Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Facing the prospects of jail, Viktor Uspaskich, a member of the European Parliament and founder of Lithuania’s Labour Party, which is now part of the ruling Coalition, can sigh off after the Lithuanian Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s prison sentence on charges of tax evasion and fraudulent bookkeeping.
The well-known Lithuanian politician, who ahead of the ruling, announced of leaving the party, will still have to pay a fine of 6,800 euro for failing to include more than 24 million litas (6.7million euros) in income and 23 million litas (6.66 million euros) in spending in its bookkeeping books during 2004-2006.
His former deputy chairman and later the party’s chairman Vytautas Gapšys was fined 3,600 euro and former party bookkeeper Marina Liutkevičienė was imposed fine of 5,700 euro.
Three years ago, Vilnius Regional Court found Uspaskich guilty of the charges and sentenced him to three years behind the bars. Meanwhile, M. Liutkevičienė was sentenced to one year in prison and Gapšys received a fine of 35,700 litas, or 10,270 euro.
Then, issuing the ruling, Judge Daiva Pranytė-Zalieckienė said Uspaskich played «the leading role» in the 2004-2006 financial crimes, but her colleagues from the Court of Appeals exonerated Uspaskich and his party members from the charges of fraud and held accountable for improper bookkeeping only.
The Labour Party saga dates back to 2006, when the country’s special financial investigators busted the Labour Party headquarters in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
After the lengthy, nerve-racking litigation Uspaskich seemingly comes off nearly unscathed, as the imposed fine of 6,800 euro for the multi-millionaire politician is a synch.
Over the years, his political career, has taken a downward path, however, with the eccentric politician announcing of the departure from the party in January.
Praising the ruling, the Labour Party founder told Lithuanian media he feels «exonerated» and praised the judges who did not fear to pass such ruling.
In his defence, most of the time, would come fellow MEP and chairman of the Party of Order and Justice, Rolandas Paksas, who would underline on multiple occasions that he, in the case, was not «convinced» by arguments of neither the prosecutors, nor the court.
«I see the political shade of the whole case. I think that it’s clearly a politicised case, and I cannot avoid the impression that some political powers are clearing their way by using judicial measures, law enforcement institutions,» Paksas repeated on multiple occasions.
Uspaskich has been member of the Lithuanian Parliament since 2000. He has served as Lithuania’s economy minister. He was elected to the Parliament term of 2012-2016 as a member of the Labour Party, but opt for the stint in the European Parliament as a MEP. Therefore, his seat in the Lithuanian Parliament was filled by another candidate on the party’s list.
Following the ruling, the opposition Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, Conservatives, known as TS-LKD in Lithuania, has announced of weighing a possibility of calling an extraordinary session of the Seimas (parliament) on February 17 to launch impeachment procedures against Labour Party MP Vytautas Gapšys.
The Conservatives also ponder a legislative initiative of stripping all parliamentarians found guilty on criminal charges of seats in Parliament.
Visibly upset by the Appeals Court ruling, which is seen as Uspaskich’s exoneration, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė told Lithuanian media that «it still pays to defraud, steal and avoid taxes in Lithuania.»
Meanwhile, most of Lithuanian analysts were unsure what to make of the ruling in terms of the prospects for the party.
Some speculated that the Labour Party and Order and Justice, two members of the current ruling coalition, are parties whose political fortunes are headed for decline.
For example, Tomas Janeliūnas, a political analyst, and Mykolas Katkus, a communications specialist, believe that the latter may start see its support ratings, currently at 8-9 percent, being gnawed away by the Labourists.
«The Labour Party tends to always show up better in an election than in most of the polls. This happens usually because of its aggressive political campaigning,» Katkus reasoned. He added: «It is just too early to start burying the Labour Party…It has not lost its appeal yet for its many traditional voters, as well as the capability of throwing out strong political campaigns. Namely they chip away some of the Social Democrats’ voters at the end.»
Janeliūnas, meanwhile, believes that with court’s favourable ruling, which stands a little possibility of being overturned by the country’s Supreme Court if the prosecutors decide to take it there, the labourists will target the traditional electorate of the Party of Order and Justice.
«What is characteristic to the parties’ electorates is their relative loyalty. So they easily can stray to the other side if the circumstances change,» believes Janeliūnas.
Virginijus Savukynas, also a political analyst, believes that the Labour Party will not even have to exert much to get the rival party’s supporters on its side if Order and Justice will be showing signs of weakening.
According to Janeliūnas, the whole situation may harm the Social Democrats, too.
«The SD electorate is not very disciplined, either. They might turn up in the election (new Seimas elections are scheduled for late October-L.J.) and may skip it. They also tend to side with any trending vivid politicians from the left,» he says.
Agreeing, Savukynas says that, with the support for Labour Party up, the supports for Social Democrats tends to edge down.
«The competition can especially become obvious at the end of the electoral cycle,» he says, adding that too much is still hinged on Uspaskich – whether he will he want to come back to the Lithuanian political stage, or not.
All the analysts concur unanimously that the Conservatives are the least vulnerable in the situation.
«Their electorate is distinctive – united by the traditional values, having a clear political identity and known for the anti-Soviet stance,» they asserted.