Tag Archives: lithuania

NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.

The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.Russia Flag IconUSflag

All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.

But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.

The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’

In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.

Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:


“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something.  It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member.  He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.

He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks.  We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump’s criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)

The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved.  Continue reading NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

The six world elections taking place this weekend — and why they matter


I can’t remember a time when there have been so many crucial world elections taking place at such a frenetic pace.

The spring voting blitz began with a five-day period in early April that saw Afghanistan’s presidential election, Indonesia’s legislative elections, the beginning of India’s nine-phase, five-week parliamentary elections, Costa Rica’s presidential runoff and Québec’s provincial elections.

Since then, India’s finished its voting and elected a new government led by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Macedonia, Algeria, Iraq, Panama, South Africa, and Malawi have held elections, too, over the past seven weeks.

It all comes to a climax with five elections today — and another election that will take place over two days of voting on Monday and Tuesday.

Here’s a short look at each election — and why it matters to global policy. Continue reading The six world elections taking place this weekend — and why they matter

Grybauskaitė headed for easy reelection as Lithuania’s president


Though the disputed independence referenda in Ukraine’s troubled eastern oblasts attracted considerably more international attention, Lithuania also went to the polls on May 11 to elect a president.Lithuania Flag Icon

Dalia Grybauskaitė, the incumbent since 2009, easily led the first round with 46.61% of the vote, just shy of an outright victory, and she is almost certain to win reelection in the May 25 runoff against Zigmantas Balčytis, a member of the European Parliament, a former finance minister and, briefly for a month in 2006, acting prime minster. Balčytis is the candidate of the governing center-left Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania).

The runoff will coincide with elections for the European Parliament, where Lithuania holds 11 of its 751 seats.

Balčytis, a relatively uncharismatic candidate, won just 13.84% of the vote, however, only narrowly edging out Artūras Paulauskas, the candidate of the Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), who 12.20%.

Grybauskaitė, who lists the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher among her political heroes, has been dubbed, somewhat unimaginatively, as Lithuania’s ‘Iron Lady,’ after amassing one of the most prolific political careers of any figure in post-Soviet Lithuania. A former finance official, Grybauskaitė served as Lithuania’s representative to the European Commission between 2004 and 2009, for much of that time as the commissioner for financial planning and the budget. As commissioner, Grybauskaitė worked to reduce agricultural subsidies from the European budget and she was responsible for passing the first such budget that held funding for the Common Agricultural Policy to below 50% of European funds for the first time in European Union history.

Upon returning to Lithuania, she easily won a first-round election running as a conservative independent against token opposition. Though Lithuania’s parliamentary government means that the prime minister is responsible for most of Lithuanian domestic policy,  Grybauskaitė holds a key role in setting foreign policy. She has championed Lithuania’s place in the heart of the European Union, the eurozone and in NATO, and she has fiercely resisted Russian designs on influencing its ‘near-abroad,’ especially during the most recent security crisis over the Russian annexation of Crimea and possible designs to influence eastern Ukraine.   Continue reading Grybauskaitė headed for easy reelection as Lithuania’s president

Should Europe be concerned about the threat of Kaliningrad?


If Russia can get away with annexing Crimea from Ukraine to correct a ‘historical mistake,’ perhaps Germany should be able to retake Kaliningrad? Russia Flag Iconkaliningrad_oblast_russia_flag_round_stickers-rb808e4c40c704821b8d03556a312c426_v9waf_8byvr_152

The Soviet Union took the tiny strip of land, nudged today along the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania, in 1944 at the end of World War II from Nazi Germany — just a decade before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea  (perhaps in a drunken stupor) from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Previously known as Königsberg, it’s the homeland of one of the world’s most renowned German philosophers, Immanuel Kant.

Today, it’s an exclave separated from the rest of the Russian Federation — but it’s a strategically crucial piece of real estate for Russia.  Kaliningrad gives Russia an ice-free port on the Baltic Sea and territory within the heart of the European Union surrounded by  North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.


