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Lithuania - GOVERNMENT

Lithuania - Government and Politics


Lithuania is an independent democratic republic. Its new constitution is that of a presidential democracy with separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. In some ways, the institutional structure of the government is similar to that of the United States; however, it is closer to the system former French president Charles de Gaulle gave to the Fifth Republic of France--a strong presidency leading a parliament divided into many factions.

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Lithuania - The Constitution


On the same day that Lithuania declared independence on March 11, 1990, its parliament adopted a provisional constitution, called the "provisional basic law," which established a framework for the new state's government. The constitution comprehensively listed guarantees of democratic rights and rules of democratic process, but basic elements of the Soviet-style government were maintained. Thus, legislative and executive functions were combined under the leadership of parliament, and the court system was kept totally dependent on legislative definitions and appointments. The legislature's name--Supreme Soviet--also was maintained. Its presidium became the foremost leadership body, and the chairman of the presidium became the chief of parliament, of state, and, in effect, of the executive. The provisional basic law, too, was made relatively easy to change.

Despite its democratization, the Soviet model quickly proved that it was not suitable for a new, substantively democratic system of government. It took two years of conflict and frustration, however, before contending parties agreed to a compro-mise between a parliamentary system of legislative superiority with a figurehead president and a very strong presidential system in which the legislature would be at best coequal with the president.

The constitution was approved by the voters in a referendum on October 25, 1992. Seventy-five percent of those voting favored the document. Thus, it was adopted by a solid majority, although the percentage of voters participating in the referendum was smaller (57 percent) than had been the case in most elections until then.

The constitution of 1992 reflects the institutions and experiences of the United States, France, and Germany as integrated into Lithuanian tradition. It also incorporates guarantees of a social safety network inherited from the Soviet Union. In its introductory provisions, the document not only places a high value on democracy but also asserts the right of defense against attempts by force to encroach upon or overthrow "state independence, territorial integrity, or the constitutional system" (Article 3). It also disallows division of Lithuanian territory into any "statelike structures"--an obvious reference to territorial autonomy as a solution to ethnic minority problems in the country. Furthermore, the status of Lithuania as an "independent democratic republic" can be changed only by a referendum and only if three-fourths of Lithuanian citizens approve it. Similarly, the first seventeen articles (which define the characteristics of the state, citizenship, state language, and symbols) and Articles 147, 148, and 149 (which determine the methods for constitutional changes or amendments) can be altered only by a referendum. Article 150 of the constitution forbids Lithuania from joining the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS--see Glossary). Finally, the constitution incorporates the declaration of independence of March 11, 1990.

Fundamental human rights and democratic values, including freedom of "thought, faith, and conscience," are enshrined in the constitution, which also guarantees the status of legal person to religious denominations and allows religious teaching in public schools. In addition to personal, political, and religious rights, the constitution secures social rights. As al-ready noted, these include free medical care, old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, and support for families and children.

The power to govern is divided between the legislative and executive branches, with an independent judiciary acting as interpreter of the constitution and of the branches' jurisdictions, as well as arbiter of conflicts between them. The constitution clearly acknowledges the danger of concentration of power in a single person or institution. The legislature has regained its old name, Seimas, which was used in the interwar years. The executive consists of a president and a prime minister with a cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers. The judiciary is composed of the Supreme Court and subordinate courts (the Court of Appeals, district courts, and local courts), as well as the Constitutional Court, which decides on the constitutionality of acts of the Seimas, the president, and the government.The Office of the Procurator General is an autono-mous institution of the judiciary. Creation of special courts, such as administrative or family courts, is allowed, although establishing courts with "special powers" is forbidden in peacetime.

