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Lithuanian parliamentary elections 2016

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results (percentages of votes won by parties)

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results (percentages of votes won by parties)

2016 10 11. As the final results came for the first round of 2016 Lithuanian parliamentary elections, it became clear that the composition of government will be significantly changed from the present one.

Peasants/Greens 21,5%

Peasant/Green party shown the most remarkable performance. A party that failed to pass the necessary 5% threshold for several elections in a row, now amassed 21,5% of the vote (2012 elections - 3,88%). The success of the party may be attributed to the broad base of voters it has attracted. In addition to the peasants that the party was originally established to represent, its nature-first ideas increasingly attracted urban environmentalist electorate.

Furthermore, leftists disillusioned with the current Socialdemocrat government have voted for Peasants/Greens as the only viable alternative.

The third group of the Peasants/Greens voters likely came from the "personal politics" camp of Lithuanian political sphere, i.e. people who vote for charismatic leaders rather than the ideology. In addition to the inspiring millionaire-farmer Ramūnas Karbauskis, who puts a great emphasis on reversing the negative image of Lithuanian countryside (which can be summed up by words "alcohol-addicted, poor, and hopeless") by his own example and self-funded non-profit projects, Peasants/Greens have attracted a former minister of interior Saulius Skvernelis and some other well-known figures.

While Peasants/Greens have gained popularity in the three largest cities (~10%) the true force behind its massive show of power were still the villages and towns, where they have enjoyed the support of ~30-35% of the electorate. Peasants/Greens also managed to prevail in Šiauliai and Panevėžys (4th and 5th largest cities, respectively).

Homeland Union - Christian Democrats 21,7%

Centrist Homeland Union (the traditional arch-opponent of Socialdemocrats) may attempt to seek to form a ruling coalition after 4 years of Socialdemocrat rule, winning 21,7% of the vote (2012 elections - 15,1%).

While the name of Homeland Union has been associated with unpopular-yet-effective decisions to raise taxes and lower government handouts as a response to 2008 crisis, the party has largely renewed its top ranks, with Gabrielius Landsbergis (a grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis who was instrumental in the independence of Lithuania) now taking the lead. To some, the stunning rise of Gabrielius Landsbergis may seem to be an example of nepotism, but the Homeland Union, once considered a party "for the older people", now managed to attract the new generation of voters as well.

In the battle for these young voters, the top opponent of Homeland Union is the rightist Liberal Movement.

Homeland Union prevailed in all the top three cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda) where populations are among the most educated.

While considered rightist by some analysts, Homeland Union actually stays at the center of the political spectrum. It seeks to balance free market with support to the poor (tax reductions are as often on its agenda as social benefit increases, and vice-versa), as well as combining the local and Western values. The only position where the Homeland Union sees no compromise is its eagerness to integrate into the European Union, regardless of the odds and sacrifices needed.

Socialdemocrats - 14,4%

Quite a great on itself (14,4%), the performance of Socialdemocrats couldn't have pleased its leaders as Socialdemocrats are used to better results. In 2012 they have acquired 18,4% of the public vote.

Arguably, there was no single event that has somewhat eroded the popularity of Socialdemocrats, but rather a string of low-scale scandals, gaffes, and government decisions widely perceived as illogical, inconsistent or contrary to the 2012 electoral program.

Socialdemocrats are a leftist party, however, some analysts would denounce such label claiming that (just like the Homeland Union) it is a centrist party. Indeed, it has taken many decisions considered to be pro-business and pro-free market in addition to those more typical for leftist ideology (e.g. Socialdemocrats have recently adopted a new Labour code that was protested against by the labor unions).

The main difference between the Homeland Union and Socialdemocrats is perhaps in their value systems. While the Homeland Union combines Western and local values, Socialdemocrats combine Western and Eastern (Soviet). The existence of many former members of the communist party in the ranks of Socialdemocrats (and related political decisions) generally makes the party disliked by most intellectuals and the inhabitants of largest cities.

To village and town dwellers who gained less economically from the independence period, however, the Soviet connections of Socialdemocrats are less of an anathema. However, towns and villages were exactly the area where Peasants/Greens hit the hardest: Socialdemocrats came second after them even in their stronghold of Vilkaviškis, the hometown of Socialdemocrat prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius (after receiving 52,8% vote there in 2012, Socialdemocrats received only 27,06% this year). This year, Socialdemocrats gained ~15-25% of the vote in the "countryside" districts and ~8-13% of the vote in the main city districts, where their popularity remained unchanged.

Even with the setbacks, Socialdemocrats undoubtedly remained a major force in Lithuanian politics for the next 4 years.

Liberal Movement - 9%

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results (partition of the seats after the 1st round)

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results (partition of the seats after the 1st round)

Liberals were for long hailed as a party that was about to dislodge the Homeland Union from their leadership among the Lithuanian cities and youth.

However, a recent corruption scandal involving their leader Eligijus Masiulis accused of taking a large bribe from a businessman postponed such hopes. Liberal Movement came fourth with 9% and may only hope in becoming a minor partner in forming the coalition.

Nevertheless, Liberals have improved the result from the 2012 elections when they have gained 8,6% of the vote. Much of their gain was at the expense of other Liberal parties, which have folded or declined well under 5% threshold.

Liberal Movement mainly draws its support from the young and the cities (in Vilnius and Klaipėda ~17% voted for Liberals, while in the countryside merely ~6% did).

After outcompeting the other Liberal parties, the Liberal Movement has few similar-views competitors in the Lithuanian political sphere, as they are the only politically relevant party to be completely rightist (pro-free market).

Moreover, they are also the keenest on establishing the singular Western value system upon Lithuania, dismantling both the Eastern values ("Soviet remnants") and, more controversially, the local values ("Lithuanian traditions") as mostly dated.

For example, in Lithuania such Western-originated controversial issues as same-sex partnerships are typically promoted only by the Liberal Movement on the partywide scale.

Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action - 5,5%

Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action, which has appended a phrase "Union of Christian families" to its name, came 5th with 5,5% of vote.

For a long time, Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action was growing in popularity, expanding its support from just the Polish minority to also the Russian minority.

This year the party has attempted to expand outside the ethnic minorities, by also attracting the religious Lithuanians (hence the name change). They were the only party in 2016 elections to provide a truly Christian program, with the word "God" mentioned numerous times and Bible cited.

Such emphasis did not mean a big ideological change for the Poles' Electoral Action. With the Poles being the most religious ethnic community of Lithuania, their party has always greatly relied on Christian thought. Russians have also become increasingly religious after the collapse of the Soviet Union (according to census data), meaning many of them too had no problems in voting for a somewhat religious party as long as it promoted minority issues.

Still, the official drifting from an ethnic minority block to also a religious block may have alienated a few voters, and, more surely, despite a significant Lithuanian-language campaigning in Vilnius, failed to attract new voters. The popularity declined from 5,8% in 2012. It may be so that Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action is so associated with Polish or ethnic minority lobbyism, that it received an image that a Lithuanian has no logical reason to vote for it.

While Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action is the toughest at safeguarding various local and Christian traditions (e.g. proposing an abortion ban, save for certain circumstances), which may also appeal to Lithuanians, other Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action policies directly contradict common Lithuanian agenda, e.g. the demand for an increased role of Polish language raises concern (whether justified or not) among Lithuanians as the high status of other languages in Lithuania was typically associated with anti-Lithuanian discrimination (russification, polonization) in the past. These areas of dramatically different opinions make it hard to combine religious Lithuanians (who are also often very patriotic) and ethnic Poles into a single voting block.

Order and Justice - 5,3%

A minor partner of the current ruling coalition, "Order and Justice" is one of the Lithuanian "personal parties" grouped around a single person (in this case, impeached president Rolandas Paksas) rather than an ideology. "Order of Justice" covers an entire political spectrum of opinions with members of various opinions having joined the same party mostly out of convenience of cooperating in contesting elections.

"Order and Justice" received 5,3%, down from 7,3% in 2012. Some of the voters likely drifted to Karbauskis and his Peasants/Greens. As always, "Order and Justice" was the most popular in Samogitia (the native land of Rolandas Paksas).

The future of "Order and Justice" may be at stake however as Rolandas Paksas resigned from its leadership, disillusioned by the fact that he remains disqualified from contesting Lithuanian local elections himself despite a European Court of Human Rights decision in his favor. Personal parties in Lithuania are rarely able to withstand a leadership change and often wither instead.

Parties that failed to pass the threshold

This time relatively many votes were cast for parties that ultimately failed to pass the electoral threshold. While usually it's the conventional parties that suffer such fate, this year it was the personal/protest parties.

Firstly, a peculiar Lithuanian electoral system meant that the new Anticorruption Coalition of Naglis Puetikis and Kristupas Krivickas, founded by a politician well known for protests and a crime journalist, did not make it to the parliament even though it gained 6,06% of the vote. That's because the threshold is officially higher for coalitions that combine several parties.

The biggest losers of the election were, however, the Labour party (party of the Lithuanian-Russian businessmen Viktor Uspaskich), which ended up with 4,7% of the vote. In 2012 elections this party was the first, acquiring 19,8% of the popular electorate. Like with all the personal parties, their electorate is more fluid than that of ideological ones and is quick to drift to new upcoming popular politicians.

In addition to these two parties, Freedom Union failed to pass the threshold yet again (2,1%), likely an evidence that Liberal Movement already won the competition between the once-numerous Liberal parties.

The other failures were suffered by the Green Party (not associated with peasants and supporting a more Western-styled environmentalism, 1,9%), Lithuanian list (protest party, 1,7%), People's Party (pro-Russian, 1%), Tautininkai (leftist nationalist, 0,5%) and the Way of Courage (a single-issue party established during the Drąsius Kedys story, 0,28%). Of those, only the Way of Courage had passed the threshold in 2012 (8% of the vote) but it lost popularity as its core issue has subsided in media attention.

The prognosis on runoffs that will decide 68 more seats

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results. This diagram combines the seats actually won by parties in the 1st round with seats they are to win in the runoffs if the first 1st round candidate would win every runoff.

2016 Lithuanian parliamentary election results. This diagram combines the seats actually won by parties in the 1st round with seats they are to win in the runoffs if the most successful 1st round candidate would win every runoff.

According to Lithuanian electoral system, only 70 seats out of 141 available are elected by party lists. The remaining 71 are elected in single-member constituencies, according to the US/UK model. However, if a single candidate fails to get 50% of the vote in the first round, a runoff with the two best candidates is needed.

This year, just 3 candidates made it to the parliament without runoffs. Two of them are members of the Poles' Electoral Action who aced in the Polish-majority constituencies. The remaining one is the former minister of finance Ingrida Šimonytė (Homeland Union).

The rest of the constituencies will undergo runoffs after two weeks, deciding the fate of the remaining 68 seats. Peasants/Greens and the Homeland Union are to have the most representatives in the runoffs. Countryside runoffs will be often contested by the Peasants/Greens and Socialdemocrats, with an occasional contestant from other parties. Vilnius and Klaipėda runoffs are mostly to be contested by the Homeland Union and the Liberals, while Kaunas runoffs will often see the fight between the Homeland Union and Peasants/Greens.

Several independents have made it to the runoffs. Alarmingly to many ethnic Lithuanians, a far left politician Algirdas Paleckis got into runoff at the ethnically diverse Naujoji Vilnia constituency. He is convicted for a denial of Soviet crimes (infamously, he claimed that Lithuanians themselves (rather than the Soviet army) shot at other Lithuanians during January 13, 1991), moreover, he is a grandchild of interwar communist Justas Paleckis who collaborated with the Soviet Union in the occupation of Lithuania. He will face a Homeland Union candidate in what will arguably be the runoff where the two candidates will have the most radically different opinions.