The city of Königsberg was arguably even more important to Germanic culture and history before Kant was ever born. It was the capital of the State of the Teutonic Order, the crusader state, between 1457 and 1525, when the Teutonic State became the Duchy of Prussia, and Königsberg continued to serve as the Prussian capital until 1701, when Berlin became the capital. Russia occupied the ciy for the first time between 1758 and 1764, during the Seven Years’ War. Like many European cities, it was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War.

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RELATED: Forget 1938. Here’s another historical analogy — 1914.

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An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a Crimea for a Kaliningrad.

Right?  (In the meanwhile, Karelia, here’s your chance — with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s focus diverted to Ukraine, you’ll never have a better opportunity to make a bolt to Finland). Continue reading Should Europe be concerned about the threat of Kaliningrad?

Who is Laimdota Straujuma? Latvia’s likely first female prime minister.


On January 1, when Latvia celebrated its accession to the eurozone as the 18th member to embrace the single currency, it should have been a moment for Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis to celebrate shepherding his country into the core of Europe just barely two decades after its independence from the Soviet Union.latvia

Instead, Dombrovskis was counting the last days of his truncated tenure after the collapse of a supermarket roof in a suburb of Riga, the Latvian capital, killed 54 people.  Dombrovskis, the 42-year-old wunderkind economist, resigned as prime minister shortly after the tragedy, calling for an independent commission to investigate the incident and arguing that Latvia needed a new government in the wake of the accident.

Though it may have been an act of political integrity, Dombrovskis’s resignation came at a nadir for his shaky minority.  His party, the center-right Vienotība (Unity), placed third in local elections in June 2013, and disapproval was running high for his government, a coalition that also includes the more stridently right-wing Nacionālā apvienība (National Alliance) and the center-right Reformu partija (Reform Party).

Unity’s decision to nominate Laimdota Straujuma, the current agriculture minister, as its designate for prime minister is designed in part to boost the party’s chances at winning elections expected in October of this year.

The three parties that supported the Dombrovskis have indicated they will back Straujuma, and a fourth, Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (ZZS, Union of Greens and Farmers), a union of Latvia’s green party and its agrarian party, will join them, along with three additional independent lawmakers.  That support will give Straujuma an immediate boost — while the previous coalition controlled just 50 seats in the 100-member Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, Straujuma’s government will command a 16-seat majority:


That means that when Latvian president Andris Bērziņš formally nominated Straujuma as prime minister, it all but assured that she will command a majority to become the country’s first female prime minister.

So who is Straujuma? And what challenges does she face in the months ahead?

Dombrovskis came to power in 2009 facing a contraction that amounted to 18% of Latvia’s GDP, and he’s presided over Latvia’s resurgence.  Latvia has achieved some of the highest GDP growth in Europe — 5.6% in 2012 and an estimated 4% in 2013.  That growth has come even while Dombrovskis implemented budget cuts to bring Latvia’s debt to one of the lowest levels in all of Europe and forced upon Latvia a sharp internal devaluation — the kinds of wage cuts that have allowed Latvia to become more competitive.  Even his push to join the eurozone was controversial, with nearly half the country opposing the move as recently as a month ago, notwithstanding the fact that the previous currency, the lats, was already tied to the euro.

Though it’s hard to miss the resemblance to German chancellor Angela Merkel, Straujuma comes to power as a former civil servant, and there’s no way to know if she’ll last nine months as head of government, let alone nine years.  As agriculture minister, she participated often in negotiations at the EU level over the Common Agricultural Policy, which affects Latvian farmers, and she developed a reputation as a tough advocate for Latvia.  But she’ll lead a party that’s massively unpopular and a government that she says will follow roughly the same course:

… the new government must not destroy the state budget for this year, [Straujuma] told reporters last night, reports LETA.