The parliament consists of 141 members, seventy elected from party lists on the basis of proportional representation and seventy-one from single-member districts. To be seated in the Seimas on the basis of proportional representation, a party must receive at least 4 percent of the votes cast. An exception is made for ethnic minority groups, however, which do not need to pass the 4 percent threshold. The legislature is elected for four years. Candidates for the legislature must be at least twenty-five years old. Members of the Seimas may serve as prime minister or cabinet member, but they may not hold any other position in either central or local government or in private enterprises or organizations. The parliament must approve the prime minister, as well as his or her government and program. It also may force the government's resignation by rejecting twice in sequence its program or by expressing no confidence by a majority of legislators in secret ballot.

The powers of the legislature are checked by a number of devices: first, by certain constitutional limitations; second, by the president as defined under the constitution; and third, by the Constitutional Court. Articles 64, 131, and 132 of the constitution circumscribe the ability of the Seimas to control the government, especially the budget. Article 64 specifies the times of parliamentary sessions. Although extension is possible, ordinarily the legislature cannot sit longer than seven months and three days, divided into two sessions. The budget submitted by the government can be increased by the legislature only if the latter indicates the sources of financing for additional expenditures. If the budget is not approved before the start of the budget year, proposed expenditures cannot be higher than those of the previous year. Finally, the legislature is not entrusted with making decisions concerning the basic characteristics of Lithuanian statehood and democracy. These are left to the citizens by means of referendum. Similarly, the initiative for making laws is not limited to the legislature but also belongs to the citizens, who can force the legislature to consider a law by submitting a petition with 50,000 signatures.

The powers of the legislature are further checked by those of the president, who may veto legislation, both ordinary and constitutional, passed by the legislature. Normally, laws are not promulgated without the signature of the president. A presidential veto can be overridden, but only by an absolute majority of the Seimas membership. The president can also dissolve the parliament if it refuses to approve the government's budget within sixty days or if it directly votes no confidence in the government. However, the next elected parliament may retaliate by calling for an earlier presidential election.

The president is elected directly by the people for a term of five years and a maximum of two consecutive terms. The president is not, strictly speaking, the chief of the executive branch or the chief administrator. The Lithuanians borrowed the French model of the presidency, then adapted it to their needs. Candidates must be at least forty years old. To be elected in the first round, 50 percent of the voters must participate and a candidate must receive more than half of the total votes cast. If 50 percent of the voters do not participate, a plurality wins the presidency unless it constitutes less than one-third of the total vote. If the first round does not produce a president, a second round is held within two weeks between the two top candidates. A plurality vote is sufficient to win.

The president is the head of state. The president also selects the prime minister (with the approval of the Seimas), approves ministerial candidates, and appoints the commander in chief of the armed forces--with legislative confirmation. The president resolves basic foreign policy issues and can confer military and diplomatic ranks, appoint diplomats without legislative approval, and issue decrees subject to the legislature's right to later overturn a decree by legislative action.

Finally, the president has considerable powers to influence the judicial branch. The president has the right to nominate (and the Seimas to approve the nomination of) three justices to the Constitutional Court and all justices to the Supreme Court. The president also appoints, with legislative approval, judges of the Court of Appeals. However, legislative confirmation is not required for the appointment or transfer of judges in local, district, and special courts.

The Constitutional Court checks both the legislative and the executive branches of government by ruling on whether their legislation and/or actions are constitutional. The court consists of nine justices appointed by the legislature, three each from the nominees of the president, the parliamentary chairman, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The president nominates the chief justice of the Constitutional Court. Cases for consideration by the Constitutional Court, however, may be brought only by one-fifth of the membership of the Seimas, the ordinary courts, or the president of the republic.


Lithuania - Politics


The new system of government became operative with the election of President Algirdas Brazauskas in February 1993. Brazauskas came from the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP), successor to the Communist Party of Lithuania. The Brazauskas government surprised many of its critics during 1994 by its continued commitment to rapid economic reform and to Lithuania's independence. Rural interests, which formed the bedrock of support for the LDLP, were unhappy with the failure to roll back implementation of the free market in agriculture and with the breakup of centralized state farms and cooperatives.

