Kęstutis Girnius. Restraining the president

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The war of words between President Dalia Grybauskaitė and Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis will not end any time soon. It will continue until the president’s term ends, even if not as intensively as now.

The prestige of both will suffer. Most likely, their popularity will as well, Skvernelis’ perhaps to the point that he will choose to not run for president.

But in his words and actions, Skvernelis struck a mortal blow to Grybauskaitė’s authoritarian understanding of a president’s powers, reminded that Lithuania is not France, where the president can make the prime minister and cabinet dance to his tune.

Skvernelis has displayed that there is no need to passively react to the president’s lecturing and censure, that it is possible to oppose the president’s whims and efforts to monopolise foreign policy.

At the beginning of her first term, the president stated that she would have only as much power as the Seimas grants her. The Conservative-led Seimas was especially generous, only daring to challenge a presidential veto for the first time mid-way through its term. The president expanded her powers and prerogatives not only at the cost of Seimas, but at the cost of the cabinet as well. She would lecture and censure prime ministers, who would silently accept the criticism and teachings. Even the otherwise resolute Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius would not criticise the president in public, silently accepted her complaints even when he would disregard her directives. Skvernelis is the first prime minister to dare to consistently challenge the president.

The current conflict was sparked by the president’s demand for the prime minister to fire Minister of Agriculture B. Markauskas from his post.

Grybauskaitė’s demand may be justified, but she released her demand ex cathedra, without even consulting the prime minister. However it may be, ministers are members of the cabinet, the prime minister – the chairman of the ministerial council, thus you cannot demand for a resignation without adequately consulting the prime minister. After all, he is the leader there, not the president.

Usually the agreement of the prime minister is crucial, thus the first talks should be held behind closed doors. Only after longer discussions can you reach the general conclusion, the president could publically express her opinion, seek the support of other politicians and the public.

The prime minister and president should not communicate via the news media.

Skvernelis only found out from the media that D. Grybauskaitė would not appoint G. Danėlius as minister of justice.

In this case, you can only react to Skvernelis’ anger with a smile. That the rejection of a candidacy came as a surprise to the prime minister shows that he did not discuss the candidacy with the president ahead of time, which he should have done.

The president’s protractors explain that the president’s advisors were seeking to convince Markauskas to resign. But advisors are simply clerks, it is not up to them to demand or seek to convince a sworn in minister, how he should act.

The president herself could have tried to convince Markauskas to withdraw, especially when it is a far higher likelihood that he would take such urgings far more seriously than those of a clerk. This is not the first time when advisors were left to do work, which is that of the president herself.

After the Vijūnėlė manor scandal, Grybaukaitė refused to interact or meet with PM A. Butkevičius. To quote her office “work issues with the cabinet are coordinated at the advisor level.” It would appear that the president cares not that state affairs, where the president and prime minister must work together, may suffer due to her whims.

Skvernelis is not planning to yield to the president, more likely he is prepared to go all in. On Friday, he invited the foreign minister and several ambassadors to meet in a few days and discuss Lithuanian relations with Russia and other Eastern countries.

This is a sort of provocation because the decision was made in the midst of a conflict with the president. It is clear that the ministers and ambassadors will not have any further proposals, after all serious plans and alternatives are not formed over a few days.

Furthermore, Lithuanian diplomats are, in my opinion, united in their support for sub-optimal policies regarding Russia, thus it would be a struggle to markedly change it. Nevertheless, through his invitation the prime minister is declaratively stating that the days have passed when the president was the sole foreign policy former.

The goal of the meeting on Monday is to irritate Grybauskaitė, but Skvernelis displayed several months ago that he is able to participate effectively in the forming of foreign policy, thus challenging the president’s efforts to monopolise foreign policy.

At the start of the year, he urged to renew contacts with Russia, recreate the Lithuanian – Russian intergovernmental commission. The president criticised the proposal, stating that top-level political contacts can only proceed with friendly states. The next step made by Skvernelis was more significant and more beneficial to Lithuania.

He invited Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to visit Vilnius in March.

This was the first such visit in six years. Relations between Lithuania and Poland are difficult. While Poland is more responsible for relations going awry, slights should have long been forgotten and cooperation should have been reinforced in the face of external threats.

The president is not demonstrating suitable initiative, they say that she was insulted by something, thus Skvernelis took the first step. The prime minister is not lacking in ambition, he is seeking to nudge relations with Lithuania’s most important neighbours – Russia and Poland, rather than with less significant states.

I have no doubt that foreign ambassadors in Lithuania are scratching their heads, trying to grasp, what is going on.

Most likely, not few will be reminded of bickering between children or teenagers, when looking at this duel between president and prime minister. This impression is not completely untrue. Both the prime minister and the president’s actions hold significant childish stubbornness, hostile intent and this is merit for neither.

Perhaps Skvernelis’ actions are influenced by his desire to be president, but as I’ve mentioned, the confrontation will likely reduce his popularity.

However, what he is doing is necessary. The president must realise that she can no longer allow her whims to influence Lithuanian politics, that she must interact with the prime minister and cabinet more respectfully, not view foreign policy her personal domain.

Skvernelis’ actions will serve as an example to future prime ministers, how to oppose and not back down to the fancies of Daukantas Square.

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