The next government will have to ensure stability, stressed Straujuma. One of the key priorities, that is “of major importance for businessmen and society”, is preparing a program on absorption of European Union funds for Latvia. The European Commission should approve the program by mid-2014 so absorption of the funds could begin in the second half of the year, emphasized Straujuma.

Unity’s Andris Vilks is almost certain to continue as finance minister in the new government, and Reform’s Rihards Kozlovskis and Edgars Rinkēvičs will remains interior minister and foreign minister, respectively.  Jānis Dūklavs, a member of the Union of Greens and Farmers, will replace Straujuma as minister of agriculture, a role that he held between 2009 and 2011 in the first two Dombrovskis governments.  Raimonds Vējonis, a former environment minister, will become Straujuma’s new defense minister. Continue reading Who is Laimdota Straujuma? Latvia’s likely first female prime minister.

Despite risks, Latvia (and all the Baltic states) still wants to join the eurozone


Latvia was formally accepted yesterday as the 18th member of the eurozone, meaning that on January 1, 2014, it will join Estonia as the only former Soviet republic to have adopted the euro as its currency.latvia

That might be surprising given that, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and, in particular, the ensuing eurozone sovereign debt crisis, the eurozone has not been the most popular club.

Malta and Cyprus joined at the beginning of 2008 (we know how well that worked out for one of them), Slovakia joined at the beginning of 2009 and Estonia followed in 2011.  But though Croatia recently joined the European Union to much fanfare, and though other Balkan nations are anxious to follow suit into the European Union, there’s little Balkan sentiment to join the eurozone, nor is there an incredible amount of appetite from other more established EU members, like the United Kingdom, Denmark or Sweden, or newer central European countries.

It’s a different story in the Baltic states, though, and it’s not hard to see why — for small states that were swept into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, eurozone membership is as much about geopolitical strategy as about economics.  It explains why the only other European country on target to join the eurozone anytime soon is Lithuania, the third and final Baltic nation, which hopes to join the euro in January 2015.

But the specter of Russian domination doesn’t explain everything — after all, Poland is gently backing away from joining the euro, and its history with Russia is also complicated (though perhaps balanced by an equally complicated relationship with Germany).  Moreover, even Latvian nationalism in the face of valid concerns about Russian influence hasn’t kept the decision to join the eurozone from becoming incredibly unpopular, and polls show that a majority of Latvian voters oppose the decision to replace the Latvian lats with the euro by a nearly two-to-one margin. Continue reading Despite risks, Latvia (and all the Baltic states) still wants to join the eurozone

Lithuania’s president throws post-election coalition talks into disarray

Lithuanian’s highly respected president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has upended what everyone thought would be a broad leftist coalition following the second and final round of Lithuanian parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Following a victory by the social democratic Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania), which won 38 seats after the first round on October 14 and October 28, it seemed likely that the Social Democrats would form the next government, a coalition headed by Social Democratic leader and former finance minister Algirdas Butkevičius.

It had always been expected that Butkevičius would lead a broad center-left coalition with the support of the more populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), led by Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, which won 19.95% of the first-round vote on October 14 to just 18.46% for the Social Democrats and 14.90% for outgoing prime minister Andrius Kubilius’s center-right Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats).

That October 14 vote determined the 70 seats allocated to Lithuania’s parliament, the Seimas, by proportional representation.  The remaining 71 seats were determined by single-member district votes, many of which were determined in the runoff votes held last Sunday, after which the Social Democrats emerged as the largest force, followed closely by Homeland Union with 33 seats and Labour with 29.

Indeed, the Social Democrats, Labour and a third party — Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice) — had agreed an electoral pact to form a government.  Together, the three parties would command an absolute majority of 79 seats.  So the outcome seemed more or less a fait accompli.

Until Monday, when Grybauskaitė intervened, arguing that Labour is, essentially, unfit for government, and pledging not to nominate a prime minister who will govern with Labour support:

…Grybauskaite said she refused to back a coalition which included Labor, which stands accused of buying votes during the two rounds of voting.

