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Grybauskaite on Track for Re-Election, Estonia’s Economic Recovery Slows

Plus, most Macedonian parties boycott the presidential inauguration and Belarus turns back a gadfly Polish politician at the border.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Marketa Horazna, and Ky Krauthamer 13 May 2014

1. Grybauskaite’s hard line on Russia helps her to first-round election win 


Lithuania’s presidential election will go to a second and decisive round after incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite failed to win re-election outright in the first round 11 May.


Zigmantas BalcytisZigmantas Balcytis
Grybauskaite received 46.6 percent of the votes, easily outdistancing European Parliament member Zigmantas Balcytis on 13.8 percent, the election commission reported 12 May, according to The Wall Street Journal. The two will face off 25 May.


Grybauskaite’s strong support for Ukraine’s new government and condemnation of the Russian annexation of Crimea boosted her popularity, The Journal writes. “We will have to show resistance and fire shots if someone tries to occupy us,” she said in March and warned that after Crimea, Russia might take an aggressive line on Moldova, the Baltic states, and Poland.


Grybauskaite is seeking alternative sources of energy, including from the United States, to lessen the country’s dependence on Russian natural gas, The Journal writes.


Lithuania’s tactic of opening talks with major suppliers of liquefied natural gas, along with an EU probe into Russian energy giant Gazprom’s pricing practices, appears to have convinced Gazprom to cut the rate it charges Lithuania, Reuters reports.


An independent, Grybauskaite said 12 May the election of Social Democrat Balcytis would concentrate too much power in the hands his party, which leads the ruling coalition.


Balcytis predicted that support from his party and the other coalition members would boost him to victory in the runoff, the Lithuania Tribune reports.


Former President Rolandas Paksas, whose Order and Justice Party is backing Balcytis, said, “Lithuanian citizens showed that they want a different president. This is proved by the fact that 350,000 fewer people voted for Grybauskaite than five years ago.” 


Paksas himself is trying to overcome a lifetime ban on holding high office imposed by the Lithuanian Constitutional Court following his impeachment for corruption in 2003, the Baltic Times reports.


2. Inauguration boycott underlines Macedonia’s political rifts


Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov’s swearing-in ceremony in parliament 12 May was marred by the absence of protesting members, The Associated Press reports.


The absentees included the opposition Social Democrats, who have refused to take up their seats in the new parliament elected 27 April, the same day Ivanov was returned to office for a second five-year term. The Social Democrats accuse the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of using state resources in favor of its own candidates, including Ivanov. The ruling party won 61 of the 123 seats in the legislature.


The largest party representing the country’s 25-percent Albanian minority, the Democratic Union for Integration, also boycotted the vote after failing to agree on a compromise presidential candidate with the VMRO-DPMNE. The DUI was the junior coalition member in the previous government and is in talks about participating in the new one.


Although international observers rated the elections free and fair, the Social Democrats refused to recognize the results and have asked for a caretaker government to organize a new round of elections, Balkan Insight reports.


Only members of Ivanov’s party and a smaller Albanian party in parliament attended the swearing in, and no foreign dignitaries were present, according to Balkan Insight. Speaking to a half-empty chamber, Ivanov urged opposition parties to respect democracy and constitutional rules, and cooperate with him.


Ivanov also dismissed the opposition’s requests for the election of a “consensus president,” Balkan Insight reports.  


3. Estonia’s economy takes an unexpected tumble


Hit by slumping demand for its exports, Estonia’s economy put in a surprisingly weak performance in the first quarter of 2014.


The Baltic country’s economy shrank by 1.9 percent compared with the same period a year before, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. It was the first contraction since 2010.


The transport, real estate, and energy industries slowed, and exports decreased year on year for the third quarter in a row, according to the country’s statistics office.


Last month, the Finance Ministry cut its growth forecast for this year to 2 percent, with an eye on possible fallout from sanctions on Russia, a major trading partner, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The IMF and the EU are also tempering their expectations for the country’s growth.


Reuters and Bloomberg Businessweek cited slowing demand in Finland, Russia, and Sweden for Estonian exports, which account for 88 percent of the Baltic country’s gross domestic product. Those three countries are Estonia’s largest trading partners.


In an April briefing, Swedbank generally downplayed the role of Russia in Estonia’s economy.


“However, Russia’s market is more relevant for certain sectors, like food industry and agriculture, as well as chemical and textile industries. … Russia’s market is also significant for Estonia’s exports of transport and travel services,” the brief noted.


Estonia climbed out of recession earlier than its Baltic neighbors, and fiscal hawks have used it as a model of how low government debt and austerity could reinvigorate the economy. But this euro zone member that is heavily reliant on exports and whose banking industry is almost entirely in foreign hands is not always the master of its own fate, Reuters notes.


4. Polish EU parliamentarian turned back at Belarus border


Marek MigalskiMarek Migalski
A ban on Polish European Parliament member Marek Migalski entering Belarus came from “Russian authorities,” Migalski told the Belarusian opposition website Charter ’97.


Migalski was told he could not enter Belarus when he and two aides arrived at the Polish-Belarus border by train on the night of 11-12 May, Gazeta Wyborcza reports. Migalski said he planned to protest the detentions of opponents of the Belarusian regime and was carrying T-shirts with photos of imprisoned former presidential candidate Mykola Statkevich and head of the Viasna human rights group, Ales Bialiatski.


At the border, “I was [told] I couldn’t enter the country, but my aides could continue their trip. We didn’t agree, so we were ordered to leave the train and had to wait for three hours in the transit zone. We were [told] I wasn’t allowed to enter Belarus on decision of the Russian authorities,” he told Charter ’97.


Migalski timed the visit to coincide with the Ice Hockey World Championship. He said his group, along with activists from Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, planned to meet Belarusian activists and families of those imprisoned on political grounds.


“In addition, we wanted to attend the match between Belarus and Switzerland [on 12 May] wearing T-shirts with portraits of political prisoners, raise white-red-white flags and express our solidarity,” he said.


Migalski, 45, was elected to the EU parliament in 2009, at the time as a member of Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party. He later shifted to the more moderate Polska Razem (Poland Together) Party.


This was the third time he was refused entry into Belarus, he told Charter ’97.


5. Environmentalists cheer return of Czech wildcats


The return of an animal resembling an ordinary domestic cat is the latest sign of the recuperation of Czech forests, scientists said this week.


Photos taken by automatic phototraps in 2011 and 2012 showed wildcats in the Beskydy Mountains and in the Sumava forest at the opposite side of the country, the first documented sightings since the last known Czech wildcat was shot in 1952, Lidove noviny reports.


Wildcats resemble a large tabby cat with a fluffy, raccoon-like tail. They still live in the wild in neighboring countries but were nearly wiped out in what is now the Czech Republic by around 200 years ago.


Wildcats are part of a parade of returning predators, including wolves and bears. In 2008 environmentalist Miroslav Kutal said two packs of wolves, about 20 lynx, and from one to five bears were living in the Beskydy Mountains of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Large animals are thought to be moving into the mountains from neighboring Slovakia and Poland.


A wolf was spotted recently in northern Bohemia, Kutal told Radio Praha in April. The phototrap image is the only concrete evidence that wolves have returned to Bohemia after an absence of well over a century, although one was seen near the German border two years ago and wolves are suspected of killing sheep in the Krkonose Mountains, he said.


wildcat_350A wildcat at the zoo in Jihlava, Czech Republic. Photo by Atillak/Wikimedia Commons

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editorMarketa Horazna is a TOL editorial intern. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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