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The silver era of Lithuanian basketball continues

2015 09 21. Lithuanians have greeted their national basketball team as it flew back from Eurobasket 2015 final match in France where it has won silver medals for second European Championship in a row.

7th Olympic qualification in a row

Lithuanian Eurobasket 2015 result guarantees direct qualification to Olympic Basketball Tournament in Rio De Janeiro 2016. Olympic tournament is widely regarded to be the top national team event in basketball, surpassing even the World Cup in importance.

Welcome back ceremony for Eurobasket 2015 at Vilnius City Hall square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania retains its perfect record of participating in every Olympic basketball tournament since Barcelona 1992. This is a remarkable achievement given that only 12 teams participate in every Olympic games. Lithuania is the only European team to participate in all 7 games from 1992 to 2016.

Highest ever FIBA ranking for Lithuania

Furthermore, the Lithuanian team is expected to rise in FIBA ranking from 4th place to 3rd, its highest placement ever.

Only the US (1st) and Spanish (2nd) teams will have higher rankings. So far, the US and Spanish teams are also the toughest opponents for Lithuania, with a historic win-loss record of ~20%-80%. On the other hand, Lithuania has a positive historic win-loss record against nearly every other national team.

Lithuanian games at Eurobasket 2015

In Eurobasket 2015 Lithuanians have successfully defeated Ukraine [69:68], Latvia [68:49], Estonia [64:62], Czech Republic [85:81] (all in group stage), Georgia (85:81, round of 16), Italy (95:85, quarterfinals) and Serbia (67:64, semifinals). They have lost to Belgium (74:76, group stage) and Spain (63:80, finals).

Seven out of nine Lithuania's games were decided in final seconds, making this Eurobasket especially nervous to watch for many Lithuanians. Together with the location of the group stage in nearby Riga (where thousands of Lithuanians attended games, populating the center of Riga with green-dressed people) it also increased the popularity and TV ratings of the event.

The total attendance of five Lithuanian team games in Riga was 34562, only slightly lower than the attendance of Latvian team which played at home (39490) and higher than that of Estonian team which also had many visiting fans (29134).

The final game of Eurobasket 2015 (Lithuania-Spain) was attended by more than 27000 spectators, making it the most-attended basketball game in European history.

Claims that Lithuania has too few powerful players proved wrong

Without some of its key players such as Donatas Motiejūnas, Linas Kleiza, Darjuš Lavrinovič and Kšištof Lavrinovič, and joined by 4 newcomers, Lithuanian national team was somewhat written off by experts at first. The preparation series of friendly matches started unexpectedly well however as Lithuania beaten. As the series progressed, the games became tougher and victories became hard. This trend continued throughout the group stage of Eurobasket 2015, but Lithuania still came 1st at the group and once again picked up its momentum when the playoff games came, managing to win games against Italy and Serbia where Lithuanian odds were considered to have been just 20%-40% by punters.

Initially defensive, the Lithuanian performance grew increasingly offensive as the tournament progressed and increasingly reliant on the key players.

Individually, Lithuanian point guard Mantas Kalnietis had the most assists per game in the entire Eurobasket 2015 (7,8) while Jonas Mačiulis equally prevailed in most steals per game (1,9).

Two Lithuanian players were elected to the "best 5" of the tournament (Jonas Valančiūnas and Jonas Mačiulis) together with 2 Spanish and 1 French player.

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Lithuania gives in to EU pressure on migrants

2015 07 21. Lithuania gave in to European Union pressure and agreed to accept the transfer of 325 illegal migrants and refugees, most of whom arrived in other European Union countries from Africa by boats [NOTE: since this article was published, the numbers of illegal migrants to be sent to Lithuania by the European Union were increased by some 400% to surpass 1000]. The majority of them are Black Africans and Syrians.

Lithuanian opinion polls indicate a strong Lithuanian disapproval of the measure. The first part of this measure is especially controversial, with opinion polls indicating a strong Lithuanian disapproval (for example, a 2015 06 poll by "Veidas" magazine demonstrated approval of 8,4%, disapproval at 89% and "no opinion" at 2,6%).

Among the reasons is the expected arrival of Western European troubles into Lithuania, including high immigrant crime rates, participation in riots and terrorism, putting a strain on social security, ethnic tensions, increased needs for (self-)censorship. Furthermore, the "solution" is seen to be just a temporary "reshuffle" that would merely increase the problem of illegal migration on the long term (causing EU to require its members to accept even more migrants).

The historic refugee numbers in Lithuania compared to the migrants that will be sent in by the European Union under the new program. Sizeable numbers of migrants that receive 'additional protection' (~150 per year) not shown. Data: Migration Department of Lithuania

Different immigrant situations in Western Europe and Lithuania

So far Lithuania has avoided the aforementioned problems both due to lower levels of migration and due to a different migration policy. Official target was to encourage migration from particular nations which have more similar cultures and histories (such as Ukraine and Georgia) as well as descendants of Lithuanian diaspora, leading to far less cultural friction. Moreover, skilled migrants are welcomed. Stringent rules in deciding which migrants are useful for the job market led to a more motivated and better educated immigrant population. For instance, most migrants have to have a job or a study place before arriving in Lithuania.

In Western Europe situation was very different. Many of the illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean were lured by vague stories of riches, without having the means or will to achieve them and without researching on the cultural and other differences.

Western European governments have so far relied on an idealistic notion that a well-funded "integration program" would be enough to swiftly turn anybody into a "European", regardless of cultural, economic, educational and other backgrounds.

With new migrant transfer program this notion is stretched even further: this time the migrants will be expected to integrate not even in the country they have chosen to move to, but in a country which many of them never even heard of (such as Lithuania).

Lithuanians could leave anytime, but migrants will be obliged to stay in Lithuania

The common argument in Lithuanian media for the repercussions of new EU policy being not so big as expected used to be that "Most of these migrants would go back to Western Europe anyway", using the European Union open border policy which allows leaving Lithuania westwards without any border checks.

Therefore, according to the minister of interior Saulius Skvernelis it was stipulated by the European Union institutions that illegal migrants and refugees sent to Lithuania would not be allowed to move to other European Union countries (and would be moved back to Lithuania if caught there). This will controversially mean that emigrating Lithuanians (who are free to choose their place of residence within the European Union and thus have been moving in their hundreds of thousands to Western Europe where the salaries are higher) are to be in part replaced by illegal migrants from Africa and Middle East, artificially creating a rare situation where a country (Lithuania) is both a major source of emigrating locals and a major destination for illegal migrants.

Such restrictions were put in place because although re-emigration of accepted migrants would relieve Lithuania of aforementioned problems, it would transfer "this burden" to Western European countries (which is exactly what the redistribution seeks to avoid). Moreover, it would also mean wasted resources, as the immigrants would then have little use for the taxpayer-funded "integration services" provided to them (such as Lithuanian language lessons).

Lingering memory of occupational settlements

The new measure is part of a larger relocation program that will relocate illegal migrants from Southern Europe. While many will be relocated to other Western European states, the relocation to Eastern Europe will make a bigger impact as Eastern Europe had so far very different patterns and policies on immigration and less immigration-related troubles. Almost none of the illegal African migrants previously settled there.

A common point of criticism for the "EU migrants transfer" is that this sets a dangerous precedent where immigration policies of Lithuania are dictated by powers outside Lithuania and Lithuania will likely be expected to take even more illegal migrants in the upcoming years.

The reason why it causes such a stir lies in Baltic States history. Many times occupational powers would send its own inhabitants as immigrants / settlers to Lithuania, hoping to assimilate the land. The most recent case was the Soviet settling campaign which quadrupled the Russian population share in Lithuania and also created other Russophone minorities. In Latvia and Estonia, the campaign even made the major cities Russian-speaking by 1980s. While Baltic nations made a "now or never" push for independence in the 1980s (helped by favorable international conditions) and redressed some of that afterward, the repercussions and ethnic tensions of the era are still felt today (especially in Latvia and Estonia). Estonia itself suffered rioting by its Russophone population in 2007 and has been especially wary of accepting new migrants, citing its delicate ethnic balance.

After all, despite receiving lower numbers of immigrants these years, as a result of the Soviet occupation, the northern Baltic States have some of the EU's least homogenous populations.

Major Lithuanian diplomatic retreat

While Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė showcased the decision as some kind of victory (the recently-rushed EU suggestion was the transfer of 710 migrants to Lithuania), an analysis of previous Lithuanian governmental communication show this was a major defeat under heavy EU pressure. In early 2015 Lithuania talked about accepting ~20 migrants, while several months ago the minister of interior Saulius Skvernelis still noted that "Using all its capabilities Lithuania could accept 40-50 additional migrants at maximum". Interestingly European institutions at that time suggested Lithuania to take in 207 migrants but these numbers also quickly grew.

While the refugees and illegal migrants will be nominally spread in proportion to local populations, the burden will not be equal to all the receiving countries. Hungary will not accept any, while Poland will accept half the number (per 100 000 locals) of illegal migrants and refugees Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will have to accept.

In addition to any further EU requests to accept migrants the initial population in Lithuania is likely to also expand on itself as the initial migrants will invite friends and relatives. For example, as a historical comparison, the Somali population in Finland grew from 0 in 1990 to some 17 000 today (it began as a migration of Somali students from Soviet universities, who then attracted migrants from Somalia itself).

Western Europe exporting problems rather than solving them?

Western European countries (i.e. the Europe that was once outside the Iron Curtain) have been accused of simply "exporting the problems" instead of solving them through a sustainable effort to stop the migration.

One alternative is a program similar to Australian policy whereby migrants would be resettled in safe countries comparable in the economic situation to their countries of origin (in the EU case that could be other African countries, which would get aid in return for such pledge). Australian example showed that mere initiation of such policy would severely curb the illegal migration because most of such migrants are apparently driven by economic reasons rather than seeking refuge as per Refugee Convention. Therefore, stripped of a possibility to settle down in a richer country, they would not take a risk of migration (or would stop at the safe countries en-route rather than seeking a "rich destination"). Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is much richer than Africa (even if slightly less rich than Western Europe) and therefore not useful for such policy.

Unlike in Australia, in Europe, the illegal migrants effectively get exactly what they want (a right to reside within the "rich" European Union). Those who do not prove the race-, ethnicity- or religion-related danger they face back home (a necessity as per Refugee Convention) are usually not returned anyways. As such, migration numbers more than doubled since 2014 (and have been growing beforehand). More people attempting the journey has also led to more deaths (in numbers) at the Mediterranean Sea - exactly what the EU claims to seek to avoid by "helping the migrants in the sea".

The massive growth of illegal Mediterranean migration to European Union in the recent years. It was spurred by European decisions to help migrants at sea to reach their destinations. An easier journey and seemingly welcoming attitude increased the number of migrants and also deaths. The common criticism of current policy is that it will once again send a wrong message to the would-be illegal migrants. Sources for the graph data: LA Times, bbc.com

Western European leaders may feel compelled into "exporting" part of the migrants (and not allowing them back into Western Europe) because of the rising internal pressure to combat immigration and popularity of euroskeptic parties (i.e. those against further EU integration, including common migration policies). At the same time, they may feel pressure from the local leftists to "at least accept the migrants into the EU". However, it is impossible to do both at the same time as "accepting illegal migrants into the EU" raise their flows by so much that even the internal EU "redistribution" won't be able to "relieve" the situation in Western European countries which are the original destinations of migrants.

