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Lithuania: Stormy Skies Ahead For Embattled Stunt-Pilot President

Lithuania has been rocked by a scandal involving its president, Rolandas Paksas, less than a year since he took office. A report by a special parliamentary commission claims Paksas and his office have ties to organized crime -- and that these links have made him a threat to national security. Parliament now appears poised to impeach him over the allegations. But Paksas denies any wrongdoing and says he won't resign.

Prague, 3 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This former stunt pilot's political career could be headed for a tailspin.

Lithuanian President Roland Paksas -- a two-time prime minister who has only been in office since January -- is facing likely impeachment.

It's all over allegations that first surfaced in a security service report claiming Paksas's staff had ties to organized crime and that classified information was leaked from his office.

A special parliamentary commission set up to look into the affair concluded those links made him vulnerable and a threat to national security -- and yesterday evening parliament approved the commission's report, paving the way for Paksas's impeachment.

But last night Paksas was resolute. He denied any wrongdoing and said he won't resign: "I have always defended and will defend the interests of the Lithuanian state and its people. No one will force me to withdraw from this path."

Paksas also called himself the victim of a political witch-hunt: "I think that by incriminating me, without proof, of nonexistent things, by the course of the investigation and by its conclusions, the temporary parliamentary investigation confirmed that only one goal has been pursued -- to remove me by any means."

The scandal broke late October with a report by Lithuania's security service that was leaked to the media.

It alleged Paksas and his national security adviser had ties to international criminal groups. Paksas's top financial backer, a Russian businessman named Jurijus Borisovas, was said to have been involved in illegal arms trading with Sudan.

There was more. Paksas had allowed himself to be influenced by a firm suspected of links with Russian intelligence. He and his aides had leaked classified information.

After the report was aired, things began to unravel quickly.

A special parliamentary commission was set up to hold hearings. Aides to Paksas were questioned, and several resigned. Paksas himself faced lengthy questioning in a pre-trial investigation of Borisovas, his chief election campaign financier.

Accusations flew. Paksas, one parliamentarian claimed, is either a "madman or a puppet" in thrall to sinister Russian interests.

This week, amid public protests calling for Paksas's resignation, the commission presented its damning report to parliament.

Aloyzas Sakalas, the commission's chairman, presented the report's conclusions to parliament yesterday.

"The conclusion of the panel is that the threat for national security did exist and still exists as long as the president is under the direction and influence [of outside forces]," Sakalas said.

The prime minister, Algirdas Brazauskas, shed his reluctance to take sides and called on Paksas to stand down.

Now MPs are preparing to gather the 36 signatures needed to launch impeachment proceedings, which would be headed by the chairman of either the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Court.

Parliament will hear witnesses and later vote for or against the accusations against Paksas -- 85 votes out of the 141-seat Seimas would be enough to remove him from office.

Would Paksas have a fair trial? Raimundas Lopata says it's hard to predict anything about the impeachment process, which could take months.

Lopata is director of the Lithuanian Institute of Foreign Relations: "It's impossible to [make] prognoses about the procedure of impeachment, especially having in mind it's a sophisticated and long procedure. Having in mind the time limit -- I mean long time limit -- you could [find] that maybe some unknown circumstances, unknown facts, could appear which could be used in a political game," Lopata said.

The whole affair has been damaging to Lithuania's image, says Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister who now heads the conservative Homeland Union party. He described the affair as "Lithuania's Watergate" -- a reference to the scandal that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon.

"Lithuania, [before] this crisis, was reported in the European press and also in the world press as some kind of Baltic tiger, with a very rapid growth of economy, especially this year. [And] now it's reported in the world press as a country with a big presidential crisis and presidential scandal. So from that point of view the damage to the [country's] image is quite big," Kubilius said.

But there's a positive side too, he says.

"Lithuania's ability to find a democratic solution to the crisis through an open and transparent procedure in the parliament also can show that Lithuanian democracy is mature and that Lithuania is really prepared to solve even such crises -- which even happen sometimes in other democratic countries."

(RFE/RL's Lithuanian Service contributed to this report.)