Lithuania looks to Brazauskas for a recovery

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The Independent Online
LITHUANIA'S president-elect, Algirdas Brazauskas, yesterday angrily dismissed claims that his new administration would be a step back to the Communist past, insisting instead that it simply represented a different stage along the road to reform.

Speaking just hours after his convincing victory in Sunday's presidential poll, Mr Brazauskas said that among his first priorities would be the improvement of relations with Russia and other former Soviet republics and the passing of new laws to revitalise Lithuania's flagging economy.

Although vague on detail, he denied having plans to reverse the controversial privatisation reforms introduced by Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's former leader, or that he would relax the agreement that all former Soviet troops stationed in the country should leave by the end of August.

'This election shows that Lithuania passes the democratic test,' Mr Brazauskas said. 'If people had really thought that I was a Communist, they would not have voted for me.'

Fears about the direction the country will take under Mr Brazauskas stem from the fact that, under the old Soviet system, he was a member of the Lithuania Communist Party (LCP) for 30 years, becoming its leader in 1988.

Critics, from the nationalist Sajudis movement headed by Mr Landsbergis, claim that, having been schooled in Communist thought, Mr Brazauskas and his renamed Democratic Labour Party (DLP) are incapable of generating the radical new ideas necessary to secure Lithuania's transformation from a command- to a free-market economy.

'I can see us ending up as a satellite state of Russia,' said an embittered Mr Landsbergis, who decided not to stand in the pres idential contest after parliamentary elections late last year resulted in a crushing defeat for Sajudis at the hands of the DLP. 'Mr Brazauskas and his colleagues are incapable of independent thought, and I fear the consequences for our country.'

Less partial observers, however, acknowledge that Mr Brazauskas proved he was more than a Moscow stooge in 1989, when he took the then unprecedented step of withdrawing the LCP from the central Soviet party, and through his strong support for the independence movement.

'To dismiss Mr Brazauskas as an old Communist is a gross over- simplification,' said Tarmu Tam merk, editor of the Baltic Independent, an English-language weekly. 'He may not be particularly inspiring, but, in the end, many Lithuanians feel he is one of them and that he has the country's best interests at heart.'

Being a well-known figure was one of the main reasons for Mr Brazauskas' convincing victory by a margin of 60-38 per cent over his only rival in the presidential race, Stasys Lozoraitis, Lithuania's ambassador to Washington.

Mr Brazauskas' promise to slow - but not halt - the process of economic reform struck a chord among Lithuanian voters, hard-hit by rising prices and constant shortages of fuel.

Algis Cekuolis, a former LCP member, said: 'Mr Brazauskas may not have been the ideal candidate, but he was the best we had. He cannot be condemned simply because he belonged to the Communist Party. So many of us did. The question now is one of competence. The overall aim remains the same - to create a free market, a new middle class, and to let rich people get rich without feeling guilty about it.'