Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999
T H E A M B E R C O A S T:
Lithuanian Parliament Fails to Clean House
The Seimas plunged into scandal and disrepute last month following its failure to strip the parliamentary mandate of convicted member Audrius Butkevicius. The failure of the motion and the ineffectiveness of the Parliament earned the scorn of the President, press and even the public. After the recent governmental crisis in Lithuania, state structures can ill afford another tarnishing scandal. Recent polls already indicate some 55 percent of Lithuanians lack confidence in the activities of Parliament, despite another poll showing only 30 percent of the public calling the decision disgraceful.
Though Parliament did successfully lift Butkevicius's immunity from prosecution for back in 1997 at the defendant's own request, this new scenario begs comparison with the moral fiasco in other post-Communist parliaments, a good example being the campaign of Russian pyramid-schemer Sergei Mavrodi to win any political seat which would give him immunity from prosecution.
The courts convicted Butkevicius for corruption; he was caught red-handed back in 1997 accepting USD 15,000 for preferential treatment. His appeals at every judicial level in Lithuania resulted in no reprieve, as the courts upheld the original decision to incarcerate the disgraced MP for five and a half years. Butkevicius is now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, claiming to be a 'political prisoner'.
The Seimas only took up the issue of his parliamentary position only in June of this year. Butkevicius was allowed to defend himself in front of the body; his charged address featured off-the-cuff remarks about Lithuania being "step by step converted into a police state" and that "the things that have happened to me is the best illustration of Machiavelli's statement 'power is law'." He introduced a statistic claiming that 11 percent of the Lithuanian public had been tried in court - a group he suggests would naturally become his supporters in future elections.
Despite the open arrest, conviction and upheld verdict, Butkevicius continues to allege a campaign against him by the Conservative-led government. Dropping hints that he possesses "secrets" about party officials, Butkevicius maintains that such knowledge has rendered him a 'political prisoner' to Seimas Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis and his party. Against his accusations that Landsbergis was a KGB informant, the parliamentary chairman responded that the charges were "insinuations, which are, as usual, indecent and groundless." However, the allegations of Butkevicius appear to have support from some observers, both domestic and foreign.
After the defence-cum-tantrum by Butkevicius, a trained psychiatrist, the results of the secret parliamentary vote shocked the nation. Though the vote was overwhelmingly in support of stripping Butkevicius of his mandate (70 to 29 with 6 abstentions), it failed to gain the required three-fifths of the votes (83) as required by law. Butkevicius, though allowed to cast a vote on his own behalf, did not exercise that opportunity.
The results came as an unpleasant surprise for many in Parliament, as well as for President Valdas Adamkus. The President issued a harsh statement soon after the vote: "The Seimas had a constitutional right to vote on repealing the mandate of a convicted MP. Therefore, Parliament should shoulder its full moral responsibility for the decision it has made."
The press had a field day over the vote, with Kauno Diena going as far as saying: "Thus, those Seimas members, who supported Audrius Butkevicius, spat in the face of our legal system in a demonstrative and cynical manner."
Public outrage went so far as to provoke confrontation on the street: a passer-by attempted to spit on MP Liudvikas Sabutis.
Political forces quickly assigned blame to the opposition. Seimas Chairman Landsbergis of the Conservative Party said the decision was a "humiliation and stain for the whole Parliament" and accused the opposition of supporting a criminal in Parliament. He further lambasted the opposition Centre Union, which he claimed was "jubilant in its shame." Butkevicius, until only recently, was a member of the Centre Union faction in the Seimas.
A handful of MPs also filed a clemency request for Butkevicius with President Adamkus.
In many ways, the decision in the Seimas was a blow to the state structure. Despite Butkevicius's conviction and despite the fact that his conviction withstood every possible judicial challenge in Lithuania, the Seimas failed to strip him of his parliamentary mandate. This signals contempt for the highest court in the land, as well as the entire judicial system.
Lithuania thus becomes one of very few democracies in the world to have a serving MP sitting in jail.
In a year that is only half over, the Lithuanian public has had to endure scandal and crisis in the state sector - ranging from the scandals in the energy sector to the crisis which led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius. With the year 2000 regarded as a "double witching" year for politicians (both local and general elections are held), the continual limping-along of state structures could result in a grand outpouring of apathy or antipathy come the election days.
And this could prove far more dangerous than any individual scandal or crisis.
Mel Huang, 15 July 1999
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