Meet the Iron Lady of Lithuania
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s a pivotal force who has brought political stability to a volatile region.
By Dan Peleschuk
One quick look at Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s hard-nosed president, and you know she means business. Her stony eyes project pure authority, as does her stern, uncompromising tone — and that’s before you realize she’s a black belt in karate. Little wonder, then, she’s known as Lithuania’s “Iron Lady.”
Since 2009, Grybauskaite has been a pivotal force in both Lithuanian and regional politics. At home, her influence exceeds the degree presidents typically enjoy in semi-presidential republics such as Lithuania, where the prime minister and parliament are supposed to do most of the governing. Abroad, she’s become the European Union’s most vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin, decrying the Russian president’s expansionist policies and calling for Western unity in the face of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.
Grybauskaite is required to surrender her post in 2019 after completing her second consecutive term, but she’ll leave behind an outsize legacy that could make her a tough act to follow in this Baltic country of 2.8 million. “Any other future president will be in a more difficult situation to maintain the kind of position that Grybauskaite has for so many years,” says Linas Kojala, director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius.
Elected amid a sharp financial downturn, just years after Lithuania joined the European Union, Grybauskaite came armed with bureaucratic experience as the EU’s budget chief, and before that, as a deputy finance minister. Under her watch, Lithuania’s economy pulled off a stunning reversal, going from a double-digit contraction to healthy growth inside of three years. She helped clean up the country’s banking sector from two shady, insolvent commerical banks by advocating for their closure, and pushed to diversify Lithuania’s energy supplies from an overdependence on Russia.
She’s incredibly guarded; the public knows little about her personal life, or even her political inclinations.
Perhaps most important, however, is that she has remained untainted by scandal or political intrigue. That’s a key part of Grybauskaite’s appeal, since memories of the turmoil in 2004 that engulfed ex-President Rolandas Paksas — the first European leader to be impeached — are still fresh. It helps that she’s incredibly guarded; the public knows little about her personal life, or even her political inclinations. No fan of off-the-cuff comments, the few interviews Grybauskaite gives to the press are tightly managed. If Lithuania were like some of its ex-Soviet counterparts, one might wonder whether this former Communist Party member possesses latent autocratic tendencies.
Instead, Grybauskaite’s hands-on management style — whether commanding parliament or chiding unproductive ministers — has earned her a more subdued reputation as a strict task manager. Political scientist Lauras Bielinis, who’s written a biography about Grybauskaite, says she’s turned the presidency into “a truly independent and proactive instrument of power.” By positioning herself above ordinary party politics — Lithuania’s presidents are traditionally nonpartisan — she’s one of the country’s most popular public figures, recent polls have found, as much a symbol of stable political stewardship as a living, breathing human being.
During her second term, Grybauskaite has applied her straight-talking manner to foreign policy, where she has strongly condemned Russia’s incursions into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Since the conflict between Moscow and Kiev first broke out three years ago, analysts, officials and ordinary citizens alike have asked whether Lithuania is next on the Kremlin’s wish list. “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe,” the president told an interviewer earlier this year. That’s a bit more measured compared to a previous statement in which she called Lithuania’s former Soviet master a “terrorist state.”
That sort of rhetoric has played well at home, where the vast majority of Lithuanians, who share a history of partisan resistance against Russian rule, remain united on the issue. But the tense geopolitical times have also sparked unease over talking about that history, according to Darius Udrys, a Vilnius-based communications consultant. Udrys was fired from his job as head of the city’s promotion agency earlier this year after a Facebook post, in which he questioned the heavy-handed methods used by the Forest Brothers, a Lithuanian anti-Soviet guerrilla group, in its fight against local Communist collaborators after World War II.
He declines to speculate whether his firing was a direct result of his comments; City Hall says he was let go for underperforming. But he believes there’s a notable reluctance to rehash painful parts of the past for fear of feeding Russia’s powerful propaganda machine, which cherry-picks controversial details about pro-Western countries to tarnish their image. “But then my question is: How do you ever discuss any of this?” Udrys says. “Or are we just going to push it all under the rug and not consider how we would behave today or in the future were these situations to arise?”
Given the sometimes volatile atmosphere and the Iron Lady’s towering significance, it does suggest that Grybauskaite’s replacement will face a significant challenge in keeping both the state and society running smoothly. Bielinis says the next president will inherit the cachet Grybauskaite has lent the office but may find it difficult, as a nonpartisan leader, to strike deals with parliament, currently home to six parties. Paulius Gritenas, a reporter for 15min, one of Lithuania’s top news sites, says the new president might be wise to adopt a softer, less outspoken approach to governing. “We need to start seeing the president as a moderator,” he says.
Together with the other Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania enjoys a level of social and political stability that’s higher than any other former Soviet republic. But it’ll be up to Grybauskaite’s successor to ensure it stays that way — a task that, thanks to her legacy, is perhaps much easier said than done.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY AuthorContact Dan Peleschuk