Lithuania is so far among the most europhilic countries, with euroskeptic parties never even having been elected into parliament. It remains to be seen whether this unpopular measure (which is widely seen as having benefits to Lithuania) will cause more Lithuanians to shift their opinions (immigration-related problems tend to be a key rallying point for euroskeptic parties where these parties are strong). Such prospect makes even some of the most fervent Lithuanian supporters of European Union to hold negative opinions about the migrant transfer agreement.

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Lithuania’s only scheduled airline ends services

2015 05 22. Air Lituanica - the only remaining Lithuanian scheduled airline - has ceased operations today. It served routes from Vilnius to Paris, Berlin, Munich, Brussels, Prague, Billund, Amsterdam and Tallinn and aimed to satisfy business customers.

Initial troubles at Lithuanian aviation (2004-2009)

Air Lituanica became the 5th scheduled Lithuanian airline to fold over the course of the decade.

The main problems of Lithuanian aviation sector began in 2004 when the Lithuanian membership in the European Union opened up the Lithuanian market to foreign carriers. Latvian Air Baltic (then owned by Scandinavian SAS and Latvian government) subsequently based some aircraft in Vilnius airport and launched routes to the same destinations as Lithuanian Airlines, causing Lithuanian Airlines (a.k.a. FlyLAL) to go deep into the red and eventually fold in early 2009. Lithuanian government then refused to bail out FlyLAL (Lithuanian Airlines) by buying it out from private owners for a symbolic price (together with its debts).

Air Baltic also became detrimental, but its losses were eventually covered by Latvian government directly and through lower fees at their Riga hub (the Latvian government eventually bailed out Air Baltic by acquiring 100% stake). To make matters more controversial, soon after Lithuanian Airlines ceased operations Air Baltic also closed its hub in Vilnius, cancelling the flights and re-routing passengers via Riga. Arguably, this has allowed it to survive by filling emptied-by-crisis flights from Riga with passengers originating in Vilnius (economic downturn made other airlines wary of opening direct Vilnius routes).

While such so-called "predatory practices" are formally banned in the European Union, they are difficult to prove in the aviation sector, meaning that the court case of FlyLAL (Lithuanian Airlines) vs. Air Baltic dragged on long after FlyLAL (Lithuanian Airlines) became insolvent and ceased operations.

Attempts to re-launch a Lithuanian airline (2009-2015)

First attempt to restart Lithuanian scheduled aviation was low-cost Star 1 (2009-2010), which folded mainly due to the losses at an affiliated charter company. Air Lituanica, owned by Vilnius City Municipality, was the second attempt, launched in 2013 by mayor Artūras Zuokas on the popular idea that Vilnius lags behind other Eastern European capitals in direct investments, business conferences, and tourism, largely because of the limited accessibility by air.

Air Lituanica plane in its first months of operation in Berlin Tegel airport, ready to leave for Vilnius. The airline's livery included a Lithuanian Grand Duke's seal on the tail while name 'Lituanica' reminded of the Darius and Girėnas Transatlantic journey. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Air Lituanica never became profitable, however, its municipal funding marred in political disputes. After former mayor Artūras Zuokas was not re-elected, some have already claimed that Air Lituanica is doomed with the new mayor Remigijus Šimašius not willing to continue investment. More controversially, in the recent case, Air Baltic also has launched new routes from Vilnius similar to Air Lituanica routes, leading some to make the same accusations of unfair competition as during the FlyLAL - Lithuanian Airlines bankruptcy.

Does Lithuania need its own airline?

The position of Lithuanian aviation sector tends to be greatly controversial in Lithuania. While the popular claims that "Lithuania is inaccessible by air" are gross overstatements, they were nearly correct after FlyLAL bankruptcy and subsequent Air Baltic mass flight cancellations in 2009. Today Lithuania is still less accessible by air than Latvia (despite the latter having a considerably smaller population) and such accessibility may have helped Riga gain its "capital of the Baltics" image it now has in the West. Furthermore, the majority of services to Lithuania now are by low-cost carriers, which are typically frowned upon by business conference organizers and do not provide onwards connections to other continents.

Still, the aviation market is extremely hard to enter and it is unlikely a private carrier would be launched. In fact, both Estonian and Latvian air companies are government-owned, which had allowed them to pass through crisis times. However, having a government (or municipal) owned airline is costly, and starting a new one even more so.

Therefore, the main discussion in Lithuanian society is whether the government should fund such an airline (hoping that increased tourism and related tax income would compensate the costs) or whether Lithuania should remain airline-less. In this situation (to which Lithuania has returned today), flight services are provided by foreign carriers on a purely market basis. However, this has drawbacks:
1.Vilnius wouldn't be a hub and have no transfer passengers, meaning lower total numbers of passengers and therefore fewer commercially viable routes.
2.As it is usually financially viable for the airlines to operate only from their hubs or focus cities, there can be situations where no one services a potentially profitable route from Vilnius simply because there is no airline with a hub at the possible destination (or because the airline based there has a different strategy or inapplicable fleet).
3.While the European Union may have an "open skies market" within its member states, it does not apply to non-member countries, meaning they could (and sometimes do) prohibit non-Lithuanian and non-local carriers from operating routes to/from Lithuania, even if they are based in Lithuania.

There is also a "third position" on the "Lithuanian aviation question" which claims that not bailing out the well-established FlyLAL (Lithuanian Airlines) in 2009 was a mistake, but that launching a new airline now would be a far too costly and risky undertaking to invest taxpayers' money.

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First conscripts report to the Lithuanian military

2015 05 15. Lithuania's reintroduction of conscription came to its final phase as conscripts began reporting to the centers of Lithuanian armed forces as the list of those invited has been publicized by the military two days earlier.

In total, some 38 000 males between ages 19 and 26 made it to the randomly generated list (and will have to report), but only some 3 000 will be ultimately drafted to serve 9 months. Of those some 1 000 will be volunteers (who were offered higher salaries and include females as well as older people) while the rest will be chosen from young males unwilling to serve. However, tight health limitations are expected to disqualify most: some 15% of the volunteers and 70% of those unwilling to serve are usually found to be physically unfit to service for reasons such as flat feet, scoliosis, wearing strong eyeglasses, being overweight or underweight.

Lithuania had originally abolished conscription in 2008 but has reintroduced it this year in order to enlarge its military. The decision has a popular backing in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine (and actions of the Russian leadership that indicate it still regards whole former Soviet Union as its sphere of influence). Public opinion polls suggest 51,9% support the conscription, 27,9% are against it while others are undecided.

Nevertheless, implementation of conscription has raised stir and questions. Typical issues include:

1.Conscription was reintroduced especially quickly (the law was rushed through parliament in March). Rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation was explained to be the reason.
2.Many of the people who made it to the conscription list are contributing to the economy by working, studying and having a business, whereas many of those on the social services were left uninvited. The leftist government refused the proposal to first and foremost conscript the jobless (and those avoiding paying taxes by not declaring their job), which would have helped to solve economic problems and not to create new.
3.While the Lithuanian law protects conscripts from being fired, many Lithuanians working abroad or owning a business claimed this would not help them.
4.Lithuanians still remember practices of dedovshchina (hazing related to age, but also ethnicity, looks) prevalent in the Soviet military, asking if such practices have been surely eradicated.
5.Some Lithuanians noted that during the previous era of conscription corruption was rampant, allowing people with "connections" to avoid service (e.g. bribe a doctor to provide fake "proof of disease"). That's why a randomized lot was used now, while health is tested by military doctors and medical histories are not trusted. The list of all conscripts was posted publically online.

All in all, the Lithuanian military, which has a public confidence of over 50%, will now seek to prove to the common people that it also has what to give the conscripts and not just what to take from them.

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Kaunas Soviet symbols removed, Vilnius “struggle” continues

2015 03 05. Downtown Kaunas is currently having its final public Soviet symbols removed, in preparations for celebrating 25th anniversary of Lithuanian independence declaration. These hammer-and-sickles had been put on Aleksotas Bridge during its reconstruction of 1948.

The "legal struggle" to remove them has been long however, as the bridge had been inscribed as heritage. After a minister's decree banning protection of Soviet and Nazi German symbols the status has been reconsidered and this week construction workers are moving down the bas-reliefs one after another.

Such success of a massive campaign against the remnants of Soviet propaganda put additional attention on a similar "bridge struggle" that still rages on in Vilnius (igniting a regular media coverage equal to that of some major foreign events). The socialist statues of Žaliasis Bridge are "under fire" there - but the powers-that-be have so far defended them.

Arguements for/against Žaliasis bridge statues

Žaliasis bridge statues survived the 25 years of independence largely because some prominent architects express the view that they are pieces of architecture that should be protected, drawing similarities to Berlin Olympic Stadium and Tempelhof Airport which are held in high esteem even if built by the National socialist German regime.

The opponents, however, say the situations are extremely different. In fact, thousands of functional Stalinist buildings survive in Lithuania with no calls to demolish them. What makes Žaliasis bridge sculptures unique is that their main purpose is promoting the totalitarian communist regime and ideology, the symbols of which they bear (and there are no sculptures with Nationalsocialist swastikas in German public areas).

Žaliasis bridge in Vilnius with the sculpture of Soviet army. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Moreover, the opponents do not call for the destruction of the statues but rather seek to move them to Grūtas park, a repository of Soviet propaganda art which makes it accessible to everybody, yet away from the glorifying city center context. The owner of Grūtas park promised to "build a new bridge" for the sculptures.

As such, some opponents view those safeguarding the current location of the sculptures to be dishonest about their true motives, accusing them of being pro-Soviet.

For example, on 2015 02 11 the chairman of Immovable Cultural Heritage Council Romas Pakalnis resigned after his institution voted (7-to-3) to keep the heritage status of Žaliasis bridge sculptures intact (even after the minister of culture decree required otherwise). Romas Pakalnis (himself a relative of anti-Soviet partisans) claimed that he could no longer work among people who hold such beliefs. He said: "I did not expect that they would vote so but I remember how hard it was to get Baltic Way recognized as heritage. Therefore there were symptoms of what their true values are" [source].

The artistic value of the sculptures is also questioned by some as every Lithuanian artist had to produce some canonical propaganda art under Soviet occupation, meaning such art was not a product of the usual artistic independence.

There are four statue groups on Žaliasis bridge, each dedicated to a particular cherished group of the Soviet society. The most controversial one among them represents the Soviet army and even includes hammer and sickle, which is a banned symbol in Lithuania.

Žaliasis bridge sculptures are the final remaining piece of Soviet propaganda in central Vilnius. Just like Aleksotas bridge in Kaunas, Žaliasis bridge far predates the Soviet regime, but it gained its current form during post-WW2 reconstruction.

The reignited campaign against the statues

As Lithuania regained independence in 1990 the most outrageous Soviet monuments were removed: there are no more Lenins, Marxs or Kapsukas anywhere outside Grūtas park. Some Soviet army monuments remained "in limbo" however, with a part of society claiming the soldiers were merely following orders while another part pointing at murders, rapes and other atrocities perpetrated by the invading Soviet army and, last but not the least, the occupation it started.

While the propaganda monuments that remained in prime locations continued to stir regular controversy, this controversy was never massive enough to actually lead to their demolition. That's how the supporters of the "bridges symbols" even managed to list them as heritage, making the demolition harder. Opponents, unable to remove the sculptures, then attempted to "put them into context" through "additional features". Some of them were temporary (e.g. a NATO flag overshadowing the Soviet army sculpture), others permanent (e.g. a plaque with information on the Soviet occupation), yet others never completed (e.g. a suggestion to put the statues in cages).

