Country in northern Europe, bounded north by Latvia, east by Belarus, south by Poland and the Kaliningrad area of Russia, and west by the Baltic Sea.
Government Lithuania has a multiparty semi-presidential political system. Under its 1992 constitution, Lithuania is a democratic-pluralist state, with a predominantly parliamentary form of executive, although the president retains considerable power in the selection of a prime minister. There is a 141-member parliament, the Seimas, directly elected for a four-year term and comprising 71 members elected in single-member constituencies and 70 by proportional representation from a nationwide constituency. The president, who must be at least 40 years old, is directly elected and can serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. The president oversees foreign and national security policy. With the approval of parliament, the president appoints a prime minister, who shares executive power with a council of ministers. The president also appoints a third of the nine members of the constitutional court.
History Lithuania was united as a single nation in 1236 by Grand Duke Mindaugas, who became king in 1253. The Teutonic Knights (German crusaders) who attempted to invade in the 13th century were successfully driven back. In the 14th century Lithuania extended its boundaries and became one of the largest states in Europe, occupying present-day Belarus and Ukraine and reaching eastwards almost as far as Moscow and the Black Sea. The population was converted to Christianity in the 14th century. In 1386 Lithuania's Grand Duke Jogaila became king of Poland to unite the two countries in a mutually beneficial confederation. The two became a single state in 1569, known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which Lithuania maintained a separate army and currency. In 1795, as part of a partition of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, most of Lithuania came under the control of the Russian tsar. Revolts in 1831 and 1863 failed to win independence for the state, and a more organized movement for the independence of Lithuania emerged in the 1880s. When self-government was demanded in 1905, this was refused by the Russians.
Struggle for independence During World War I Lithuania was occupied by German troops. After the war, it declared independence in February 1918 but the USSR claimed Lithuania as a Soviet republic in 1918. Soviet forces were overthrown by the Germans, Poles, and nationalist Lithuanians in 1919, and a democratic republic was established, although the capital, Vilnius, was annexed by Poland 1920–39. A left-wing democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup in 1926 and Antanas Smetona became president, with dictatorial powers. In 1939 Germany took control of part of Lithuania, handing it to the USSR later the same year under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1940 Lithuania was incorporated as a constituent republic of the USSR, designated the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1941, after German troops had invaded the USSR, Lithuania's nationalists returned briefly to power and assisted the Nazis in the swift systematic slaughter of 90% (more than 130,000) Lithuanian Jews, communists, and other ‘undesirables’. The Germans occupied Lithuania 1941–44, after which Soviet rule was restored. Fierce guerrilla resistance to the ‘sovietization’ policies of forcible agricultural collectivization and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church continued until the 1950s. Overall, in the years 1940–54 Lithuania lost nearly 800,000 people, including between 120,000 and 300,000 exiled to Siberia and many also emigrating.
An intelligentsia- and Roman Catholic Church-led dissident movement was in place during the 1960s and 1970s, and this grew in strength during the 1980s, influenced by the Polish example and the glasnost (‘political openness’) and perestroika (‘economic restructuring’) policies espoused by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In October 1988 a popular front, the Sajudis (Lithuanian Restructuring Movement), was formed to campaign for increased autonomy and the supreme soviet (state assembly), to the chagrin of Russian immigrants, declared Lithuanian the state language and readopted the flag of the independent interwar republic. In December 1989 the republic's Communist Party split into two, with the majority wing, led by first secretary Aligirdas Brazauskas, formally breaking away from the Communist Party of the USSR and establishing itself as a social-democratic, Lithuanian-nationalist body. A multiparty system was established and the Sajudis-backed pro-separatist candidates secured a majority in the February–March 1990 elections. In March 1990 Vytautas Landsbergis became president and Lithuania unilaterally declared its independence. The USSR responded by imposing an economic blockade, which was lifted in July 1990 after the supreme council agreed to suspend the independence declaration.
In January 1991, Soviet paratroopers briefly seized political and communications buildings in Vilnius that had been nationalized by the Lithuanian government after it had rescinded its declaration of independence. Thirteen civilians were killed in the attack, which increased ethnic Lithuanian support for independence, and in a national referendum in February 1991, 90% of voters backed re-establishment of an independent Lithuania.
Independence achieved After the failure of an August 1991 attempted anti-Gorbachev coup by conservative communists in Moscow, in September 1991 the USSR and Western nations recognized Lithuania's declaration of independence, and the Communist Party was outlawed.
Since independence, Lithuania has developed close relations with Western states but also worked to improve relations with Russia. It became a member of the United Nations in September 1991; entered into a free-trade agreement with the other Baltic States, Estonia and Latvia, in September 1993; signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with Poland and applied for NATO membership in 1994; and signed a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union (EU) in June 1995. The last Russian troops departed in August 1993 and Lithuania and Russia signed a state border treaty in October 1997.
Lithuania's economy fell into severe recession immediately after independence as it sought to forge new trading relations and as industries were privatized. By 1996, although the bulk of the economy was in private hands, the rate of growth of the economy remained slow and lagged behind its Baltic partners, Estonia and Latvia, in terms of economic reform. The rate of unemployment was 8% and inflation stood at 25%. From 2000 the rate of economic growth picked up to around 8% a year and the country enjoyed a sustained period of growth, which meant that by 2006 the unemployment rate had fallen to under 3%.
Political instability During the decade after independence Lithuania had a succession of short-lived coalition governments. Accused of mismanaging economic reform, Lithuania's Sajudis nationalists suffered a crushing defeat in the October–November 1992 elections to a new legislature, the Seimas. The ex-communist Democratic Labour Party (LDLP), now a social-democratic force, won a parliamentary majority, and in February 1993 its leader Algirdas Brazauskas was directly elected president, pledging more gradual and less painful free-market reforms. Adolfas Slezevicius, also of the LDLP, became prime minister. The Sajudis was replaced by a new party, the Homeland Union–Lithuanian Conservatives (Tevynes Santara: TS), led by former president Landsbergis.
