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Freedom in the World 2011 - Lithuania

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 14 July 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Lithuania, 14 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e1efebc1a.html [accessed 31 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Vilnius
Population: 3,399,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Overview

Although the ruling coalition held less than half of the seats in Parliament by the middle of 2010, the government managed to survive thanks to cooperation with a small opposition faction. In May, a gay pride parade in Vilnius was allowed to proceed after an initial ban, but it sparked violent protests by counterdemonstrators.

Lithuania became independent at the end of World War I, but was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. The country declared its independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990, and the move was eventually recognized by Soviet authorities in 1991. A multiparty political system was soon established, providing for competitive elections and frequent rotations of power over the next two decades. Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union (EU) in 2004.

Lithuanian politics have been characterized by shifting coalitions among several different parties, and in the run-up to the October 2008 parliamentary elections, the creation of new parties further fragmented the country's political scene. The Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD), an alliance of right-wing parties, was formed in May, as was the National Resurrection Party (TPP). In the October balloting, the TS-LKD took the lead with 45 seats, followed by the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) with 25, the TPP with 16, Order and Justice (TT) with 15, the Liberal Union (LRLS) with 11, the Labor Party with 10, and the Liberal and Center Union (LCS) with 8 seats. Smaller parties and independent candidates won the remaining 11 seats. A four-party, center-right majority coalition was formed in late 2008, consisting of the TS-LKD, TPP, LRLS, and LCS. Andrius Kubilius of the TS-LKD, who had previously served as prime minister in 1999-2000, headed the new government. In May 2009, independent candidate Dalia Grybauskaité was elected president with nearly 70 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman to hold the post.

A split in the TPP in mid-2009 resulted in some members of the party withdrawing from the ruling coalition, leaving it with 71 out of 141 seats as of early 2010. Additional defections in the first six months of the year reduced the ruling bloc to just 69 seats, forcing Kubilius to secure an informal alliance with the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union (LVLS), which held three seats. Despite divisions within the ruling TS-LKD – mainly between original members and newer, more conservative members – on social and human rights issues, the fragile government managed to survive through the end of the year.

The economy in 2010 showed tentative signs of recovery from a deep recession, though by year's end the unemployment rate was still 17.1 percent. Kubilius's approval ratings declined as a result of fiscal austerity measures, including cuts to social spending and an unpopular mandatory health-care tax on the unemployed. However, unlike in 2009, when demonstrations escalated into violent riots, these measures did not prompt major protests.

Relations with Russia, which provided 100 percent of the country's natural gas supplies, were strained throughout the year, as Lithuania expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity and denied backing for an EU visa-free travel regime for residents of Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on Lithuania's western border. In March, Russia's state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, demanded $135 million in compensation from Lithuania for an allegedly broken 2003 contract, for which the Lithuanian government denied responsibility. In September, Kubilius announced that Lithuania planned to renationalize all gas pipelines in accordance with an EU directive, prompting Gazprom and Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas, which co-owned the pipelines, to threaten a disruption of supplies. The country suffered from disruptions of up to 40 percent of gas supplies in 2010.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Lithuania is an electoral democracy. The 1992 constitution established a unicameral, 141-seat Parliament (Seimas), with 71 members elected in single-mandate constituencies and 70 chosen by proportional representation, all for four-year terms. The prime minister is selected by Parliament, and the president is directly elected for a five-year term. The most recent parliamentary elections, in 2008, were largely free and fair, though there were some reports of irregularities including alleged bribery and forged ballots. Lithuania's many political parties operate freely, but the Communist Party is banned. In November, Parliament stripped Linas Karalius – a TPP member who had defected to the opposition Christian Party – of his seat for having a colleague vote on his behalf while he was on vacation.

Corruption remains a problem in Lithuania. A number of government officials and employees of state enterprises faced charges for alleged corrupt practices in 2010, including the mayor of Vilnius, the director of Lithuanian Post, and the director and four senior managers at Vilnius's water utility. In February, the vice minister of health was sentenced to two years' probation after he solicited a bribe from the head of the National Blood Center. In September, the European Parliament lifted the immunity of former economy minister and Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich, and he was set to face trial in Lithuania on fraud charges. Lithuania was ranked 46 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedom of the press. Privately owned newspapers and independent broadcasters express a wide variety of views and criticize the government freely. However, the press suffers from inadequate standards for transparency of ownership. In March 2010, the Law on the Protection of Minors came into effect, prohibiting online and broadcast media from providing "detrimental" material to minors, including material with sexual content or that promotes bad hygiene or gambling. No prosecutions under the law were reported in 2010. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and roughly 59 percent of the population had access in 2010. In recent years, authorities have prosecuted citizens for posting material online that was deemed to incite hatred.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and largely upheld in practice. However, so-called traditional religious communities enjoy certain government benefits, including annual subsidies, that are not granted to other groups. There were no reports of religiously motivated violence in 2010, and anti-Semitic vandalism is reportedly on the wane. Academic freedom is respected.

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally observed. The first gay pride parade to be held in Vilnius proceeded in May 2010 after an appellate court overturned a lower court's decision to ban it due to security concerns. Some 500 people marched in the parade, outnumbered by roughly 600 police officers and 1,000 protesters. When the protesters became violent, the police used tear gas on the crowd. Prosecutors attempted to charge two members of Parliament for inciting the counterdemonstrators, but Parliament declined to lift their immunity. International observers criticized the fact that while no Lithuanian lawmakers had denounced the ultranationalist tone of an Independence Day parade in March, 53 signed a petition against the gay pride parade.

There are no serious obstacles to the registration of nongovernmental organizations, and human rights groups operate without restrictions. Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, to strike, and to engage in collective bargaining, though there have been reports of employees being punished for attempting to organize. Slightly less than 10 percent of the country's workforce is unionized.

The constitution guarantees judicial independence, which is respected in practice. Defendants generally enjoy due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, but detained suspects are not always granted timely access to an attorney. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. Police abuse of detainees – including juveniles – continues to be reported, and judges and prosecutors have failed to respond adequately to claims of such mistreatment. The Council of Europe's Committee on the Prevention of Torture found in 2010 that little progress had been made in improving poor prison conditions, which include overcrowding and poor access to health care.

The rights of ethnic minorities, who make up 16.5 percent of the population, are legally protected. However, roughly a quarter of all ethnic minorities report job discrimination. The small Romany population faces the greatest discrimination, including in access to social services and employment, and in relations with police. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, which continue to have large noncitizen populations, Lithuania made it relatively easy for all existing residents to gain citizenship after independence.

Although men and women enjoy the same legal rights, women earn 17 percent less on average than men in comparable jobs, and remain underrepresented in management positions. Twenty-six members of the 141-seat parliament are women, and in 2009 the first female president and speaker of Parliament were elected. Domestic violence, including both spousal and child abuse, remains a serious problem. In July 2010, Parliament amended the criminal code to increase penalties for child abuse. Lithuania continues to be a source, transit point, and destination for the trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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