Lithuania's new president
May 21st 2009
From The Economist print edition
Dalia Grybauskaite is tough—and she needs to be
INTERESTING, but for the wrong reasons. That is a crude characterisation of Lithuania’s dispiriting politics ever since the country regained its independence in 1991. In 2004 President Rolandas Paksas was impeached amid speculation over his ties to organised crime. In 2006 a senior politician, Viktor Uspaskich, claimed asylum in Russia after details of his party’s unorthodox finances were leaked to the authorities. Barely less scandalous has been a 15-year delay over issues such as building a new nuclear power station or hooking up Lithuania’s electricity grid to neighbours.
Luckily the politicians’ failings have been offset by a small caste of impressive officials who have anchored the country in the European Union and NATO. Now one is to be president: Dalia Grybauskaite, who easily won the election on May 17th, is a former diplomat and finance minister. For the past five years she has been the EU’s budget commissioner.
This has proved to be a good base for a political career. Lithuanians, shorn of their middle class under Soviet occupation, are impressed by experience abroad. The outgoing president, Valdas Adamkus, spent most of his life in America before returning “home” to serve two terms as head of state. In Brussels the hardworking and incisive Ms Grybauskaite has been a success. She has also used her position to make pointed criticisms of the Lithuanian government.
Nobody doubts her brains or grit. Yet she remains something of a mystery. Her election platform promised transparency and rigour, but gave few details of her views (she barely campaigned, and faced no serious challenger). Apart from her black belt in karate, her hobbies and tastes are unknown. Her zealously guarded private life (she is unmarried and childless) has prompted prurient media speculation. In Soviet days she taught agricultural economics in the Communist Party’s in-house training college. In 1991 she was talent-spotted by an American programme for high-fliers in eastern Europe. But she does not seem to share the fervent Atlanticism usual among Lithuanian politicians.
Ms Grybauskaite’s main formal role as president lies in foreign policy. But on domestic policy, she should work well with the centre-right coalition government that took office last year. She backs its austerity programme, which includes a 15% pay cut for all state employees—including her. She wants faster reforms, for example in energy, plus the sacking of incompetent ministers. Yet as Lithuania’s leaders grapple with its current 12% fall in GDP, their big task is to explain the situation to a weary and cynical public. Finding the charm and sympathy to relate to ordinary folk may test the steely new president.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Lithuania's new president