Since the declaration of independence, Lithuanian politics have been stormy, especially the struggle between the former Communist Party of Lithuania and the movement for independence, Sajudis. On its own, the Communist Party of Lithuania had won only twenty-three seats out of the 141 seats in the March 1990 parliamentary elections. Sajudis and other political parties that supported independence had won a majority. In addition, the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) won nine seats; the Christian Democratic Party of Lithuania (CDPL), two; the Lithuanian Democratic Party (LDP), two; and the Lithuanian Green Party, four. Noncommunist parties were in their infancy--small and weak. Seventy members of parliament did not belong formally to any party, although virtually all of them were ideologically close to Sajudis.

Parliamentary organization was complicated by the numerous parliamentary factions, unrelated to party strength or differentiation in society. Parliamentary factions had no fixed constituencies to which they were accountable. In 1992 there were nine parliamentary factions and a nonfaction group consisting of twenty independent deputies. The largest was the Center faction (eighteen members), followed by the Moderates (sixteen), the LDLP (twelve), the Liberals (ten), the Poles (eight), and the Nationalists (nine). The United Sajudis faction had sixteen members, and the Santara faction of Sajudis had ten.

The weakness of the LDLP was deceptive. This group had lost adherents in the parliament, but in April 1990, while still known as the Communist Party of Lithuania, it won approximately 40 percent of the votes--and offices--in local elections. It was strong in small towns and rural areas. Later in 1990, these reformist communists adopted a new name and an essentially social democratic program, gaining a new lease on political life.

In this political landscape, the position of chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet (de facto president) was won in May 1990 by Vytautas Landsbergis, the president of Sajudis and a professor of musicology who had never been a member of the Communist Party of Lithuania. Landsbergis defeated the former leader, Brazauskas, by two-thirds of the vote. Brazauskas refused to accept the position of deputy chairman. Kazimiera Prunskiene, an economist, was chosen as prime minister, whereupon she immediately quit the Communist Party of Lithuania. Brazauskas agreed to serve as one of the deputy prime ministers. The other deputy prime minister was Romualdas Ozolas, a philosopher and former communist who eventually joined the Center faction in the parliament.

Soon, however, a conflict developed between Landsbergis and Prunskiene, primarily over Lithuania's response to the 1990 Soviet blockade. Landsbergis stood firm and defiant. Prunskiene, after visiting Western leaders, pursued compromise with the Soviet Union, as suggested by these leaders. In early 1991, Prunskiene took the first radical steps in economic reform, but the Sajudis forces used that action to unseat her. A fellow economist, Albertas Simenas, was chosen as her successor, but he temporarily disappeared during the turmoil created by the Soviet army, which staged a putsch against the Lithuanian government and on January 13, 1991, massacred un-armed civilians. Landsbergis summoned the people to defend the parliament. His heroic determination and leadership won him further domestic recognition as a national leader and a favorable international reputation abroad. For a moment, all political groups united against Soviet aggression. Lithuanians refused to participate in Gorbachev's referendum on the continuation of a federal union and instead held their own "national poll," which confirmed overwhelming support for independence. However, unity did not last long.

In Simenas's absence, Gediminas Vagnorius became prime minister. He initiated economic reforms and continued the political struggle against Brazauskas's party that Landsbergis had begun in the spring of 1990. Vagnorius's efforts frequently were frustrated by the parliament, and the LDLP formally declared opposition to the government in the fall of 1991. Reform measures, especially in agriculture, were not successful. His struggle with the leadership of the Bank of Lithuania over the introduction of a Lithuanian currency, the litas, was unsuccessful because neither the bank nor a majority in parliament supported his program.

