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Lithuanians attack parliament to protest taxes

Violent political protests sweeping parts of Eastern Europe spread Friday to Lithuania, where police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at a rock-throwing mob attacking Parliament.
Riot police fan out at Lithuania's Parliament building in Vilnius on Friday, clashing with protesters who threw rocks and eggs at them and the building.Mindaugas Kulbis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Violent political protests sweeping parts of Eastern Europe spread Friday to Lithuania, where police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at a rock-throwing mob attacking Parliament.

Fifteen people were injured and more than 80 detained in several hours of street fighting between angry protesters and helmeted riot police.

The violence followed similar riots this week in Bulgaria and Latvia amid a wave of discontent over economic woes, difficult reforms and government corruption. In all three countries, peaceful anti-government rallies ended in vandalism and brawls with police.

"There are forces that are interested in destabilization and chaos in Lithuania, and they are using the public's dismay over painful reforms to achieve their hostile plans," Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said in the capital, Vilnius.

His center-right coalition, in power less than two months, has been criticized for tax increases that the government said were needed to shore up state finances. The Finance Ministry announced Friday it intended to borrow $1.3 billion from the European Investment Bank to plug a yawning budget gap. The Baltic country's economy is expected to enter a recession this year.

"We are here today because this government is mocking us," said Liucija Mukiene, a 63-year-old protester in Vilnius. "They are taking away our last money and providing nothing. I am fed up with the lies, corruption and those grinning, fat faces behind the windows of Parliament."

Crowd demanded lawmaker
Some 7,000 protesters had gathered outside Parliament on Friday morning to demonstrate against the government's reforms. The violence started when police pushed away protesters who were demanding to see the parliamentary speaker.

The angry mob hurled rocks, eggs and snow balls at officers and the Parliament building, shattering about a dozen windows. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the angry mob.

The Interior Ministry said 15 people were injured, including four police officers. One protester lost a finger to a rubber bullet, police said.

On Tuesday more than 100 people were detained and some 40 injured in Baltic neighbor Latvia, when anti-government protesters clashed with police. Dozens were injured in Bulgarian clashes Wednesday.

Analysts warned the violence could spread as the economic crisis deepens, especially in former communist countries that had seen spectacular growth in recent years.

"It's quite dramatic when you've had (gross domestic product) growth of 10 percent and fall to minus 5 percent, like Latvia," said Thorbjorn Becker, director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, or SITE. "As people become unemployed and watch their income fall this year, you will likely see regular incidents of this kind."

Latvia has the worst-performing economy in the European Union, and unemployment soared from 6 percent to 7 percent in December.

Many Bulgarians blame their Socialist-led government for the country's woes, which have been greatly exacerbated by the current crisis over Russian natural gas.

In both countries demands are growing for early parliamentary elections. The senior ruling coalition party in Latvia heeded the call on Friday, calling for a new vote as soon as possible.

Problems with communist legacy
Economic problems are taking their toll elsewhere in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Ukraine and Romania.

Romania's national currency has lost 17 percent in one year.

"I am worried that Romania will slide backwards like Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria," said political analyst Bogdan Chirieac.

Silver Meikar, an Estonian lawmaker, said ill-conceived cuts in social expenditures could trigger protests in his country, too.

"If the government decides to, say, cut pensions or decrease teachers' salaries, we'll very likely to see demonstrations," he said. He said violence was less likely in Estonia because there's a broader understanding that economic reforms are needed.

Political experts stressed that many former communist countries share a similar political culture.

"The political elite does not know how to establish a dialogue with society," Raimundas Lopata, director of the International Relations and Political Science Institute in Vilnius. "Will government learn this lesson so that such violence will not break out again? I doubt it."

Ivars Ijabs, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Latvia, agreed.

"People see how America elected Barack Obama — a symbol of hope and change — and they want something similar at home," he said.