Dalia Grybauskaite – President
Dalia Grybauskaite is the dominant figure of Lithuanian politics, sometimes in the front line, sometimes in the background, but always obliging others to reckon with her. She came to the presidency in May 2009, less than a year after the global economic crisis truly began to hit Lithuania and four months after the centre-right government sent in riot police to quell demonstrations. The situation looked made for a strong, reassuring presence, and Grybauskaite, a former reformist finance minister and the country’s first European commiss-ioner, offered reassurance. Her victory was resounding, in the first round, and a surprise to no one.
Grybauskaite comes from a working-class family, and she herself worked for five years in a fur-products factory to fund a degree in what was then Leningrad. She went on to gain a doctorate in economics in Moscow, and it was economics that gave her the entrée to politics. After Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, she headed the foreign ministry’s economics department, negotiating a free-trade deal with the EU. That experience set her up for three years as Lithuania’s ambassador to the EU, from 1994.
She gained one of her more unusual distinctions – a black belt in karate – during her next posting, in the US, and she demonstrated toughness again in a later role as finance minister, pushing through far-reaching reforms. By the time she became a European commissioner in May 2004, the reforms were showing up in strong figures, boosting her credentials for the budget portfolio given to her that November by the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso.
Lithuania’s economy is no longer ‘tiger-ish’, raising questions about past economic policy, including hers, and her intervention in the formation of the current government cost her popularity. But her ratings have recovered. At home, she seems unassailable; on the European stage, she is formidable.
Algirdas Butkevicius – Prime minister
During Lithuania’s period in the international limelight, the spotlight will be on President Dalia Grybauskaite, with Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius appearing on stage much less frequently. The balance of power between the two was partly determined in 2009. Grybauskaite won 69% of the popular vote in the presidential election that year; her nearest rival – Butkevicius – won just 11.8%.
The prime minister will, effectively, serve as the backstop to the presidency, keeping the government together and maintaining a focus on the presidency’s national priorities. The former is the bigger challenge. There is a cross-party consensus on Lithuania’s national interests in the presidency: energy security, the Eastern Partnership with six of the EU’s eastern neighbours, border management, and the Baltic Sea regional strategy.
Maintaining a four-party government is trickier – particularly when the second-largest partner, the Labour Party, has just absorbed a small party, changed its name and found a new leader to distance itself from a party-financing scandal in which judgment is pending.
Butkevicius brings hard work, quietness and optimism to the job, as well as a sense of social justice. He sought to project that sense in one of his earliest measures – a decision to raise the minimum wage to €290 a month. That also reflected one of his driving motivations, which is to reverse the exodus of working-age Lithuanians. His own curriculum vitae displays only a limited international dimension. He rose slowly through the construction industry, regional politics and the Social Democrats’ ranks. But in his interventions on an EU stage, he will be able to deploy his English, French from university days and strong pro-EU views.
Linas Linkevicius Foreign minister
The man who will lead the daily operations of Lithuania’s presidency, Linas Linkevicius, is a seasoned politician who has served 13 years as a minister of defence and, since November, foreign minister.
Linkevicius is also prepared to take risks. A major national interest for Lithuania during its presidency is to develop the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbours. But Lithuania itself struggles with its large western partner, Poland, over minority rights. He seemed keen to address that paradox this February, when he made comments taken as an apology for Lithuania’s decision in 2010 not to recognise Polish spellings on passports. President Dalia Grybauskaite reprimanded him.
Linkevicius, though, is a man of stature and not one to shrink from confrontation. In 1990, aged 30, he advised the leader of the independence movement, Algirdas Brazauskas, and in 1993 he was given one of the young state’s most vital dossiers, defence. He kept the post until 1996, returned in 2000-04, and subsequently served as Lithuania’s ambassador to NATO until 2011. He therefore brings a security-heavy background to the foreign ministry. But he recognises the other diplomatic requirements of his new post. Linkevicius has been moving swiftly around national capitals, and has held meetings with around 100 MEPs this year.
Rimantas Šadžius Finance minister
Šadžius served as finance minister in 2007-08 at the tail-end of a period, extending from 2000 to 2008, of 8% growth per year. He returned to the post in November with Lithuania in a very different situation. The country is still recovering from the painful recession of 2009, when the economy contracted by almost 15%. On top of that, his Social Democrat leader, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, has set him the challenge of taking Lithuania into the eurozone in 2015 or 2016 – a task all the more difficult because the small Lithuanian economy is fully exposed to the sluggish eurozone.