“A party which is suspected of gross violations in the election, which is suspected of false accounting and non-transparent activities cannot participate in the government’s formation,” the president told reporters.

She said police were investigating 27 election irregularities, 18 of which concerned alleged vote buying, with the Labor Party accused of involvement in most of them.

Grybauskaitė, a political independent, is a highly-respected former European Commission for Financial Programming and the Budget from 2004 to 2009.  In the May 2009 presidential election, she became Lithuania’s first head of state by winning a whopping 69.1% victory, with her closest rival Butkevičius at 11.8% support.

On Wednesday, however, the three parties invited a fourth party, the Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija (AWPL, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania; Akcja Wyborcza Polaków na Litwie in Polish), a Christian democratic party devoted to ethnic Polish issues, into their coalition talks, which would give it 87 seats — more than the 85-vote majority it would need to override a presidential veto.  So it’s unclear that Butkevičius and his electoral allies are willing to back down, potentially setting up a constitutional showdown with Grybauskaitė, who is Lithuania’s most popular public figure by far. Continue reading Lithuania’s president throws post-election coalition talks into disarray

Lithuanian Social Democrats in place to run next government

So we have the results of Lithuania’s full two rounds of elections: the Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania) have won the greatest number of seats in the Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament, following a runoff election yesterday.

Although 70 seats are determined by proportional representation on the basis of the first-round vote on October 14, the LSDP won a disproportionately high number of the 71 seats in the Seimas that are determined in single-member districts.

In the first round of the election, the more populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), led by Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, won 19.96% of the vote, while the Social Democrats won just 18.45% and the governing Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats) of outgoing prime minister Andrius Kubilius won 14.93%.

For lots of reasons, this scared the rest of Europe.  Uspaskich, under investigation a few years ago for corruption, actually hid out in Russia, so a Uspaskich-headed government would be a nightmare for Europe, given that Lithuania’s already not just a European Union member, but a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But by the end of the second round, the Social Democrats took 23 of the 71 single-district seats — Homeland Union won just 20, and Labour won just 12 — much like in past Lithuanian elections, Labour had a stronger result from the proportional results than from the direct-election results.

The result, which will give the Social Democrats the largest bloc of seats in the Seimas, makes it all but certain that the leader of the Social Democrats, Algirdas Butkevičius (pictured above, bottom), a former finance minister, will become Lithuania’s next prime minister.  Furthermore, although he’s signed an electoral pact with Uspaskich’s Labour Party and Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice), a shape-shifting  populist party led by former president Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached for corruption in 2004, the result will give Butkevičius a boost vis-a-vis even his coalition partners.

So Europe, which was wary of a Uspaskich-dominated government (even if Labour ultimately won more seats than the Social Democrats, will be a little more relaxed following Sunday’s runoff vote — although it was always thought that Butkevičius would nonetheless become prime minister, his position will be much stronger than Uspaskich’s, or any of the more nefarious characters of Lithuanian politics, with the Social Democrats having won the clearest plurality of parliamentary seats.

Kubilius, who had a difficult hand to play after the past four years in government, duly trimmed the Lithuanian budget after the financial crisis of 2008-09 saw Lithuania’s GDP plummet by 15%.  Indeed, the Lithuanian election result, in both rounds, was much better for Kubilius’s Homeland Union than polls had suggested, indicating that Kubilius received more credit than expected from a Lithuanian electorate that’s nonetheless weary of austerity, economic stagnation and unemployment.

Although Butkevičius won’t likely be able to effect a 180-degree change in Lithuanian policy, he has championed the introduction of a progressive income tax and minimum salaries.  Furthermore, although he’s been less enthusiastic (along with much of eastern Europe) about his country’s accession into the eurozone, European leaders seem much likelier to be happy with a pro-European center-left prime minister like Butkevičius than either Uspaskich or Paksas.

