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Lithuania’s minority government survived in 2011 due to a lack of cohesion within the opposition, while the results of February’s local elections underscored the fractured nature of the country’s political landscape. Meanwhile, amendments to an education law, which requires certain subjects to be taught in Lithuanian in minority language schools, led to strained relations with Poland throughout the year.
Lithuania became independent at the end of World War I, but was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. The country declared its independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990, and the move was eventually recognized by Soviet authorities in 1991. Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Lithuania held the 2011 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Lithuanian politics have been characterized by shifting coalitions among several different parties, and in the run-up to the most recent 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 2008, as was the National Resurrection Party (TPP). In the October 2008 balloting, the TS-LKD took the lead with 45 seats, followed by the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) with 25, the TPP with 16, Order and Justice with 15, the Liberal Union (LRLS) with 11, the Labor Party with 10, and the Liberal and Center Union (LCS) with 8 seats. Smaller parties and independent candidates won the remaining 11 seats. A four-party, center-right majority coalition was formed in late 2008, consisting of the TS-LKD, TPP, LRLS, and LCS. Andrius Kubilius of the TS-LKD, who had previously served as prime minister in 1999–2000, headed the new government. In May 2009, independent candidate Dalia Grybauskaitė was elected president with nearly 70 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman to hold the post.
A split in the TPP in mid-2009 resulted in some members of the party withdrawing from the ruling coalition, leaving it with 71 out of 141 seats as of early 2010. Additional defections in the first six months of 2010 reduced the ruling bloc to just 69 seats, forcing Kubilius to secure an informal alliance with the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union (LVLS), which held three seats. Despite continuing divisions within the ruling TS-LKD—mainly between original members and newer, more conservative members—the fragile government was likely to survive until the October 2012 parliamentary elections due to a fragmented opposition. In September 2011, LCS and TPP officially unified under the LCS name.
The fractured nature of Lithuania’s political landscape was underscored by the results of the February 27 local elections, in which no party gained more than 21.4 percent of the vote. The LSDP won the greatest share of seats, followed by the TS-LKD.
The economy continued to recover slowly in 2011, as unemployment declined from 17.2 percent in the first quarter to 13.9 percent in the fourth quarter. After a year of disputes over natural gas supplies in 2010, energy issues were once again a source of tension between Russia and Lithuania when Russia announced that it was planning to build two nuclear reactors—one in Kaliningrad and one in Belarus—near the Lithuanian border. Lithuania’s revised education law affecting minority languages in schools strained relations with Poland throughout the year.
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. The most recent parliamentary elections, in 2008, were largely free and fair, though there were some reports of irregularities including alleged bribery and forged ballots. Lithuania’s many political parties operate freely, but the Communist Party is banned. In December 2011, Parliament amended party financing legislation, banning donations to political parties from legal entities, and cutting in half the amount individuals can donate to a political party. The changes will go into effect in early 2012, ahead of the next parliamentary election.
Corruption remains a problem in Lithuania, although no major corruption cases broke in 2011. Following pressure from the president and opposition, economy minister Dainius Kreivys resigned in March 2011 over suspected preferential allocation of procurement contracts, though no charges were filed against him. Former economy minister and Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich was set to stand trial in Lithuania on fraud charges; the case remained ongoing throughout 2011. In December, the European Parliament rejected a request to have Uspaskich’s parliamentary immunity reinstated. In an effort to reduce corruption, parliament updated freedom of information legislation in April 2011; significantly more public figures are subject to have information on them released publicly. A revised anticorruption program, which was unveiled in June, is set to be implemented between 2011 and 2014. The president also promulgated a revised law on public procurements in October, establishing a Public Procurement Council separate from the Economy Ministry; the head of the Council will be appointed by the president. Lithuania was ranked 50 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of the press. Privately owned newspapers and independent broadcasters express a wide variety of views and criticize the government freely. However, the press suffers from inadequate standards for transparency of ownership. In 2010, the Law on the Protection of Minors came into effect, prohibiting online and broadcast media from providing “detrimental” material to minors, including material with sexual content or which “denigrates family values,” including condoning same-sex marriage. International organizations have expressed concern that the law could be used to restrict freedom of expression for the LGBT community. No prosecutions under the law were reported in 2011. In January 2011, journalist Gintaras Visockas was found guilty of libel for linking a former presidential candidate to the KGB. Unable to pay the large fine imposed, he instead served 40 days in jail. In October, the OSCE Representative on Freedom in the Media called for Lithuania to decriminalize defamation after Lithuanian Union of Journalists’ chairman Dainius Radzevičius went to trial on charges brought against him by the owner of the Respublika newspaper. Radzevičius had commented on leaked U.S. diplomatic cables that claimed some Lithuanian newspapers coerced advertisers into buying advertisements. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and largely upheld in practice. However, so-called traditional religious communities enjoy certain government benefits, including annual subsidies, which are not granted to other groups. There were no reports of religiously motivated violence in 2011, although several acts of anti-Semitic vandalism were committed. In June, Parliament decided to award Lithuanian Jews 128 million litas (US$48 million) over ten years as compensation for loss of property and damages during the Nazi and Soviet eras. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally observed. There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations, 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. Slightly less than 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, but detained suspects are not always granted timely access to an attorney. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. Police abuse of detainees continues to be reported, and judges and prosecutors have failed to respond adequately to claims of such mistreatment. Prisons suffer from overcrowding, and inmates have poor access to health care.
The rights of ethnic minorities, who make up 16 percent of the population, are legally protected. However, roughly a quarter of all ethnic minorities report job discrimination. The small Romany population faces the greatest discrimination, including in access to social services and employment, and in relations with police. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, which continue to have large noncitizen populations, Lithuania made it relatively easy for all existing residents to gain citizenship after independence. In March 2011, Lithuania amended its education law to require that certain subjects in schools for ethnic minorities be taught in Lithuanian starting on September 1. Additionally, graduates from minority language schools will have to take the same Lithuanian language-exam as students from Lithuanian language schools beginning in 2013. These amendments sparked a number of protests from the Polish-speaking population throughout the year, the largest of which saw 1,500 people demonstrated in front of Parliament on Sept 23. There are roughly 213,000 ethnic Poles and 175,000 ethnic Russians in Lithuania.
Although men and women enjoy the same legal rights, women earn 17 percent less on average than men in comparable jobs. Twenty-six members of the 141-seat parliament are women, and the first female president and speaker of Parliament were elected in 2009. Domestic violence, including both spousal and child abuse, remains a serious problem. In May 2011, parliament passed the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence, which legally defines domestic violence, provides for lines of action, and requires sequestration of the perpetrator. Lithuania continues to be a source, transit point, and destination for the trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution.