Christmas is around the corner, however not the merriest annual holiday, but the topic of secret services and spies prevails the Lithuanian media ahead of the celebration.
Lithuania’s law enforcement on Wednesday, December 19, announced it busted a «whole network of persons», including Algirdas Paleckis, the former leader of Lithuania’s Socialist People’s Front, spying for Russia.
Prosecutor General Evaldas Pašilis did not reveal the exact number of detainees, just mentioned Paleckis among them.
According to Pašilis, the persons suspected of spying for a Russian intelligence organization, «are one way or the other related to political non-parliamentary parties».
«Such intelligence targeted the most sensitive places for the public, including the so-called January 13, 1991 case,» the chief prosecutor said.
In his words, criminal activity has been taking place for over a year, which shows «the activity lasted for a long time, it was purposeful and deliberate».
Later the day, another name of the busted persons appeared in media, that of Valery Ivanov, a Russian citizen and former leader of the pro-Soviet organization Yedinstvo.
He however was released on Thursday, a day after the was detained in Vilnius in connection with an investigation into spying for Moscow, prosecutors confirmed.
Ivanov was detained after a gun was found in his apartment during a search. Suspicions of unlawful possession of firearms were brought against him.
Prosecutor General’s office issued a statement, saying that «a set of non-custodial precautionary measures have been imposed» on the Russian citizen «to ensure his participation in the process».
However, it is apprehension of Paleckis, a prominent yet controversial Lithuanian activist, that came as a surprise to many, including Gediminas Grina, former director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, VSD.
«He (Paleckis) is too a public person to collude with a hostile foreign service and thence be part of interest of Lithuanian intelligence. As we say in the intelligence circles, special services are interested in those who stand invisible behind the wall, not in somebody like Paleckis who is very visible on the stage,» Grina told BNN.
Said that, he cautioned that Lithuanian intelligence may indeed have certain incriminating evidence against Paleckis.
«It can come in form of obtained correspondence, documents or possession an electronic gadget with delicate security- sensitive information,» Grina added.
He emphasised that whatever evidence against Paleckis is, it might not be enough to prove his guilt in court.
According to former VSD director, there always are people who are interested in what is going on in Lithuania.
«And there always are people who are ready to snoop and provide it for a gratuity,»Grina underscored to BNN.
Law enforcement officials said off the record that the suspects spied for non-public-type information but refrained to disclose whether it was classified.
Approached by local media, Darius Jauniškis, director of the State Security Department, said that the activity of detained persons was aimed at influencing political processes in Lithuania.
«People are recruited for this goal, capable of shaping the programs and structures of political parties directly or via intermediaries, using various media channels to contribute to strengthening Russia’s soft power in the country,» he said.
Established in 2008, the Socialist People’s Front and its former leader Paleckis have many times been mentioned in public intelligence reports on threats to national security.
«Indeed, his name was on and off during my term,» Grina confirmed to BNN.
Lithuanian intelligence has called the Socialist People’s Front a pro-Russian party and written about the party members’ participation in pro-Russian propaganda events against the United States and NATO.
In 2016, a VSD report pointed to more frequent Russian information and intelligence operations and bolstering of the «soft power» instruments which included «attempts to step up centralization and coordination of pro-Russian compatriots and their sympathisers».
As an example, the SSD pointed to the fact that Rafael Muksinov, a Socialist People’s Front member who was elected to the Vilnius Council, is chairman of the Compatriot Council in Lithuania, supported by the Russian federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo.
Spying is punishable with up to 10 years in prison in Lithuania. Paleckis has been detained for over a month.
Paleckis was one of the negotiators on Lithuania’s EU accession. He served as an MP in 2004-2007, and was a Vilnius vice mayor in 2007-2008. His father is former MEP and his brother has held an executive position in the National TV and Radio Broadcaster.
In 2008, Paleckis was expelled from the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania due to disagreements and open confrontation with the party’s leadership, and later founded the Socialist People’s Front party which he left early this year.
In 2012, Paleckis was sentenced for denying and grossly trivialized the fact of the Soviet aggression against the Republic of Lithuania when he said commenting the Soviet Union’s attempts to overthrow the then Lithuania’s government in early 1991 that «our own people were shooting at our own people».
With his new party, Paleckis made unsuccessful attempts to get into parliament in 2008 and 2012, and he also failed to be elected in single-member constituencies.
According to the Centre of Registers, Paleckis was currently the head of the public institutions Antakalnis Community and Public Project Centre.
Weighing in on Paleckis detention, PM Saulius Skvernelis said the released information clearly indicates that third countries’ intelligence agencies are actively seeking ways to influence Lithuanian domestic politics and other processes ongoing in the country. He believes that it is clear that their efforts are not yielding the desired results due to Lithuanian agencies’ work.
Interestingly, Skvernelis has recently turned to VSD himself, asking it to investigate whether the opposition Conservatives were not instigating massive teacher strikes in the country.
A group of teachers have left the premises of the Education Ministry only this week. They stayed there over three weeks protesting the new pay system.
Summoned this week to testify for the members of the parliamentary National Security and Defence Committee, the head of the State Security Department (VSD) Darius Jauniškis and Second Investigation Department (AOTD) head Remigijus Baltrėnas did assure that they have observed no hints of unrest in Lithuania.
«I recommend the Lithuanian people to make use of the period of concentration before Christmas and celebrate Christmas in peace, as well as celebrate New Year,» Baltrėnas stated when asked if the Lithuanian citizens should be concerned over threats inside the country.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the country’s embassy in Vilnius said on Wednesday that Lithuanian law-enforcement bodies’ new investigation into suspected spying for Moscow was «yet another anti-Russian campaign» and «a step away from democracy».
«Undoubtedly, the new fuss about spies is yet another serious and crude anti-Russian campaign by Lithuanian authorities,» the embassy emphasised.