In the meantime, the strength of the Sajudis group and of the coalition in parliament that supported Vagnorius was withering. The leadership of the independence movement, furthermore, was gradually shifting to more conservative nationalist positions after the third conference of the movement in December 1991. Anticommunist activities were facilitated by access to KGB archives, and past collaboration with the KGB was made a political issue. The atmosphere was not improved by the ultimately unsuccessful attempts by Sajudis to pass a law that would temporarily bar from public office certain categories of former officeholders in the communist party power structure. The attempt sharpened confrontation between the nationalist and former communist party forces. Landsbergis sought to strengthen the powers of the executive branch and his own position by establishing an executive presidency. But on May 23, 1992, his proposal failed in a referendum.

After several attempts in parliament to remove the unpopular prime minister in the summer of 1992, Vagnorius had to resign in July, and new parliamentary elections were agreed upon for October. Aleksandras Abisala, another Sajudis leader, took over from Vagnorius with the acquiescence of the opposition. However, neither his attempts to correct the economic situation nor his conciliatory politics improved Sajudis's chances in the upcoming elections of October 25, 1992.

Seventeen groups or coalitions ran candidates for the 141 seats of the new parliament, the Seimas, but some did not muster enough votes for the 4 percent threshold. Against everyone's expectations--and even to Brazauskas's own surprise--the LDLP and its satellites won an absolute majority of seventy-three seats (51 percent). Landsbergis's forces still hoped for a strong showing of their coalition, but the Sajudis-Santara coalition succeeded in winning only sixteen seats, including three contested ones. The Social Democratic representation de-creased to eight seats, the Christian Democrats increased to ten, and the Center barely squeaked through with two victories in single-member districts but did not meet the 4 percent threshold for seats elected by party lists. Three new groups entered the parliament--the Citizens Charter with ten seats; Political Prisoners and Exiles with twelve; and the Christian Democratic Association, a splinter of the Christian Democratic Party with one. One seat was won by an independent. The Polish minority, however, was able to win four seats because it was not required to reach the 4 percent threshold.

The significance of the parliamentary elections result was threefold: the nationalist forces of Landsbergis were crushed, the postcommunist politicians led by Brazauskas made an amazing comeback, and the political center in the parliament was destroyed. Neither the Center nor the Liberal faction met the 4 percent threshold for seats elected by party lists. Political polarization of the country was confirmed: there was a strong and well-organized left, and there was a weak, shattered, and splintered right.

The polarization was even more conspicuously demonstrated in the direct presidential election of February 14, 1993. The Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Stasys Lozoraitis, lost to Brazauskas, who won majorities everywhere except in the urban district of Kaunas. The final vote was 61.1 percent for Brazauskas and 38.2 percent for Lozoraitis. Brazauskas was catapulted to office by the rural population. His majority was increased by the vote from urban districts with Polish or Russian majorities. Brazauskas won for the same reasons his party earlier captured the majority in the parliament: economic crisis, disappointment with Sajudis, dislike of the once very popular Landsbergis, and, most of all, the electorate's trust in Brazauskas as a well-known and popular candidate whose campaign succeeded in portraying the ambassador as a "foreigner" ignorant of Lithuania's concerns.

The Western press saw the election as a victory for former communist party members who would stop reform and return Lithuania to some sort of association with the former Soviet Union. However, the LDLP was no longer communist, and, although sympathetic to Russia, it was committed to Lithuania's independence. The new president stated repeatedly that he would preserve Lithuania's independence, although Landsbergis, now in the role of opposition leader, continued to warn of threats to Lithuania's status as an independent state. Brazauskas resigned as leader of the LDLP, as required by the constitution.

Shortly after the election, President Brazauskas appointed Raimundas Rajeckas, a distinguished economist with an academic background, as his special counsel. Rajeckas had been associated with Harvard and other Western universities and had served as Brazauskas's campaign manager. He functioned as a "deputy president." Brazauskas also accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Bronislovas Lubys and chose as his successor an economist, Adolfas Slezevicius, president of a private joint Lithuanian-Norwegian company and former deputy minister of agriculture for dairy and meat production. Slezevicius continued to implement Lithuania's political and economic reforms while pursuing an improved relationship with Russia.


