Viktor Uspaskich in 2008
© ELTA

Seen as the party with most potential

Nowadays Viktor Uspaskich sings lyric and melodic songs about his difficulties. The difficulties only arose later in his career however; in 2003 when he, a millionaire member of Seimas, founded the Labour Party. It was announced that this would be the most potent political power in Lithuania.
A month after its founding, poll data already showed the party to be one of the most popular in the country. Meanwhile accusations of populism flooded in from other parties. Already a year in the Labour Party’s popularity would come to its first test in the European Parliament elections which they won by a landslide, earning five of Lithuania’s 13 mandates.

A new challenge awaited in the autumn of the same year – Seimas elections. Here V. Uspaskich’s party would find itself among the most popular once more. This was the year of success for the party, but a period of fiasco would soon follow.

2006 – The dark year of the Labour Party

One more year later the party leader resigned from his post as Minister of Economy and abandoned his mandate in Seimas due to the Chief Official Ethics Commission ruling that he had mixed personal and public interests with further accusations of Uspaskich having provided false information regarding his education when seeking to obtain permits to work with classified information. He announced his resignation through a fax sent from Russia.

Uspaskich denied all accusations and the topic eventually died down, but soon enough the Seimas Labour Party fraction fractured. Former party member Viktoras Muntianas founded his own Civic Democracy Fraction. The Social Democrat, Social Liberal, Peasant Nationalist and Labour Party cabinet broke apart as well, with Labour entering the opposition. And this was not even the entire year yet.

Seeking refuge in Moscow

In the same year, the party would also come under accusations of having failed to include 24 million litas income, 23 million litas expenses in its book-keeping, as well as failing to pay around 4 million litas in tax. The number one suspect would end up being Mr. Uspaskich, who had already escaped to Russia and requested political asylum.

September next year V. Uspaskich organised a press conference in Moscow where he accused Lithuanian law enforcement agencies of having breached human rights. He nevertheless returned to Lithuania where he was then put under house arrest. Nevertheless Uspaskich remained confident, stating that he entered politics because there was demand for it, comparing the political process with retail.

While the politician was hiding from law enforcement agencies in Moscow, the media continued to analyse his biography; connections with the Kremlin were highlighted, while Labour’s policies were described as pro-Russian. This, however, did not prevent V. Uspaskich from participating in the Seimas elections under conditions of house arrest. Unfortunately for the now controversial politician, the demand he spoke of did not materialise this time. He lost in his electoral district, to none other than the lawyer who defended an employee of V. Uspaskich’s, who revealed that the employer paid wages off the books.

Three years without major scandals

While he continued to be critical of the news media for what he saw as inaccurate depictions, V. Uspaskich made no effort to evade the cameras, seemingly revelling in the attention. In 2007 he was once again elected to be the party chairman and would lead his party members into yet another Seimas election.

And the Labour patriarch succeeded. Perhaps not as strong a showing as previously, but the party managed to earn eight mandates and enter the opposition despite continued attention from law enforcement agencies. A year later V. Uspaskich would be elected into the European Parliament.
Three years passed silently, but in 2011 in the tax evasion case, the Prosecutor General’s Office accused V. Uspaskich of participating in organised criminal activities. The prosecutor’s office believed that the Labour Party leader organised the illegal bookkeeping the party did.

At the same time it was revealed that the Central Electoral Commission (VRK) assigned 5 million litas of dotations to the party due to it being unaware of the double bookkeeping.

The case was reopened because earlier the Member of European Parliament was protected by his immunity, which was cancelled by the EP. Uspaskich assured that the case is falsified and there was no evidence.

Pledged to bring back emigrants with pancakes and borsch

While the case continued, a new Seimas elections was looming in the horizon.
“You ask what will bring children back to Lithuania from Ireland. Grandmother, it is your borsch and tasty pancakes,” was one of V. Uspaskich’s slogans in party adverts. It was not just such heartfelt entreatments that the party used to attract voters. With the election concluding, news came out that certain party members or their aides were buying votes from prisoners.

