As a former stunt pilot, Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas has spun his way out of some tight spots in the past. As a politician, he's even survived stories that he makes key decisions only after consulting a "faith healer" who cures people by wrapping them in toilet paper.
His political escape options are narrowing fast, however, as his country's parliament moves toward impeaching him over alleged ties to Russian organized crime.
A long-simmering scandal in the tiny Baltic state exploded yesterday when a parliamentary committee concluded that Mr. Paksas was "a threat to national security" because of links between his office and organized crime. There is also a suggestion that Russian intelligence agents may have gained influence over his decisions.
"The commission found that the President was and remains vulnerable. Considering the President's status and responsibility, his vulnerability poses a threat to national security," the committee's 10-page report reads. Aloyzas Sakalas, who headed the probe, said it is clear that Mr. Paksas must resign, something the President has repeatedly refused to do in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, who leads the biggest party in parliament, also called for the President to resign.
The report concludes that Mr. Paksas, the surprise winner in presidential elections just 11 months ago, received $400,000 (U.S.) during the campaign from alleged weapons dealer Yuri Borisov of Russia. After his inauguration, Mr. Paksas granted Mr. Borisov -- his largest financial backer -- Lithuanian citizenship, despite heated opposition to the idea.
Tapes later emerged on which Mr. Borisov apparently threatened to make Mr. Paksas a "political corpse" unless he was granted an official position in the President's office. Mr. Borisov is now under criminal investigation and his passports, Russian and Lithuanian, have been seized.
The parliamentary report also links Mr. Paksas with a public-relations firm called Almax, which many believe is a front for Russia's foreign intelligence service. Almax was also active in getting Mr. Paksas elected.
The report found that Almax "influenced the President's office seeking to control political processes in Lithuania."
The committee will formally submit its report to the parliament tomorrow, at which time legislators may decide to begin impeachment proceedings.
Speaking before the report was released, Mr. Paksas said he was not concerned about its contents, dismissing the probe as an attempt to force him from office.
"I'm as calm as a Belgian," the flamboyant 47-year-old told a reporter, using a popular Lithuanian saying.
Mr. Paksas's short time in office has been tumultuous. He became an object of scorn soon after he was elected when Georgian mystic Lena Lolashvili was given a seat beside him and his wife at the inauguration ceremony. Ms. Lolashvili, who claims to have cured sick people by wrapping them in toilet paper that she made holy, has become known as "Lithuania's Rasputin," after the Siberian monk who wielded influence over Russian Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.
Mr. Paksas, a onetime member of the Soviet Union's national aerobatics team, has gained a domestic reputation as something of a political tumbleweed. Although he has been in politics for only six years, he has already been a member of three different parties and has served as prime minister twice -- he resigned each time -- and mayor of Vilnius, the capital, twice.
However, it seems unlikely he'll be able to rebound this time. Recent polls show Mr. Paksas's approval ratings, comfortably over 60 per cent at the start of October, have slid more than 25 points in recent weeks.
The allegations that Russian crime and intelligence figures were trying to gain influence inside his presidency are surfacing as the country, a former Soviet republic of 3.5 million citizens, prepares to move even further beyond Moscow's orbit. Lithuania is slated to join both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization next year.
The Russian link is strong enough that the country's Sajudis movement, which led the country's drive to independence in 1990, has re-emerged at the head of the demonstrations calling on Mr. Paksas to resign. Banners at a weekend rally that attracted thousands in downtown Vilnius read: "How much did the Russians pay you, Mr. President?"
The protests were part of a wave that hit Eastern Europe over the weekend after the demonstrations that forced the resignation of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Thousands also took to the streets in Ukraine and Moldova, both also former Soviet republics, calling for their leaders to resign.