The past two months have seen unprecedented events buffeting Latvia’s politics, and have deepened the crisis that now threatens both Latvia’s economy and normal constitutional processes.
The violence of Jan. 13, when a peaceful protest meeting was followed by street trashing and looting in Riga’s Old Town, was shocking. Latvia had never experienced such wanton violence. Political change has always come peacefully, and even in the break-up of the Soviet Union the little violence that occurred came only from Soviet forces. Now it was civilian violence. Although it was condemned by all political forces and seems to have been the uncoordinated ramblings of youth gangs, the violence brought considerable political fallout. Many observers have asked why security forces were almost absent, despite warnings of trouble. Others argued this whole incident showed how low both the government and the Saeima had fallen in public trust and authority.
The build-up to this incident is worth considering.
In December, the government was still coping with the effects of the Parex Bank bailout, begging for its own bailout from the International Monetary Fund, and facing increased hostility from an aroused public. Important decisions such as the appointment of a new head of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB) were delayed. It was also struggling with its own intended reforms: nearly halving the number of government ministries to 10, reducing the large number of local government entities, and limiting government spending. And it was not helped by its own ministers. Finance Minister Atis Slakteris crashed when agreeing to give an interview on the Latvian economic crisis to financial channel Bloomberg, inexplicably conducting it in his poor English. He characterised the crisis as “Nothing special” and assured viewers that “We will be taupīgi (thrifty).”
President Valdis Zatlers, originally seen as a ruling coalition puppet, had been increasingly active in attempts to solve the political crisis, suggesting a government of national unity, trying to get all parties to support the IMF borrowing, and pressing forward with his constitutional amendments that would, inter alia, make it easier to dismiss the Saeima.
On Dec. 12, the Saeima in an all-night sitting accepted the government’s proposed stabilisation plan and IMF borrowing, savagely cutting government spending, and raising income and value-added taxes. Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis stunned many by calling this Saeima one of the strongest parliaments in Europe to be able to take such decisive action.
Godmanis’ rhetoric was again to the fore on New Year’s Eve, when in words and images that would hitherto be indelibly associated with him, he referred to the Antarctic penguins who, in the coldest winter, would lock together shoulder to shoulder in groups, helping each other to keep warm and survive. This was how Latvians needed to help and support one another in this time of financial crisis.
While a goldmine for political cartoonists, such rhetoric also brought massive dissatisfaction. As commentators wryly pointed out, the penguins protect those most vulnerable who are kept warmest in the middle, while in Latvia it is the very opposite. The wealthiest are most protected by a number of measures—for example, no capital gains tax, no progressive taxation, loopholes in how much public servants and advisors can be paid—while the increased tax burden falls most heavily on those with medium or low incomes. As a particularly obnoxious example, transport minister and chief nasty Ainars Šlesers appointed his chauffeur’s son to a position on a government board for a salary of LVL 4,000 per month (about EUR 5,500) when pensioners have to survive on a 20th of this sum. Artis Pabriks, one of the leaders of the breakaway opposition group Society for a Different Politics (Sabiedrība citai politikai, or SCP), argued that quite contrary to Godmanis’ assertions, nowhere else in Europe would a parliament take the steps the Latvian parliament had taken. Raising taxes, lowering government spending and not controlling speculation were the exact opposite of what other European governments are doing to meet the economic crisis.
On Jan. 13, the SCP called for an evening mass meeting to show popular anger at the government and to call for a new Saeima election. The meeting passed peacefully but with largely uninspiring speeches and little resolution, to be followed by the unexpected violence. It should be said that such violence has also been seen recently in several other European countries, with Iceland and Greece to the fore, and Lithuania a few days later, but in Rīga it struck in a particular way at Latvian political culture: every previous problem, no matter how severe, had always been met by avoiding violence and believing in collective action, non-violent persistence and discipline. Now this self-belief was challenged by an anarchic alienation.
The events of Jan. 13 galvanised the president into even more action. Angrily, he called on the Saeima and government to undertake a number of actions by March 31 or he would call for the dismissal of the Saeima (if the president does this, it must go to a referendum). He wanted the speedy and transparent appointment of the KNAB director, for the coalition government to include other parties, and for the Saeima to pass several long-lingering electoral reform and constitutional amendments.
Meanwhile, others were taking matters into their own hands. Farmers were outraged by a series of blunders and lack of support from Agriculture Minister Mārtiņš Roze, who was forced to resign after they drove their tractors to Rīga. Long-standing Culture Minister Helena Demakova also resigned, citing health problems, prompting commentators to opine the rats were leaving the sinking (and penguin-led?) ship.
Yet the coalition maintained its hold on power. It adopted some electoral reforms and seems to be nearing appointment of a KNAB director, but has fudged on Zatlers’ other demands and has been inert on widening the coalition. Meanwhile some parties are trying to make political capital. The People’s Party (Tautas partija) after Jan. 13 announced it would propose a constitutional amendment—which against precedent it would try to apply to this Saeima—to allow the Saeima to prorogue itself, a measure not currently allowed. Earlier it had absolutely opposed any such move. This seems to be another attempt by a discredited party to regain some popularity. But in coalition meetings and Saeima votes the People’s Party supports the coalition.
On Feb. 5, the opposition New Era party (Jaunais laiks)—itself unable to gain much political traction as a result of the political and financial crisis—moved a long-awaited motion of no-confidence in the government. The motion eventually lost, with a bare 51 votes against (the Saeima has 100 deputies), showing the paper-thin majority the coalition still commands. However, the event was marked however by a piece of political triteness that nevertheless symbolises the current divide in Latvian politics. Just before the debate, persons unknown had left a little brightly wrapped “gift” for Godmanis at the door of the Saeima. No, it was not a bomb, but a few trinkets left by supposed admirers. In the photo coverage of the event, all cameras were glued to the scene of Godmanis, seated before the Saeima, feigning surprise and untying the dainty package. Behind him was a full battery of the oligarchic ministers, at ease, self-satisfied and in no hurry to respond to any serious political or economic crisis. Nothing special.
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