Žaliasis bridge Soviet sculpture with a temporary flag showing Vytis charging towards it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the Russian aggression in Ukraine the calls to demolish the statues altogether became much louder once again. This is likely because an increasing part of the population no longer views the Russian occupation and dominance as an "issue of the past" (which used to be a popular view ~2005), but rather a tragedy that more and more Eastern European nations have to endure even today. A kind of "game of chess" began between institutions, where some of them seek to establish preconditions to remove the statues while others seek to curtail this.

The latter have been more successful so far. However, the tables may turn soon, as mayor Artūras Zuokas (who traditionally supported retainment of the statues) will face an uphill battle on 2015 03 15 runoff and the Immovable Cultural Heritage Council will have new members as its tenure ends.

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Lithuanian municipality election 2015 results

2015 03 02. The key part of Lithuanian municipality elections have ended and most results are already known.

All the municipality council members and 19 out of 60 mayors have been already elected. The remaining mayors will be elected in the runoffs held on 2015 03 15.

Party results

Map of the leading parties in each municipality.
©HNIT-BALTIC (map), ©Esri ArcGIS Online (system).

Both in the council and mayoral elections Socialdemocrats have prevailed, receiving 19,03% of total vote and 356 seats. However, their positions are the strongest in many rather unimportant rural municipalities and minor in the main cities.

Homeland Union (15,72% of total vote, 247 seats) won some rural councils and also many seats (but not the first place) in all the city councils, where it will likely be a part of the ruling coalition.

Liberal Movement (15,54%, 216 seats) came close behind, winning the key elections in Vilnius and Klaipėda (but a coalition will be needed in both), as well as a few rural municipalities. Liberal Movement's results are thought to be the most impressive as the party has largely consolidated once-fragmented laissez-faire voters community under its own banner.

Labour Party (8,42%, 148 seats) won the few municipalities it traditionally dominates, such as Kėdainiai, the hometown of its leader Viktor Uspaskich.

Tomaševski's caucus (Lithuania's Poles Electoral Action + Russian Alliance) (7,76%, 68 seats) once again caused southeast Lithuania to vote along ethnic lines, winning the Polish majority areas and gaining some votes from the Russian/Russophone community.

Peasants/Greens (6,82%, 138 seats) continued their traditional dominance in some particular rural municipalities where it is seen as the best representative of the local agricultural communities.

Order and Justice (5,6%, 84 seats) may be the disappointed about its result as it fell behind other parties even in its leader's Paksas's homeland Samogitia where it once prevailed and came first merely at 2 municipalities.

Freedom Union (5,09%, 57 seats) may have lost even more as the liberal voter drifted towards Liberal Movement. Another comeback attempt of Freedom Union's leader is likely unsuccessful as the party led no municipality councils.

Non-partisan electoral committees have shown up unexpectedly well (10,59% of total vote, 115 total seats), with the most well-funded ones prevailing in some key municipalities, including the cities of Kaunas, Šiauliai, Panevėžys, and Alytus. This may indicate a protest against the party system as many voters regard the parties to be either "stained in scandals" or "caring primarily about Vilnius".

Mayors and the councils of major cities

Vilnius City

In Vilnius (pop. 550 000), the most prized possession, incumbent Artūras Zuokas (Freedom Union) barely made it to the runoff with 18,36% of votes, where he will face Remigijus Šimašius (Liberal Movement, 34,53%). Zuokas has especially divided opinions about him, ranging from admiration for his "grand projects" (e.g. a municipal airline, bicycle rent and taxi services) and publicity stunts, to intense hatred of such actions as "wasteful and corrupt". Šimašius is seen as a "new face" who had made his reputation in his recent tenure as minister of justice, characterized both by modernization reforms and alleged mishandling of some major long-term issues (e.g. "giving in to lobbying effort" and paying over 100 million to an American-led Jewish organization as a "compensation for Soviet-destroyed religious properties", while such compensations were not available to any other minority nor to the local Jewish religious communities). Valdemar Tomaševski, an ethnic minority leader, has been left 3rd with 17,25% of the vote.

All three political groups will be represented in Vilnius council, with Liberal Movement gaining 26,34% (15 seats), Tomaševski's caucus 17,19% (10 seats) and Freedom Union 11,27% (6 seats). They will be joined by Homeland Union (14,74%, 8 seats), Socialdemocrats (7,86%, 4 seats), the new Lithuanian List protest party (6,23%, 4 seats) and Order and Justice (4,65%, 3 seats).

Kaunas City

In Kaunas (pop. 320 000) businessman Visvaldas Matijošaitis (electoral committee, 37,81%) has prevailed over incumbent Andrius Kupčinskas (Homeland Union, 25,22%), but a runoff will be needed. Visvaldas Matijošaitis, the owner of Vičiūnai food industry group, is among the richest people of Lithuania, which helped him fund a massive campaign. Andrius Kupčinskas is a professional politician. After completing his political studies he had a successful career, becoming mayor of Kaunas aged 32 back in 2007.

Kaunas council elections mirrored the mayoral elections, with Matijošaitis's electoral committee gaining 29,69% and Homeland Union 23,19% votes (16 and 13 seats respectively). Homeland Union percentage changed little since 2011 elections, while Matijošaitis gained his support from other parties. Socialdemocrats (8,08%, 4 seats), Liberal Movement (8,09%, 4 seats) and another electoral committee (4,69%, 3 seats) will also be represented in the council.

Klaipėda City

In Klaipėda (pop. 160 000), the popular jazz musician/mayor Vytautas Grubliauskas (Liberal Movement, 43,16%) fell short of being elected in the first round and will have to face Agnė Bilotaitė (Homeland Union, 12,08%) in the runoff. Once the youngest member of parliament and former Miss Photo Klaipėda, Agnė Bilotaitė, now 33, is a famous name for Homeland Union, but she will fight an uphill battle in the Liberal-dominated Klaipėda.

The Liberal dominance is also echoed in Klaipėda council elections where the Liberal Movement received 31,62% of votes (11 seats) and Homeland Union 12,35% (4 seats). Being a city with a strong Russian minority Klaipėda will also have many Tomaševski's representatives in the council (11,86%, 4 seats) as well as one Russian Union representative (4,15%). Socialdemocrats (8,11%, 3 seats), Order and Justice (4,38%, 2 seats) and two electoral committees (8,27% - 3 seats and 6,76% - 2 seats) will also have their councillors.

Šiauliai City

In Šiauliai (pop. 105 000) parties suffered a major blow as two non-partisan candidates will contest the runoff: Artūras Visockas (17,15%) and Valerijus Simulik (15,43%). Their respective electoral committees gained 12,76% and 11,66% votes in the Šiauliai council elections, leading to 5 and 4 seats respectivelly Socialdemocrats (17,83%), the traditional power, won the most (6) seats. Liberal Movement (11,98%, 4 seats) and Homeland Union (8,99%, 3 seats) also showed up strongly. Peasants/Greens, Labour, People's Party and Order and Justice gained 2 seats each.

Panevėžys City

In Panevėžys (pop. 100 000) the incumbent mayor Vitalijus Satkevičius (Homeland Union) chose not to contest the elections and his party offered Maurikijus Grėbliūnas instead. He came second in voting (16,03%) after architect Rytis Mykolas Račkauskas (22,65%), who represents Povilas Urbšys's electoral committee. Urbšys, a former head of local anti-corruption agency (who is now an MP), famous for solving some key cases, has amassed immense popularity in Panevėžys - which he now transformed into municipality votes. His committee also received 20,44% of votes (7 seats) in Panevėžys council election, leaving 16,49% (6 seats) for the Homeland Union, 12,21% (4 seats) for Peasants/Greens, 10,79% (4 seats) for Socialdemocrats, 6,82% (3 seats) for Labour. Liberal Movement and two additional electoral committees have also passed the threshold of 4%, gaining 2 seats each.

Vilnius District

In Vilnius district (pop. 100 000) incumbent Marija Rekst (Tomaševski's Poles' Electoral Action) triumphed once again, her 60,02% of votes precluding a runoff and holding on the post she has since 2004. Her party will continue to hold the majority in what is a minority-majority municipality (60,83% votes for Vilnius District council and 20 seats out of 30). Still, however, as Vilnius District population is rapidly growing together with the suburbanization of Vilnius, the ethnic breakdown is changing in favor of Lithuanians, meaning that in the future political life there may become more diverse. After all, back in 2011 64,72% of local residents have voted for the Poles' Electoral Action.

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Vilnius Book Fair 2015 concludes in a record

2015 02 23. Annual Vilnius International Book Fair concluded yesterday after a record 66320 people visited what is arguably the top regular intellectual event in Lithuania.

On the one hand, Vilnius Book Fair is the largest bookstore of Lithuanian books where every publishing house participates. The 4-day long "festival" is said to provide a large share of publishers' annual income as Lithuanians traditionally stock up cheaper reading material here for the entire upcoming year. There were 300 retail stalls spread over an area of 9 500 sq. m.

On the other hand, Vilnius Book Fair is also a venue of exchanging thoughts as its numerous conference rooms and halls are constantly occupied by regular "book presentations". Attended by authors, their fans, and passers-by, each crowded presentation goes well beyond the book itself, offering additional insights on the topic and related viewpoints.

Lithuanian/English book 'Medieval Lords of Lithuania' with paintings of Lithuanian medieval leaders presented by (right-to-left) its painter, sponsor, historian researchers and a military officer. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A 4,5 EUR ticket provides access to the entire day of events, making the Book Fair also a very inexpensive event per hour of entertainment.

Vilnius Book Fair tends to attract people from every social stratus. It is common to see top politicians, businessmen, and scientists mingling among the massive crowds. Some come simply to buy books, others to establish relations and participate in events, yet others give speeches or present/sell books themselves. Foreign "star-writers" are invited by local publishing houses in order to launch Lithuanian translations of their books more successfully.

The Book Fair has long since transgressed the publishing market. Stalls have been set up and presentation rooms reserved by foreign embassies, universities, religious and political organizations that also seek to share their ideas. Every year more space is added: used books hall, children hall and, since 2015, a hall for musical records with constant gigs on stage.

Needless to say, the "Litexpo" exposition palace halls get stretched beyond their limits every Book Fair. This leads to infamous traffic jams, parking on dirt, long queues and having to sit on the floor or stand throughout the popular book presentations - causing some intellectuals to avoid the Book Fair even if they would find it interesting.

The crowds walk among stalls at Vilnius Book Fair 2015. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Tensions peak as Norway takes Lithuanian children

2015 02 03. The years-long tensions over the troubles many Lithuanian parents have in Norway reached new heights this week after a Lithuanian family was unsuccessful in repatriating its child from Norway to Lithuania.

In a far-from-unique case the family, living in Norway, had its child forcibly taken away by authorities (Barnevernet childcare agency) to a foster home without a comprehensive reason. Fearing for their child they decided to bring him to Lithuania (via Sweden), which Norway considered illegal and requested Swedish authorities to intervene. Sweden took the boy at a ferry to Lithuania and sent him to Norway, leading to Lithuanian diplomatic protests as the boy is a Lithuanian citizen.

Children taken away for cultural differences

With up to 15% of Lithuanian population emigrated to Western Europe (50 000 of them to Norway), the attitudes of authorities there directly affect many Lithuanian families. The strict Norwegian child-rearing laws that leave little for parental discretion have been especially reviled.

