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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 singing 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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Lithuanians worried about the Ukraine events

2014 03 20. All the major Lithuanian media outlets have been recently dominated by the stories on the Ukrainian events, where Russia invaded and annexed Crimean peninsula. Even the upcoming elections have been set aside.

Having spent 170 out of the previous 225 years under two different Russian occupations (Imperial and Soviet), both of which involved persecutions, discrimination, and/or genocide, the events in Crimea ring a much closer bell to Lithuania than they do to the West.

Soviet past makes Lithuanians see the Russian media reports differently

Unlike the Westerners Lithuanians still remember what it means to live under a non-democratic regime, when the votes are all rigged and the media controlled by the government. Therefore while a few Western journalists prefer to see the players of "European power game" (Russia and USA) as "similar", few Lithuanians would dare to do that. Even fewer would believe that Crimean referendum has not been rigged or that Russian media stories about Ukraine have any credibility. Sacking of Russia's media leaders who are not pro-Kremlin, 97%+ high-turnout referendum votes, unanimous decisions in the Russian parliament and other events have reminded of the Soviet Union too much, while the crackdown on blogs is regarded here as a 21st-century continuation of Soviet policies.

Democratic and non-democratic societies are fundamentally different: while in a democratic society many government wrongdoings eventually come into the light (through media or whistleblowers like Wikileaks or Snowden), in an undemocratic society extremely few do, therefore it is impossible to morally compare US actions to Russia's actions based on what is publically known.

Furthermore, in an undemocratic society media could not be trusted as a source at all. As recently resigned Russian journalists put it, Russian media is inventing news from scratch rather than "saying something but not saying something else" as happens in the democratic societies. Lithuanians, like other neighboring nations, have been targets of what became known there as the "Russia's informational war" themselves too many times to believe in similar-styled attacks on others.

"Russia's informational war" is mostly aimed at the opinions of people outside of the events it portrays - Russians (to rally them for a cause) and Westerners (to smear the Russia's opponents and decrease the foreign support they enjoy). Many Lithuanians, however, have relatives, friends and acquaintances in both Russia and Ukraine, some visit these countries regularly, so they better know the real situation there and the true local opinions.

However much a Westerner would be critical of media, he/she accepts as an axiom that every news report is at least half-true. This is well-used by Russian media as it means that completely invented stories are at least half-believed by many Westerners. This wouldn't work among Lithuanians who know what is a non-democratic media (having lived under Soviet occupation until 1990) and have seen evidence with their own eyes that modern Russian media is no different.

January 1991 Russian invasion of Vilnius that left 14 Lithuanian civilians dead and 702 injured is a vivid memory to most Lithuanians (who were either there themselves or have friends who were). Recently Russian media has claimed that Lithuanians themselves, rather than the Russian army (as contemporary images, e.g. the left one, show) did this rampage. Such accusations seem eerily similar to the accusations on Ukrainian 'Euromaidan' activists, leading most Lithuanians to ridicule the latter.

Reactions of Lithuanians to the Ukraine events

Lithuanians have shown their solidarity with Ukraine in many ways. Many Lithuanians changed their facebook profile images to a Ukrainian flag. Even in the March 11th independence day celebrations Ukrainian anthem was played in addition to Lithuanian and slogans were chanted in the Ukrainian language. However, politicians were more wary of showing active support this time than during the Ukraine's Orange Revolution (2004) or the Russian invasion of Georgia (2008), when Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus was the first foreign head of state to visit Tbilisi while the war was still raging.

Lithuanian political scientists noted a rather lackluster Western support for Ukraine in what was the first time in Europe after World War 2 when one country annexed a part of another. This has raised fear of another East-West division where Lithuania would be ceded to Russia, as was done in World War 2 conferences (which allowed the Soviets to continue their genocide). The Crimea situation has been compared to largely unopposed invasions of Sudetenland by Hitler's Germany. Sudetenland also was a German-majority area outside of Germany, just as Crimea is a Russian-majority area outside Russia.

