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Lithuania: Vote Results Unlikely To Alter EU, NATO Course

The Baltic state of Lithuania swept to the left in weekend parliamentary elections, dealing a heavy defeat to the conservative government. The change comes at a time when Lithuania has not yet achieved membership in the key European and Atlantic structures, namely the European Union and the NATO alliance. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines whether those national goals are affected.

Prague, 10 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuanians took their country on a sharp swing to the left in the weekend parliamentary elections, inflicting a crushing defeat on the conservative government of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius.

Among left or center-left parties which gained most were the Social Democrats of former state president and ex-Communist Algirdas Brazauskas, who appears a likely choice for prime minister. Coalition building could be long and difficult, however, and the outcome is difficult to predict.

Popular discontent with the country's economic hardship is seen as a major factor in the victory of the left, which has promised a greater emphasis on social issues. Among other economic difficulties, the Russian collapse of 1998 hit Lithuania hard, at a time when its pro-market reform process was still underway.

Inevitably, the question has arisen whether the leftists, in the hope of easing the strain on the population, will now try to slow the economic-restructuring program. Reform is a key part of Lithuania's drive to become a member of the European Union within the next five or six years.

The other big political question is whether the election will have any adverse impact on the country's drive, along with Latvia and Estonia, for membership of the NATO alliance -- something strongly opposed by Russia.

A senior analyst with the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, Juergen Konrad, tells RFE/RL he does not believe there is anything to fear on the issue of reform and EU membership:

"Absolutely not, they have consensus across almost all parties for EU enlargement, and for structural reforms, and we have already learned in the past that these political changes do not really affect Lithuania's pace in terms of reforms, so we don't think economic policy will be affected."

Konrad says he believes the bad economic times are passing for Lithuania, which is now set on a path of growth. And he says that even if the new government has greater social preoccupations, it will not neglect the necessary reform steps:

"I expect the new authorities are going to continue to be pragmatic; they have their fiscal limitations and in general the environment for economic policies is much more favorable now than two years ago, keeping in mind that Russia has made it again to very high growth rates, and -- much more important for Lithuania -- the European Union is growing strongly, making it easier to support economic growth in Lithuania as well."

Analysts see achievement of Lithuania's other major foreign policy goal, namely NATO membership, as remaining -- as before -- difficult. They also note however that Brazauskas, although a former communist, has long-standing credentials as a supporter of NATO membership.

Paul Beaver, a senior strategy analyst with Jane's military publishing organization, told RFE/RL that he sees EU membership for Lithuania as remaining on track. But:

"I still think the three Baltic states still have a huge problem in joining NATO because of the current situation and the attitude that Russia has -- bearing in mind that Finland and Sweden are both Baltic states and are not members of NATO but are members of the European Union."

Beaver consequently sees EU membership for the Balts as likely coming ahead of their membership in the Western alliance. Moscow is not opposed to the Baltic republics' membership of the EU.

Another British-based analyst, Alexandra Ashbourne of the Center for European Reform, says there may be an advantage to gain from that situation. She describes EU membership as offering a "de facto" security guarantee:

"You have got to push for EU membership first, that does not mean to give up on NATO, but push for the EU first, because that will offer Lithuania and all the Baltic states an unwritten and unspoken security guarantee that it's highly unlikely that Russia would dare to do anything -- which is the concern in Lithuania -- if you are an EU member."

Returning to the Lithuanian elections and their implications, Ashbourne sees the results as a sign of exasperation among ordinary Lithuanians at the slowness of progress on any front. She says this is not necessarily just frustration with the last government, but through the last decade. She says:

"The Lithuanian people have had independence for nearly 10 years and they are still not in NATO, they are still not in the European Union, their GDP (gross domestic product) figures are still very low; during the Soviet occupation there was a feeling that all that had to happen was for the Soviets to leave, and everything would go back to the pre-war days when Lithuania was a very affluent small country, and so the Soviets left 10 years ago and nothing has really changed that much."

At any rate, Ashbourne says she sees the swings between the left and the right in Lithuanian politics as a normal expression of the democratic process.