Following the 19 March local elections in Lithuania [see Amber Coast from 27 March 2000], political analysts and politicians alike focused their attention on the leftward shift in popular support and the spectacular success of the centre-left New Alliance (Social Liberals). However, with the election of radical campaigner Vytautas Šustauskas as mayor of second city Kaunas on 13 April, the country's political concerns lie elsewhere, namely, with the success of radical and fringe movements in Lithuania's elections.
This past week, the plethora of comments attacking the success of Šustauskas and others took on an extra urgency for the established political groupings, as general elections loom on the horizon (to take place in autumn). Though many of the groups are regional, without significant nation-wide support, there are fears that some may create an "unholy alliance" that will, perhaps only in a few constituencies, push them over the five per cent barrier and give them a slice of the 70 seats allocated under proportional representation. Of course, these locallly strong parties also have a good chance of winnning several of the remaining 71 seats elected by the first-past-the-post system.
The litmus test
The success of the radical Freedom Union in the Kaunas City Council elections shocked everyone, including even the most attentive political watchers. Vytautas Šustauskas is best known as a "street protester," for the unorthodox style of his campaigns, best described as anti-social.
Šustauskas managed to finally place himself at the centre of attention earlier this year, when he succeeded in scuttling a planned charity Viennese ball organised by the Austrian ambassador, Dr Florian Haug. Threats of mass protests and even worries of radical protestors from the adjacent "poor people's ball" storming the Viennese ball at Vilnius City Hall forced the Ambassador to make an embarrassing public retreat. Dr Haug regretted that such protests caused the cancellation of an event from which the proceeds would go to a boarding school for handicapped children. Instead of taking an apologetic or even congenial stance, Šustauskas led a "victory" rally and proclaimed success against the "fat cats" robbing Lithuanian society, even suggesting the deportation of Dr Haug. If it weren't for the mess surrounding Jörg Haider which was in full swing at the time, the incident would have surely received significant Austrian press coverage.
Šustauskas has a history of making radical statements, anti-Semitic ones among them, including accusations of the control of a "Jewish mafia" in Kaunas or the "selling out" of a primary commercial road in Vilnius to Jewish interests. Šustauskas has organised rallies which have degenerated into anti-Semitic protests, repleate with stars of David being set ablaze. Such statements and actions have alarmed the small Jewish community in Kaunas and throughout Lithuania, which was not comforted by the picket organised by Šustauskas supporters from the regional National Socialist organisation (with armbands and all) outside Kaunas City Hall.
Another serious worry about Kaunas under Šustauskas is the possible damage of relations with Sweden's energy giant Vattenfall. The state-owned company, which is also eyeing the planned privatisation of Lithuania's electrical utility Lietuvos Energija, has worked out a lease deal with the city's heating utility Kauno Energija. However, the deal has not been finalised, and Šustauskas has talked of jeopardising it. There is little doubt that Šustauskas will carry the fight against Vattenfall onto the national arena when the issue of Lietuvos Energija comes to the fore.
Šustauskas, with the Freedom Union as basically his political and public vehicle, commands a great deal of attention from his followers. His ability to organise noisy and raucous protests should have alerted the political establishment long ago; instead, many just saw him as a madman with no possibility of success. The local elections proved them wrong, and some fear that the extra emphasis now placed on denouncing Šustauskas by the political establishment could backfire, as its poll ratings continue to fall over Lithuania's protracted recession. These six or so months before the general elections will be a litmus test to see whether Šustauskas will rise further or come crashing to the ground.