What is perhaps even more worrisome to Lithuanians is that people all over Russia reacted to Crimean annexation with great joy. In the West, even wars that don't involve annexations now raise a considerable opposition, while an attempt to invade and annex a part of a neighboring nation justifying on "ethnic similarity" would be a political suicide. In Russia, however, such rhetoric (reminiscent of the ~1900 colonial "scramble of the world") still stirs pride among the vast majority and this is precisely why many Lithuanians see a danger in Russia, but not in Germany or Poland. Furthermore, the unresponded Russian military actions against newly-independent states gets increasingly serious: Transnistria, carved out of Moldova in 1992, has not been de jure recognized even by Russia itself; in 2008 after the invasion of Georgia Russians recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, but not formally annexed them; in 2014 Crimea was swiftly annexed by Russia. "Could an attack on the NATO-member Baltic States be the next Russia's action to test the (lack of) Western response?" question lingers in media and Vilnius cafes alike.

This quote said by George W. Bush in 2002 still proudly hangs on the Vilnius City Hall (bottom right of the image). Would it hold strong today? US vicepresident Biden on his 2014 March visit to Lithuania claimed it would. But just as every unresponded Russian aggression erodes the trust Lithuanians have in Russia, it also somewhat erodes the trust Lithuanians have in the West. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While all the major and most minor Lithuanian political parties stand firm in their support of Ukraine and criticising Russia's new policies, the Lithuanian election, and referendum dates are getting closer, leading to using the Ukraine events for local political gains. Nearly every political party has been recently accused by its opponents of being pro-Russian. And after a long period in 2000s when being "Pro-Russian" had been a somewhat fashionable "pragmatic policy" (which, it was hoped, would bring business opportunities) after the Russians invaded Crimea being pro-Russian suddenly became politically incorrect. After some 10 years, the Russia's threat is once again widely regarded as grave across the political spectrum rather than just a few leaders denounced as "stuck-in-the-past" by peers.

Pro-Russian sentiment is still more common among Lithuania's Russian and Russophone minorities, totalling ~8% of population. Most of these people are Soviet settlers or their descendants; they and their Russian language and culture enjoyed a privileged status over Lithuanian during the Soviet era. Given the Russia's play of "ethnic card" in the annexation of Crimea (where the existence of Russian community is also a consequence of Russian Imperial and Soviet policies) the Lithuanians feel extremely worried after Russia recently increased its criticism for Estonia on its language policies. Increased Russian media attacks have been a prerequisite in previous invasions (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014). While Estonia's (and Lithuania's) older Russians and Russophones speak only Russian, the young generation is somewhat assimilated, speaks the local language and English in addition to native Russian, and largely sees a future in the Baltic States or even further West - a process that may decrease Russia's influence over the time if it is not reversed.

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Lithuanians go into election mood (analysis)

2014 02 27. May 2014 will be the election month in Lithuania, with political campaigns already getting into a full swing. The President and 11 Lithuanian members of European Parliament will be elected and additionally a referendum will likely take place.

Hereunder is the analysis of the main candidates and referendum prepositions. To learn more about Lithuanian political parties and thoughts check the introduction to the Lithuanian political landscape.

Lithuanian Presidential elections (2014 analysis)

Many politologists claim that the major intrigue in the upcoming presidential elections will be whether there will be a runoff or not. The runoff would be needed if the winning candidate fails to gain 50% of votes in the first round. The person expected to win - whether in the first round or runoff - is invariably the incumbent Dalia Grybauskaitė. With such a rift in her popularity and that of her opponents "all against one" type of campaigns are expected.

Dalia Grybauskaitė is a centrist figure supported by the Homeland Union and the Liberals. Grybauskaitė's policies are mostly pro-EU. Originally they were also regarded to be pro-Russian and anti-American but this has recently changed. Generally, D. Grybauskaitė avoids statements on controversial issues. Her weakness is little official information available on her past, criticised as purposefully hiding the extent of her collaboration with the Soviet occupational authorities. Her personal style of control whereby people out of her favor are removed from office and those in her favor promoted disregarding capabilities is also controversial to some, but most voters are indifferent to it.