Material detailing candidate Jonas Pinskus and his purchase of prisoner’s votes with cash appeared. Those participating in the scheme, including the candidate were sentenced.

“Well it brings no honour because the Labour Party truly works on the elections, so someone had to dig out some very bad things. We saw others too [doing the same], but our party is pragmatic. We do not get involved in scandals,” V. Uspaskich commented on the situation.

Scandal is somehow one thing the party has not managed to avoid for 12 years now. The party earned quite a few mandates, while the transparency of its campaign was questioned, furthermore the President Dalia Grybauskaitė expressed concern that a party with such a vast number of various breaches of law and morals, with a number of party members being suspects in various cases was given the opportunity to participate in forming the coalition government. The President stressed that she would only support a political power which would form a majority without the Labour Party.

Immunity cancelled for three party members

Nevertheless, the Labour Party ended up being a part of the coalition government. The three politicians involved in the bookkeeping case entered Seimas as well – V. Uspaskich himself, Vytautas Gapšys and Vitalija Vonžutaitė. What awaited them was a vote to cancel their immunity in Seimas, something which proved to be a major challenge for the coalition government. Uspaskich would describe this with words that have since earned fame (or infamy) “You all aimed to prevent the Labour Party leader from taking a post. You succeeded. You aimed to prevent other strong senior party members from taking posts. You succeeded. What else do you need? To drink blood? What do you want, to open a vein and offer it up?”

Seimas cancelled the three members’ legal immunity on the same day. Already half a year later the Vilnius District Court declared the party leadership guilty. V. Uspaskich was given a four year sentence, V. Vonžutaitė – three years and V. Gapšys – a fine of over 35,000 litas. This was the first time law enforcement succeeded in having V. Uspaskich punished.

The defendants would however go on to make an appeal, under which they were cleared of charges this year. The judge claimed that the party which performed the crime no longer existed because it was registered under a different name and had since merged with the Labourists. As such the guilty ended up only paying a fine of several thousand euro.

New leader, but controversy continues

Despite the lawsuit, the Labour Party has had a fairly calm term. Loreta Graužinienė became party chairwoman, having served as Seimas Speaker for three years. This period included some controversy for Graužinienė as well. A wealth of gaffes, such as failing to pronounce “constitution” would enter the news media.

The most controversial was probably this event in Seimas: “I would like to inform you all that we have to remove both fishery laws because we mixed them up, we voted for the wrong articles to those laws.”

The politician’s career was little impacted by such things however. With the Labour Party enduring scandal after scandal, she would remain the most stable party member in power. Last year she yielded the post of chairman to a new party member, Valentinas Mazuronis who abandoned the Order and Justice Party.

He has expressed confidence in the party’s chances in this year’s elections, although Mazuronis nevertheless keeps a foot in Brussels, the politician has not resigned from his post as a Member of the European Parliament.

The new party leader was unable to defend fellow members

Soon after the revival of political life and with the various scandals calming down, a party member was accused of corruption. Special Investigation Service (STT) officers performed searches in the home and office of Seimas member Vytautas Gapšys under suspicion of him receiving a €25,000 bribe from the MG Baltic corporation Vice-President Raimondas Kurlianskis. V. Gapšys laughed off such accusations, while initially being unwilling to yield his legal immunity as a member of Seimas. Meanwhile the party leader Mazuronis simply expressed support for Gapšys’ refutations, not commenting much further.

Nevertheless Gapšys renounced his mandate and his legal immunity was cancelled under permission from the VRK. The case is currently under discussion.

Beyond this there were scandals in the Labour-led Ministry of Agriculture. There were calls for the Minister of Agriculture Virginija Baltraitienė to resign following an excessively expensive procurement of flour by one of the ministry’s subordinate institutions.

Suspicions also arose regarding the leader of the Veterinary Service Jonas Milius potentially abusing his authority and falsifying official documents. Nevertheless the minister held onto her post and the scandals disappeared in the fog.

The Labour Party has more than 21,000 members and is the second largest party in the country. It belongs to the centrist political direction. It is seeking to enter Seimas this year, pledging to increase minimal wages and speaking against accepting refugees into Lithuania.

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