So ultimately, on a day when Ukraine seemed to fall further backwards on democracy and the rule of law, Lithuania seems to have marked another peaceful transfer of government within the broad tradition of European political norms.

Four key elections underway today in Ukraine, Italy, Lithuania and Brazil

It’s a quadruple-threat Sunday for world elections!

Ukraine: parliamentary elections. In Ukraine, voters will go to the polls for legislative elections to select 450 members of the unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.  The elections will be a key test for Ukraine’s fledgling democratic institutions eight years after the ‘Orange Revolution.’  Pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, whose support is based in the eastern half of the country, is hoping to win an outright majority in a campaign that has been far from free and fair.  Two center-right groups are vying for the opposition vote — a bloc led by former prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been imprisoned on politically-motivated charges and a new anti-corruption group led by heavyweight champion Vitaliy Klychko.  Unlike in the previous 2007 parliamentary elections (which were fully by proportional representation), today’s elections will be determined one-half by proportional representation and one-half through direct single-member districts.  That means the anti-Yanukovych vote could splinter, allowing the government to consolidate its control over Ukraine.  The election result will likely determine whether the former Soviet republic of 45 million people will continue its turn toward Europe as a potential European Union member.

Lithuania: parliamentary runoff. Nearby, in another former Soviet republic of just over three million people — Lithuania, voters return to the polls for a runoff after a vote two weeks ago that saw the triumph of two leftist parties: the populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), led by Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, won 19.96% and the more center-left Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania) won 18.45%.  The governing Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats)  of prime minister Andrius Kubilius won just 14.93%, a defeat for Kubilius after a difficult campaign that reflected the realities of four years of grinding austerity and difficult economic conditions.  Half (70) of the seats in Lithuania’s unicameral parliament, the Seimas, were determined by the October 14 vote, while 71 more seats are determined in single-member districts, and many of those will be determined in today’s runoff vote. It’s virtually certain that the Social Democrats and Labour will form the next government, likely under the leader of the Social Democrats and former finance minister, Algirdas Butkevičius rather than the corruption-plagued Uspaskich, although either the Social Democrats or Labour may ultimately wind up with more seats after today’s vote.

São Paulo: mayoral runoff. In Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, home to nearly 11 million people, voters will choose a mayor in a contest that will have implications for Brazil’s national politics.  Voters will choose between the top two candidates from the Oct. 14 vote: Fernando Haddad, the candidate of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party) of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and a former education minister in Lula’s administration; and José Serra, the candidate of the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party), who lost the Brazilian presidency to Lula in 2002 and, more narrowly, in 2010 to Rousseff.  Serra, himself a former mayor of São Paulo from 2004 to 2006, when he won election as the governor of São Paulo state, despite a pledge to serve his entire term as mayor,  Serra led the vote two weeks ago with 30.75% to 28.99% for Haddad.  Serra and Haddad edged out Celso Russomanno, a famous television consumer advocate in the 1990s, with support from the evangelist Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who had been the frontrunner throughout the campaign, who finished with just 21.6o%.  Polls show Haddad with a double-digit lead over Serra, however, which could effectively end Serra’s hopes for a third run at the presidency.

Sicily: regional parliamentary elections.  Finally, in the southern Italian region of Sicily, voters will select the 90 members of Sicily’s unicameral regional parliament.  Three parties are vying for the largest share of the vote, and 80 seats are awarded by proportional representation: a center-right coalition led by European parliament member Nello Musumeci and backed by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (who was convicted Friday for tax fraud) and his Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom); a center-left coalition led by Rosario Crocetta (pictured above, top), the openly gay mafia-fighting former mayor of Gela (Sicily’s sixth-largest city); and the new anti-austerity protest party, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement) of blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo, who kicked off his party’s Sicily campaign by swimming across the Strait of Messina.  Radical leftists and a conservative Sicilianist/autonomist coalition are also expected to win significant support. The election is a significant test in advance of national elections expected to come in April 2013 following the technocratic government of prime minister Mario Monti, who has pledged not to run in his own right.

Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

It’s been a good October for Moscow.

In each of the four former Soviet republics with elections scheduled for late September and October 2012 (Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania and Ukraine), Russia has reason to believe that its relations with each such country will strengthen.  The elections have ranged in character from incredibly free, open and fair to completely rigged, and the countries fall across the spectrum of geography, economics and political development.

The one factor they have in common is the success of political leaders who aim to nudge their country’s foreign relations some degree friendlier with Russia:

  • In Belarus on September 23, Alexander Lukashenko and his allies ‘won’ all of the seats in the House of Representatives in an unfair and unfree election.  Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of the most pro-Russian leaders among former Soviet republics; Belarus and Russia share very tight-knit economic ties, a common approach to rule of law and human rights (not particularly progressive), and Lukashenko has at various times contemplated bringing Belarus and Russia back into some form of union.  Belarus and Kazakhstan, for instance, joined a formal customs union with Russia in January 2012.
  • In Georgia on October 1, an opposition coalition led by Georgia’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili took control of the Georgian parliament from the party of Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili.  Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his fortune in the 1990s and 2000s in post-Soviet Russia, has argued that Georgia can remain committed to economic and democratic reforms and the rule of law and strive for better relations with Russia (though Ivanishvili says he’d still like to seek Georgian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  Under Saakashvili, Russia imposed a trade ban on many Georgian exports, including wine, agricultural products and mineral water; in 2008, after provocation from Saakashvili, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to the breakway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain occupied by Russian forces.
  • In Lithuania on October 14, in the first round of parliamentary elections, the Labour Party of Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich narrowly won the largest share of the vote and will likely form part of the next government coalition.  Uspaskich’s party also finished first in 2004, but since then, Uspaskich has been charged with corruption and spent parts of 2006 and 2007 in apparent hiding in Russia.  In any event, Uspaskich’s presence in the government could bring about more favorable relations with Russia, and it could possibly slow Lithuanian accession into the eurozone.
  • In Ukraine on October 28, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated the more pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 election (who was promptly charged, tried and imprisoned on politically motivated charges relating to the 2009 pipeline crisis with Russia) is leading his largely united pro-Russian Party of Regions in parliamentary elections, while the various pro-Western political parties remain split.

This autumn’s elections follow the September 2011 Latvian parliamentary elections, in which the Harmony Centre party won the largest share of the vote, a watershed for a party that derives much of its support from ethnic Russians and which actually signed an electoral pact with Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party in 2009.  The result caused alarm in Washington and Brussels — Latvia joined NATO in 2004 along with Lithuania and Estonia, so a pro-Putin government in a NATO government would naturally be alarming.  But despite some legitimate doubts about Harmony Centre, its anti-austerity platform attracted even not just ethnic Russians, but ethnic Latvians, and it seems more interested in elevating Russian as an official language in Latvia (one-fourth of Latvia’s population speaks Russian) than reconstituting a political union with Russia. In any event, other Latvian parties united to keep Harmony Centre out of the government.

Although some Western media have already started pearl-clutching about this month’s elections, it’s important to keep some perspective — it’s not exactly the second coming of the Warsaw Pact.

Putin, in 2011 as Russian prime minister, proposed a ‘Eurasian Union,’ although it’s unclear whether that has any chance of succeeding — the Commonwealth of Independent States, which incorporates nine of the 15 former Soviet republics, has not exactly prospered (and ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy how his proposed ‘Mediterranean Union’ is doing).  In recent years, Russia has reduced energy subsidies to Ukraine and Belarus, despite clearly pro-Putin governments, and it took a curiously lackadaisical approach to the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan.  Except for perhaps Belarus, none of the Soviet republics seem to have the stomach to return to a ‘Soviet Union light’ alliance with Russia.

