The media in Vilnius have likened her to Barack Obama, but Lithuania's new president faces an even tougher task mending its economic woes
The country's media have dubbed her "the hope of Lithuania" and compared her to U.S. President Barack Obama. Many Lithuanians believe she will be the leader who can bring an end to the nation's economic troubles. Never before in the country's post-Soviet independence have aspirations for improvement been pinned so strongly on a single person, as now, during the global recession. And on top of all that, 53-year-old Dalia Grybauskaite, inaugurated on 12 July, is also the country's first female president.
Grybauskaite—or the "Iron Lady," another of her nicknames—ran as an independent candidate and won in a landslide on 17 May with over 68 percent of the vote. The results surprised no one. Until recently the European Union budget commissioner, Grybauskaite has received high ratings in polls for the last few years and her popularity has only increased in recent months. When she announced that she was running for the presidency, the other potential candidates either withdrew at the start or remained in the contest only to garner public attention and visibility before the recent elections to the European Parliament, without any real prospects of victory. As a result, the presidential race featured tedious campaigns lacking intrigue, as the winner could easily be guessed beforehand.
Grybauskaite's sweeping victory also illustrated her popularity across party lines, as she received three times more votes than the most successful party (the Homeland Union—Lithuanian Christian Democrats) did in the 2008 parliamentary elections. No politician had managed to obtain so many votes in a presidential election since 1993.
ROOTS OF HER APPEAL
In an interview Grybauskaite once mentioned that she had always been different from other people. Those words spawned rumors that she was a lesbian, but Grybauskaite seemed to have been referring to her nonconformist mindset. She spoke about how she liked to follow her own path and make her own decisions. Looking back at her road to the presidency, it is easy to see many examples along the way.
Grybauskaite was born in 1956 to a working-class family in Vilnius. Despite her humble background, she managed to gain admission to Leningrad State University. The school was a very prestigious institution at the time, and Grybauskaite studied political economy there alongside Russian economists Andrey Illarionov and Alexei Kudrin, now Russia's finance minister. When she returned to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic after completing her studies, the period of glasnost had already begun. People in the streets were demanding independence for Lithuania. But Grybauskaite continued to teach agricultural economics in the Communist Party's in-house training college until 1990. Right-wing politicians later attacked that decision, criticizing her for her lack of patriotism and her decision not to join Sajudis—the Reform Movement of Lithuania—which led the struggle for independence.
Despite the debate over her past, few pundits would disagree that Grybauskaite has professional experience and obvious talent. As Lithuanian political commentator Kestutis Girnius once stated, Grybauskaite is first and foremost a good technocrat and manager. In 1996-1999 she served as one of the highest ranking diplomats at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington. From 1999 until 2001 she served as a deputy minister of finance as well as chief negotiator with the IMF and the World Bank. Later in 2001, she became minister of finance, where she remained until 2004, when she was appointed the European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget. Rumor had it that some of the country's top politicians had decided to ship her off to Brussels for fear of her growing popularity in Lithuania.
In addition to her lengthy résumé, Lithuanians have been impressed with Grybauskaite's straight-talking toughness. Unlike other Lithuanian politicians, she gives direct answers to direct questions, and her rhetoric sometimes borders on the aggressive. She names and shames when she deems it necessary. She says that she will not tolerate the loafing of bureaucrats. As Grybauskaite was not closely linked to or dependant on any political party or large financial interest group—and has not been involved in any political scandals—she was able to take a stance on almost every important political issue, demanding accountable and reasoned governance. In recent months, she earned most of her political capital mainly by criticizing the previous coalition and former Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas for his incompetence in dealing with the economic crisis.
At a time when there is so much uncertainty about the future—and the government cannot make plans three months in advance, due to the financial freefall—the country yearns for a strong and decisive leader. As commentator Girnius has written, "the image of a determined, strong-willed, and unhesitating political leader suits Grybauskaite well and has fascinated the Lithuanian people." That persona has even been buoyed by Grybauskaite's choice of hobbies: She is a black belt in karate, a feat achieved during her stay in America.
Grybauskaite's campaign focused on the current economic situation in the country, corruption, and the problems of unregulated monopolies and powerful oligarchs. Monopolistic industries became one of her most popular targets, as the market control held by energy companies in particular remains a matter of public concern. While the Ignalina nuclear power plant produces cheap electricity, Lithuanian consumers still pay more for electricity than the inhabitants of neighboring countries. That is also true for natural gas, gasoline, and diesel, which are controlled by a small number of powerful companies.
Although Grybauskaite's anti-monopoly rhetoric clearly resounded with the electorate, most people do not hold high hopes that the new president alone can make serious progress in breaking up the monopolies. At present, Grybauskaite does not possess the necessary resources, such as the backing of influential businesses or support of the political parties (even though her candidacy was supported by the major ruling party, the Homeland Union—Lithuanian Christian Democrats). And without a "coalition of the willing," she will likely lack the power required to cope with these monopolies and oligarchs. Previous presidents—including the past one, Valdas Adamkus—had similar aspirations, but they were never realized.
Clearly, Grybauskaite's potential to transform the domestic scene in any meaningful way is limited by the country's political structure (a parliamentary republic with elements of a semi-presidential system). Under the Lithuanian Constitution, the government controls domestic affairs and policy. But this system also allows room for a president who prefers to take an active stance and make use of various powers of legislation, nomination, and decree. If Grybauskaite manages to secure parliament's support and form a strong team of advisors, she would be able to influence decision-making processes in the country significantly. With her high ratings among the public and experience, that might be possible. Even Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius has observed that everyone listens when Grybauskaite speaks.
Grybauskaite might have a better chance of making an impact in the field of foreign policy, since that falls squarely within the president's constitutional mandate. She has already described the country's foreign policy as imbalanced and inadequate, in need of revision. During Adamkus' two terms (1998-2003 and 2004-2009), foreign policy was oriented toward supporting new democracies in the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Moldova. That approach often generated criticism from Russia and disgruntlement from within the European Union about Vilnius's supposedly unilateral moves (especially from Moscow-friendly Germany and France).
This state of affairs was especially noticeable when Adamkus went to Georgia in 2008 during the Russia-Georgia war in an attempt to mediate the conflict, as well as when Lithuania used its veto to derail the approval of a long-awaited EU-Russia partnership agreement. Adamkus never visited Moscow, and neither Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev has paid a visit to Vilnius.
Grybauskaite, on the contrary, prefers a more pragmatic approach toward Russia that focuses mainly on economic relations and a stronger partnership with the main EU powers. "Grybauskaite's 'pragmatism' will consist of nothing but looking for allies and friends within the EU," said Laurynas Kasciunas, director of the Center for Eastern Geopolitical Studies. He believes that the new president will initiate any activities in Eastern Europe in coordination with the relevant EU bodies. But skeptics in Lithuania doubt that this "new pragmatism" can strengthen Lithuania's position in the EU and still diminish what they see as Russia's neo-imperial assertiveness over Lithuania and other post-communist countries. They worry about a watered-down Eastern policy that has been, until now, "values-based" and part of a democracy-promotion strategy.
Lophospermum x lituanicum Dalia Grybauskaite is the name of a flower that was recently nurtured by Lithuanian botanists. Lithuanians, who have taken pride in their basketball, beer, and attractive women, seem to have added their new president to the list. And while people have invested an enormous amount of hope in Grybauskaite—which should, at least in the near future, ensure support for her policies and decisions—they are being realistic. As Virgis Valentinavicius, director of the Alfa.lt news site, puts it, "Even out in the boonies, no one fully believes that Grybauskaite can single-handedly improve the deteriorating situation in the country."