The main opposing candidates will be Zigmantas Balčytis (Socialdemocrats, leftist), Artūras Zuokas (mayor of Vilnius and a leader of his own "personal party" TAIP), former prosecutor Artūras Paulauskas (Labour party, personal).

Rolandas Paksas (Order and Justice, personal), once removed from the President's office by a controversial impeachment seeks to be elected once again. However, he is formally banned from doing so by the Constitutional court interpretation, although the European Court of Human Rights decided in Paksas's favor. It is currently unclear whether he will be allowed to stand as a candidate.

Other better-known candidates are Bronius Ropė (Peasants and Greens, leftist), Naglis Puteikis (independent, enviroinmentalist and critic of corruption), Voldemar Tomaševski (Polish minority), Zigmas Vaišvila (independent pro-democracy and anti-secrecy activist, signatory of the Lithuania's declaration of independence).

Most of the above candidates are known for their own deeds, however, Balčytis and Ropė are mostly unknown yet supported by the parties whose leaders chose not to contest the post themselves.

Dalia Grybauskaitė (top left) and the top contenders in 2014 Lithuanian presidential elections (in no particular order)

There are more potential candidates. However, every candidate is required to collect 20 000 signatures in their support before their bids are finally accepted. This threshold is usually too high for less well-known candidates although one or two of them may succeed.

European Parliament elections: 2014 Lithuanian analysis

Despite the European Union having major powers over today's Lithuania few Lithuanians are interested in the European Parliament and the turnouts have been the smallest among all major elections. However, the presidential election runoff (if needed) would coincide with the EP elections, increasing their turnout.

A larger turnout is believed to be beneficial to the "personal/protest parties" (Labour Party, Order and Justice, TAIP, Way of Courage) as their voters are among the least eager to cast their votes if they see the election as unimportant. Smaller turnout, on the other hand, is useful for the "conventional parties" (Homeland Union, Socialdemocrats, Liberals, Peasants/Greens, Nationalists) and the "minority parties" (Lithuania's Poles Electoral Action). The results would be considered sensational if either Homeland Union, Socialdemocrats, Labour Party or the Order and Justice would fail to get any seats. Peasants/Greens, Poles, Liberals and the Way of Courage, however, may be forced to struggle for their representation.

Current division of the European Parliament 'pie' as a result of the 2009 EP elections in Lithuania. The pie of 2014 will be smaller as Lithuania had its number of MEPs reduced from 12 to 11.

Lithuanian referendum on referendums and land issues

This autumn-winter Lithuanians have collected the necessary 300 000 signatures to invoke a referendum for the first time in Lithuanian history. The referendum will be on the following constitutional amendments:

*1.Lowering the number of signatures needed to invoke referendums from 300 000 to 100 000. The new number would be more in-line with the practice in democratic nations. 300 000 people are some 13% of total voters (one of the largest percentages in the democratic world). Furthermore, this number has been set in 1993 and Lithuania lost ~20% of its inhabitants since, meaning that the percentage of total voter signatures needed to invoke referendum increases every year as the population falls. There have been 14 previous popular attempts to invoke referendums but all of them have failed due to logistical pressures in fulfilling the signature threshold on time.
*2.Retaining Lithuanian citizenship as a prerequisite for owning freehold land in Lithuania. Currently, only Lithuanian citizens may own freehold land in Lithuania. However, this is to be abolished soon as per European Union request. The proponents of the referendum seek the prerequisite to be extended indefinitely, citing the extreme cultural importance of land to Lithuanians, traditionally an agricultural nation (see Home and Away: Lithuanian public and personal space), among a multitude of other reasons.

The main "conventional" political parties (the Homeland Union, Socialdemocrats, Liberals) disagree with the referendum propositions. Controversially, however, instead of campaigning for a "no" vote they seek to prevent the referendum from taking place altogether, despite the prerequisites having been met. Various measures have been attempted (such as disregarding legal limitations on institutional decisions) although they have failed so far. The second question of the referendum is considered "eurosceptic" by its detractors and therefore politically incorrect. As has been previously discussed the Lithuania's political establishment is reluctant to either question or dispute the European Union policies and regards those doing so to be radicals.