In March 1996 Slezevicius resigned over his involvement in a banking scandal. He was replaced by Mindaugas Stankevicius of the LDLP. After elections in November 1996, a new conservative coalition was formed, led by Gediminas Vagnorius of the TS, a reform-minded economist, and dominated by the Homeland Union, in alliance with the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party (LKDP) and Lithuanian Centre Union.
The presidential election of January 1998 was won by Valdas Adamkus, who had emigrated to the USA in 1949 and had been a senior administrator in the US Environmental Protection Agency until 1997. Adamkus stood as an independent and pledged to develop Lithuania's integration with Western Europe and to deepen its links with the USA. In May 1999, Vagnorius resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Rolandas Paksas, a former member of the Communist Party of Lithuania who was now in the TS. Paksas in turn stepped down in October 1999 after his opposition to privatization of an oil company to a US company was opposed by cabinet colleagues. Andris Kubilius of the ruling Homeland Union became the new prime minister, heading a coalition with the Christian Democrats (LKDP).
Swing to the centre-left The ruling conservative government won only 9% of the vote in the October 2000 parliamentary elections. The Social Democrats won the greatest number of seats, but a new populist centre-left coalition was formed, led by former prime minister Rolandas Paksas, who was now a member of the Lithuanian Liberal Union, and comprising two liberal parties and eight independents. However, policy remained broadly the same: developing a free market economy; reducing rates of income and corporate tax; working towards joining NATO and the EU; and attracting foreign investment.
In June 2001 Paksas resigned as prime minister. He was replaced in July 2001 by former president Algirdas Brazauskas, of the Luthuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP).
Paksas, who was now chair of the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), stood in the January 2003 presidential election and achieved a surprise victory over Adamkus in the run-off round. But soon the new president was facing allegations from opponents concerning links with the Russian mafia and he was impeached, for allegedly divulging state secrets, by the parliament and removed from office in April 2004. He was the first European head of state to be impeached and removed from office.
Arturas Paulauskas, the speaker of the Seimas, took over briefly as acting president until July 2004, before Adamkus returned as president, after winning the presidential election. In June 2006 Brazauskas resigned as prime minister and retired from politics after President Adamkus expressed no confidence in two of his ministers. In July 2006 Gediminas Kirkilas, also of the Social Democrats, took over as prime minister, heading a centre-left minority government.
EU and NATO membership On 1 May 2004 Lithuania became a member of the EU. This followed a 2003 referendum in which 90% of voters favoured accession. In March 2004 it became a full member of NATO. In May 2001, it became a member of the World Trade Organization.
Move to the centre-right and financial crisis During 2006 until early 2008, Lithuania's economy still continued to grow rapidly, at an annual rate of over 7%. But along with other Baltic States, it was affected particularly adversely by the global financial crisis of 2008–09, which led to a 15% fall in GDP in 2009 and unemployment climbing to 15% by March 2009.
The October 2008 Seimas elections resulted in a swing to the centre-right, with the Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats finishing as the main party and its leader, Andrius Kubilius, who had been prime minister 1999–2000, returned as prime minister in November 2008. To deal with the country's worsening economic crisis, the new centre-right coalition government announced unpopular tax increases and public spending cuts. This austerity programme was not popular, and public anger led to demonstrations in front of the parliament in Vilnius in January 2009.
The May 2009 presidential elections were won by a landslide margin by Dalia Grybauskaite, an independent backed by the centre-right, who had previously been a European Commissioner for financial programming and the budget. She became the country's first female president and was supportive of the centre-right government's response to the economic crisis.
Swing to the left The Kubilius government won praise from its EU partners for reducing the size of the country's budget deficit, and the economy grew strongly in 2011. But after years of wage cuts and with unemployment still around 10%, voters turned against the ruling coalition at the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Campaigning on an anti-austerity programme, the Social Democrats won most seats, with 18% of the vote. In December 2012, the LSDP leader Algirdas Butkevičius became prime minister, forming a coalition government with the Labour Party, which had won 20% of the vote, and the right-wing populist Order and Justice Party (TT: formerly the LDP).
The new government eased some of its predecessor's austerity measures and raised the minimum wage. Lithuania met the economic targets required for it and joined the euro in January 2015.
Increasing concerns over Russia In May 2014 Grybauskaite became the country's first president to be re-elected. She stood on an anti-Russian platform at a time of increasing concern across the Baltic states at growing Russian assertiveness following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The growing unease led, in February 2015, to Lithuania announcing it would restart military conscription, which had ended in 2008. And in March 2015 NATO reinforced its military presence in the Baltic states with major military exercises.
Peasants and Greens top the poll in parliamentary elections The October 2016 parliamentary elections saw a surprise victory for the agrarian-centrist Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union (LVZS), which won 22% of the vote (up 18% on 2012) and 54 of the 141 seats. Their victory represented a revolt against the ruling coalition by voters who were dissatisfied with low wages, slow economic growth, high levels of emigration, and recent government corruption scandals. The biggest loser in the elections was the Labour Party, whose vote share plummeted 15% to 5%. Support for the LSDP fell 4% to 15%.
The LVZS had grown recently in popularity under the leadership of the businessman and philanthropist Ramūnas Karbauskis. But, for the 2016 parliamentary elections, its candidate list was headed by Saulius Skvernelis, an independent who had been a popular interior minister from November 2014.
Following successful coalition negotiations between the LVZS and LSDP, in December 2016 Skvernelis became prime minister.
World Travel Guide – Lithuania
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