor Party won 39 seats; the ruling leftist coalition of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (SDP) and New Union (Social Liberals) garnered 31 (20 and 11, respectively); the VNDS took 10; the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 10; the Electoral Action of Lithuanian Poles secured 2 seats; and independent candidates collected the remaining 6 seats. After negotiations between left- and right-wing parties broke down, a ruling center-left coalition emerged in November, consisting of the Labor Party, VNDS, the SDP, and New Union (Social Liberals).
In April 2006, the right-wing opposition initiated a no-confidence vote to remove Paulauskas of the New Union (Social Liberals) as speaker of Parliament, citing revelations of abuse of authority in the parliamentary chancellery. The vote was supported by members of 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 ruling coalition, which survived for several weeks with the remaining three parties. However, on May 31, the Labor Party withdrew its ministers after prosecutors launched an investigation into misuse of the party’s funds. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas of the SDP resigned the next day, triggering the collapse of the government. A new ruling coalition was organized in July, consisting of the SDP, LCU, National Farmers’ Union (formerly the VNDS), and the new Civic Democracy Party (PDP), which had formed following a split within the Labor Party. The four parties together held fewer than 60 seats in Parliament, marking the first time since independence that the country had a minority government. Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas of the SDP was chosen as the new prime minister.
The SDP and the opposition HU captured the largest overall number of seats in February 2007 local elections, while a member of former president Paksas’s Order and Justice Party won the mayor’s post in Vilnius. In March, the Central Election Commission took the unprecedented step of canceling the results in two districts because of reported electoral violations, including vote buying, which it found to have influenced the results. However, a court order two weeks later invalidated the decision due to lack of evidence.
In an ongoing controversy involving the State Security Department (SSD), the country’s highest law enforcement agency, SSD chief Arvydas Pocius offered his resignation in December 2006 after Parliament’s National Defense and Security Committee issued a highly critical report on the SSD’s work. However, Parliament in March 2007 rejected Pocius’s resignation after he made a series of dramatic claims, including an accusation that the chairman of the National Defense and Security Committee had a history of involvement with the Soviet-era KGB. When no evidence was found to substantiate the allegations, Parliament voted to dismiss Pocius in May and approved his successor the following month.
Lithuania is an electoral democracy. The 1992 constitution established a unicameral, 141-seat Parliament (Seimas), with 71 members elected in single-mandate constituencies and 70 chosen by proportional representation, all for four-year terms. The prime minister is selected by 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 and fined for vote buying in the 2004 legislative poll. Six members of ethnic minorities hold seats in Parliament. Lithuania’s many political parties operate freely, but the Communist Party is banned.
Corruption scandals involving senior government officials have made headlines during the last few years. In September 2007, former economy minister and Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich was arrested as he returned to Lithuania from his native Russia, where he had fled the previous year to escape charges of tax and electoral fraud; a trial date had not been set at year’s end. Lithuania was ranked 51 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press. There is a wide variety of privately owned newspapers that publish in Lithuanian, Russian, and a few other languages. Several independent broadcast media outlets, as well as state-run television and radio stations, broadcast throughout the country. Libel is punishable with a fine or a prison sentence. 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. However, state-recognized religious communities enjoy certain government benefits, including subsidies, that are not granted to unrecognized groups. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld. There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations, and human rights groups operate in the country without restrictions. Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, to strike, and to engage in collective bargaining, and about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.
The country’s constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, which is respected in practice. Defendants generally enjoy due process rights, including the right to be informed of the charges against them and the presumption of innocence, though lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. There have been reports of police abuse of suspects and corruption within the law enforcement system. Prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate access to health care.
The rights of the country’s ethnic minorities, who constitute approximately 16 percent of the population, are legally protected. After regaining its independence, Lithuania extended citizenship to everyone born within its borders, and more than 90 percent of nonethnic Lithuanians, mostly Russians and Poles, became citizens. In May 2007, the Vilnius city government banned an EU-backed rally to promote tolerance toward minority groups, including homosexuals, due to supposed fears that the event could spark unrest. An international gay and lesbian conference in Vilnius in October was met with negative comments from local officials, an antigay demonstration, and a smoke bomb released in a club where many of the participants had gathered. The granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol is legally protected; in 2007, the government granted refugee status or asylum to 393 people.
Lithuania’s 1999 lustration law placed a 10-year ban on former KGB officers holding public office and working in some private sector positions. In May 2007, Parliament adopted amendments to the law that abolished the private sector employment restrictions; the move came in response to European Court of Human Rights’ rulings that the ban violated the right to employment under the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, Parliament failed to override a presidential veto of additional amendments that would have extended the ban on employment in the public sector to include former KGB reserve officers. The latter amendments appeared to have been aimed largely at Arvydas Pocius, the head of the SSD, and former foreign minister Antanas Valionis; two years earlier, the country’s media had reported that the names of both men were on a list of KGB reserve officers.
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, 33 are women. Domestic violence remains a serious problem. Lithuania is 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 provides antitrafficking public service announcements and partially funds centers that assist victims.