The "personal" parties (Order and Justice, Labour party) take into account the popular opinions more and thus believe that the referendum must now be held.

The most avid proponents of the referendum propositions are either non-partisan or belonging to minor parties, such as the Peasant and Green party.

The collection of the signatures, however difficult, may be just the easier part of getting the proposition to pass. The strict Lithuanian referendum laws require 50% of total people eligible to vote to vote for the proposition on lowering the referendum threshold to be accepted. This is nearly an impossible task in a country where 53% turnout during the previous parliamentary elections was considered "especially good" and some elections had a turnout of ~35%. Low turnouts are due to large emigration and many people boycotting politics altogether believing their vote could not change anything.

So far the only referendums to take place in Lithuania were initiated by the government rather than people. Most were consultative (i.e. government reserved itself a right to act disregarding the popular vote). The most recent obligatory referendum took place in 2003 (on the European Union membership). Due to the widespread establishment support for the EU membership, the laws were specifically amended for that single referendum alone to ensure a positive result.

Given such a history the proponents of the current referendum claim Lithuanian governing "conventional parties" simply have no guts to allow the people to alter parliamentary decisions through referendums (which would become somewhat easier should the signature threshold be lowered to 100 000). The referendum opponents reply that the popular decisions are not always the best ones.

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Lithuanians choose 2013 top persons and events

2014 01 02. As the year 2013 ended with people traditionally firing off their firework stockpiles the global and local persons and events of the year have been traditionally elected in a media-conducted poll.

Nearly 50% Lithuanians believe that the Maxima store collapse in Riga was the 2013s most important event in the world. With 54 deaths it was far from the worst tragedy but it especially touched Lithuanians as it happened in their "brother nation" Latvia and in a Lithuanian-owned supermarket. 2nd place was given to the typhoon in the Philippines with the election of Pope Francis coming up third.

An old lady mourns at the collapsed supermarket in Riga (Christmas day, one month after the collapse). This tragedy brought down the government down in Latvia (one of the few in Europe which survived the 2009 crisis) and it also shook Lithuania as Lithuanians recognized it to have been the World's event of the year. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The title of Lithuania's most important local event went to the Lithuanian presidency of the European Union (42% recognized it as important), followed by the world records of star swimmer Rūta Meilutytė and the Lithuanian National basketball team's silver at Eurobasket - these two events together were voted for by another 42% respondents showing once again just how seriously sport is taken in Lithuania.

In voting for the person of the year Lithuanians have traditionally voted for politicians. They believe Barrack Obama is the most important person, followed by Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. For 13 years out of the 14 this poll has been conducted, the ruling US president was declared the World's person of the year.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė is considered to be the Lithuanian person of the year even though Lithuania is a parliamentary republic (the reigning Lithuanian president was declared "Person of the year" 17 times out of 19 polls). This also happens many years in a row and shows the Lithuanian fondness for its presidents. Rūta Meilutytė comes second with Prime Minister Audrius Butkevičius third.

The poll was taken by "Baltijos Tyrimai" and "Lietuvos Rytas".

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Riga store collapse sends ripples accross Lithuania

2013 11 28. The collapse of Maxima supermarket roof in Riga (Latvia) which left 54 dead on 2013 11 21 is still a hot topic across the Baltic States, all three of which are equally unused to such disasters. Latvian government of Valdis Dombrovskis resigned yesterday over the issue and the Latvian president Andris Bērziņš called the event "a murder of an enormous amount of defenceless people".

Who was the "murderer" is still unclear, however. Maxima store chain is Lithuanian-owned and is, in fact, the flagship of the largest Lithuanian group of companies, notable for its massive investments in Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria and elsewhere, and for being the Lithuania's largest employer.

However, the Maxima group acquired the now-collapsed building only in 2012 after it has already been developed by Homburg (a Canadian multinational real estate company) which in turn hired Latvian contractors and architects for the 2011 construction works.

Prior to the collapse, Homburg was expanding the said real estate project with the creation of green roof over the supermarket and construction of a 9-floor residential nearby. Homburg also operates in Lithuania where it has 8 projects under development.