Such laws disproportionately affect immigrants, whose culture and parenting philosophies differ from the Norwegian one. For example, Indian children have been separated from family by Norwegian authorities because their parents slept in the same bed and fed them with bare hands (both are the usual cultural practice in India) [source]. Similar situations affecting their nationals led to diplomatic protests by India, Russia, the Czech Republic and other countries while now Lithuanian diplomacy has also intervened, although the intervention is locally criticised as far too lenient.

Lithuanian child-rearing system is generally far more libertarian than the Norwegian one and the education system more competitive, oriented towards knowledge and laboriousness. Norwegian system, on the other hand, puts far more emphasis on making the children more similar to each other ("overcoming" the gender, ethnicity, and other differences).

This is enforced so strictly that children could be taken to foster homes if they eat at home (before/after school/kindergarten) instead of having lunch together with classmates. According to the Lithuanian embassy in Norway, telling a child to do household chores, not making him/her wear winter clothing deemed "warm enough" and even "not buying him/her a toy" could lead to at least temporary removal of a child from a family.

Norway's immigrants also claim indirect discrimination as they tend to be more closely watched by the authorities with any "deviation" in child's behavior blamed on parents and a possible reason for taking the child away.

Barnevernet has been ignoring Lithuanian childcare authorities in requests for cooperation, while the embassy possibilities to help are limited. In a recent interview, even the Lithuanian first secretary to Norway suggested that the parents "could leave Norway and [should] do so quickly" if their child is with them at the time despite the recent problems with Barnevernet. The embassy confirms that leaving the country would not be impeded.

Facts and conspiracy theories

The view of some childcare specialists who support Barnavernet work is that it is a natural continuation of increasing children's rights and "progressive values". The opposing view, popular outside Norway, claims that such "social engineering" policies are overprotective and severely breach children rights on themselves.

Discrimination accusations aside, even if the goodwill of all childcare workers would be assumed, the child is usually left traumatized after being suddenly transferred from his/her parents to an unknown family or foster home of different culture. In comparison, Lithuanian adoption system (and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) prefers adoption / foster care within the same group of relatives or at least the same ethnic, religious and linguistic community. The calls of Lithuanian authorities to transfer children from Norway to their relatives in Lithuania have been ignored, however.

Norwegian policies have been called "state-sponsored kidnappings" in Lithuanian media editorials which have also accused Norway of seeking to "increase its population this way". Some rich Norwegians prefer adoption to giving birth, while the legalization of same-sex marriages increased the number of couples that could adopt children but not conceive them naturally (in one of the most-publicised cases a Lithuanian kid taken by Barnevernet was adopted by a lesbian couple).

Furthermore, adoption is claimed to be a big industry in whole Western Europe, with a private consultation and legal help services effectively allowing to choose a child from catalogs "based even on eye color". Foster parents are said to receive a Norwegian state support of ~4000 USD a month.

While some of these claims may be overtly suspicious, others are hard to deny or disprove. Even though the Norwegian courts have largely sided with Barnevernet in controversial cases, they still awarded 220 000 000 USD in compensation payments to children abused by the Barnevernet itself. A 2005 report by United Nations has criticized Norway on the issue. The total number of children that were either removed from parents or faced temporary restrictions in Norway is believed to be at ~61 000 in the past 5 years, which amounts to ~6% of the total under-18 population and is an exceptionally large number for an upheaval-free society.

Stories that shock Lithuania

Here are just a few of the emotional stories that now dominate Lithuanian media and cause Lithuanians to write hundreds of comments in social media (names removed):

*In the recent case where a Lithuanian child has been returned from Sweden to Norway, the mother informed a doctor about the problems her child have with increased urination. Doctor suspected a psychological problem, which automatically involves Barnevernet. Having put the family on watch the Barnevernet later noted that this child missed two days at school as he visited his relatives in Lithuania. After complaints from school, the child was taken away from family. The main reason given for not returning the child in later stages was the "danger that the child will be returned to Lithuania". [source]

*In another case, Norwegian authorities taken a child from a Lithuanian family without a warning giving the sole reason that incorrect parental care was reported by unspecified people. The mother, who initially cooperated with the Norwegian authorities hoping to return her child, was even told by the Barnevernet officials that they now believed she is a good mother, but the court decision (adopted 1,5 months after the child was taken away) could not be reversed. Having lost hope the mother illegally took back her child after 1 year and repatriated to Lithuania. The child was left especially traumatized by the experience. [source]

*Norwegian authorities took a child from a mixed Lithuanian-Norwegian family. The Lithuanian wife came under Barnevernet investigation after she confessed a doctor while being pregnant that she used to visit a psychologist in the past after a shock of finding a person close to her dead. After the baby was born the family was told to live in a purposeful "family home" for a month. The child was finally taken away after the Norwegian husband was attacked on street one evening and the family called doctors. The Barvernevet claimed that the wife may have beaten the husband, even though there was never any formal accusations or investigation. After unsuccessful attempts to return their kid through Norwegian courts the family vowed to continue the legal battle up to the European Court of Human Rights (if needed) and expressed hopes to move to Lithuania after getting their child back. [source]

*A Lithuanian family was informed by Barnevernet that their daughter won't be coming back from school as she was put in foster care. The reasons claimed by Barnevernet included violence, alcoholism, and even cult membership. It turned out Barnevernet was told these allegations by father-in-law's wife because there had been a long animosity between the two families. Barnevernet, however, acted on the claims without investigating them as they were made by a close relative. While the family was later able to prove the stories as false, Barnevernet still did not return their daughter, alleging the family was forcing her to "learn too much". The reason for this: the girl was learning native Lithuanian language in addition to Norwegian school programs. Seeing (during the short allowed meetings) that their daughter was moved among multiple foster parents and traumatized, the family successfully illegally taken her back and returned to Lithuania in a single 3500 drive, even though they had a house in Trondheim and thought to stay there permanently. Ironically, the mother worked 20 years in a Lithuanian kindergarten and planned to do the same in Norway. [source]

In the online discussions, many Lithuanians show sympathy for the families affected, blaming the authorities. Some, however, suggest that such situations would become rarer if migrant parents would carefully study the local parenting regulations and then either follow them rigorously or move to another country.

Libertarian parenting enjoys Lithuanian support

The authoritarian Norwegian "child-rearing law" has effectively mobilized many thousands of Lithuanians to fight for maintaining the current libertarian child-rearing policy in Lithuania itself, fearing a gradual introduction of the "Norwegian system" that they see as discriminatory, bureaucratic, totalitarian, wasteful, unjustly limiting parental discretion and contrary to child's well-being.

The largest numbers of activist articles appeared after some Lithuanian politicians made moves to ban corporal punishment and children walking outside alone (both ideas imported from Western Europe).

The latter proposal contradicts the usual practice where city children walk alone to schools from ~8 years old; this is generally safe and thought by many parents to help a child learn to be independent. Moreover, the limits of parental discretion create further burdens on parents, which are already large enough to make some Lithuanians reconsider having children, leading to sub-replacement birth rates.

The critics also point out that the Barnevernet was also initially established in the 1950s to combat corporal punishment in Norway but eventually started curbing various non-standard upbringing practices even if there is no scientific evidence of them being harmful.

Lithuanian children's rights agencies do take children from truly abusive parents, but other than that parents are allowed to set their own system of rearing and educating children. The prevailing belief is that most parents know their own child the best and may decide what is the best for him/her. Equally prevailing is a distrust in state childcare institutions, where a human relation is thought to be unavoidably replaced by a dehumanized and traumatizing bureaucratic relation.

While, for example, in the United Kingdom a local family has recently been fined for spending schooltime traveling [source] (and in Norway, similar cases led to taking children to foster care), in Lithuania such parental practice is permitted and common. It would only cause a stir if the child would fall behind his/her peers and be unable to catch up, but even then the teachers would likely seek to talk to parents instead of fining them, let alone taking their child away.

A boy taken away for speaking only Lithuanian

While the problems of Lithuanian families in Norway are best known, relatively authoritarian child-rearing laws exist in some other Western European societies.

In another much-publicized case the United Kingdom childcare authorities took a Lithuanian child from his family because he "did not speak good enough English at the age of 3" (which supposedly meant parental neglect).

Such case seems to be especially baffling for Lithuanians as in Lithuania ethnic minorities even have schools that use their native languages as the medium of instruction (and learning the official language for non-natives is not expected that early).

In Western European countries such as France such concessions to non-native speakers would be unthinkable. While they are now used to racial and religious differences, linguistic differences are new in many places as previously the immigrants used to come from the former colonies, having a good command of official languages.

The recent wave of Eastern European migrants (among them Lithuanians) that are not fluent in local languages claim discrimination and negative stereotypes against them in Western Europe. They also note lack of protection from such intolerance compared to what the other immigrant communities enjoy. Many of the childcare-related cases specified in this article may be related to such prejudices, but "anti-Lithuanian discrimination" simply lacks the headline value "antisemitism" or "racism" has, leading to little interest from non-Lithuanian media or politicians.

Such situations have made an increasing number of Lithuanians to question the Western European human rights practices, which they had seen as an undisputable model throughout much of the post-1990 period. After all, the Lithuanian-style children rights and linguistic minority rights (developed during the nation's multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural history) may be more "liberal", "humane" and "inclusive" than many Western European counterparts.

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Lithuanian municipal election candidates finalized

2015 01 29. [Newer info on results of elections available here] Final candidate lists have been approved for 2015 03 01 municipal elections when Lithuanians will elect municipal councils and mayors.

People will vote for one of the suggested candidate lists (mostly partisan) and mark numbers of the politicians within that list they prefer. The lists that will receive the most votes will win seats and these seats will be taken by politicians from those lists that were marked by most voters.

On a separate ballot, people will also vote for mayors.

Lithuanian citizens living abroad may not participate in the municipal elections but (as per European Union requirements) foreign citizens living in Lithuania may participate.

Major parties

Three political parties listed candidates in all 60 municipalities are: Homeland Union (centrist conservative), Socialdemocrats (leftist), Liberal Movement (laissez-faire).

Other main parties that listed candidates in 30-59 municipalities are: Labour (personal), Order and Justice (personal), Freedom Union - Liberals (limited laissez-faire) and Peasants/Greens (localist / agriculturalist).

The three main cities are dominated by centrist/rightist thought, therefore battles between the Homeland Union and both Liberal factions are likely. In most smaller municipalities leftist and personal parties are likely to prevail. Peasants/Greens are especially strong in rural locations.

Minor parties and Electoral committes

In addition to these parties 16 smaller parties listed their candidates in 1-15 municipalities each. Most of them contest main cities where there are more citizens and more diverse political life. With a 4% threshold applicable everywhere however being elected will not be an easy deal.

Minority rights (Polish and Russian) parties may be luckier in the regions with strong ethnic minorities (Eastern Lithuania and Klaipėda city). Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action is the strongest minority party, dominating several municipalities for decades. A few non-ethnic parties also have their strongholds, such as Center Party in Varėna.

In General, the number of minor party lists has decreased. Some parties no longer even contest the municipalities they have won seats at the previous elections (2011).

One of the reasons may be that the first time in Lithuanian municipal elections non-partisan Electoral committees have been allowed to participate alongside parties. Some politicians, including a few well-known figures, have drifted to such committees, draining the parties. Electoral committees are established to propose candidates in a single election in a single municipality. Most municipality ballots will offer at least a single Electoral committee list.

The Electoral committees and minor parties will be disadvantaged, however. They are ineligible to taxpayer-paid air time on radio and TV (which will be available to the major parties that have their candidates in 30+ municipalities). The ability to privately fund political advertisement is restricted in Lithuania and many electoral committees / minor parties would not have the resources needed anyway, meaning it will be hard for them to convey their proposals to the people.