A stellar Moscow-educated student of chemistry who later added law to his education, Šadžius has the advantage of still having a healthy reputation for technocratic competence, gained in part from earlier posts as deputy minister for finance (2006-07), health (2004-06) and labour (2003-04). Like most of his predecessors, he is known more as a technocrat than as a politician, a perception that will be tested as the presidency tries to push forward the EU’s banking union. In one highly politicised area, he has in a few months in office pushed harder than many counterparts, by pressing for tax reform – a choice that could aid his time in the chair of finance councils.
Vigilijus Jukna Agriculture minister
Lithuania’s minister for agriculture and fisheries will have the unenviable task of finalising negotiations on reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The Irish presidency still hopes a final deal can be reached at the end of June. But if those hopes are dashed, the pressure will be on the low-profile Jukna, who has little political experience.
Born in 1968 in Kaunas, Jukna graduated from the Lithuanian Veterinary Academy in 1991, and worked at the school’s department of animal husbandry from 1998 until 2012. He was brought in as agriculture minister by Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius in December 2012, based on his academic reputation.
Lithuania, along with the other Baltic states, has a strong interest in ensuring payments within the CAP converge to become fairer and more equal between member states. The three Baltic states have been put at a disadvantage because, when payments were set, their levels of agricultural activity varied greatly. It will be too late to focus on such issues by the time the Lithuanian presidency begins – the main priority will be closing the file before the end of the year, when the new CAP is supposed to take effect.
Speaking at an informal meeting of agriculture ministers in Dublin last month, Jukna said he had full confidence that the CAP talks will be concluded by the end of June. “Obviously, there are some sensitive issues left for discussion, but I truly believe that we will demonstrate flexibility and find the compromise approaching the common goal – agreement on the CAP reform,” he said.
Juozas Olekas Defence minister
Olekas was present at the start of modern Lithuanian politics, as a member of the Sajudis movement that led Lithuania to its unilateral decleration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. In 1991, as health minister and a trained surgeon, he was on the frontline when Soviet troops moved into Vilnius in a bloody attempt to crush the independence movement.
Through a rapid turnover of governments, he kept his job as health minister, before returning to the operating halls and hospital administration for seven years. From 1996 Olekas took up politics again, going full-time in 2000. He went on to hold ministerial posts, first for health (2003-04) and then for defence (2006-08).
As the current defence minister, Olekas will play an important role in preparing the ground for the highest-level debate about defence and security issues in the EU since 2008, at a European Council in December.
Olekas has already had to deal with a bizarre but ominous demonstration of the security threat faced by Lithuania. In May, a Lithuanian news portal was attacked and instructed by its cyber-assailants to take down an article that suggested that Russia had bought votes in the latest Eurovision song contest.
Jaroslav Neverovic Energy minister
Neverovic is an unexpected man in an unexpected post. He is an ethnic Pole – a rarity in Lithuanian governments – and, though from the smallest party in the governing coalition, he has been given one of the most important and sensitive dossiers: energy.
Lithuania imports some 65% of its electricity needs, the highest rate in the EU. Its principal supplier is the one it would probably least wish to rely on: Russia. And prices are high.
The 37-year-old asked to cope with this formidable set of problems is a quiet former diplomat whose time in the foreign ministry involved stints in the US and handling NATO issues. That background will help, but his credentials most directly related to his current responsibilities were the few years he spent as chief executive of a company that should, in 2015, connect the Polish and Lithuanian grids.
The most high-profile task for Jaroslaw Niewierowicz – to give him his Polish spelling – may be planning for a replacement for the Ignalina nuclear power plant, but his time chairing meetings of energy ministers is an opportunity to press Lithuania’s principal energy concern: the integration of Europe’s national energy systems.
Raimundas Karoblis Permanent representative to the EU
The legislative challenge facing Lithuania’s team in Brussels will be amplified by the knowledge that the European Parliament will go into election campaigning mode next spring. What is not completed will be difficult for the Greeks to pick up next January. No surprise then that the Lithuanian foreign ministry turned to someone familiar with Brussels to take up the reins of the presidency. Raimundas Karoblis has been ambassador since 2010, giving him time to oversee the full period of Lithuania’s preparations. He did not have to move: he had been in Brussels since 2007, as deputy head of mission.
A degree in law may provide some additional depth to his handling of the legal part of his job; while a 19-year career dominated by trade diplomacy – including spells representing Lithuania’s interests at the World Trade Organization – will help in the art of negotiation. But Karoblis emphasises the need for credibility, trust and openness as the EU seeks to manage the final phases of the European Commission’s and European Parliament’s terms in office, and his own open, workman-like and straightforward style will advertise his prescription.
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