Lithuanian presidential election
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Lithuanian presidential election
Lithuania President Leads in Vote Amid Russia Concerns

Lithuania's Dalia Grybauskaite gained a sizable lead Sunday in a presidential election dominated by concerns about neighboring Russia and the Baltic nation's exposure to the crisis in Ukraine.

Currently in her first five-year term as president, she collected nearly half of votes cast and appeared poised to win a second term, according to preliminary results released by Lithuania's election commission late Sunday local time. But, with about 40% of the vote counted, she was still short of the minimum 50% support needed to avoid a runoff.

Ms. Grybauskaite, a staunch independent and former European Union commissioner known as a hard-nosed leader and opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been vocal in her opinion that Ukraine turn to the West for deeper alliances. In the current elections, her anti-Putin rhetoric has boosted her popularity, according to polls published by Lithuanian media.

Ethnic Russians make up a smaller percentage of Lithuania's population than in nearby Latvia and Estonia. But Lithuania's economy remains heavily tied to Russia, and it is entirely dependent on Russia for its natural gas. Ms. Grybauskaite has been appealing to potential alternative sources--including the U.S.--to help diversify supply.

The election results follow a rocky week in Lithuania's relations with Russia. Early in the week, Lithuanian officials said Russia's abrupt move to unilaterally withdrawal from an agreement allowing mutual inspections of military facilities in Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Ms. Grybauskaite often relies on Lithuania's recent history under Soviet rule to reinforce her credibility when speaking about the current crisis. First elected president in 2009, she had previously worked as the EU commissioner responsible for financial programming and budget and served as Lithuania's finance minister from 2001 to 2004. As president, she has served as the face of Lithuania's foreign policy and remained active in EU leadership matters.

Though ethnic Russians have less sway in Lithuania than in its smaller Baltic neighbors, many of its three million people have viewed developments in Ukraine with concern. Lithuania joined the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization after gaining independence from Russia and aims to join the euro in January.

Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius is leading the charge to join the common-currency bloc.

The 58-year-old Ms. Grybauskaite held a sizable lead amid a field of seven candidates, and the margin widened as more votes were tallied. With about 40% of the nation's districts reporting, she had gathered 46% of the vote, according to the election commission.

Her next closest rival, a Social Democrat member of European Parliament named Zigmantas Balcytis, had received 14.5%. Arturas Paulauskas, a Labor Party member of parliament, had collected 13% of the voting sample.

Ms. Grybauskaite has played an influential role in shaping the region's message of solidarity in the face of Mr. Putin's intervention in Ukraine in recent months.

In an interview following U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit in mid-March to Vilnius, the capital city, Ms. Grybauskaite said she feared economic sanctions may fall short in deterring Mr. Putin and have the potential to galvanize the Russian nation behind him. She has argued economic sanctions must have very concrete goals.

She has also said Lithuania wouldn't hesitate to defend itself in the face of armed aggression from Russia. "We will have to show resistance and fire shots if someone tries to occupy us," she told national television outlet LRT in March.
2014 May 12 14:56

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