That said, several Electoral committees have been endorsed by famous businessmen and their posters are already available in the respective cities in comparable numbers to those of major parties.

Mayoral elections

These elections will be the first when mayors will be directly elected. A separate ballot will be used for that and in case no single candidate in that municipality would receive 50%+ votes then runoffs would be held at 2015 03 15.

Mayoral seats in the major cities are especially contested, with Vilnius mayor seat the most prized possession. So-much-so that out of 6 defeated candidates in 2014 presidential elections 3 have returned this year to seek to become Vilnius mayor (total number of candidates: 12).

In some minor municipalities mayoral elections garnered much less attention. For example, there are merely 3 candidates willing to be mayor of Rietavas.

Lithuanian politics specialists are intrigued not only by the voting results at mayoral elections but also by post-elections situation. While there have been suggestions to alter mayoral powers, for now, they have remained largely unchanged and modelled on the previous electoral system where the mayor was elected by municipality council and thereby always shared political beliefs with the ruling majority. This raises a question how will the situation unfold if the voters would elect mayor and council majority from different political powers.

However, nearly all Lithuanian municipalities are ruled by coalitions anyways, so a cooperation between different political groupings is a daily business.

List of participating parties

This list of participating parties includes the number of municipalities they contest ("Lists"), the number of municipalities they contested in previous elections ("Lists (2011)") and the number of seats they won back then ("2011 Seats").

The leftist/rightist policy and western/eastern/local valuea divisions and are explained in the article "Political ideas", while conventional/personal/minority party type division is explained in the article "Politics in Lithuania".

Party name Type Policy Values Lists Lists (2011) 2011 seats Strongholds Key figures
Socialdemocrats Conventional Leftist Western/ Eastern 60 60 328 Towns and villages Butkevičius, Kirkilas
Homeland Union Conventional Centrist Western/ Local 60 59 249 Cities and towns Landsbergis, Kubilius, Degutienė
Labour Personal n/a n/a 58 59 165+67 Towns and villages Uspaskich, Gapšys, Graužinienė
Order and Justice Personal n/a n/a 57 60 155 Samogitia Paksas, Mazuronis, Gražulis
Peasants/Greens Conventional Leftist Local 51 46 147 Rural areas Karbauskis, Ropė
Freedom Union Conventional Rightist Western 31 51 126+12 Vilnius, cities Zuokas
Liberal Union Conventional Rightist Western 60 58 98 Klaipėda, cities Gentvilas, Šimašius
Poles Electoral Action Minority rights n/a n/a 13 8 65 Southeast Lithuania Tomaševski
Center Party Conventional Centrist Local 4 9 19 Varėna area Ozolas
People's Party Conventional Leftist Eastern 7 24 7 Eastern Lithuania Prunskus, Prunskienė
Young Lithuania Conventional Centrist Local 2 7 4 Kaunas Buškevičius
Russian Alliance Minority rights n/a n/a 7 4 3 Klaipėda
Russian Union Minority rights n/a n/a 3 3 3 Vilnius
Samogitian party Minority rights n/a n/a 2 9 3 Samogitia

Newly participating parties that field 3 or more lists will be the Greens (7 lists, leftist western), Way of Courage (5 lists, protest party), Lithuanian List (3 lists, protest party), Tautininkai (3 lists, leftist local).

Several parties that won seats have not returned at this election. The New Union and Christian party have integrated into the Labor party, A. Zuokas coalition has integrated into the Freedom Union whereas the far left pro-Eastern Socialist People's Front decided not to partake in these elections.

Full lists of candidates are available at the official website of State Electoral Office.

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Klaipėda Liquid Gas Terminal begins operation

2015 01 01. Today Klaipėda Liquid Gas Terminal officially begins pumping gas into the Lithuanian gas network.

The Liquid Gas Terminal, officially completed in December 2014, is one of the largest infrastructure developments of independent Lithuania. It has been designed to provide Lithuania an ability to import gas from other sources than Russia. Before this year, Lithuania was completely dependent on Russia for its gas imports as all the Lithuanian gas import pipes came from the east.

While the costs of the Liquid Gas Terminal (which were paid by Lithuanian taxpayers alone as the European Union did not support it) caused some discussions when the project was initially announced 4 years ago, most doubts dissipated as Russia's policies against its neighbors (e.g. Ukraine) became more aggressive in late 2013. This made the Liquid Gas Terminal one of the few Lithuanian governmental projects that did not suffer severe delays, controversies or cost overruns related to political battles (unlike, for example, the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant project).

Klaipėda Liquid Gas Terminal consists of relatively minor immovable infrastructure and a large perpetually moored ship named "Independence". The usual operation of the Terminal includes pumping gas from the arriving gas tankers into "Independence" and then into the gas network.

Klaipėda Liquid Gas Terminal under construction in summer, 2014. Before the ship 'Independence' arrived the terminal was little visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Terminal was expected to cost ~55 000 000 EUR annually to operate until 2025, decreasing to ~38 000 000 EUR in period 2026-2039 as the ship and credit will be paid off. This should make 1%-3% of the total gas price in Lithuania. However, the Terminal is expected to ensure better gas prices either directly (if Lithuania would import gas from non-Russian sources) or indirectly (as Russia is forced to decrease the previous above-market rates facing new competition).

Moreover, the Terminal makes Lithuania no longer susceptible to a possible gas embargo by Russia. Together with Būtingė Oil Terminal (completed in 1999) and future high tension power lines to Poland and Sweden, Klaipėda Liquid Gas Terminal forms part of the "Energetic independence (from Russia)" goal (also known as "Energetic security"), widely adopted across the Lithuanian political spectrum.

The Terminal is owned by a company "Klaipėdos Nafta" which is 72,32% owned by the Lithuanian government.

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Lithuanian currency Litas replaced by Euro

2015 01 01. Since today the official currency of Lithuania is Euro, and after two more weeks, Litas will no longer be accepted in stores. Euro is also the legal tender in 18 more European countries. 3,4528 Litas will be converted to a single Euro.

In the upcoming two weeks both Euro and Litas will be accepted but change will be given in Euros alone. This made some small businesses to temporarily close their doors to avoid a hard-to-manage dual-currency circulating capital and accounting.

Litas could be freely converted into Euro at every post office and credit union until 2015 03 01, in every bank until 2015 06 30 (banknotes until 2015 12 31) while the Central Bank will convert Litas indefinitely.

The decision to adopt Euro

The quick adoption of Euro has garnered some controversy as the majority Lithuanians have opposed according to most polls (although recent polls show that a massive governmental pro-Euro PR campaign raised support to 53%). A group of Lithuanians sought to initiate a referendum on the issue back in 2014, but this has been blocked by the Constitutional Court of Lithuania, which generally ruled that such transfer of sovereignty to the European Union (EU) could not be questioned by the people of Lithuania.

The adoption of Euro was supported by most major Lithuanian political parties, although some politicians sought for a later adoption date, more public consultations or negotiations for alternative adoption terms (such suggestions have not been approved).

The commonly cited advantages and disadvantages of the common European Union currency Euro are:

Advantages of Euro

*Lithuanians will no longer need to exchange currency when travelling to other states that use Euro as their currency. Likewise, tourists from those countries will not need to change currency when in Lithuania. Bank transfers would also become simpler.

*The international businesses that imports from or exports to the Euro-using countries will save on currency conversion costs.

*The Lithuanian sovereign debt interest rates are expected to be lower. This is seen as a double-edged sword, however, as lower interest tends to incite government to borrow more for consumption rather than for investments (as happened in Greece after it adopted the Euro), which may have tragic consequences during the financial downturn.

*Lithuanians will supposedly "become more European". As a common theme in the regular government-funded pro-EU propaganda campaigns, further Lithuania's integration into EU (including the adoption of Euro) is promoted as a necessary step for the long-term foreign policy goal of "leaving the East and (re)joining the West".

All the Euro banknotes and the obverse of Euro coins are the same all over Europe (and lack any Lithuanian words or Lithuania-related details). The reverse of coins however could vary among countries; the Lithuanian version features Vytis coat of arms (which was also featured on Litas coins).

Disadvantages of Euro

*Massive costs of adopting a new currency. The cost to change currency will be, according to the government estimate, 1 billion Litas + 8,5 billion Litas pledge to the Euro Financial Stability fund (in comparison, the planned total expenses of Lithuanian state budget in year 2014 were 37,6 billion Litas). Additionally, Lithuanian Central Bank has to transfer its assets to the European Central Bank. Massive costs are also incurred by private businesses (e.g. in updating accounting software and hardware). The optimistic governmental scenario hopes that the advantages of Euro would help recoup the costs several times on a longer term. In reality however while the expenses have been already incurred or will be incurred soon, any long term advantages are speculative as they depend on the overall economic situation of other European Union countries (which has recently been unfavorable).

*By adopting Euro Lithuania has lost the possibility to conduct its own monetary policy. As the recent crisis has shown the economy of different countries using Euro differs greatly. Some countries may need their currency to depreciate to encourage exports, while the success of others (e.g. Germany) make Euro appreciate, damaging the economy in the former (e.g. Greece). However, in the recent years Litas was anyways pegged to Euro even though this may have hampered Lithuania during the crisis (as other unpegged currencies, especially the Polish Zloty, deprecated against Litas and Euro, making Lithuanians visit foreign countries for shopping). That said, by adopting Euro Lithuania will lose the ability to unpeg its currency if the market needs would so dictate. Reissuance of Litas would be expensive and could lead to currency speculations and capital flight (similar concerns were among the reasons why the troubled Southern European countries chose not to abandon Euro).

*Lithuania will be obliged to support Euro-using countries in dire straits. Lithuanian economy is healthy as Lithuania chose to combat recession through curbing expenses, making Lithuania unlikely to need a bailout itself. On the other hand, the nations that have recently needed a bailout (e.g. Greeks) actually are significantly richer in terms of personal income than Lithuanians and their main problem was the unwillingness to accept lower wages and payouts that would be compatible with state productivity (and help reduce their debts). This has created a belief in Lithuania that during such troubles the poorest Euro-using countries (the Baltic States) would be obliged to help fund the richer ones (e.g. Southern Europe) so that those richer countries would not be forced to decrease expenses to the level common in states such as Lithuania.

*Litas, a major ubiquitous symbol of the nation will leave the eyesights of Lithuanians and visitors of Lithuania. Other Lithuanian symbols that have gone due to the European Union membership were Lithuanian-flagged car licence plates, whereas Lithuanian passport now has words "European Union" printed above "Republic of Lithuania" and the Lithuanian tricolor is usually waved alongside EU flag at the institutions. This may be seen as an unnecessary loss of Lithuanian identity, while some Lithuanians even draw comparisons with the Soviet occupation when currency, flags and licence plates were also identical all over the Union.

The Litas banknotes depicted heroes of Lithuanian national revival (obverse) and the famous sights of Lithuania (reverse). First issued in 1993 the modern Litas survived the 23 years as a stable currency without hyperinflations or devaluations (unlike its predecessors Soviet Rouble and Talonas). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Euro to inflate prices?

The most common fear of new currency is that it will make prices inflate. Lithuania created tight laws and bylaws controlling price conversion to avoid this tarnishing the reputation of Euro.

However, many prices have been increased before the adoption of Euro or likely be increased afterwards. For example, prices in many Vilnius cafes and restaurants have been already raised so that they would be rounded when converted into Euros (e.g. something that had cost 5 Lt may have had its price changed to 6,91 Lt ~mid-2014 so that it would become 2 Euros since today).