Rather, there’s a more pragmatic realization in the former Soviet republics that even if Russia isn’t quite the superpower that it was in the 20th century, the inevitability of geography suggests that it will continue to exert some influence, for good or for ill, in its ‘near-abroad’ — in terms of economics, energy, security, and in some cases, continued cultural and political ties.  As the Cold War recedes further into history, though, it’s becoming less necessary to think of having to choose between ‘the West’ and Russia as a binary matter.  If former Soviet republics overlearned the lessons of 1990 and 1991, perhaps they are now learning the countervailing lessons of Saakashvili’s mistakes — needlessly antagonizing Russia (not to mention ethnic Russians within former Soviet republics) is probably counterproductive, even for more pro-reform, pro-Western leaders.

Continue reading Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

Lithuania election results

We have the first-round preliminary election results from Lithuania, and it confirms what was previously reported, and roughly what polls had shown in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections: the two major leftist/populist opposition parties have won the most seats, likely ending the four-year government of center-right prime minister Andrius Kubilius, who ushered in an era of budget austerity following the financial crisis of 2008-09 that saw Lithuania’s GDP plummet by 15%.

The populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), led by Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, won 19.96% of the vote yesterday, and the more traditionally center-left Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania) won 18.45%.

Kubilius’s own party, the Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats) won 14.93%, a bit higher than polls had predicted in advance of the vote.

Sunday’s vote was the first of a two-round process: 70 seats in Lithuania’s unicameral parliament, the Seimas, were alloted by proportional representation.  An addition 71 seats will be determined by single-member individual districts, many of which will be determined in a runoff vote, to be held October 28.  On the basis of Sunday’s vote, Labour will have won 17 seats, the Social Democrats 16 seats and Homeland Union 12 seats.

The Social Democrats and Labour are expected to win sufficient seats between yesterday and the individual district runoffs to form a government with another smaller party, Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice).  In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the Social Democrats have typically done as well or better in the individual districts than in the proportional vote; Labour, however, has typically done either as well or worse.  So it’s still quite possible that the Social Democrats will emerge with a greater number of seats than Labour, notwithstanding Labour’s narrow victory on Sunday.

Regardless of whether Labour or the Social Democrats technically win more seats, it is expected that the leader of the Social Democrats, Algirdas Butkevičius, a former finance minister, will serve as the new prime minister.  In 2004, when Labour emerged as the largest party in the Seimas (then also under Uspaskich’s leadership), it allowed a Social Democrat to be prime minister.  Since then, Uspaskich has been embroiled in a corruption scandal over his party’s finances, and Uspaskich himself spent parts of 2006 and 2007 apparently in hiding in Russia.

So it’s a safe bet that the international community (especially the United States, the rest of the European Union and the bondholders who are pricing Lithuanian debt) would prefer a Butkevičius-led government, not a Uspaskich-led one — and Lithuania’s new governing coalition seems sure to recognize that.  The success of Uspaskich’s party alone, and his influence on the next Lithuanian government, will itself be enough to delay a potential Lithuanian accession into the eurozone as well as cause some alarm with regard to a potentially more pro-Russia foreign policy from the Lithuanian government.  A government led by Uspaskich could potentially bring Lithuania back into economic crisis and put it at odds with the rest of Europe. Continue reading Lithuania election results

Meet the new power threesome of Lithuania: Algirdas Butkevičius, Viktor Uspaskich and Rolandas Paksas

Lithuanians are voting today to select new members of the Seimas, the country’s 141-seat unicameral legislature.

After four years of budget-crushing austerity and slow economic recovery under Andrius Kubilius, the longtime leader of Lithuania’s center-right Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats) appears headed for defeat.

Under the two-round parallel voting system, voters choose 70 seats by proportional representation (all of which will be determined today) and 71 seats directly in individual districts (many of which will proceed to a second round on October 28).  After today, though, we should have a good idea of who will win the largest number of seats.

