Looking for Lithuania’s president

Last week, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda marked the one-year anniversary since his inauguration. Vaidotas Beniušis, editor-in-chief of the BNS news agency, gives an overview of the president’s achievements over the first year.

In conversation with Lithuanian expats in London in December 2019, Nausėda confessed: “I cannot manage to do everything […] due to workload.“

Nausėda also admitted that Valdas Adamkus, an ex-president and his role model, criticised him for his failings. “The words of Adamkus sounded something like, ‘what are you doing?!’,” Nausėda said in London.

As discussions about the president‘s style of leadership continue, the one-year anniversary since Nausėda‘s inauguration presents an opportunity to review his agenda.

Take 1: Coronavirus

Seen as an intellectual, Nausėda was elected president during a relatively calm period, hoping that he could serve as a unifying figure.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the president has not made any major mistakes, but failed to present himself as a leader and didin’t appear regularly in frontline positions, casting doubts on his authority.

Nausėda’s weak stance during the crisis was a result of limited constitutional powers, but also of his personal traits. With experience in politics and leadership, he was not prepared to be a leading figure in crisis situations.

The president was therefore often contrasted with his predecessor Dalia Grybauskaitė, who was elected president during the economic crisis in 2009 and the geopolitical tensions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

But Nausėda’s approval ratings are bound to change, so it is too early to proclaim him a one-term president.

Take 2: Regions

The president turned to the regions. Regular visits to different parts of Lithuania was an important first step towards delivering on his campaign promise to reduce inequality.

In the second year of his term, the president should seek to implement more ambitious changes, such as improving school conditions in rural areas.

It is yet to be seen whether this will become Nausėda’s priority when working with the new parliament, which will be elected in autumn this year.

Take 3: The Lithuanian parliament, Seimas

The president and his team had to learn the basics of politics. The first alarming signals reached Nausėda‘s office in mid-November last year, when Seimas rejected a second presidential veto on legislation.

The president’s performance later improved and his vetoes on lowering the parliamentary election threshold, as well as on price regulations, were not rejected.

In total, eight of Nausėda‘s vetoes have been accepted, while two have been rejected. This shows that the president effectively played his role in the system of checks and balances.

The president’s own agenda, however, has not been well-received in the Seimas. Around half of Nausėda‘s initiatives, including proposed tax reforms, have been rejected.

A public procurement reform, on which the president‘s team have been working since his inauguration, should become an important test of Nausėda‘s ability to impose his agenda onto the governing coalition.

Take 4: Spies

Nausėda could be proud of the spy swap with Russia that took place last November. He brought two Lithuanian citizens and a Norwegian back home. This is something that Grybauskaitė was not able to do.

The top-level negotiations also involved the US and Nausėda demonstrated his care for Lithuanian citizens.

But the negotiation process was not as smooth as Nausėda said. There were questions about the reasons behind the president’s fears that he could be impeached for pardoning the Russian spies. The final decision about the spy swap was also made only after Seimas passed questionable penal code reforms.

Take 5: Law enforcement

At the beginning of his term, Nausėda fired several corrupt judges. It was a popular move, but it cast doubts on whether the move was in line with the presidential powers.

But it is still not clear how the Lithuanian leader is planning to solve the issue of vacant top judicial positions.

The Lithuanian society demands high moral standards from the president. His approval ratings grew when he clearly stated his values-based position during the corruption scandal involving Lithuania’s Transport Minister Jaroslav Narkevič.

Nausėda has the potential to become a pro-transparency president. However, critics point to his lack of position on corruption risks surrounding the establishment of a state bank, as well as the distribution of billions of euros from the coronavirus fund.

Lithuania’s anti-corruption watchdog (STT) was a key player in shaping the president’s positions, while the State Security Department (VSD) initiatives often received automatic support from Nausėda.

Cooperation is important for national security, but it remains to be seen whether the president will be strict on surveillance and law enforcement institutions, as well as whether he will pay enough attention to the issue of human rights.

Take 6: Diplomacy

Renewing the dialogue with Belarus, as well as the focus on economic diplomacy were among the key points of Nausėda’s first term. But there were no quick results.

Regarding Belarus, there were no breakthroughs in resolving the issues of human rights or the Astravyets nuclear power plant near the border with Lithuania.

Lithuania’s foreign policy was influenced more by the government than by the president’s office. But this was a result of the prime minister’s greater attention to this area and did not depend on Nausėda’s moves.

The president’s personal commitment to maintaining the defence budget, as well as his strong position on Russia, however, demonstrated that Nausėda understood his commander-in-chief duties.

Take 7: Communication

The president has recently given a number of interviews, which could weaken the weight of his words.

In many instances, the president has also stated positions that he was not able to defend.

When forming the new government, politicians will remember Nausėda’s confession that he approved of Narkevič as minister, despite publicly supporting another candidate, because he was threatened by the LLRA-KŠS party’s leader Voldemar Tomaševski.

The president’s public call for Lithuania to delegate a female European Commissioner was also easily ignored.

Nausėda was confident during his public appearances, but there were flops too, such as when he told CNN that Russia could occupy Lithuania in three or four weeks.

Take 8: Values

During the first term, Nausėda’s conservative Christian values have become apparent. He called for more focus on promoting Lithuania’s history, culture, and language, warned about the risks of globalisation, and paid greater attention to the Church.

The president spoke against the Istanbul Convention, which the Church opposed because of the proposed gender definition, and did not promise to promote LGBTQ+ rights. He was also against allowing the original spelling of Polish names in Lithuanian passports.

But despite criticism from the liberals, Nausėda was consistent in his positions.

Take 9: Team

Forming and leading a team was a new experience for the president, which led to mistakes.

Nausėda‘s decision to appoint General Vytautas Jonas Žukas as his national security adviser was criticised by security experts. But the president cared more about attracting famous people, so that he could boast about being the president with “the strongest team”.

General Žukas did not become a good adviser and the president’s mistakes encouraged other advisers to resign.

But there were improvements in the second half of the term, as there was less chaos in decision-making and project management.

The warm-up is complete

To sum up, the president understands his responsibilities, fulfills his constitutional duties, and properly represents Lithuania. But after the first year of ‘warming up’, it is now time to review strategic goals and processes in order to effectively implement them.

The president’s job is a marathon rather than a sprint. The advice given by the former president Adamkus – who boasts sporting achievements from his youth – to better allocate resources remains prescient.

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