Lithuania's own Lepper
The protests launched in Poland by farmers' union leader Andrzej Lepper caught the world's attention, as the huge Polish agriculture sector made its anger felt. The significance of the protests was not lost on Brussels, and the European Commission has made tough statements on agriculture since then. Baltic ears were not deaf to them either, with farmers protesting on a large scale in both Latvia and Lithuania (in Estonia there was one small protest in front of the
Karbauskis, a wealthy young farmer, is the leader of the Farmers' Party, a rural-based organisation with strong backing in the countryside. The summer of 1999 brought out a plethora of protests, ranging from "tractor parades" to border road blockages, while Karbauskis continued to levy heavy criticism against the government's rural policy. As the year went on, government budget liquidity problems pushed back payments to farmers: subsidies remained unpaid in full and VAT refunds incomplete. What with the anger of farmers and the slide of the government's popularity in rural regions, Karbauskis emerged as the new champion of the rural voice.
As the farming situation failed to significantly improve, Karbauskis organised further action. In separate cases, about 50,000 farmers sued the government for the debts, nearly overwhelming the judicial system. Problems in the sugar beet farming industry also incited protracted protests and highway blockages in the southern Marijampolė region, and Karbauskis threatened more protests and blockages if the protesting farmers were fined for blocking and damaging roads.
Continued government problems in dealing with the rural economy would tempt Karbauskis to launch further actions that would most benefit his popularity. If the government caves, he will be seen as the one who delivered the goods; if the government holds out, farmers will rally around him as the voice behind the massive rural turnout.
The party's popularity shot up throughout the prolonged rural crisis, but not many expected such a degree of success in the local elections. The party came in second place throughout Lithuania, gaining mayoral posts in 11 - all rural - constituencies. The key to Karbauskis' success is that he is viewed as the voice of the farming sectors hardest hit by the economic crisis and the government's perceived indifference toward agriculture. After all, when discussing the plight of pig farmers, he suggested that due to government policies he may have to slaughter his own pigs. Also, Karbauskis does not have the "Lepper" image, despite similar tactics of wide-scale protest and road blockages. The head of the Farmers' Party is not described with any radical terms like his Polish counterpart, despite accusing President Valdas Adamkus of "treason," in reference to legislation governing land sales to foreigners.
The political establishment took notice of the Farmers' Party's stance on European Union membership only after its election success. Though Karbauskis has been careful not to discount membership altogether, he feels that Lithuania's current policy on EU integration is disadvantageous for the agricultural sector. He symbolises the opposition to the current "light speed" approach to the EU, tauted by the political elite. Polls in Lithuania show a significant portion of the population in favour of a later EU membership, to give Lithuania more time to prepare.
Calling the government's agricultural policy "a misunderstanding rather than a scheme," Karbauskis has skilfully tapped into all the worries of the rural sector and transformed them into electoral success. However, even with this success, he continues to evoke the possibilities of mass tractor and farm equipment blockage of the Via Baltica highway yet again this summer, showing once again that radicalism does not fade with political success.
There are numerous other organisations and parties that feature radical agendas and extreme rhetoric in Lithuania. The most mainstream of them all is the National Democratic Party, led by MP
Of serious concern for political watchers is what would happen if these groups joined together in a coalition. Even without the large block of voters for the Farmers' Party, the remaining parties could cross over the five per cent minimum threshold and get some of the 70 seats divided by proportional representation. Sensing this is the head of the Christian Democratic Union (not the Christian Democratic Party, which has two ministers in government), MP Kazys Bobelis. Dr Bobelis, a former US resident and leader of the diaspora community, has been running near the top of the popularity polls and is safe in his constituency in Marijampolė. He has already launched a plan into action to bring some or all of these parties into some form of coalition for the autumn general elections. His successful partnership with Karbauskis and the Farmers'
Most worrisome to people both within and outside of Lithuania is the figure of Mindaugas Murza, the head of the now-dissolved Union of National Socialist Unity. Based in the city of Šiauliai, Murza and his group of followers have, with their heavy rhetoric against foreigners and Jews, evoked fears among many of a neo-Nazi force. The group organised vocal protests during the trial of accused war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis, taking ample advantage of the media attention surrounding Murza's attendance.
