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Harvesting Change: a New Green Political Force in Lithuania

By Tomas Tomilinas

Following a landslide victory in last year’s elections, the Lithuanian Peasants and Greens Union (LPGU) has attracted a lot of attention. GEJ caught up with Member of Parliament Tomas Tomilinas to find out more about the party, its outlook on Europe and the reasons behind its success in the challenging context of Lithuania’s conservative electorate, ethnic diversity, and geopolitical position.

 In Lithuania’s last parliamentary elections, the Lithuanian Peasants and Greens Union achieved a remarkable victory to become the largest party and form a government coalition.  What accounts for this surge?

For a long time, LPGU was regarded as a small regional party with a green, farming dimension. It had achieved representation in municipalities, with some mayors and participative majorities in over half of municipalities. But we hadn’t managed to overcome the 5% electoral threshold, and we were not well represented at the national level, with only one Member of National Parliament and one MEP from 2014. Political victories such as leading the successful ‘no’ campaign in the 2012 referendum about building new nuclear plants (62.6% voted against), did not translate into electoral success.

I think there were two main reasons for the electoral success we achieved this time. First, and most important in my view, was that we named the situation in Lithuania as a social crisis. We said that we are the poorest population in Europe with the highest levels of emigration, according to some estimations. We are experiencing a demographic catastrophe; and we want to change things. The rest of the mainstream parties kept saying that things are okay and that the country is moving in a good direction, we have GDP growth – but to that, our party said we have a poverty and inequality growth. So why is this happening?

The other reason – related to a more general, populistic trend in Europe – is that people are searching for new faces, and we certainly are new faces. We proposed technocratic government; that is, not including politicians but rather professionals and public figures who come from outside of party politics. We said we would not nominate party representatives to the government, and we kept our promise: we have only one party member in government out of eleven ministers and the Prime Minister, who is not a party member. He was on the party list, and some of the ministers too, but most of the ministers are leaders of their areas and therefore have their independent respective authority. The Prime Minister had served in the Social Democrat government before but as a minister, and was appointed because of his background as head of the national police in the midst of corruption scandals, so co-opting him in our electoral campaign was one of the factors in our success.

What is the party’s position in the Lithuanian political landscape?

Our party has a long tradition. It is not a new party, a single-issue or a joke party, as has been seen in the past in Lithuania. Regarding the opposition today: it is conservative and liberal. In addition there’s a Polish minority party – rather neutral and not really in opposition to our government, and then a small populist party called Order and Justice. But all parties are pro-European and so far there is no real far-right nor extremist party inside the Parliament.

We won 56 seats out of 141, which is a very big majority. Conservatives as a second largest group have only 31. No major party had passed the 40 seats’ threshold since 1996. We are governing with the Social Democrats, who are weaker – but more experienced, I must say – so one has to make compromises.

Regarding socioeconomic policies, we are rather left of the centre; we support regulation, despite de-regulation and privatisation still being the order of the day in the region. We have shown, using concrete examples and our experience on the ground, that in the domain of heating services, public ownership and management can generate cheaper prices, good delivery, and efficiency.

Another key issue for us was the proposed liberalisation of the labour code – via the Labour Code Social Package – which the social democrats, very investor-oriented, tried to implement arguing they wanted to make the investors happy. We promised to stop this reform, arguing that we wanted to make the people happy – focusing on wellbeing rather than only on foreign direct investment. And we did. We proposed instead a tripartite model, more regulatory, rebalancing, and with real dialogue – and compromise – with trade unions who currently have very little bargaining power and capacity in Lithuania.

A big promise of our campaign was of huge structural reform in the public sector, which society was demanding: cuts to the central government, though not to public expenditure – that is an important distinction. We spend more than the European average on government administration, bureaucracy, ministries, yet don’t spend much on pensions or social work and have the lowest redistribution in Europe on average (27%). We would rather have that money spent on the people rather than the bureaucracy. The Department for Youth could be cut first, for example, but not public spending on youth; the department would simply be integrated into another. Corruption and clientelism – using the public sector as an employment source for party people – was also a major issue. We expressed our will to fight against this in the election.

In more general terms Lithuania is a very small and open economy. The government intervention will not be very big in relative terms: we still have to deal with the demands of an investor-oriented environment, because as a very small country, the economy has to be competitive.

Compared to other Green parties in Europe, this party consists of quite a particular type of union. Tell us more about the alliance between the Greens and ‘Peasants’. How does it work?

Firstly, it is not an alliance. It is not that some urban Greens came into our party, and there was no merging of two parties. There is still a small urban Green party with one parliamentary member, whom I sit with, and they criticise us for not being Green enough. Our party’s history is a little bit different. We were founded in 1991 when the rural reality was very different; there were many more smaller and family-run farms. We have always been fighting for the interests of those traditional farmers, but we didn’t manage to change much as we were on the point of joining the EU which led to bigger farms, subsidies as anywhere in the world. Our impact was minor but we kept the same mentality.

