Freedom House (Autor)
Political scandals, including those involving the foreign minister, economy minister, and finance minister, marred the Lithuanian landscape in 2005. The Lithuanian judiciary continued to reform in line with requirements set by the European Union (EU); regulations on enforcement of judicial decisions were revised and the human rights ombudsman was given extended powers. On the international front, relations with Russia improved slightly during the year.
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 (EU) 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. In March, the Constitutional Court 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' 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 (VNDPS), 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 (TS) and the Liberal and Center Union capturing 43 seats (25 for TS and 18 for the Liberal and Center Union). The Labor Party won 39 seats; the ruling leftist coalition of Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) and New Union (Social Liberals), 31 seats (20 seats and 11 seats, respectively); the VNDPS, 10 seats; and the Electoral Action of Lithuanian Poles, 2 seats. After negotiations between left- and right-wing parties broke down, a ruling center-left coalition emerged in November, with the Labor Party joining the LSDP and New Union (Social Liberals).
Political instability continued to plague Lithuania in 2005. In January, foreign minister Antanas Valionis admitted to once having 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. Butkevicious's divergence stemmed from his different views on how the government should compensate for the anticipated revenue loss due to the reduction in personal income taxes, which will occur gradually between 2006 and 2008. The leaders of four main coalition parties agreed to introduced a new tax on corporate turnovers; Butkevicius quit in protest, arguing that such a tax is against EU law. He was replaced by Zigmantas Balcytis, who became finance minister on May 14.
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.
Relations with Russia improved marginally in 2005. Lithuanian and Russian delegations discussed plans for the demarcation of their border, which has not yet been marked according to EU standards. The two countries also signed a deal on a joint development of two sea ports-Russian Kaliningrad and Lithuanian Klaipeda. However, Lithuanian president Adamkus declined an invitation to attend celebrations in Moscow marking the end of World War II. Tensions between the two countries were temporarily raised in September, after a Russian fighter jet violated Lithuanian air space and crashed into a field. Despite some initial suspicions that the jet's mission was to collect intelligence, an investigation revealed that the plane was in route to Kaliningrad, and that the crash occurred due to technical difficulties and human error. Subsequently, Lithuanian authorities agreed to drop the charges against the pilot and facilitate his return to Russia.
Lithuanians can change their government democratically. 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 president is directly elected for a five-year term. All permanent residents are allowed to run for office and vote in local government elections, while only citizens can participate in national elections. In 2004, the national legislative election, presidential election, and election to the European Parliament were largely free and fair. However, in March 2005, three deputies were found guilty by local courts of electoral fraud, including bribing voters, using pre-marked voting slips, and selling votes. During the previous year, serious questions had been raised about foreign and organized crime influence over the country's president and policy making, which appeared to have been resolved in the wake of the impeachment and replacement of President Rolandas Paksas.
Corruption scandals continue to haunt Lithuanian politics, the most recent being the misuse of office by the economy minister, Viktor Uspaskich. According to several public opinion surveys, about 80 percent of Lithuanians believe that a majority of public servants are corrupt. Lithuania was ranked 44 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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 remains a criminal offense, and judicial authorities may order a journalist to reveal confidential sources if such disclosure is necessary to protect other constitutional values. Any form of speech that promotes national or religious hatred is prohibited. In 2005, the independent daily Republika was fined for publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon.
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 is generally respected. There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The nongovernmental sector has grown steadily within the past decade and has lately shown a more active stance on issues of public concern. For example, NGOs have been progressively more involved in public hearings and various government-spon-sored task forces. 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 2005 human rights report, approximately 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.
Lithuania's judiciary has continued to demonstrate growing maturity and independence. The Constitutional Court serves as a powerful and independent body, and its rulings have become central arguments in political debates. However, the lack of qualified judges and lawyers often undermines the right to a fair trial. In 2005, the Ministry of jJustice revised the rules on enforcement of court rulings in attempts to resolve the inefficiencies of the bailiff system.
There have been credible reports of police abuse of suspects and detainees. Prison overcrowding and prolonged pretrial detention remain serious problems. Recent legislation, including a Criminal Procedures Code and the Program for the Renovation and Humanization of Prisons, has led to an improvement in prison conditions. In February 2005, Lithuania lost a case in the European Court for Human Rights brought by a prison inmate suing over censorship of private letters. The court concluded that prison personnel had illegally censored more than 360 letters to and from convicts, breeching privacy rights.
The rights of the country's ethnic minorities are protected in practice. In 1992, Lithuania extended citizenship to all those born within its borders, and more than 90 percent of nonethnic Lithuanians, mostly Russians and Poles, became citizens. In October 2003, the Seimas ratified Protocol 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, abolishing capital punishment in all cases. In January 2005, the Law on Equal Opportunity entered into force, prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, provision of goods and services, and education, based on various grounds, including gender, race, ethnic background and religion. The law also enabled the ombudsman's office to investigate allegations of discrimination. The state prosecutes offenders under laws that prohibit intolerant acts against any national, racial, ethnic, or other group. For example, Mindaugas Murza, leader of the extremist National Democratic Party, is currently under pretrail investigation for making anti-Semitic remarks.
Although men and women in Lithuania have equal access to education, women remain underrepresented in upper-level management positions and earn lower average wages than men for the same work. While trafficking in persons, particularly women and girls for the purpose of prostitution, remains a problem, the government has taken steps to address it. In June, parliament adopted an amendment to the Criminal Code stipulating stricter penalties for human trafficking, and it also launched a program to help reintegrate victims of trafficking into society. However, societal prejudices are an impediment: according to a recent survey, about 50 percent of employers would prefer not to hire trafficking victims.