Lithuania - Mass Media


The collapse of the communist system brought about the privatization of most publishing. Although the government still plays a role in book publishing, all newspapers and journals are privately owned, usually by limited stock companies or by private individuals. The number of periodicals has increased dramatically, and competition is intense. There are several main dailies. Lietuvos aidas was first published by the Landsbergis government but is now private, although editorially it supports Landsbergis and Sajudis. Lietuvos rytas , an independent daily, leans slightly to the left and is very conscious of the power and responsibility of the press. It is edited by the former editor of Komjaunimo tiesa , the largest daily in Lithuania, and has a circulation of more than 100,000. Tiesa now is the voice of the Democratic Labor Party after previously being published by the Communist Party of Lithuania. Respublika , founded and owned by a prize-winning journalist and former member of the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies, specializes in "investigative journalism" and leans to the left.

In 1990 Lithuanian newspaper circulation and book publishing suffered a decline because of a shortage of paper, a result of the Soviet economic blockade. In 1989 Lithuanian newspaper circulation per 1,000 inhabitants was 1,223--higher than in Latvia (1,032) but lower than in Estonia (1,620). Annual circulation of magazines and other periodicals was eleven copies per inhabitant (compared with twenty-eight in Latvia and twenty-six in Estonia). Annual book and booklet publication was six copies per inhabitant (compared with six in Latvia and twelve in Estonia).

Library statistics indicate that newly published books and current periodicals are accessible to readers in remote rural areas. Lithuania had 1,885 libraries in the early 1990s, compared with 1,318 for Latvia and 629 for Estonia.


Lithuania - Foreign Relations


The course of Lithuania's foreign policy in the 1990s has been more stable than its domestic politics. This has been demonstrated by the fact that between March 1990 and November 1992 it had five prime ministers but only one minister of foreign affairs. Since independence the cornerstone of Lithuanian foreign policy has been integration with European security institutions: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE; until January 1995 known as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe--see Glos-sary), the Council of Europe (COE), the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and ultimately, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Lithuania is a member of the OSCE, the COE, and the NACC and is an associate member of the EU. It hopes eventually to join the EU, the WTO, and NATO, and progress was made toward these goals in 1994.

In the beginning, Lithuania's aims were more fundamental. Lithuania's sole foreign policy concern in 1990 was to gain international recognition of the restored Lithuanian state. However, efforts directed at Gorbachev on the one hand and the Western powers on the other hand bore no fruit. Gorbachev could not afford the political cost of recognizing Lithuanian independence, nor did he believe in Lithuania's right to statehood. The West's attitude, according to Egon Bahr, a German foreign policy expert, was "We'll throw you a life preserver after you learn how to swim." Gorbachev informally agreed not to use force, and the West did not push him to permit Lithuanian independence.

However, after the Vilnius massacre of January 13, 1991, which revealed that Gorbachev had authorized attempts to overthrow Lithuania's government, Western states broke ranks. The first was Iceland, which declared that it recognized Lithuania's sovereignty. Iceland had extended recognition in 1922 and had never reneged on it. Next, Denmark expressed its commitment to early recognition. Paradoxically, the greatest appreciation of Lithuania's needs came from Russia. After learning about the Vilnius massacre, Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin met with Baltic leaders in Tallinn and expressed solidarity with Lithuania. This expression gained legal status on July 29, 1991. On that day, United States President George H.W. Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty with Gorbachev in Moscow, and Yeltsin and Landsbergis signed a treaty "on the basis of relations" between the Republic of Lithuania and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The crucial item of the treaty was Article 1, which stated that "The High Contracting Parties recognize one another as full-fledged subjects of international law and as sovereign states according to their state status as established by the fundamental acts adopted by the Republic of Lithuania on 11 March 1990 and by the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic on 12 June 1990." Lithuanians hastily ratified the treaty on August 19, 1991, the same day as a coup was carried out by conservative forces in Moscow against Gorbachev. It was not until January 17, 1992, however, that Russia ratified the agreement.

