Lithuania President Vows to Boost Defense Spending as Vote Nears

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, preparing for a May 25 election runoff, pledged to increase spending on security to quell increasing concern about Russian expansionism.

Grybauskaite, who in the May 11 first round garnered more than three times as many votes as his opponent, vowed to boost defense expenditures by 130 million litai ($51 million) this year in her last TV debate before the vote. She said Finance Minister Rimantas Sadzius is “out of touch” with security risks, a reaction to his comments this week that defense spending is appropriate.

“We can only regret that Russia has turned to very aggressive policy toward Europe,” Grybauskaite said late yesterday. “We see a country that’s chosen confrontation and aggression.”

NATO is upgrading contingency plans, holding military drills in eastern Europe and stepping up air and naval policing on its flanks as the crisis in Ukraine escalates. The newest members are pushing for permanent North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases in the region.

Grybauskaite, bidding for a second five-year term, has used the campaign to emphasize her role in boosting the alliance’s military presence in the region that regained independence as the Soviet union collapsed more than two decades ago. She got 45.9 percent of the first-round vote, compared with 13.6 percent for her rival, former finance minister Zigmantas Balcytis.

Sabonis, Aerosmith

In the two weeks since the first round, Grybauskaite sought to boost her profile through appearances with sports and music celebrities and intensified her criticism of the Social Democrat-led government that endorses her contender.

Having mostly avoided non-official appearances through her presidential term, Grybauskaite grabbed media attention by attending a game of basketball, the country’s most popular sport, alongside former NBA player Arvydas Sabonis. She also released pictures and a video this week of sipping coffee and posing with Steven Tyler, the frontman of the rock band Aerosmith on tour in Lithuania.

Balcytis, 60, a candidate from the Social Democrat party, supervised the country’s earlier failed attempt to adopt the euro and has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. The country is on course to join the euro area in January.

Balcytis rejected his responsibility for Lithuania’s failure to switch to the euro in 2007, blaming Scandinavian banks for sparking inflation with cheap credit during the housing boom. Ultimately, it was the European Union’s “political decision” to keep Lithuania out of the euro area, he said.

‘Only Talking’

Grybauskaite, 58, stepped up her criticism of the government for “only talking and not getting any work done” since coming to power in a 2012 ballot, irking Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius.

“I was surprised by comments that the government hasn’t done any work,” said Butkevicius in a radio interview with Ziniu Radijas yesterday. “It’s cheap election populism that makes no honor to the head of state. One shouldn’t try to draw voters with emotional lies.”

Grybauskaite said in a TV debate on May 15 she would seek some ministerial changes in the current government if re-elected, underscoring the president’s “limited powers” to alter the configuration of the ruling coalition.

Cabinet Changes

Though Balcytis repeatedly reiterates his support for the Butkevicius government, he also wants at least three ministerial changes that “will improve the work of the government” if elected, he said in an interview with LNK television on May 21.

According to the Lithuanian constitution, the government must return powers to the president after the presidential election. A new cabinet will be formed after receiving approval from the new president and after a vote in parliament.

Balcytis’s victory would give the two top posts to the Social Democrats, threatening the “independence of the two offices,” Grybauskaite said. Balcytis has won the endorsement from all four political parties in the ruling coalition.

Grybauskaite, an independent candidate, is also a former finance minister and served as an EU budget commissioner. A victory would return to office a leader who fired more judges than all of her predecessors combined, got EU’s envoy to Russia Vygaudas Usackas fired as the country’s foreign minister and supported budget austerity during the economic crises to prepare for euro adoption next year.

In Lithuania, the president is responsible for foreign policy, nominates cabinets for parliamentary approval, appoints judges and has the right to veto laws.

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