Estonian example (which adopted Euro in 2011 01 01) shows that prices have increased some time after the adoption of Euro as well. For instance, while a Big Mac still cost ~2,15 EUR in Estonia in June 2011, the price have reached ~2,75 EUR by June 2013 (the Big Mac price increase in the other EU countries, both Eurozone and non-Eurozone, was smaller) [source: The Economist].

That said, the prices within Eurozone itself vary greatly depending on economic differences, so it is unlikely that prices in Lithuania would reach the price level of Western Europe anytime soon.

You have more thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of Euro? You can share them in comments.

A longer analysis of Lithuanian-European Union relations is available here.

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Interwar Kaunas to be styled European Heritage

2014 12 20. Interwar architecture of Kaunas has been recommended by an independent panel as one of 16 sites to receive the new status of European Heritage. European Heritage is a new initiative somewhat similar to Unesco World Heritage - a designation that Kaunas municipality has also expressed to seek.

The 1934 museum building and carillion tower in Vienybės square of Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After Polish forces have captured Vilnius in 1920, Kaunas was named a temporary capital of Lithuania. In the next 20 years Kaunas was transformed from an outback military city into a modern capital. Therefore stately buildings of the era (inspired by art deco, Bauhaus and other contemporary movements) make up an exceptionally large proportion of architecture in central Kaunas (boroughs of New Town and Žaliakalnis).

Among the sixteen other recommended heritage two more are related to Lithuania: the Union of Lublin and the May 3 constitution of Poland-Lithuania (both submitted by Poland). The second Lithuanian submission (Vilnius university) has been turned down by the independent panel.

Pienocentras HQ in Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

European Commission will take a formal decision on new European Heritage in February, but it is likely to follow recommendations of the independent panel.

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Lithuania’s “prime ambassador” 4th at World Cup, doubles Google searches

2014 09 14.Lithuanian National Basketball Team lost the Basketball World Cup bronze medal game to France 93:95 this year and took 4th place. This is worse than Lithuania's performance in the previous World Cup 4 years ago (3rd place) but better than many expected after the country's main point guard Mantas Kalnietis was injured on the eve of the event. As usual, Lithuania successfully used its entire roster to the fullest to compensate the lack of leaders in some positions.

The success of Lithuanian National Basketball Team more than anything else helps to spread the interest in Lithuania worldwide, effectively making it the Lithuania's prime ambassador. Same as always, the number of Google searches for the word "Lithuania" nearly doubled in the month when the worldwide basketball tournament was taking place.

Google searches for word LITHUANIA increases by 50%-100% during the basketball tournament months.

As seen in the Google diagram above, Basketball World Cup/Championship and the Olympic basketball tournament tend to be the biggest PR bumps for Lithuania, while the impact of European Basketball Championship is more modest (except for the 2011 event which was held in Lithuania).

Interestingly, all the other major Lithuania-related political and cultural events (such as the Lithuanian presidency of the European Union or Song festival) fail to give any noticeable impact in monthly Google searches for "Lithuania".

Similarly, the presence of other Lithuanian talented sportsmen in Olympic games (in addition to basketball players) fails to bring foreign interest in Lithuania above that of a regular Basketball World Cup.

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Lithuanian Song Festival concludes in Statehood Day

2014 07 06. Lithuanian Song Festival culminated today in the traditional "Day of the Songs". The evening concert was preceded by a traditional afternoon parade where many thousands of the Song Festival participants marched grouped by municipalities (and the diaspora was grouped by countries), attempting to showcase the unique traits of their land of origin.

~500 singers from Lithuanian diaspora marches by the Tauras Hill in Vilnius in the traditional massive parade, greeted by locals. The singers and dancers of Lithuanian municipalities had also marched this way. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Also, just like every Statehood day (July 6th) after the year 2009, the Lithuanian anthem was meant to be sung all over the world at 21:00 local time. In Vilnius Vingis park where Day of the Songs evening concert was taking place, some 50 000 people sung the National Anthem . Smaller groups did the same across Lithuania and the world.

The Day of the Songs concert with 12 000 participateding singers and four times as many spectators. Folk songs and patriotic songs traditionally dominated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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UNESCO-inscribed Lithuanian Song Festival begins

2014 07 02 Lithuanian Song Festival (dainų šventė) began today with a massive opening ceremony. A total of ~37 000 amateur and professional singers, dancers and musicians will participate in this UNESCO-inscribed event, usually held every 4 years and sometimes compared to Olympic games.

The Festival will last a week until July 8th, attracting many local Lithuanians and Lithuanians from abroad. As usual its events include a wide array of traditional Lithuanian activities: folk songs, folk musical instruments, folk dances and folk crafts.

A special law has been enacted in Lithuania to ensure the proper organization of Song Festivals, describing all the mandatory events.

The Song Festivals are traditional in all three Baltic States, regularly unifying the nations. The folk music has greatly influenced the Baltic identity, so-much-so that the Baltic States independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 has been called "the singing revolution".

The current Song Festival is held to be especially important as it's exactly 90 years since the establishment of the tradition in Lithuania.

The program of the 18th Song Festval (2014).

Song festival singers in folk costumes watch over Vilnius from the Hill of Three Crosses before their concert starts. Singers, dancers and musicians of all ages, genders, voices, instruments and band sizes participate, coming from all over Lithuania and many Lithuanian communities abroad. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuanian 2014 referendum results (analysis)

2014 06 29. The votes of the Lithuanian referendum on the direct democracy and land ownership issues have been counted.

While 72,84% voted "YES" and only 27,16% voted "NO", 14,97% turnout was well below the 50% needed for the referendum to be recognized officially, thus the referendum is considered invalid.

Pre-referendum polls shown that the majority of voters (~55%) supported the proposed legal changes, 20% have been against while the rest had no opinion. In every Lithuanian municipality, there were more "YES" votes cast than "NO" votes, the "YES" percentage ranging from 58,26% to 82,04%.

Preposition of the 2014 Lithuanian referendum

The referendum, if successful, would have reduced the number of signatures necessary to invoke referendum from 300 000 to 100 000, make the laws adopted by referendum to be revocable only by another referendum as well as reintroduced the recently-scrapped limitations on buying freehold land for non-Lithuanian nationals.

Lithuania will thus continue to have one of the toughest referendum laws in the democratic world, requiring 13% of total voters sign a special document in order to invoke a referendum - this percentage increasing every year as the population numbers fell rapidly (by 20% since 1990) but the 300 000 signature number remained fixed.

Campaigns "for" and "against" the referendum

While this referendum was the first citizen initiative in 20 years to have passed the necessary 300 000 signatures threshold it has been later stalled by politicians. While the attempts to stop the referendum from taking place altogether have failed, it was moved to summer (instead of being held on the same date as presidential and European parliament elections) this both increasing costs (by 12 million Litas) and effectively killing a possibility of a positive turnout (only the "dual elections" still surpass the 50% turnout due to high emigration and lack of interest in politics and summer ballots tend to have especially low turnouts). Ironically while a 50% turnout is required for referendums (direct democracy) it is not required for elections (representative democracy) where under-30% turnouts are common in by-elections and non-dual European parliament elections.

The largest political parties campaigned against "Yes" vote and most opponents have called not to vote in the referendum (which is an effective solution under the Lithuanian system as e.g. 650 000 voting "YES" under a 51% turnout would mean a successful referendum (on most issues) but the same number voting "YES" in a 49% turnout would mean referendum not recognized, making it more useful for someone against the proposition not to cast ballot at all rather than voting "NO"). Referendum proponents accused the ruling parties of not willing to respect the will of the people where it contradicts their opinions, especially on the necessity of further EU integration.

Dispute on voters' right to question further reductions of Lithuanian sovereignty

Whatever the result of the referendum the fact that 300 000 have been collected for the first time seemingly made the major political parties more nervous that their decisions might be nullified by people. An attempt to initiate another referendum on the retention of Litas currency (due to become replaced by Euro in 2015 01 01) was blocked in its infancy as the State Electoral Commission (which is appointed by the major political parties) refused to give out the signature papers. This decision is currently disputed at a court of law. Polls show that the majority of Lithuanians would prefer not to adopt Euro on 2015.

The proponents of further European Union integration claims that by joining European Union Lithuania agreed to further integration (including adopting Euro) and could not refuse it even if 100% of the population would think otherwise. The opponents of this idea point out that constitutionally the "sovereignty belongs to the nation" and other EU nations have successfully opted out of various EU measures when their population instructed to do so (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom chose not to adopt the Euro).

The current referendum became controversial in the pro-EU integration camp as allowing EU nationals to buy up Lithuanian land is required by EU rules, unless an opt-out is negotiated. Referendum proponents claimed such an opt-out is necessary due to extreme cultural bond to land by Lithuanians, traditionally an agricultural nation (see Home and Away: Lithuanian public and personal space), among a multitude of other reasons. It should be noted that even with such an opt-out foreigners could have obtained leasehold land in Lithuania or get a freehold after naturalization.

It should be noted that when a 2003 referendum on European Union membership was held the laws were specifically amended for that single referendum alone, allowing a 2-day vote and curbing the threshold. Furthermore, free goods had been given out to all the voters to ensure them coming.

The memories of these controversial 2003 events created some ire this week, as some voters in today's referendum protested that this time the government does everything that it could to reduce the turnout while back then it was vice-versa, and both times legally dubious measures have been employed to achieve a government-supported result.

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Lithuanian mayors to be directly elected

2014 06 27. Lithuanian Seimas has adopted a long-delayed law on replacing the municipal election system. The mayors will now be directly elected by people together with the municipal councils.

Previously the people were electing only the municipal councils directly while these councils, in turn, were electing mayors.

The first direct mayor elections in all the 60 Lithuanian municipalities will take place in 2015.

However the powers of a mayor are to remain limited, likely halting his possibility to effectively promote his programme if the mayor and the council majority will represent different parties. A solution to this problem may require a constitutional reform that would change mayor position from a legislative into an executive one, establishing a system of "checks-and-balances".

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Double masted flags – a new type of monument in Vilnius

2014 06 13. There are a few places in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius that have great transformations planned for them yet these transformations do not advance for decades.

Take Lukiškių square for instance where a monument is planned but all the design competitions have failed so far. The square center thus "temporarily" remains empty since the Lithuania's prime sculpture of Vladimir Lenin has been toppled there 24 years ago. Even more controversial is the Žaliasis bridge, the last place in central Vilnius where the now-rusting Soviet statues have *not* been demolished or replaced to the dismay of many (and to the joy of a few preservation enthusiasts).

Quite an impressive solution has been found. Central Lukiškių square has received two masts and a Lithuanian Grand Duchy historical flag stretched between them. It looks gracefully waving in the wind. This gate-like structure is cheaper, more unique and (arguably) more meaningful than many of the previously-suggested specially-designed monuments, some of which were accused of plagiarism and others of lacking artistic value. Perhaps this is why the double-masted flag, originally intended to be a temporary work of art and face removal by February 2014, still waves over Lukiškių square.

The flag waving over Lukiškių square in front of the Museum of Genocide Victims (former KGB headquarters). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even more than that. The double-masted flag idea has now been copied at the Žaliasis bridge. The four Soviet statues each now have such a large flag stretched over them. Two are medieval Lithuanian flags, and two are NATO flags. This is indeed symbolic: the rebirth of Lithuania (always rooted in its glorious medieval history) and the NATO military supremacy were two major factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet statues are banned from demolition by preservationist authorities, so they were now integrated into a more meaningful whole: one that no longer glorifies the Soviet system but rather signifies its defeat.