His supporters protested the trial with placards baring grim statements such as "Protect Lithuania from Zionist Jews." Rumours have it that state officials had a hand in preventing the group from picketing the trial at one point. The group has tried in vain to register itself as a political party, but the Justice Ministry has rejected the application a total of seven times over the years. Efforts to register as a non-political organisation have hit upon problems as well, though the re-combined Lithuanian National Social Party has, according to Murza, plans to enter the political world.
Though the Murza groups are clearly on the outer fringes of the radical spectrum, there is really no clear barrier between those who are within accepted norms and those who cross this theoretical barrier. Do pickets by neo-Nazis supporting Šustauskas place him beyond the threshold on the side of Murza? Does going into a coalition with Šustauskas indicate the acceptance, by anyone who does so, of such radicalism? After all, Šustauskas' mayoral victory came with the reluctant but affirmative votes of the mainstream centre-left New Alliance (Social Liberals), which is likely to be the top vote-getter in the general elections.
Fears of success
If these groups enter the Seimas in any significant number, there could be severe repercussions. Simple representation without real power for the already radicalised groups would not calm the activists; instead, it could inflame them more if their leaders are sidelined. After all, several of the radical groups are already experienced in organising sizeable road blockades and rowdy street protests.
Moreover, a focal point for Euroscepticism could develop around this bloc. Most of the radical parties in Lithuania are extremely anti-EU and anti-Europe in general. For years, Rimantas Smetona was the central figure among Eurosceptics in Lithuania; thus, with his low turnout in the national elections, the voice of scepticism remained fairly marginalised. However, the debate about Lithuania and the European Union, especially on difficult issues such as agriculture and nuclear power, could indirectly benefit the radical groups, since no serious mainstream group is professing anything but light speed ahead. During debates in 1999 about the shutting down of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, the public perceived the shutdown order as pressure from Brussels, and public support for EU membership dropped to an all-time low.
No matter what happens, these groups will have representation in the next Seimas. No matter how ostracised their members remain, they will be official MPs and thus also be assigned to committees. Several radical members who already hold seats in the Seimas have disrupted the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the past, for example, on the border treaty with Russia. Committee members refused to support the signed agreement, focusing attention on the "internationally disputed zone of Karaliaučius (Kaliningrad)." It was only when several committee members failed to attend a session that the treaty was moved through to the entire Seimas. With more such members in Parliament, other committees may have their share of problems - especially with regard to issues of EU harmonisation.
Finally, stemming from the previous point, there will be a bloc of some unknown size of these radicals in Parliament. Lithuania's mixed electoral system makes it difficult to predict what will happen. Also, no one knows how far an alliance is possible which would coalesce support for the PR side of the ballot. Not counting the Farmers' Party, it is not inconceivable that these groups together will have more than ten seats in the Seimas. If somehow the elections produce a hung ballot, with both the centre-left and the centre-right unable to muster 71 seats for a bare majority, the mandate of the next government could be shaky and may result in some form of a "rainbow" coalition. Though right now a centre-left grouping - New Alliance (Social Liberals), Centre Union, Social Democrats and the Democratic Labour Party - looks quite strong, the local elections showed that the Conservatives and Christian Democrats are down but not out, with their strong local organisation and support, especially in the 70 first-past-the-post constituencies.
These radical groups have not been taken very seriously by those watching Lithuania's politics until the local elections; earlier, their members were discounted as radicals, loons and populists. There has been little serious study into the current phenomenon of radicalism in Lithuania, but one hopes that the sudden attention on people such as Šustauskas and others will allow analysts and academics to seriously study the issue and its relation to nationalism - a main factor in the groups' rhetoric.
The next half year will be vital in determining the future of Lithuania's politics. If the momentum for such radical groups continues to grow and no significant setbacks occur (especially in Kaunas), the autumn elections could be more unnerving for political watchers within and outside of Lithuania than the "return of the reds" that startled the world in 1991.
Mel Huang, 19 April 2000
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