Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
A hunting trip involving Latvian and Lithuanian agriculture ministers threatens to temporarily sour the neighbours’ relations, but Lithuanian Parliament speaker Loreta Graužinienė hopes that it will not be the case. The Seimas chairwoman chalks the ruckus up to the nearing parliamentary election in Lithuania.
Relations will not be strained
«I believe it will not strain our bilateral relations. You know it all happens, but I hope all of it will be cleared. I think the ministers will meet again, and not in one format. I mean they will meet when there is necessity in the European Union to defend one or another position (we both have). We see both Latvian and Estonian politicians coordinating their positions,» the Seimas spokeswoman said in a radio interview.
In her words, the ruckus following the hunting has been ballooned «out of proportion» because of the looming parliamentary election in Lithuania on October 8.
In the wake of the headlines-grabbing revelation, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė has said she was unsatisfied with the Lithuanian Agriculture minister Virginija Baltraitiene’s explanations about the trip and emphasised that it, attended by Latvian Agriculture minister Jānis Dūklavs, has caused diplomatic tensions with Latvia.
To remind, the cross-border hoopla stems from a candle-lit supper followed with a hunting trip – all in the Panevėžys region in north-eastern Lithuania. Among the invitees were not only both countries’ agriculture ministers, but also honchos of Lithuania’s meat processing enterprises. Notably, Jonas Milius, the embattled chief of Lithuania’s veterinary service, was also present at the posh dinner and the hunting trip afterwards.
Milius is fighting document forgery and abuse of power charges stemming from the allegations that he has closed eyes to the sales of bacteria-infested foods produced by Judex Company after MP Petras Gražulis, who has a stake in the business, approached Miliuswith the request not to ring alarm bells over the bacteriological findings in the products.
Both PM Algirdas Butkevičius and President Dalia Grybauskaitė have asked Milius to step down but he refused. Moreover, Baltraitienė, the minister, who supervises the Milius-led governmental agency, also chastised Milius before joining him on the hunting trip.
A public apology
On Monday, August 29, Baltraitiene made a public apology to her Latvian counterpart, Jānis Dūklavs, over the situation in connection to the recent dinner and hunting activity in Lithuania.
Citing «paranoic fears» and «search for pokemons» in Lithuania, she chalked the brouhaha to the nearing Seimas elections.
Baltraitienė and Dūklavs have given conflicting account of their dinner. The Lithuanian minister claimed that the businessmen were invited by Dūklavs, who denies it. There is also no clarity as of now to who paid for the party. The Lithuanian Agriculture Ministry said it had received no bills.
Baltraitiene hinted that the supper could have cost around 300 euros.
«Somewhere in the range. We were served among other dishes zeppelins. Some had one of them while others a couple of them,» she told Lithuanian media.
A single hog was hunted down during the hunting trip, Lithuanian media reported.
In the wake of the revelation, Dūklavs told LETA, a Latvian news agency, that he had been invited to dinner and hunting by Lithuanian Agriculture Minister Virginija Baltraitienė and was not aware that some meat sector big names had also been invited to it. He explained that when people receive an invitation to dinner they usually do not ask the host who else will attend it.
Dūklavs reasoned that the dinner and hunting trip in Lithuania had been paid for by Baltraitienė’s husband. This was what he had heard from some sources. But the Lithuanian minister claims it is not true.
«Let the Lithuanian side to say it. It is their opportunity to tell everything — who paid for what and how much,» the Latvian minister said.
Speaking to BNS, Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis (Greens/Farmers) told the agency that he believes that Agriculture Minister and fellow party member Jānis Dūklavs’ conduct was appropriate as far as his behaviour on his recent trip to Lithuania was concerned. The premier said he had no reason whatsoever not to believe Dūklavs’ explanation and claim any violations on the minister’s part.
«The issue of the ministers’ meeting was a bit exaggerated,» the Latvian PM said.
Minister in hot water
Meanwhile on the other side of the border the hunting story has spurred Lithuania’s Chief Official Ethics Commission to open an inquiry into the possible conflict of interests of Minister Virginija Baltraitienė and chief veterinary officer Jonas Milius.
«We have decided to open an inquiry into the conduct of Minister Virginija Baltraitienė and Chief of the (State Food and) Veterinary Service Jonas Milius amid the public doubts that they could have confused interests by going to an informal meeting, which was, according to the press, a hunt. Members of the commission have questions in connection to participants, financing, etc.,» the commission’s chairman Romas Valentukevičius told BNS Lithuania on Wednesday, August 31.
The inquiry was opened after Baltraitienė turned to the commission. She said she wanted «to clear all doubts about possible conflict of interests during the Latvian delegation’s official visit in Lithuania.» The commission decided to expand the probe to include Milius’ role. The panel has three months for the decision, however, noted would probably reach a conclusion faster.
In Valentukevičius’ words, both the minister and the chief veterinary officer would be summoned to the panel’s meeting, with plans to talk to other participants of the dinner and hunt, except for Latvia’s Agriculture Minister Jānis Dūklavs.
PM wants to see what ethics watchdogs say
Meanwhile, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius says he will wait for conclusions from the Chief Official Ethics Commission as to whether Minister Virginija Baltraitiene did not confuse interests by attending a dinner and hunting activity.
«When it comes to the minister of agriculture, I call upon the Chief Official Ethics Commission to draw its conclusion as soon as possible so that I could receive it and plan my steps,» Butkevičius told journalists at the government on Monday, August 29.
PM said he had asked Baltraitienė for two things – first, to turn to the ethics watchdogs over the dinner story and, second, hold a news conference to «publicly address the doubts.» He said he listened to the live broadcast of the conference but did not specify whether his doubts had been dispelled.
Butkevičius did not comment on whether he considered Baltraitienė suitable for the post, adding that decisions about chief veterinary officer Jonas Milius would be made after hearing his report by September 7 at the latest.