After the coup failed, the international community quickly recognized the independence of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. In September 1991, President Bush renewed the United States recognition of Lithuania of 1922 and announced that an ambassador would be sent to Vilnius. The Soviet Union recognized Lithuania's independence on September 6, 1991. On the recommendation of the United States and the Soviet Union, Lithuania was admitted to the United Nations (UN) on September 16. Then on December 21, the Soviet Union collapsed as a legal entity, and on December 24 Yeltsin informed UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuellar that the Russian Federation had assumed "all rights and obligations of the USSR." Thus, Russia still was, for all practical purposes, the Soviet Union, only under different leadership.

Once Lithuania joined the UN, Landsbergis indicated the next priorities of Lithuania's foreign policy: to join all accessible international organizations, and to legally strengthen the status of the new state while working toward the withdrawal of Russian troops, regarded by Lithuanians as an occupying force, from Lithuania. The Russian military strongly opposed this demand, claiming that the troops had no place to go. The commander of the Baltic Military District believed the troops would leave only after several years. Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev suggested a "status of forces" agreement to legalize the Russian troop presence. In June 1992, the Baltic Council, a consultative body of Baltic leaders, appealed to the CSCE, the UN, and the Group of Seven (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States). The Group of Seven, the CSCE, and the UN, as well as NATO, counseled the Russians to set a definite withdrawal date. After protracted negotiations, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from Lithuania. An agreement was signed in Moscow on September 8, 1992, setting the deadline for withdrawal at August 31, 1993, a year earlier than expected.

The withdrawal of Russian troops was completed on time, opening a new chapter between Russia and Lithuania and encouraging closer economic and other relations. When Lithuania first declared independence from the Soviet Union and tried to negotiate its status with the Gorbachev administration, it did not achieve its goals. But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Vilnius tried to put the past behind them, even though the Soviet Union had imposed an economic blockade and had used violence to force Lithuania to renounce independence. Although diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1991, Russia did not send an ambassador to Lithuania until 1992, and Lithuania reciprocated only in March 1993. Relations between Vilnius and Moscow were often unsettled by press reports of violations of Lithuanian airspace throughout the first half of the 1990s. Despite a desire to control air traffic within its borders, Lithuania has been unable to come to an agreement with Russia to regulate air transit. The two countries did, however, sign an economic cooperation agreement in November 1993.

Preoccupied with Russia and with the West, Lithuanian policy makers had somewhat neglected Lithuania's other neighbors, especially Belarus and Ukraine. Nevertheless, trade with Belarus expanded, and a border agreement was reached. Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma's administration was supportive of Lithuanian sovereignty, and the two countries signed an economic cooperation agreement in February 1994. Vilnius focused on a rapprochement with Poland, which resulted in a treaty of cooperation covering various fields, including de-fense, and providing even for joint maneuvers of their armed forces. The agreement was signed during a visit to Lithuania by Polish president Lech Walesa in April 1994 and was ratified by Lithuania in October 1994.

Lithuania seeks closer relations with Scandinavia. The Swedish king and the Danish queen have visited Lithuania. Close economic ties are being developed with Norway and Denmark. Denmark cooperates closely with Lithuania in military affairs and has agreed to train Lithuanian military units to serve as UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.

In relations with Western Europe and the United States, Lithuania has two main objectives. The first is economic cooperation and attracting Western capital to boost Lithuania's economy and to help with the transition to a free market and democracy. The second objective is to gain security guarantees so that Lithuania and the other Baltic states would not be left alone to face any threat from Russia. Vilnius has pursued these objectives by demonstrating its respect for Western values and by negotiating bilateral trade agreements, tax treaties, and consular and other agreements with West European countries and the United States.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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