An international investigation will likely answer whether the supermarket roof collapsed due to initial construction fault, design flaws, illegal modifications, mistakes in the building of the green roof / nearby residential or other reasons. Who is responsible depends on this and given such a massive death toll the court sentences may be harsh.

The questions of possible corruption (if an inadequate building was accepted by the Latvian state agencies) linger. Given the similar societies and histories of Lithuania and Latvia, Lithuanian institutions launched a campaign to check the stability of the nation's main buildings.

Meanwhile ordinary Lithuanians have been showing solidarity to their "brother nation" Latvians and brought candles to the Maxima stores in Lithuania as well as Latvian embassy in Vilnius over the weekend.

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Russia bans Lithuanian dairy products

2013 10 11. Recently-introduced Russia's sanctions on Lithuanian dairy imports continue. Official reason: compromised quality. However, the fact that no other country in the world has restricted Lithuanian dairy imports leads Lithuanians and some Russians to believe the reasons are political. Lithuanian columnists see the "dairy war" as a pressure for Lithuania to adopt more pro-Russian policies as it presides over the European Union.

In spite the new restrictions Lithuania continues to support deepening the European Union ties to Ukraine, traditionally regarded by Moscow as a part of its own sphere of influence.

A change in Lithuanian foreign policy?

The current events (and a seemingly firm Lithuanian stance) may indicate a turn in policies of Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė, who has been previously a follower of "the pragmatic policy". "The pragmatic policy" long is a code-word for a limited Finlandization towards Russia: remembering the tragedy of Russian-led Soviet occupation, but not actively seeking either remuneration or a trial of Russian war criminals, both of which Russia refuses for 22 years.

When Dalia Grybauskaitė replaced Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamus after the 2009 presidential elections she triggered a major foreign policy shift: the active Lithuanian support for democratization in Eastern Europe was hastily dropped and pro-US policies replaced by a more pro-EU line. One of the first Grybauskaitė's controversial acts was a refusal to meet president Barack Obama of the USA in Central/East European leaders meeting, she also didn't meet Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili during the Eurobasket 2011 championship in Lithuania (M. Saakashvili had been supported by Valdas Adamkus as a beacon of liberal democracy in the Caucasus but heavily disliked by Russia after the 2008 war; to this day there are even streets named after V. Adamkus in Georgia).

In 2013 however D. Grybauskaitė met B. Obama and her rhetorics became increasingly critical of Russia. After the "dairy war" started D. Grybauskaitė refused to negotiate herself delegating members of government instead. "The pragmatic policy" has possibly been seriously revised - likely because it did not give the desired economic or political benefits (Russia giving little in return for support). Another reason may be the upcoming elections (2014) where D. Grybauskaitė will likely stand for re-election; recent doubts about her work for KGB during the Soviet occupation coupled with previous pro-Russian policies may have caused her to distance herself from the Russian regime.

It should be noted that foreign affairs are one of the few domains where the president of otherwise parliamentary Lithuania has considerable powers.

The current "dairy war" is just a single episode of Russian sanctions or limitations on what it calls "The nearby overseas" (i.e. former republics of the Soviet Union). These sanctions have been never been officially described as punitive by Russia but are usually concurrent with other political or economic events where the sanctioned state refuses to act as Russia requests. The sole oil pipe leading to Lithuania remains closed by Russia since 2005 (official reason: repair works) forcing Lithuania to import oil the more expensive way by sea. Recently there have been limitations on the rights of Lithuanian truckers to use Russian roads. On a side-event, a Russian television channel in the Baltic States recently promoted a conspiracy theory that Russia did not attack Lithuanian civilians on January 13, 2013. Such conspiracy theories tend to be taken as a great insult in Lithuania because hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians stood against Soviet armies back then, meaning that nearly every Lithuanian either has memories of the night himself/herself or knows somebody who does.

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Heritage search services and Facebook account

Given a large interest from people of Lithuanian origin, True Lithuania website begins offering investigative services on your heritage in Lithuania.

We help locate relatives and information on family history. We search for and read Lithuanian language sources, if necessary check the state and church archives and provide legal services in Lithuania. If interested, contact us by e-mail (tourbaltic@gmail.com).