Industrialisation and especially the EU membership have decreased the high proportion of Lithuanians who live in the countryside, but we still have one third of population there – many who are farmers, but most are not. That’s why we are called peasants, not farmers. This means also rural teachers or doctors. Peasantry is much more than farming; it is an attitude to life, towards nature, the environment. It is a movement of rural Lithuania, defending the lifestyle of natural countryside. We also have notable and industrial farmers in our party, and nominated a rather radical Green – one of the leaders of a 1988-91 environmental protest – as the Environment Minister: we have contradictions and conflicts inside the party, but we manage them.

Some are critical of LPGU on issues such as LGBTIQ rights, human rights, women’s rights… Some would see your party as too socially-conservative. What are your party’s views on this?

A large majority of our party members and representatives hold Christian, democratic attitudes towards family or minority issues. There is a lack of knowledge and education around human rights issues; it seems at once obvious and too abstract. We would definitely not have anti-abortion proposals like in Poland – just policies about consultation, family planning, help for women and so on, but we are quite conservative as a party, though much less in the government which is made up of young professionals in their 30s who tend not to be as conservative.

It was a very clear strategy from the party that we would not focus on LGBTIQ issues in the election because it is quite controversial among mainstream parties and society, and we have to respect the very conservative, Christian- and family-oriented electorate. So we tried to avoid the topic, knowing inside that we have very different opinions among our ranks – for example, the Prime Minister has made it clear publicly that he is pro-civil partnerships, I myself am a human rights activist, but we also have pro-life and pro-family activists. Our aim is to inform society, and to balance interests, but we want to avoid giving a platform to radical positions.

What is the party’s policy towards the Polish and Russian minorities in the country?

This is also a very politically sensitive question in Lithuania. These minorities were automatically given Lithuanian citizenship in 1991 when the country was established, unlike in Estonia and Latvia. They have recently merged their political platforms, and make up about 4 to 8% of the vote. We have a liberal stance towards these minorities; we maintain normal relations and we want some fresh air on these issues and to stop squabbling over small details which have caused difficulties in foreign relations with Poland. As the largest regional player, Poland is strategically the most important ally for us, so any tensions should be resolved as quickly as possible.

Support for the Polish and Russian minorities can in some ways be seen as support for Russia, as it has much influence over them; the Polish minority is from the East of the country and is Russian-speaking – they tend to watch Russian TV so are more susceptible to Russian propaganda, although there are some restrictions, with Russian television channels being blocked in Lithuania. Mostly, the influence comes through business and the energy supply.

How would you describe the Russian influence today in Lithuania, and what forms does it take?

Politically, it’s a very divisive issue and national security is at the heart of the discussion.  If you talk about nuclear power plants or electricity, you’re talking about Russia. Lithuania is dependent on electricity imports from Russia at the moment. We are building the electricity bridge with Europe, and harmonising processes; it is an ongoing, technical, and complex project. We are supporting the disintegration of the electricity market with Russia. We also had a lot of problems with agricultural trade before, but now less so because we reoriented our exports towards the West.

We are connected to Russia economically, but not politically. We do not have warm relations with the regime and are often critical of it. Our foreign policy positions during the campaign and now were and are quite clear: it is the only policy area where we did not propose any change. If you start to work with Russia, you are indirectly supporting their human rights record, which we do not want to do as it damages our capacity to develop respect for human rights in our society. We want energy connection reforms to be completed as quickly as possible.

Lithuania recently decided to educate citizens on guerrilla-tactics in the event of a Russian invasion.

Lithuania has a border with Russia, and we’ve seen what’s happening in Ukraine, so this prospect is a real threat and we should be prepared. It’s not a militarisation of society but society should be educated on resistance and potential risks. Steps have also been taken to increase the military budget to comply with NATO’s 2% of national budget spending on the military. Our party is also supporting the NATO Warsaw summit decision to deploy troops in the Baltic countries to face the Russian threat but we did not make this an electoral issue.

How does your party see the future of Europe and the European project?

When we joined the Green Group in the European Parliament two years ago we agreed, to a large extent, on a Green agenda with positive and pro-European attitudes but we are not European federalists. In many cases, we understand that the national level is still key and it is possible to move forward in this confederation with a strong EU Parliament. We have big fundamental debates on that; we are still building our identity. If you ask some of our ministers what their attitudes towards the European project is, they would not answer, as a common attitude is still developing.

How do you see the future of the Lithuanian Peasants and Greens Union in the Green family in Europe?

We are working hard to strengthen our connections. However, only a small number of our representatives are currently in European leadership roles, and we want to extend this. So far, we are only part of the Green Group in the European Parliament, but that’s important for us. This year will be used for interpersonal connections. I want to bring the leaders of committees to the European Parliament, because most of them are our leaders.

We want a closer relationship with the Greens in Brussels, and we discuss the intention to have a formal membership to the European Green Party (EGP). But first we need to put our house in order. At the moment we still have different views and opinions between strategic actors in the party. We talk about integrating to the European family when we have yet to integrate properly our own!