Freedom in the World
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Parliamentary elections in October 2008 led to the formation of a center-right coalition government in December and the selection of Andrius Kubilius as prime minister. A concurrent nonbinding referendum on delaying the closure of the country’s Ignalina nuclear power plant failed due to low voter participation. Separately, Parliament in June adopted amendments to the Law on Equal Rights, adding prohibitions against discrimination based on age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity.
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 (LCS) captured 43 seats (25 for HU and 18 for the LCS). The Labor Party won 39 seats; the ruling leftist coalition of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSP) and New Union (Social Liberals) garnered 31 (20 and 11, respectively); the VNDS took 10; the Liberal Democratic Party 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 LSP, 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 LSP resigned the next day, triggering the collapse of the government. A new ruling coalition was organized in July, consisting of the LSP, LCS, National Farmers’ Union (formerly the VNDS), and the new Civic Democracy Party, 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 LSP was chosen as the new prime minister.
In February 2008, the New Union (Social Liberals) rejoined the ruling coalition, receiving the post of environment minister following the resignation of the previous minister, who was from the LSP; the expanded coalition held a slim 72-seat majority in parliament. The LSP needed the support of the New Union (Social Liberals) to pass controversial legislation that would create a new national energy company. Critics of the plan, including the opposition Order and Justice (TT) party, led by former president Paksas, cited a lack of transparency in the process. President Adamkus signed the law shortly after Parliament adopted it in February. In April, Prime Minister Kirkilas narrowly survived a no-confidence vote prompted in part by opponents of the energy legislation.
In the run-up to the October 12 parliamentary elections, the creation of new parties further fragmented the country’s political scene. The Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD), an alliance of right-wing parties, was formed in May, as was the National Resurrection Party (TPP), which was created by a group of celebrities but did not espouse any particular ideology. Following a runoff vote on October 26, the TS-LKD emerged with 45 seats, followed by the LSP, whose popularity had declined with the weakening economy, with 25 seats. The TPP captured 16 seats; TT, 15 seats; Liberal Union (LRLS), 11 seats; the Labor Party, 10 seats; and the LCS, 8 seats. Smaller parties and independent candidates won the remaining 11 seats. A four-party, center-right majority coalition was formed in December consisting of the TS-LKD, TPP, LRLS, and LCS. Former prime minister Andrius Kubilius (1999-2000) was selected as the new premier.
Meanwhile, a concurrent public referendum on postponing the closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant beyond 2009 failed due to low voter participation. However, the referendum was nonbinding, as Lithuania had already made a legal commitment to the European Commission to close the plant. Those opposed to the postponement bid, including President Adamkus, criticized it as an attempt by members of the ruling coalition to attract voters to the legislative elections.
In August, Russia’s invasion of Georgia heightened concerns in Lithuania that Moscow would attempt to extend its influence over other post-Soviet states, including the Baltic countries. President Adamkus, along with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, issued a declaration condemning Russia’s actions in the conflict.
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 2008 parliamentary elections were largely free and fair, there were reports of irregularities, including alleged bribery and forged ballots. Three 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 continued to make headlines in 2008. Former economy minister and Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich was arrested in September 2007 as he returned to Lithuania from his native Russia, where he had fled the previous year to escape charges of tax and electoral fraud. He was granted immunity from prosecution after being elected to Parliament in October 2008, but Parliament waived his immunity in December. In March, Vilnius city council member and former mayor Arturas Zuokas was convicted of a 2003 bribery attempt, forcing him to resign his council seat. Lithuania was ranked 58 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press. Privately owned newspapers, as well as independent broadcast media outlets, express a wide variety of views. Libel is punishable with a fine or a prison sentence, though no cases were reported in 2008. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and largely upheld in practice. However, traditional and state-recognized religious communities enjoy certain government benefits, including state subsidies, that are not granted to unrecognized groups. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church received official government recognition in July 2008. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally observed. There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights groups operate without restrictions. Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, to strike, and to engage in collective bargaining, though there have been reports of employees being punished for attempting to organize. About 10 percent of the country’s workforce is unionized.
The constitution guarantees judicial independence, which is respected in practice. Defendants generally enjoy due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, though lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. There have been reports of police abuse of detainees and corruption within the law enforcement system. Prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding and inadequate access to health care.
The rights of ethnic minorities, who constitute approximately 16 percent of the population, are legally protected, though reports of racial or ethnic intolerance and violence increased in 2008. In June, Parliament approved amendments to the Law on Equal Rights, adding prohibitions against discrimination based on age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity; the amendments will not apply to religious schools. 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.
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 2007, Parliament 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.
Although men and women enjoy the same legal rights, women earn lower average wages than men for the same work and remain underrepresented in management positions. Of the 141 members of Parliament, 26 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 funds to NGOs that assist victims.