Government may resign over expenses scandal
As Lithuania prepares to host the NATO summit in July 2023, the country is facing a major political scandal involving politicians' expenses. The scandal deals with the use of the expenses system by municipal council members, including claiming travel costs during the strict COVID lockdown. In May 2023, three government ministers were accused of abusing the system. Education Minister Jurgita Šiugždinienė has already resigned in connection with the accusations. In late May, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis announced that the senior coalition member will call for snap elections and, if that fails to garner enough votes, the government will resign.
The opposition party Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union wanted to file a no-confidence initiative, but other opposition parties rejected the move, saying that a failed no-confidence vote would give a lifeline to the government. Opposition parties seem to not support early elections either, as it may present an advantage for the ruling conservative party.
Legalising migrant pushbacks
On 25th April 2023, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law allowing for the country to reject migrants at the border during extreme situations or states of emergency. The law consolidates the existing practice of turning away migrants at the border. The Interior Ministry argued that the law was necessary to protect national security and that it distinguishes between natural migration and migration facilitated by the actions of the Belarusian regime. Since 3rd August 2021, in response to a surge of migrants on the Lithuanian border who had been pushed to flee by the Belarusian regime, Lithuanian border guards have reported approximately 20,000 attempts to cross the border from Belarus. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, these pushbacks often lead to serious physical and psychological harm to migrants.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stated that the new Lithuanian law is unconstitutional under international law, which forbids the forcible return of refugees and asylum seekers to a place where they risk persecutory treatment or injury. Additionally, the law falls short of offering sufficient protections and legal options for those seeking protection. In order to ensure that the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are respected, thus the UNHCR has urged Lithuania to reexamine its legal framework.
Various human rights organisation, domestic and international, also expressed grave concerns and called on the President of Lithuania to veto the new migration law. Despite these concerns, President Gitanas Nausėda signed the bill on 27th April 2023.
In a related development, on 20th April 2023, new legislation was passed by Lithuania's parliament, via fast-track procedure, that permits volunteers from Europe to join the country's national border guard force. The law grants these volunteers the authority to use force against migrants and asylum seekers who cross the border from Belarus. Activists have expressed concern that this could lead to far-right groups, which have a history of violent attacks against immigrants and refugees, being granted permits to police the border. Activists have also pointed out that the use of civilians in border patrols could lead to human rights abuses, as well as a lack of accountability and oversight. According to the legislation formulated by the Interior Ministry, volunteers will be provided with certificates, identification badges, and vests, and they will receive financial support from the state.
Draft law on civil union passes second reading in Seimas
On 23nd May 2023, a draft law on civil union passed the second reading in Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament), even though it seemed that no voting would take place as the ruling parties had initially decided to remove it from the agenda. In total, 60 MPs voted in favour of the draft law, with 52 voting against it and three abstaining. The final vote on the adoption of the law is yet to take place. The draft law includes provisions for shared property, acting on behalf of each other, representing each other in healthcare matters, and access to partner's health information. Currently, Lithuania's laws do not recognise civil partnerships for either same-sex or opposite-sex couples, while the constitution specifies that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
Protest against the pushback law
On 28th April 2023, a group of approximately 50 people staged a protest outside the Presidential Palace in Vilnius against Lithuania's migrant pushback law. The demonstration, organised by the Border Group (Sienos Grupė), originally aimed to urge Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda to veto the law, but the president signed the law very quickly, two days after the parliament passed it. The protesters criticised the law as a serious violation of human rights and expressed disappointment that only eight politicians from the ruling party opposed it. During the demonstration, participants chanted slogans condemning the president and border violence. No altercations were reported.
Removal of Nazi and Soviet symbols
On 1st May 2023, a Lithuanian law came into effect which requires the removal of Soviet symbols from public spaces and prohibits the public display of Soviet and Nazi flags, as well as symbols of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. It requires local authorities to completely remove or replace these symbols in public spaces and monuments that commemorate the Soviet era. Local governments have been allowed 20 working days to submit a list of these symbols and to report them to the state-funded Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (LGRTC).
See the original article on Civicus Monitor.