One of the four flags masted between two flagpoles on Žaliasis bridge hangs above the Soviet propaganda statue, the medieval knight having perpetually raised his sword against it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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“Respublika” daily becomes weekly

2014 06 02. Continuing the major decline of Lithuanian printed media the daily "Respublika" newspaper turned into a weekly in May 2014.

This may be more significant than the recent fall of many other dailies as "Respublika" was regarded to be one of the Big 2 Lithuanian dailies together with "Lietuvos Rytas". Both were established even before 1990 Lithuanian independence and have grown and matured together with the Lithuanian state not only describing its major changes but even triggering them. Lithuanians still remember how the rampant post-Soviet mobs were finally defeated after they had murdered "Respublika" journalist Vitas Lingys in 1993 and all the media then raised up against organized crime.

Not everything remained so rosy in the 2010s with the same newspapers being accused of selling "media silence" (such accusations are even mentioned in Wikileaks-published US diplomatic cables). This year "Respublika" has been declared unethical by the regulatory authority. While the official reason is its articles that blamed certain people for their role in "Snoras" bank bankruptcy, the "Respublika" publishers expressed their belief that recent "Respublika" political activism in favor of increased Lithuanian sovereignty vs. further European Union integration may have been the true reason for what they have called censorship. The "unethical" status would have meant an increased VAT and such a tax hike would have made the newspaper hopelessly detrimental, something that a new "weekly" designation may help to avoid.

Politically conservative "Respublika" has been known for somewhat unique material as the remainder of Lithuanian mass media grown increasingly uniform in the recent years with syndicated news and foreign press translations displacing the exclusive articles. "Respublika" was known to cover issues such as conspiracy theories and interesting-yet-not-so-famous personalities, both usually avoided by mainstream media.

"Respublika" owners still retain publishing of their more popular (but less historical) daily tabloid "Vakaro Žinios" which from now on also has its Russian language version (continuing the heritage of Russian language "Respublika" daily which apparently has been more lucrative than its Lithuanian counterpart).

While the decline of printed media may be inevitable with the rise of the internet, many intellectuals mourn this fact. Lithuanian internet news websites have been known to lack quality the newspapers once boasted as they need to publish as many articles as possible to gain many search engine hits (this leads to copying, plagiarism, mistakes). Newspapers, on the other hand, have to conserve their precious printed space for the best articles and pay their journalists for quality rather than quantity.

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Lithuanian European Parliament & President election results

2014 05 26. After counting all the ballots it seems that the Lithuanian president election runoff drew little surprises with Dalia Grybauskaitė easily reelected for a second term. The concurrent Lithuanian European Parliament elections, on the other hand, resulted in an extremely colourful array of representatives (known as MEPs).

European parliament election results in Lithuania, 2014

11 of the Lithuania's seats are to be split among 7 political parties - more than ever.

Parties within the Lithuanian ruling coalition received the most votes, with Socialdemocrats (leftist) and Order and Justice (personal party of Rolandas Paksas) receiving 2 seats each, while Labour party (personal party of Viktor Uspaskich) and the Polish-Russian block received 1 mandate each. The ruling coalition received 52,43% of votes and 6 MEP seats in total.

The opposition received 5 MEP seats in total, split among the centrist conservative Homeland Union (2), laissez-faire Liberals (2) and agriculturalist environmentalist leftists - the Union of Peasants and Greens (1).

Hereunder is the comparison of 2014 election results to those of 2009 as well as a short introduction of the elected MEPs. The voters chose not only the party but also which of its MEPs should be elected.

1.Homeland Union (17,39%) lost 2 seats (previously 4, now 2). Professional politician Algirdas Saudargas will be the only Homeland Union MEP re-elected with the remaining seat going to Gabrielius Landsbergis, a grandson of the "patriarch of Lithuanian independence" Vytautas Landsbergis (who now retired as an MEP after two consecutive terms). Laima Liucija Andrikienė and Radvilė Morkūnaitė sought to be re-elected as MEPs but failed (they remained 3rd and 4th among the party members respectively). The Homeland Union was the strongest in the cities, winning Vilnius, Kaunas and Panevėžys ballot, however, its support may be somewhat decaying as the youngest generation no longer remembers its members' 1987-1991 fight for Lithuanian freedom.

2.Socialdemocrats (17,27%) lost 1 seat (previously 3, now 2). Vilija Blinkevičiūtė (especially loved by older Lithuanians) and Zigmantas Balčytis (also a presidential candidate) have been reelected as MEPs while incumbent Justas Vincas Paleckis will lose his seat (however he did not even contested this election). Socialdemocrats were the strongest in the countryside winning most rural municipalities.

3.Liberals (16,52%), gained 1 seat (previously 1, now 2). Their previous MEP Jewish philosopher Leonidas Donskis chose not to seek reelection and a betting-tycoon-cum-poker-player-cum-basketball-sponsor Antanas Guoga (a.k.a. Tony G) has been elected instead. Interestingly both are not members of the Liberal party. Instead, they are popular figures who have been invited to improve the party's chances. Such tactics may have paid off this time as likely it was the Guoga's popularity that gained the party its second seat, to be filled by a diplomat Petras Auštrevičius. Liberals fared the best in the cities and won the vote at their traditional seaside stronghold (including the 3rd largest city Klaipėda).

4.Order and Justice (13,48%) retained 2 seats. Party leader Rolandas Paksas has been re-elected as MEP (which is the highest political position he may achieve as he is controversially banned from local elections by Constitutional Court after being impeached once) and he should be joined in the EP by the party's obvious "second-in-command" Valentinas Mazuronis. The former mayor of Vilnius Juozas Imbrasas may lack charisma and has not been re-elected as MEP (he remained 4th among party members). In addition to the two leaders, Juozas Imbrasas also yielded to Petras Gražulis, who will be offered an MEP place if Valentinas Mazuronis will not want to leave the cabinet where he is now the minister of environment. Petras Gražulis was a human rights activist (and thus a political prisoner) under the Soviet occupation. To this day he campaigns against dictatorships and ethnic persecutions abroad, but, having suffered a totalitarian regime first-hand, he sees the modern Western rights activism (e.g. LGBT) as a form of vanity that fails to address serious global issues and, when followed religiously, threatens the freedom of speech. Order and Justice prevailed in Samogitia where both its leader Rolandas Paksas and Petras Gražulis hail from.

5.Labour Party (12,12%) retained 1 seat. The party leader ethnic Russian millionaire Viktor Uspaskich was reelected. Like many MEPs he is a controversial figure back home, accused of various things from fraud to following the orders of Vladimir Putin. However, his supporters claim this is fabricated. Moreover, despite all his riches Viktor Uspaskich managed to build an image of an "average Joe" (i.e. someone who laughs at the same jokes and has the same flaws as an average Lithuanian).

6.Polish-Russian block (8,06%) retained 1 seat. It should be filled by the Poles' Electoral Action leader Valdemar Tomaševski, made famous by his campaigning for an increasing role of Polish language in the Polish-majority municipalities as well as limiting abortions. Valdemar Tomaševski is less critical of modern Russian and Soviet policies than most other candidates (he even participated in the Soviet victory day). However, he declares to be against Soviet-style state atheism, imperialism, and genocide. Polish-Russian block, quite understandably, won the minority-majority regions.

7.Union of Peasants and Greens (6,62%) gained 1 seat (previously 0, now 1). This is one of the best election results for the party that usually gains ~4% of the vote. A millionaire farmer Ramūnas Karbauskis is elected as MEP. He has been made famous by his arduous effort at raising the prestige of Lithuanian agricultural village life, destroying the myth that the Lithuanian rural dwellers are necessarily poor, uneducated and addicted to alcohol. Among the projects funded by Ramūnas Karbauskis are a village life soap opera, a museum of Baltic pagan gods and an alcohol-free annual musical festival. Ramūnas Karbauskis's activities likely broadened the party's massive rural support base (where they won a quarter of votes in some municipalities) to cities as urban dwellers started to see it as a "safeguard of traditions and nature" rather than a "farmer lobbying group" it used to be. Nevertheless, Ramūnas Karbauskis may want to stick with his lucrative farms and yield his MEP seat to the mayor of Ignalina Bronis Ropė who is little-known outside of his home region.

It should be noted that the total number of seats allocated to Lithuania decreased from 12 to 11 after Croatia joined.

Generally, the elected parties are in support of European integration. The only party suggesting greater sovereignty was Tautininkai, which received 1,99% of votes, remaining 9th and failing to gain an MEP seat. Only two other parties failed to gain a single seat: the newly-established Greens (3,55%) and Liberal Center (1,49%). However, most of the Lithuania's smaller parties chose not to contest the elections altogether as EP is not held as an important institution.

Lithuanian presidential election results, 2014

Well before counting the votes in Lithuania's presidential elections it became clear that Dalia Grybauskaitė, an independent center-left candidate, will be reelected over the leftist Socialdemocrat Zigmantas Balčytis in the runoff. Final results (after excluding the bad ballots) are 59,05% for Dalia Grybauskaitė vs. 40,95% for Zigmantas Balčytis.

Zigmantas Balčytis closed a part of the initial gap (he lost 13,83% to 46,64% in the first round) as many of those who voted for other candidates in the first round supported Zigmantas Balčytis in the runoff. However, this proved to be not enough to dislodge Grybauskaitė who gained a wide support of both centre-left and rightists (the right lacked its own strong candidate this election). Z. Balčytis prevailed only in his native areas of southern Samogitia and the minority-majority regions as the minorities (especially Russophone) voted for him.

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Incumbent Grybauskaitė wins elections, but runoff needed

2014 05 13. The results of the first round of Lithuanian presidential elections:

Dalia Grybauskaitė 45,89%
Zigmantas Balčytis 13,63%
Artūras Paulauskas 12,02%
Naglis Puteikis 9,33%
Valdemar Tomaševski 8,23%
Artūras Zuokas 5,22%
Bronis Ropė 4,15%

Turnout 52,14%, 1,53% of ballots were damaged.

A runoff Dalia Grybauskaitė (centre-leftist) vs. Zigmantas Balčytis (leftist, Socialdemocrat) will take place after two weeks.

While it seems that Grybauskaitė will win a second term Lithuanian runoffs are known to be quite unpredictable. For instance in 2002, Valdas Adamkus won 35,06%-19,4% in the 1st round, but lost the runoff 44,83%-54,15%, while in 1997 Artūras Paulauskas won the 1st round 44,73%-27,56% but lost the runoff 49,22%-49,96%. Moreover, in the previous 2009 elections Grybauskaitė was elected without a runoff (68,21% votes), meaning her support has withered.

When commenting the elections Lithuanian political sciences consider the high performance of environmentalist Puteikis to be surprising, however being the only candidate without a political party behind him he may have gathered the usual "protest votes", including the supporters of banned candidate Rolandas Paksas and anti-secrecy activist Zigmas Vaišvila (who cancelled his campaign).

Valdemar Tomaševski consolidated his support among all ethnic minorities, whereas previously it was limited to Poles. He improved his result from 4,68% of votes in 2009 elections.

The low performance of Artūras Zuokas is surprising to some, especially since he has been the only rightist candidate and extremely capable at public relations. However, A. Zuokas has been involved in several corruption scandals as a mayor of Vilnius and thus the support of rightist voters switched to centre-left Grybauskaitė.

Artūras Paulauskas (Labour party) is likely not happy as well as he was widely considered to be the only true contender to capture the 2nd runoff place from Zigmantas Balčytis.

Further analysis of candidates available here.

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