Throughout much of the campaign, the longtime center-left Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania) looked set to emerge as the largest party.  But the most recent poll shows that it’s essentially tied with the more populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party).

An October 10 poll showed the Social Democrats with 16.9% of the vote to just 15.8% for Labour.  Both parties have joined an electoral pact, along with a third party, Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice), which garnered 8.2% in the poll.  Homeland Union won just 7.6%.  The socially and free-market liberal Liberalų Sąjūdis (LRLS, Liberal Movement) won 5.8% — the only other party to garner over 5%, the threshold for a party to enter the Seimas on the proportional representation vote.

It seems certain that the two most important individuals to drive Lithuanian policy over the next four years (the Seimas has a fixed term) will be the leader of the Social Democrats, Algirdas Butkevičius (pictured above, right), who will likely become prime minister, and the leader of the Labour Party, Viktor Uspaskich (pictured above, left).  The third party in the electoral pact, Order and Justice, is essentially a personality-driven vehicle for its leader, Rolandas Paksas (pictured above, center), and it has veered both left and right.

Butkevičius and his allies have promised to relax some of the budget austerity that has brought Lithuania’s deficit down from nearly 10% of GDP to near the European Union cap of 3%.  That has caused some concern among bondholders and EU leaders, who have largely applauded Kubilius’s government and rewarded Lithuania with relatively low bond rates.  After a nearly disastrous 2008-09, when Lithuania’s economy collapsed by nearly 15%, GDP growth has now largely returned to Lithuania — 6% growth in 2011.  Although the Baltics have largely been held up as showcase examples for budget austerity (despite the protestations of Paul Krugman), unemployment remains staggeringly high at nearly 13%, and both Butkevičius and Uspaskich have said their chief priority will be creating jobs.

Although Lithuania is not hampered by the terms of any EU-based or International Monetary Fund loans, its government has been nudging the country toward adopting the euro, which necessitates getting Lithuania’s budget deficit within 3% of GDP, among other financial benchmarks.

Butkevičius, throughout the campaign, has called for the introduction of a progressive income tax and minimum salaries, and he’s also questioned the rapid accession of Lithuania into the eurozone.  But it’s difficult to know where the bluster ends and real policy changes would begin.  Butkevičius, a former finance minister in the Social Democrat-led government from 2004 to 2008, has already started to back away from some of his more populist stances.

Throughout Europe this year, we’ve seen anti-austerity candidates win elections on the strength of ‘pro-growth’ policies, only to realize in office that financial constraints restrict their maneuverability.  We’ve seen this in Greece, in France (where president François Hollande’s popularity is already sinking) and in the Netherlands (where the anti-austerity Labour Party looks set to join a coalition with budget-cutting prime minister Mark Rutte).

It’s doubtful that tiny Lithuania would be the exception — so a Butkevičius-led government would probably run into many of the same constraining dynamics.

But in addition to the populist rhetoric, there’s more cause for worry — from the two individuals that Butkevičius will likely join in his coalition. Continue reading Meet the new power threesome of Lithuania: Algirdas Butkevičius, Viktor Uspaskich and Rolandas Paksas

Election Sunday in the Baltic and the Balkans

Today is election day in both Lithuania and Montenegro:

  • In Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states, voters go to the polls today for the first of two rounds to select new members of the 141-seat, unicameral Seimas. Today, voters will elect 70 members by proportional representation; the other 71 members are elected directly in individual districts — in each district, however, if the winning candidate doesn’t surpass certain hurdles, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff on October 28.  Polls show the center-left Social Democrats and the more populist, pro-Russian Labour Party leading polls, with the governing center-right, Christian Democratic Homeland Union trailing far behind.
  •   In Montenegro, Milo Đukanović and his Democratic Party, are the leading party in the long-governing Coalition for European Montenegro. Đukanović, who has been at the center of Montenegrin politics for the past 23 years, was set to extend his party’s rule, despite a united opposition from an umbrella ‘Democratic Front’ coalition.