P.S. 1,5 years after its launch True Lithuania website acquired its Facebook account. We invite you to Like/Follow us.

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Lithuania wins silver at Eurobasket 2013

2013 09 22. Lithuania celebrates as its national basketball team won a silver medal in European Basketball Championships. While they were defeated by France (66-80) in the gold medal game this is still a great achievement for a 3 million-strong nation.

While Lithuanians are regular guests at every major basketball tournament the last time they played in Eurobasket final game was 10 years ago (2003) when they achieved gold. Decennial of the event has been recently commemorated by a festival game where the golden Lithuanian team of 2003 (most of them already past their careers) faced foreign European players of the era.

Unlike in 2003 the street joy will probably not last multiple days this year. But in Vilnius downtown, a foreigner could not easily tell that Lithuanians lost the final game. Hundreds of fans are shouting, honking, waving flags, greeting each other and celebrating despite the rain. Tomorrow the Rotušės square will likely be full for a national team welcome back ceremony.

Costumed Lithuanian fans stopped their cars and waving flags in streets after the silver medal is won. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As usual, basketball victories are the main power to unite Lithuania and make it shed its introverted appearance. They are also the nation's prime ambassador abroad, making the name "Lithuania" well known in every nation where the world's 2nd team sport is popular.

On their route to silver Lithuanians defeated Macedonia, Latvia, Montenegro, France, Belgium, Ukraine and Italy and lost to Serbia, Bosnia an France. Power forward Linas Kleiza made it to the symbolic top 5 of the championship. The second place in Eurobasket also guarantees participation in the FIBA World Cup 2014 in Spain so Lithuanians will not be left without international basketball as their beloved team will try to repeat or improve their achievements of 2010 when it turned out third.

Lithuanian fans greet power forward Darjuš Lavrinovič in a welcome back ceremony on 23rd September 2013. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuania in the European Union: Presidency and challenges

September 1st, 2013 marks two months after Lithuania started its presidency of the Council of European Union. While advertised as an important achievement by the government to the Lithuanians it is more of a routine procedure. In the European Union, all the member countries rotate in assuming this 6-month presidency.

The Council of the European Union which consists of minister delegates from every member state. The meaning of its presidency, however, has been reduced over the time. The council now convenes in Belgium regardless of which country presides with only some minor events taking place in the presiding nation. After the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon was passed the presiding country has been stripped of much of its powers, having been replaced by permanent EU officials.

Lithuania's presidents residence outfitted in EU-themed lighting for the six months of Lithuanian presidency over the European Union. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Stances towards the European Union in Lithuania

More than 9 years have passed since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 so it is now possible to evaluate Lithuanian EU relations, the local stances towards EU and their reasons. Just like in 2004 all the main parties (Homeland Union, Socialdemocrats, Liberals) support EU membership. They tend to swiftly adopt various EU measures. When the European Constitution was proposed in 2004 Lithuanian parliament raced to become the first country to ratify it - without any public discussion or evaluation. Despite this zeal the Constitution was later voted against by the French and Dutch people in referenda.

In Lithuania, however, a referendum on an EU issue would be unimaginable as the establishment would not want a negative answer. The only referendum that took place was for the EU membership itself (as it was required by the Constitution). To ensure a positive result the referendum law has been amended (the lower requirements for number of votes were effectively applicable to that single referendum alone) and the voters were provided free goods in return to voting. What would have been heavily controversial had the referendum been on any other issue passed largely unnoticed by both local and foreign democracy activists as most of them supported the EU enlargement.

Some Lithuanian EU critics even claim this reminds of Soviet occupation when communist functionaries were willing to appease Moscow disregarding the wishes of the local population. Most locals, however, have little understanding of what the Union could and could not do and don't care that much about it. Proceedings of European institutions are largely ignored by media and European parliament elections have a pitiful turnout (~20%). This made Brussels a popular "political refuge" for controversial high-ranking politicians and a good place to develop popularity. After serving a term in some European institution their popularity surge due to perceived importance of their jobs and no public scandals. Dalia Grybauskaitė is the greatest success story: largely unknown before her tenure as a European finance commissioner she was elected Lithuanian president with 68% votes immediately afterwards (in 2009).

