2013.03.22 12:00

100 days of Government: more talk, less work 2013.03.22 12:00

The ruling coalition has no cause for complaint. This week marks the first 100 days of the new Government’s work and it, and especially PM Algirdas Butkevičius, remains relatively popular, writes Kestutis Girnius for  

The ruling coalition has no cause for complaint. This week marks the first 100 days of the new Government’s work and it, and especially PM Algirdas Butkevičius, remains relatively popular, writes Kestutis Girnius for

This February, more people assessed the Government positively than negatively, with Butkevičius being Lithuania’s most popular politician. Usually governments fall prey to severe criticism and Prime Ministers enter the ranks of the least popular politicians.

The president and the opposition remained faithful to the unwritten rule not to criticise the Government too severely during its first days in power. President Dalia Grybauskaitė’s silence is very noticeable indeed. Openly pro-Conservative during the pre-election period, Grybauskaitė took an active part in government formation, showed their place to several ministerial candidates and made them dance along her tune, and tried to kick the Labour Party out of the forthcoming coalition.

President Grybauskaitė has always emphasised the importance of continuity, especially when it comes to strategic issues, while the new Government’s guiding principle so far seems to have been ‘anything goes as long as it’s different from what the Kubilius’s Government did’. The president’s reaction to MFA Linas Linkevičius’s affront when he apologised the Polish for the vote in the Seimas without discussing it with her beforehand was next to none. In her recent interview with DELFI, the president noted that her working relationships with PM Butkevičius are good, at the same time, however, lightly and indirectly criticising the Government’s irresoluteness in the energy sector matters.

Nor were the Liberals and the Conservatives very quick to attack the new Government. Criticism did come from them, but it was rather modest. Admittedly, last week the Conservatives expressed their worries about possible influence of Russia to Lithuania’s energy sector policy with greater emphasis than before and were sceptical towards the Prime Minister’s reassurances that the Government will adequately assess all the various threats.

There are two other factors that add to the popularity of the present Government. So far, it has been reluctant to make any decisions and thus hasn’t trodden on anyone’s toes. The Government relied on the traditional way of procrastinating the decision-making process by creating one work-group after another. However, when there finally comes a time for these to announce their conclusions, the Government’s popularity will probably fall. Another characteristic feature of this Government is that it often makes conflicting statements. Butkevičius dissociated himself from Linkevičius’s apology in Poland but also said he was very happy with MFA’s work.

PM spoke undramatically about the march on March the 11th, giving a positive assessment of efforts made to maintain order and emphasising that ‘we should not be afraid of marches but we should avoid certain chants and banners and maintain discipline. Every ban stirs strong opposition’. Several days later, however, the Social Democrats strictly condemned ‘the manifestations of ultra-nationalism and violations of democratic processes’, saying that the world has already suffered a number of times from the ‘atrocities caused’ by far-right groups. One is under the impression that they consciously say one thing and then another to please everyone and evade criticism.

It is hard to tell for how long this honey moon is going to continue, but we can already observe some pending problems. The decision to invite the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (LLRA) to the coalition seems to be a big mistake as the party is not yet mature enough for serious politics. And I have in mind not only their leader’s, Valdemar Tomaszewski’s, tendency to resort to threats of leaving the coalition or the controversial decree of the Ministry of Education and Science to ease the Lithuanian language exams for ethnic-minority students, which caused wide criticism in the public and among lawyers and Lithuanian philologists.

It seems that LLRA cares so much about pleasing its electorate, or perhaps even some strata in Poland, that it doesn’t even attempt to consider what its actions will be met with in wider society. Otherwise it is very hard to explain their proposal to make religious education compulsory in schools. Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevičius rightly noted that this suggestion causes ‘unnecessary tension and a wave of indignation in society’ and gives the impression that the Church wants to forcibly impose its own set of beliefs. The archbishop emphasised that LLRA did not coordinate their proposal with the heads of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.

But even this cold shower was not enough to stop Tomaszewski from further arguing that his party’s proposal does not violate the Constitution, adding that it is unclear whether ‘the opinion expressed by Tamkevičius corresponds with the opinion of all heads of Lithuania’s Catholic Church’ and in this way seemingly doubting whether Tamkevičius has the authority to speak on behalf of the Church. I don’t know whether the LLRA leader is just incredibly stubborn and cannot admit his failures or perhaps simply lacks touch with reality. Whichever the case, LLRA will cause a lot of trouble for the coalition.

According to a Spinter Tyrimai survey, the public thinks that the gravest mistake of the Government so far is the actions of Minister of Health Vytenis Andriukaitis with regard to the country’s health care policy. Decisions taken by the Ministry of Health affect everyone, so they are always kept under close eye. Negative reactions are provoked by the minister’s militant rhetoric, as we haven’t seen much by way of concrete actions yet. Andriukaitis does not doubt the truth of his opinions and beliefs and lacks a sense of wit, while his extreme self-confidence smacks of arrogance (‘I have worked in a number of different institutions, my experience and things I remember should be made use of’). This may be a fatal set of personal traits for a minister who is in control of a sensitive ministry and has to listen carefully of suggestions and opinions of others.

LLRA and Andriukaitis will not decide the popularity of the Government, but they may well reduce it. The time to make decisions is coming. The Government will have to say whether it is going to build the nuclear power station or not, and if not, then how Lithuania is going to make electric energy and disconnect from Russian networks. Decisions will have to be made in the area of shale gas exploration. Is Lithuania going to find its own funding to search the depths of the earth in the future and would this entail dissociating ourselves from Western companies?

What our relations with Russia will be like? How successful the Government will be in its negotiations with Gazprom in an effort to reduce gas and heating prices? The Government’s programme declares that Lithuania’s relations with Russia must be ‘reloaded’, and a step in the latter direction was taken by Vydas Gedvilas, Speaker of the Seimas, who has had a secret meeting with representatives from Rossatom. On the other hand, last Friday in Brussels the president criticised ‘Putin’s Russia’ so severely, that reloads of any kind become hard to imagine.

This year, the Government is almost getting away with no politics whatever. But the holiday season is nearing its end, and the political season begins. By the end of June we will know if our voters’ love for the Government and Butkevičius was a short-lived phenomenon or whether its basis is more solid.