Lawmakers narrowly ousted Lithuania’s scandal-ridden president Tuesday for abuse of office, ending the Baltic state’s worst political crisis since it gained independence from Moscow.
The ouster of President Rolandas Paksas in a secret ballot came less than three weeks before the country joins the European Union on May 1.
The 47-year-old former stunt pilot lost three separate votes in the 141-member parliament by closer-than-expected margins.
Before they voted, Paksas asked lawmakers: “Do a few mistakes of mine justify the process of impeachment?”
Parliament wasn’t swayed, passing all three accusations against Paksas: that he illegally arranged citizenship for one of his chief financial backers, businessman Yuri Borisov; that he divulged state secrets; and that he used his office for financial gain.
Report alleges ties to Russian mob
The accusations stemmed from government reports on Borisov’s role in Paksas’ campaign, including allegations that the Russian was linked to organized crime.
Borisov, who denied any wrongdoing, donated $400,000 to the campaign last year. Afterward, Paksas helped Borisov get Lithuanian citizenship, although it was later revoked.
The charge of divulging state secrets was tied to Paksas’ apparent warning to Borisov that he was being watched by state security agents. The third involved his role in the privatization of a building company.
Deputies passed the first charge by 86-17, the second 86-18 and the third 89-14. To pass, 85 votes were needed. Other deputies either weren’t present or did not vote.
Paksas will not face a trial.
‘A triumph of truth and democracy’
“Parliament has passed a serious test today,” said legislator Eligijus Masiulis, raising a champagne toast in a parliament restaurant with other deputies. “This is a triumph of truth and democracy.”
The former Soviet republic joined NATO last week and Paksas’ opponents said Lithuania risked losing the trust of both NATO and the EU had he remained in office.
“Lithuania’s partners in NATO and the EU were expecting such outcome — impeachment,” said lawmaker Gediminas Kirkilas. “Today we have done what we had to do.”
While some supporters believed Paksas’ claims of a conspiracy against him, many were embarrassed and ashamed by his actions. Others said the affair raised questions about the extent of Russian influence on Lithuanian politics.
Parliament Speaker Arturas Paulauskas — an ardent Paksas foe — became the acting president. New elections will be held within 60 days.
President's role is limited
While the president isn’t involved in the daily running of the country — a task left to the prime minister — the head of state does serve as a leading foreign envoy. In Lithuania’s parliamentary system, the president also plays an important role in forming the government.
Paksas isn’t barred from running in the next election, but he hasn’t said if he will.
Paksas once was the golden boy of Lithuanian politics. As Vilnius mayor in the mid-1990s, he was credited with reviving the city’s old quarter after 50 years of neglect during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.
Two weeks ago, he said he was hiring Borisov as an aide but later reversed the decision after a public outcry.
The scandal emerged in October after a government report linked Paksas to Borisov, who police assert has ties to Russia’s mafia. Parliament launched impeachment proceedings weeks later.
Just minutes before the secret ballots were cast, Paksas again maintained his innocence before the assembled legislators, who essentially acted as a jury while a judge presided.
‘The system's revenge against me’
“This is all the system’s revenge against me,” a calm but determined-looking Paksas said. After the vote, he had no comment.
About 600 Paksas supporters — some holding his photo — gathered outside, while 200 riot police stood nearby, but there was no violence.
“We’ve won. Shame on you Paksas!” several young Paksas opponents shouted after the vote was announced.
Had Paksas resigned, he would have kept privileges accorded to ex-presidents, including a state-funded residence, pension and title of president for life.
After the vote, the red-and-white flag of the Lithuanian president was lowered and taken away at the presidential headquarters. Presidential plates on his black BMW limousine were also removed.