Still, the Euroskeptic voices are few and far between and even held "politically incorrect" by much of the establishment (with even Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius claiming that politicians who put national interests ahead of EU interests are a problem). The eurosceptics include some signatories of Lithuanian independence declaration and other intellectuals who currently lack any political power or much media attention. Far left "Frontas" party is also Euroskeptic; its pro-Soviet stance made it easy for pro-EU establishment to portray the entire Euroskeptic population as radicals (e.g. xenophobic) or even a "Russian fifth column". The pro-Russian euroskepticism is, however, the smaller one of the several types present. The other one advocates bringing more decisions back home to Lithuania and increasing its sovereignty, at least on political and cultural matters.

The European Union is not a defensive alliance yet some of its supporters believe that the membership may prevent a Russian invasion (as other member-states would be less likely to tolerate an occupation of Lithuania when it is a member-state). As Lithuania has been occupied by Russian states for 166 years out of the recent 220 years, some still see a new Russian occupation as the biggest threat.

European Union influence on Lithuanian economy

With their economy ransacked by a 45-year long Soviet occupation Lithuanians now receive more money through European Union budget than Lithuania pays into it, meaning the membership is profitable on a short term. The exact profitability is hard to measure impartially as some of the EU support goes directly to fund the local EU measures, such as the expensive EU-ordered closure of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant near Visaginas, while some of the EU-imposed Lithuanian payments go directly to EU programs rather than EU budget (e.g. the European Development Fund).

The Lithuanian economy now grows, as it did both before an after EU membership save for the economic downturn years, so it is expected that eventually, Lithuania would become an overall contributor to the EU budget.

Who receives the EU money is however frequently criticized by both EU supporters and detractors as many projects suffer from embezzlement. The usual scheme is simple: unfaithful developers of EU-sponsored projects pay artificially inflated prices for various project-related services; a large part of this money is then secretly returned by the service provider (part of it may be used to bribe the state officials to turn a blind eye). While "professional EU applicants" get large-scale funding through the aforementioned schemes, ordinary businessmen lack the experience to successfully pass the application bureaucracy. Such situation leads EU critics to claim that the political establishment is pro-EU precisely because EU gives them access to large amounts of "free money".

Furthermore, the Lithuanian farmers claim discrimination as they are paid only 28% of what Greek farmers are paid for the same land area and 52% of EU average, yet they must be competitive in the same market as the EU had abolished duties. This is not a small deal as agriculture funding makes up 41% of total EU expenditures. Then again this does not make the farmers eurosceptic as prior to the EU membership most were even less well off.

The most profound EU influence, however, has been the rapid emigration. Any EU member-state citizen may freely settle and work in another member-state. Before 2004 expansion all EU members had relatively similar developed economies this posed little problems. But for an Eastern European a job in the West may provide salary several times those at home. Some 12% Lithuania's people, most of them young and many of them skilled, left for good in the recent decade - leaving their homeland stretched infrastructure and aging population as well as putting further growth at stake.

Are European cultures equal in the Union?

In addition to using objective economic criteria, the European Union increasingly influences local culture and political opinions by sponsoring local organizations that support various EU agendas (e.g. the scientifically disproven theory that men and women have no inborn psychological differences).

House of Europe in Vilnius (opened in 2013) operates in the first floors of the building. It includes the European Institute of Gender Equality, the sole central EU institution moved into Lithuania. However, recently top EU politicians deliberated whether such separate institute is needed at all. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another key EU agenda is promoting the European identity over either global, national or regional ones. Proponents (among them a disproportional number of Western European elite) see this as a measure to avoid wars; detractors point that the previous regional unification attempts (e.g. Germany in the 19th century) only replaced internal wars by external ones. Some showcase "European identity" measures (e.g. a single-design car licence plates) make the Union member-states even less independent in particular spheres than the USA states.

All of the above are heavily controversial and lead to a belief that the European Union is about transplanting ideas and values from the Western core to the newly-joined East rather than about exchanging ideas and respecting values of each other.

