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Dalia Grybauskaite: Lithuania’s ‘Iron Lady’

(AFP) / 18 May 2009

VILNIUS - EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite, whose landslide presidential election victory in her Baltic homeland makes her Lithuania’s first female head of state, is a seasoned political operator with a reputation as an “Iron Lady”.

Grybauskaite, 53, says her political models include the original bearer of that nickname, Margaret Thatcher, but also Mahatma Gandhi for his selfless service to others.

“I’m very frank and direct, maybe sometimes too much so. I say what I think and not everyone likes that,” she told AFP.

“I believe in transparency and I will demand that quality from everyone,” she said. “I don’t appreciate liars or late-comers.”

A martial arts black belt, she is not known for pulling her punches, notably during her war of words last year with Lithuania’s then Social Democrat-led government.

Accusing them of squandering the gains of the Baltic state’s economic boom and having failed to prepare for or even foresee what is now a deep economic crisis, she dubbed their policy “a feast during a cholera epidemic”.

Grybauskaite is not a member of a party and stood as a non-partisan candidate. She was nonetheless backed by the ruling Conservatives, who defeated the Social Democrats in last October’s general election.

She has warned them that she is also keeping an eye on their government.

“I’m independent, and that gives people hope that I’ll treat everyone the same way,” she told AFP, in a nod to Lithuanians fed up with party-focused political shenanigans and vested economic interests.

Born in Vilnius on March 1, 1956, when Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union, Grybauskaite studied in the Russian city of Leningrad—today’s Saint Petersburg—and also worked in a fur factory.

She later returned to Lithuania and taught economics at a Communist Party academy in Vilnius.

After Vilnius broke free from Moscow’s five-decade rule in 1990, she became a senior civil servant and political aide responsible for building Lithuania’s economic relations and negotiating with the European Union.

She was named deputy finance minister from 1999 to 2000, deputy foreign minister in 2000, and finance minister from 2001 to 2004.

Lithuania nominated her to the EU’s Brussels-based executive body, the European Commission, when it joined the bloc in 2004.

Her record has a hitch, however, according to political scientist Algis Krupavicius.

“She’s never been elected to a post. She’s always been nominated. So she lacks the knowledge and experience to know how to act in elected office,” he told AFP.

Grybauskaite, who is single, is a polyglot, speaking English, Russian, Polish and French as well as her native Lithuanian.

She is the second woman to become president of an ex-Soviet Baltic country after neighbouring Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who was in office between 1999 and 2007.

 
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