Lithuanians on the verge of re-electing staunch Russian critic president

By bne IntelliNews May 12, 2014

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Dalia Grybauskaite looks set to retain her seat in the Lithuanian presidential elections, illustrating the level of support in the country for her tough stance towards Russia. However, the outspoken critic of the Kremlin will face a run off after just failing to cross the 50% threshold in first round voting on May 11.

In an election dominated by concerns over Moscow's foreign policy, as it uses military threat and support for pro-Russian militants in efforts to carve up Ukraine, the staunchly pro-European Grybauskaite took 45.8% of votes in the first round, the Lithuanian election commission announced on May 12. She will now face a second round run off against Zigmantas Balcytis - a member of the Social Democrat party that leads the current government coalition - who came in second with 13.7%.

"The people have decided that there will be a second round. I would like to thank all Lithuanians that I received almost 47% of the vote, this is a big trust," Grybauskaite told reporters, according to Reuters. "I believe in everyone who voted. I believe in an honest Lithuania," she said on May 11, the same day Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine were holding an internationally condemned referendum on independence. The second round of voting will take place on May 25, the same day as EU parliamentary elections.

Twenty four hours earlier, the president had played up the threat from across the eastern border as Lithuanians went to the polls. "Europe must understand that Russia is trying to redraw the post-war map and borders," she said, according to AP. "First, it's Ukraine; Moldova will be next and, finally, it can reach the Baltic states and Poland. This is serious threat to our region."

Such worries pervade the former Soviet states in the Baltics, although Lithuania - without the large ethnic Russian populations seen in Estonia and Latvia - clearly feels it has more space to shout about them. The president's stern approach to Moscow has gathered fresh support as the crisis in Ukraine plays out. An announcement from national gas utility Lietuvos dujos on May 8 that Gazprom has granted it a discount on gas prices was more than happy timing.

Political clout

Despite having started her political career coming from the left of centre, Grybauskaite strongly supported the confrontational approach to Russian dominance of Lithuania's energy market taken by the centre right government of former prime minister Andrius Kubilius. The population tired, however, of the harsh economic austerity applied by Kubilius and replaced him with Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius in late 2012, who arrived talking of a "more pragmatic" approach to the Kremlin.

False promises on gas, difficulties controlling the cabinet over energy in particular, and practical "economic war" - as he described a Russian ban on dairy products and a customs regime that saw thousands of Lithuanian trucks stranded late last year - appear to have convinced him otherwise. He has had the Baltics' first planned LNG terminal and a couple of international arbitration cases to fall back on.

Grybauskaite was also front and centre in November last year as Vilnius - holding the rotating EU presidency - pushed Ukraine's former PM Viktor Yanukovych to sign off on a political and trade pact with Brussels. The protests in Kyiv that were sparked when, under pressure from Moscow, he backed out led to his ousting in February.

Analysts have little doubt Grybauskaite will secure a second term as president and continue steering Lithuania westwards. "Grybauskaite is an independent candidate, but her policies are generally aligned with a centre-right political agenda," writes Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence. "In her new term, she will likely continue to push for stronger economic relations with the Nordic countries, actively pursue increased NATO involvement in the Baltics and maintain close links with Brussels."

"In terms of energy policy, Grybauskaite will likely continue to support infrastructure projects decreasing Lithuania's dependence on energy imports from Russia (such as the Klaipeda LNG terminal, the Visaginas nuclear power plant, and the electricity interconnectors with Poland and Sweden)." She continues. "While Lithuania's constitution assigns only a relatively limited role to the president in terms of policy design, Grybauskaite's political clout and electoral support provide her with substantial informal influence on governmental policies."

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