Lithuania 'Iron Lady' duels leftist for presidency amid Russia fears

12th May 2014, Comments 0 comments

Lithuania's "Iron Lady" Dalia Grybauskaite pushed a hard line on Russia to propel her to the top spot in Sunday's presidential race, but still faces a run-off against a more cautious left-wing opponent on May 25.

Having cultivated a tough, Thatcher-esque image, the 58-year-old incumbent president is seen by many as the best choice to ward off Russian aggression amid the tense stand-off over Ukraine.

A black belt in karate, she has vowed to "take a gun myself to defend the country if that's what is needed for national security".

Run-off rival Zigmantas Balcytis, a social democratic MEP, has taken a more cautious approach on Russia, focussing instead on bread and butter issues.

Grybauskaite scored 45.9 percent of the vote in round one -- well ahead of Balcytis's 13.6 -- but short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off.

Five other candidates were eliminated on Sunday, with turnout pegged at 52.1 percent.

Russian sabre-rattling since its annexation of Crimea in March has awakened deep-seated fears in the country of three million, which was controlled by Moscow during the Soviet era. Lithuania shares a border with Russia and with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

"Defending Lithuania through military, economic and political means -- these are my priorities because the current situation is very different from five years ago," Grybauskaite told reporters on Monday.

"I won't make compromises that could sell Lithuania short, something I seem to hear from my rival," the non-aligned centre-rightist said.

Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states.

She is also a strong advocate of Lithuania's EU membership and backs eurozone entry in 2015 as a buffer against Moscow.

While Balcytis also broadly supports NATO, the European Union and eurozone entry, on Monday the 60-year-old eschewed issues of national security in favour of a more populist focus.

"We must ensure that those who earn more pay more taxes," he told reporters, adding that he prefers consensus politics to Grybauskaite's iron-fisted style.

He told voters before round one that Lithuania would "have to seek dialogue with Russia. Any kind of peace is better than war".

"I think she will win," political scientist Bernaras Ivanovas said Monday.

"Balcytis is a good-natured person (...) but he is different from Grybauskaite. We don't hear that commanding tone from him, he tries to avoid confrontation and seek compromise," he told AFP.

© 2014 AFP

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