LRT English Newsletter – June 16, 2023.
Recall the expenses scandal? The one that touched upon every major party in Lithuania, revealing how politicians invoiced ludicrous expenses, like filling up their car with three different types of fuel, paid by dozens of different bank cards, during a Covid lockdown, while not possessing a driving licence.
As is often the case with political scandals in Lithuania, nothing dramatic has really happened. The parliament voted against holding early elections, the government walked back pledges of a ceremonial self-sacrifice by resigning, the political system remains largely intact, and there has been no far-reaching outcry in the society, even as revelations get even more absurd. In one recent example, an official was caught using public funds to rent a convertible Ford Mustang to cruise around Florida in the United States.
The anti-corruption watchdog, as well as regional prosecutors, did launch several probes, but the jury is still out. Additionally, the local government politicians will start receiving salaries, which will replace the allowances-based system that enabled the abuse.
In any case, the whole affair did affect the party ratings. Obviously, the conservatives took a hit, dropping down to fourth place. According to one political scientist, it wasn’t the scandal itself, but the false promises and drama from the lips of the country’s leaders that had the self-destructing effect. Now, the top three parties are all in the parliamentary opposition. The elections are next year, mind you.
The drought continues to get worse, with three municipalities declaring an emergency. We haven’t seen rain in Vilnius for what seems like weeks. Water levels have dropped dramatically in many rivers, often becoming too shallow for Lithuania’s beloved summertime activity, canoeing. In more serious complications, however, the country’s agriculture sector will take a hit amid the already soaring food prices. In the Klaipėda district, harvest is expected to fall by around 40 percent this year. People have now been urged to water their gardens in off-peak hours, as Kaunas and Vilnius struggle with drinking-water supply.
A populist politician has seemingly found a way to build a support base. In a series of social media posts, which first landed him in trouble in May, he has thrown around comments that have been branded by most observers as anti-Semitic. What's worrying, according to a Jewish community leader in Lithuania, is that his comments have found support (at least on social media). The political and cultural elites were quick to condemn his posts. The prosecutor’s office has now opened a pre-trial investigation.
LUKASHENKO IN THE HAGUE?
Lithuania has launched a probe into the deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus. According to information handed over by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the once-presidential hopeful now in exile in Lithuania, the transfers of children were ordered or approved by the presidential administration, ie the autocrat at the top, Alexander Lukashenko. Recall, these are the same charges that led to an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. Lithuania has now handed the information over to the the International Criminal Court (ICC).
RUSSIAN PILOT FLEES TO LITHUANIA
A strange story surfaced last week. A Russian air force pilot, who refused to take part in Ukraine’s invasion, first fled to Latvia before crossing over to Lithuania. He gave an interview to the BBC, while (allegedly on the same day) turning to Vilnius authorities to lodge an asylum claim. According to Lithuania’s Interior Ministry, while the country did accept the asylum request, the timing that coincides with the NATO summit, as well as the nature of the man’s arrival, poses questions.
COMMUNISM VS NAZISM
Imagine, if one day declaring to be a communist would get the same reaction if you revealed yourself to be a Nazi. This was the underlying message, aimed at Western audiences, which Lithuanian officials sent during the 82nd anniversary marking the start of Siberia deportations. One historian, Monika Roger, taking part in the ceremony at the parliament also made a subtle pass at Lithuania’s Holocaust legacy, saying that “sometimes in Lithuania, and even more often elsewhere in Europe, there are cases where the memory of the victims and the right to justice are denied”.
Here are a few stories focused on migration, a growing topic of importance in Lithuania:
– Under a deal agreed in Brussels, Lithuania would have to take in 158 migrants who have entered the EU irregularly or pay 3.18 million euros a year. Vilnius isn’t happy, however, that the bloc failed to name “instrumentalised migration”, ie the crisis orchestrated on Baltic borders by Belarus, in the final document.
– According to Latvian border guards, Belarusian officers tried arming migrants, but they refused to accept weapons. Similar allegations have also been made by Lithuanian border officials.
– Lithuania’s society is getting more involved in refugee matters, according to a UNHCR rep. Some 350 foreign nationals, including 224 Ukrainian citizens, now live in refugee reception centres.
– Four in five people say that foreign citizens working in Lithuania, at least those who interact with clients, should speak Lithuanian, according to a new survey.
And here are some economy updates:
– Freedom Party, part of the ruling coalition, will not support the government’s proposed tax reform.
– Second-hand bookshops are struggling (go buy some books).
– Low and middle-income families are suffering from energy poverty.
– Unabating inflation is a risk to Lithuania, says IMF.
– The true scale of poverty in Lithuania could be significantly higher, according to a new study.
– The lacklustre integration of the thousands of Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian nationals risks creating cultural ghettos in Lithuania.
– Can you imagine what the world will look like without Putin? Well, Brussels should, according to Kirill Shamiev, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
– Former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen (2009-2014), who is currently advising Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, insists that Kyiv must be offered an invitation to become a NATO member at next month’s summit in Vilnius. Read the interview here.
– And Klaipėda will now have a unique water bus service.
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Written by Benas Gerdžiūnas
Edited by Justinas Šuliokas