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Lithuania: Analysis From Washington -- Presidential Election Result Promises New Direction

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The victory of Valdas Adamkus over Arturas Paulauskas in the Lithuanian presidential election on Sunday is likely to help define not only the future of that country but of other former communist states as well.

That conclusion has relatively little to do with their biographic differences which have drawn so much media comment, the difference between a Lithuanian who spent much of his life as an American official and one who was the scion of the Soviet-era nomenklatura.

Instead, it reflects three other, possibly less obvious factors that seem certain to become more important not only in Lithuania but in other countries across this region.

First, this election -- in both rounds -- was in many ways the first genuinely post-independence vote in Lithuania. This time the electorate voted not out of a concern over whether Lithuania would continue to exist but rather over what kind of country it would be.

Both commentary in the Lithuania media and the pattern of voting testifies to this. Vytautas Landsbergis, the man who led Lithuania to the recovery of independence, finished third in the first round and thus was shut out from the final.

Part of the reason for his poor showing was that he continued to cast the issue in terms of Lithuania's survival rather than Lithuania's future development.

Unfortunately for him, at least this time around, ever more Lithuanians appear to have decided that they now have the unaccustomed luxury to think about what Lithuania will be rather than whether it will survive.

Second, the voting demonstrated that in Lithuania at least, the old communist party and state nomenklatura has the power to mobilize a significant portion of the population in elections but an even greater power to mobilize people to vote against it.

In the first round, Paulauskas led with 45 percent of the vote, far ahead of Adamkus and Landsbergis. But in the second round, Paulauskas was unable to pick up the five additional percentage points that he needed to win.

Throughout the campaign, Paulauskas cast himself as a youthful man of the future. But public opinion polls and the actual voting suggest that most Lithuanians were more impressed by the people he had around him, people associated with Lithuania's Soviet-era past.

Part of the reason for this was a poster put up during the closing days of the campaign. It showed Paulauskas with some of these officials standing behind him, directly asking whether he was a man of the future or one of the past.

Not surprisingly, these former officials did all they could to elect Paulauskas, a man far more familiar to them than Adamkus. In the first round, they were able to deliver an impressive plurality for him.

But their very success in that round led to their defeat in the second, as ever more people reached the conclusion that they did not want to take the chance that voting for Paulauskas might entail.

And the Paulauskas campaign only added to this feeling when his campaign manager used the same word to describe Lithuanian Americans like Adamkus that Lithuanians have used in the past to describe the Soviet occupiers.

That too backfired, probably less because it offended the way in which Lithuanians think about the West than because it recalled an ideological style that they have done so much to escape.

And third, this election gives Lithuania five more years to escape from its communist past, to develop under the leadership of someone steeped in democracy and free markets and committed to broadening and deepening its ties to the West.

Unless something untoward happens, the next presidential vote in Lithuania will not take place until 2003. By that time, Lithuania will have had 12 years of post-communist independence, a period of time that should allow that country to turn the corner.

This is not to say that everything is now settled and over in Lithuania. Many problems remain. Some are hangovers from the past. Others may be self-inflicted, even by the new president-elect.

Indeed, his relative lack of experience in Lithuania may make it difficult for him to cope with everything going on there and thus make it easier for some to avoid changing the ways in which they do business.

But this vote in Lithuania was a defining election, one that seems certain to lead that country in a new direction. And even more, it may even become a bellweather for similar elections across the former communist world.