On the occasion of the cabinet’s first year, President Dalia Grybauskaitė handed it a gift wrapped in a newspaper – an interview to Lietuvos Žinios where she mercilessly criticised the ruling majority. The president stated that perhaps no reform is better than that which is poorly prepared or antagonises the public. In her opinion a number of areas look like construction sites where it is unclear, what, why and how is being built. And so on and so forth in this sort of spirit.
To this Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis answered that, “Who does nothing, makes no mistakes and there is one person in the country who does not make mistakes.” The prime minister has rebuked the president like this several times before, writing on Facebook after a dose of criticism in summer that, “For the past eight years a policy of watching from the side, evaluating and criticising, but not doing anything tangible was chosen.”
The president’s criticisms are nothing new. She began to make use of this genre early on and refined it well. D. Grybauskaitė flew into her first term on a wave of criticism toward the cabinet of Gediminas Kirkilas. As European commissioner she would arrive from Brussels, mercilessly berate the Social Democrat government and return back. Next time – the same scenario again. Unending criticism then brought senior social democrats to hopelessness. G. Kirkilas then stated that D. Grybauskaitė is politicking, covering her inactivity and even threatened to complain to the head of the European Commission. Later more or less all prime ministers suffered from the president, with even Andrius Kubilius not being an exception, with D. Grybauskaitė being more lenient on his cabinet than others.
Just having started her term as president, D. Grybauskaitė formed the image of a decisive president who cares for domestic issues and this immediately earned her high ratings which were further highlighted by Valdas Adamkus‘ bland second term and the prime minister of unpopular decisions and even poorer communication of it Andrius Kubilius. D. Grybauskaitė managed to maintain her popularity over the entirety of her two terms. Adding together the authoritative manner of the president with strict communication control (the Presidential Palace seeks to avoid any improvisation and the president often speaks that which the nation wishes to hear) and also mercilessness toward political opponents, we find a prime example of the strong arm which appeals to Lithuanians so, with which open confrontation is certainly unappealing.
In 2010 the then opposition Seimas group prefect Algirdas Butkevičius rubbed his hands hearing the president censure A. Kubilius. Then he said that if A. Kubilius wishes to keep the post of prime minister, he will need to swallow this bitter pill and yield to the president. “No prime minister has yet to beat the head of state,” A. Butkevičius said back then. Little did he know what awaits himself…
A. Butkevičius’ government was described as hopeless by D. Grybauskaitė, one that no expectations can be held for, while the prime minister – inadequate, nomenclatural, indecisive and so on. Initially having coped with the president’s criticism, later A. Butkevičius went on the attack himself in a way which, typical to this politician, obtained comical features: announcing that there exists a plan to remove him from his post. “Upon returning from holiday I found a certain document on my table, a note where it was written that it will continue to be pursued that the PM would be faced with a number of such attacks.” Later A. Butkevičius complained that the president does not communicate with him anymore and the prime ministers of foreign states ask him about the poor relations between the two chief officials of the state. The conflict ended in hysteria before the 2016 Seimas elections: according to A. Butkevičius, “The president has openly entered the electoral campaign, is applying very high moral evaluation criteria for all, except herself and her entourage.”
As someone quipped on Facebook – add together all of the president’s statements about prime ministers and you won’t know who they are intended for because they are so similar in tone. “Feast during a plague, forgotten people, fading citizens’ expectations, value inconsistency, lack of political will, imitating reform, muddling in minor details, being swamped in prevarication and unfulfilled promises, not just courage, but also wisdom is needed, issues are dismissed, proposals are one-sided and narrow,” these are the epithets the president has been using since 2008 to today for various cabinets.
Regardless of the president sometimes not avoiding criticism toward the majorities, the relationship between D. Grybauskaitė and S. Skvernelis is a little different than those with his predecessors. S. Skvernelis may have been faced with the fate of A. Butkevičius, if not the conflict over an armed fugitive escaped and roaming Vilnius and the dismissive reaction of the then minister of the interior, when after telling Loreta Graužinienė to go to hell and ignoring the president’s fierce criticism, S. Skvernelis not only retained his ministerial post, but even raised his ratings. Meanwhile the president’s ratings suffered, she became more cautious. And now S. Skvernelis does not hide criticism in the address of the Presidential Palace, perhaps also having in mind that D. Grybauskaitė’s term is nearing its end and she is no longer as feared as before.
“Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said out loud that which many were talking silently. Because the president has stepped on a pedestal and evaluates everything, watching the work. She criticises, but does not see her own role in the criticism. She stands aside from the Seimas and cabinet. But V. Adamkus also did so. His annual addresses would be without his own position, only criticism. This is already an old problem,” Political scientist Vytautas Dumbliauskas said in summer.
How much truth is there to the complaints that the president has chosen to only criticise from the side, but isn’t actually doing anything? On one hand the reviewing gaze from the side is important and necessary because the president has to face very different political powers during different times. The experiment inclined and socially insensitive A. Kubilius was replaced by the obsequious and indecisive A. Butkevičius, who brought with him nomenclatural social democrats, who avoided any reform and were embroiled in Vijūnėlė and the so-called golden spoon scandals. These were blown away by the enthusiastic, but completely inexperienced and lacking experienced colourful “Farmer” majority, whose ranks are difficult to make sense of – a government of political newcomers, farmers and supposedly professionals, whose work so far only reminds empty revs and not real change. Also adding on the constant manifestations of corruption about which the president is better informed than other mortals, her work, decisions and their communication truly do not appear very simple. It is impossible to constantly remain in confrontation with the majority because this raises tensions in the state, unbalances work and, importantly for all politicians including even the president, lowers ratings.
Nevertheless sometimes when you listen to the annual addresses by the president and other statements, you truly are left with the impression that she seems to be watching the processes from the side, rather than having occupied the highest state office for a decade and has the right to legislative project initiative in the Seimas. D. Grybauskaitė’s leadership in making the court system more transparent and reducing corruption is indisputable. In recent years she has excellently overseen the strengthening of state defence. Children’s security is also one of the Presidential Palace’s priorities and it is good that the president demonstrated that she knows how to unite the public for this goal.
However there are so many massive problems in this state and sometimes it appears that just laudable public initiatives and trips are not enough, the demand for specific minister accountability would help: the professional-president’s more strict interference and the outlines of necessary reforms would be invaluable. Somehow it is hard to find out from D. Grybauskaitė, what she thinks about proposed tax and other reforms, the president avoids to make more proposals though she certainly does not lack the courage and competence, however she chooses to distance herself and let the new cabinet fail.