From The Economist print edition
It is in a political mess, but Lithuania now has brighter prospects
IT HELPED to bring down the Soviet Union by declaring independence in 1990. But since that moment of glory, Lithuania has been mostly a story of scandal and missed opportunity. That may be why as many as 450,000 people—a tenth of the population—have left to work abroad. The country scraped into the European Union in 2004, despite severe doubts in Brussels. Foreign investment and growth have lagged behind the other Baltics. Reform has been haphazard.
Now, however, come two signs that things are improving. First, the country's biggest industrial asset, the Mazeikiai oil refinery, has been sold to a solid owner, PKN Orlen of Poland. This ends a tawdry ten-year saga of botched deals, huge costs to the taxpayer, uncertainty and political wrangling. Second, public tolerance of corruption seems to be lessening, and the law-enforcement authorities are showing impressive new vigour in prosecuting it. That is the lesson from the other event of last week: the collapse of Lithuania's left-leaning coalition government.
What happened was that the Labour party, a populist outfit led by a Russian-born businessman, Viktor Uspaskich, split and left the government. Mr Uspaskich himself disappeared to Russia. This followed leaks that prosecutors were investigating several lurid claims, notably that the party was taking kickbacks from European Union grants, that it had breached campaign-finance limits in the 2004 election and that it had taken money from Russia. Mr Uspaskich says he is not responsible for book-keeping, and that the attacks on his party are purely political.
The big puzzle is the timing of this affair. Rumours about Mr Uspaskich's connections have swirled for years. But nobody in authority seemed to have the inclination (or power) to investigate. The same was true of other political scandals, including one involving a prominent mayor, whose lawyers have managed to stymie attempts to scrutinise his business dealings in court. The exception was the impeachment in 2004 of the then president, Rolandas Paksas. This was a scalp for Lithuania's spooks, a patriotic and russophobic lot. Their chief, Mecys Laurinkus, told parliament that the president was a threat to national security. But with Mr Paksas removed, the business of politics returned to grubby normality.
Some think that Mr Uspaskich overreached himself. “The Lithuanian elite tolerates its own corruption, but not that of outsiders,” says one politics-watcher. The real division in Lithuanian politics is not ideological, but between the well-educated ex-nomenklatura types who run the established parties, and populist outsiders such as Mr Paksas and Mr Uspaskich. Another theory posits a link to the sale of the Mazeikiai refinery. The disarray within the government parties made it easier to get the sale through parliament last week. It was certainly a pleasingly clean end to a decidedly murky story.
But the most optimistic explanation is that Lithuania is changing for the better. One more pointer is a scandal about leaked exam papers. As in most post-communist countries, cheating in schools and universities is habitual. But when it became known that questions in the Lithuanian-language paper for this year's school-leaving exam were on sale in advance, there was an outcry. The head of the central examinations office says he will resign; pupils are trying to sue the government; the paper will now be set anew.
Perhaps a political-science paper for adults would be a good idea. Lithuania's politicians and officials might not pass—but they would probably do better now than at any time in the past 15 years.