Lack of respect for Lithuanian and other Eastern European victims of the Soviet genocides is another controversial issue. Looking through a Western European prism World War 2 was fought between totalitarian Germany vs. democratic nations. In the Eastern Europe, however, everything was different with not one but two totalitarian powers (the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) occupying weaker states and committing genocides. Soviets murdered several times the number of people Nazis did. Much of their actions were ethnically-based and some ethnicities (e.g. Kalmyks) had 50%+ people killed and their culture largely destroyed (through expulsion to GULAGs/Siberia of the entire population where most died). 7 million Ukrainians murdered in Holodomor mean that there were more Ukrainian victims of the Soviet genocide alone than Jews murdered by Nazis. While total expulsion of Lithuanians was not done (although deliberated), Lithuania still lost over 30% population under the Soviet rule. Therefore it is painful for Lithuanians and many other non-Russian Eastern Europeans to hear some European Union officials not regarding their murderers the same way as the murderers who also ravaged the West (i.e. the Nazis).

When will Lithuania adopt the Euro?

The next major EU-related issue for Lithuania is the adoption of Euro as its currency. Prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius claimed there is no place for discussion nor referendum as Euro was already accepted by the 2004 referendum (it was not directly mentioned in the referendum question though). However with the recent Euro-related economic downturn in Greece and Portugal public opinions on Euro are more negative than ever (55% oppose it). Unlike much of the EU work which falls outside the scope of interest of an average Lithuanian, the currency change will influence everybody. In response to the unfavorable public opinion A. Butkevičius claimed that "an informational campaign will be necessary", likely meaning a large state-funded PR campaign to make the nation more pro-Euro. Until now such campaigns have been successful (including the one before EU membership referendum), but the introduction of Euro may be the toughest issue the pro-EU establishment faced to date. The government hopes to introduce Euro by 2015.

The design for Lithuanian Euro coins has been already prepared in 2007 and will feature Vytis. All Euro banknotes are the same regardless of country (on the contrary to British pounds which have separate versions for England and Scotland).

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Palace of the Grand Dukes opened in Vilnius

On July 7th, 2013 the Palace of the Grand Dukes (Valdovų rūmai) has been opened to the general public in Vilnius Old Town. This is the reconstruction of the original Renaissance palace of 1520 which stood at the same location near Vilnius Cathedral and housed the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The original palace has been damaged by the Russian invasion in 1655 and completely torn down in 1801 under the Russian Imperial occupation.

Rebuilt palace is now a museum. Ruined basements are authentic while the newly-built interiors are supposed to represent different eras. However, the only difference between the rooms is ceilings and furnaces with all the walls plain white. Exhibits are a mixed stock of mostly authentic archeological finds and mostly replica furniture. Plaques provide Lithuanian and English history of the Grand Duchy.

Palace of the Grand Dukes with Grand Duke Gediminas statue nearby. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Palace project has been highly controversial and suffered time and cost overruns. The construction, first envisioned in 1988, started in 2002 and was planned to be completed by 2009 when the nation celebrated a millennium since the word "Lithuania" has been mentioned for the first time in a surviving written record.

However even today the Palace is only partly completed as a second wing will have to be built for additional 75 million Litas. The true costs of the construction have been higher 3,6 times than planned at first, leading to fruitless criminal investigations.

Other points of criticism for the Palace have been its doubtful authenticity, lack of unified vision for its purpose and the fact that a 19th-century merchant's house had to be demolished to free the construction site.

The Baroque throne room has a replica throne and an authentic chest of drawers (right), but its plain walls are far from baroque opulence. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For its proponents, the rebuilt Palace is a potent symbol of the reborn nation, a monument to Lithuanian unity and culture. Under this premise, the project attracted donations from Lithuanian Americans and various companies. Still however it was the taxpayer who covered most of the bill and the true patriarch of the project was late Algirdas Brazauskas, a former communist party member who turned Socialdemocrat post-independence; his quotation now proudly hangs at the entrance and his hunting trophies will be exhibited inside.

For its detractors, the Palace continues to be a white elephant and a symbol of Soviet-style embezzlement, cronyism, and pompousness.

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