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Sunday 25.03.2018 | Name days: Māra, Marita, Mārīte

Lithuanian mayor leaves social-democrats after alleged conflict of interest

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Ričardas Malinauskas

What will Ričardas Malinauskas, the seemingly unsinkable mayor of Druskininkai resort, will do next? He unexpectedly slammed the door of the Social Democrat Party (SDP).

SDP elite, grassroots and political observers alike are in the guess game what yesterday’s big wig is up to. Malinauskas is credited for having turned Druskininkai in southern Lithuania into a bustling regional hub of wellness and amusement.

Conversations were wire-tapped

Behind the mayor’s decision lies a series of suspicions and accusations which Malinauskas has so far successfully staved off. But with them catching out not only on Malinauskas, but the party too, the Social Democrats’ leader Algirdas Butkevičius, who is now Lithuania’s Prime Minister, has called on his deputy to suspend the membership in the party.

At the cusp of the scandals are the transcripts of tapped phone calls between Butkevičius, several members of the Lithuanian government and the Druskininkai mayor.

The calls, tapped by the local special investigation agency (STT) and released by the Parliament’s Anti-corruption commission, which is chaired by a member of the opposition, exhibited the unsuspecting officials’ chats over the phone about a luxurious estate, known as Vijūnėlė estate, in Druskininkai.

In STT’s focus was the government’s quick decision to amend a key law act on environmental policy. An entire chapter on «resort protection zones» that substantially limit construction in designated parts of Lithuania’s resort areas, in Druskininkai, too, was axed from it.

Notably, the adjustment was made two days before a Vilnius court ruling that involved the Vijūnėlė estate.

It had been determined by the prosecutors as illegally built, but the court, to surprise of many, swiftly rejected the prosecutors’ claims, citing the abrupt change in governmental policy a few days prior to the court sitting.

Embroiled in shady estate scandal came off clean

The interrogation into role of the PM, Environment minister and Druskininkai mayor ended shortly since the start, with the prosecutors ruling there was no evidence of wrongdoing. It was when the Anti-corruption commission leaked the transcripts of wired conversations between Malinauskas and several members of the government. Some argued, however, that the leak violated the law on pre-trial investigation.

The eavesdropping revealed that Malinauskas called Butkevičius, Trečiokas, the Environment minister, and urged them to quickly pass the amendment scrapping the chapter on resort protection areas.

In a wiretapped conversation on September 21, the mayor bugged Trečiokas to speed up the adoption on environmental policy sothat it could not be applied to the estate. At the mayor’s request, the minister acted swiftly and removed the chapter.

In a text message, Malinauskas thanked the minister: «Good evening. Thank you very much for your help.» Trečiokas replied: «No problem. It wasn’t hard.»

Allegedly, the Vijūnėlė estate belongs to a friend of Malinauskas’ father. Reportedly, the mayor had expressed interest in purchasing the estate if it whenever ended up being on sale.

In power in Druskininkai for nearly two decades, Malinauskas has not let anyone come close to challenging his authority. The moniker he had, «tsar», reflects his lasting hegemony best.

SDP leadership was irked

After the prosecutors ruled, with the wiretapped conversations already out, there was no malfeasance, Malinauskas seemed to get away unscathed, but the SDP elite with Butkevičius in the front started to demand Malinauskas to suspend his membership in the party until the scandal fizzles out and the mayor clear his name. However, Malinauskas has bristled, implying he would rather leave the party than suspend the membership.

And then, this week, came the Malinauskas announcement with many now guessing what the mayor will do next.

Among the likely possibilities three scenarios are believed to be most plausible. First, hot-tempered Malinauskas will cool off and make a gracious comeback to the party. Without him, the SDP risks losing the election in the Druskininkai electoral district, where SDP candidates have prevailed for ages. Second, Malinauskas might join some other party, which, most analyst agree, is little feasible. Third, the long-term Druskininkai mayor will beget his own political movement and run as its candidate in the upcoming Seimas elections in October this year.

Today it looks like the most probable scenario, but, bearing in mind that Malinauskas is a great card shuffler, well, anything might happen.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats could not quench their exasperation over Malinauskas’ decision. Many of them feared of possible fallout from it.

«A human is tested not when victories are stacked up one after another, but when the first grave loss comes. It is when the real value of the person is exposed,» reasoned an influential Social Democrat, who preferred to be anonymous.

Much is up to Druskininkai mayor himself now

Amid rumours that many Social Democrats want the party leadership to talk out Malinauskas of the decision to leave the party, Gediminas Kirkilas, the SDP deputy chairman, denied them: «It is not true.»

To the question whether the Malinauskas depature hurts or helps the SDP, Kirkilas told BNN it was «hard to tell at the moment», but insisted he believed that the «withdrawal» was necessary.

Kirkilas, however, underlined that Malinauskas had been cleared by law enforcement.

«Some people perhaps think that he still faces some legal troubles, but he does not,» he said.

Asked to weigh in on speculations that Malinauskas may go to the Seimas elections under a new flag, Kirkilas told tersely it was «up to him.»

«If he decided to run with another party, it would not obviously be the most pleasant thing for the party. Especially that with his stepping down, the party’s positions in Druskininkai might be weakened,» the SDP deputy admitted.

Last Wednesday, the Social Democrats dispatched to Druskininkai a team of party seniors to assess the damage and reign in the situation.

«Indeed, we went to Druskininkai to address the issues that arose with Malinauskas’ withdrawal. Now we have to organize election of the branch’s new chairman, talk to the grassroots and palliate them,» Irena Šaulienėa, an influential SDP member told.

All are welcome to resort any time!

Some of the emissaries, like Algirdas Sysas, the SDP deputy chairman, reasoned that it would make sense «to give it a shot» trying to persuade the rebellious mayor to stay with the party.

«We cannot make him take back the request to cross him out of the SDP member list, but we can ask him not to hurry with it,» Sysas told Lithuanian media.

Asked whether the former party fellows’ efforts to put out the fire are not too belated, Malinauskas quipped that it is «never» too late to arrive in the resort.

«You know, the resort works entire year and does so for the last 220 years. So we are waiting for all and those who come here late, too,» the mayor bantered.

He, however, admitted that members of several parties have approached him recently with proposals to join the parties they represent. Malinauskas’ reply was negative.

Malinauskas knows well what is trendy

Vytautas Bruveris, a senior analyst at the daily Lietuvos Rytas, pondered to BNN that Malinauskas’ departure from the party can rather make harm to it than help it.

«How will it evolve and where it takes remains yet to be seen, but in the party interests is to see the scandal die as soon as possible,» Bruveris told.

He said he found it hard to understand why the party had urged Malinauskas to suspend the membership after the prosecutors cleared his name in the Vijūnėlė scandal.

«Hadn’t the party asked him to put his membership on hold, the scandal would have perhaps tapered off by now. But now we see its new ramifications,» the analyst told.

Bruveris believes that Malinauskas’ political legacy will not be hurt a bit and he may a big figure in any societal movement, perhaps of his own that he might be considering.

«Societal movements are trendy now in the country. As Malinauskas definitely knows it very well, it’s perhaps a matter of time when we hear that he is kicking off one,» the analyst told.

Ref: 020/

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