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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 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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