The extraordinary events of March 10-14 have thrown the Latvian political system into unprecedented turmoil. It has turned on its head almost all previously held suppositions about the political situation: a seemingly strong and unshakeable coalition – the first government ever returned after a Latvian election – now looks vulnerable and amazingly immature in its response to the crisis. Meanwhile, a president who some took to be simply biding her time to the end of her period of office with one stroke has seemingly swung the balance of power away from an increasingly panicky government. And the first of Latvia’s oft-accused oligarchs, Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, has been arrested on serious charges of corruption—for many the cherry on the cake
On March 10, President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga used her constitutional power to delay the proclamation of amendments to Latvia’s security laws, amendments passed twice by the Saeima. She had already sent them back the first time but they was passed unchanged by the Saeima again. According to Latvia’s constitution, a president in such circumstances can delay proclamation for two months, but then a chain of events is automatically triggered leading to a possible referendum: the Central Elections Commission begins the task of collecting signatures from citizens who want a referendum to decide on the legislation’s fate. If 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the previous Saeima elections sign for a referendum, it must be held. This will require around 150,000 signatures. This is the first time this specific mechanism has been put into effect since the regaining of independence.
That is the constitutional side. The surrounding politics are intense.
Concerns over the security legislation relate to both its content and the process by which it was pushed through. The legislation increases parliamentary supervison of the various security services including military intelligence services, and increases the number of people—parliamentarians but also their aides and people designated by them—who can have access to operative information of the security services. Such concerns came even from the NATO defense alliance.
Concerns over the content were heightened by the way the legislation was pushed through. It was first adopted by the government during a Saeima recess, on the basis of another rarely used power in the constitution in Article 81: the power a government has to adopt important legislation when the Saeima is in recess, but then has to have this approved by the Saeima on its return—a provision common to many democracies but used sparingly and largely only for emergencies. Despite protests, the goverment also gagged debate when it pushed the amendments through the Saeima, citing the most serious national security urgency for doing so.
The goverment melts
Latvia has had referendums before, most notably in 1998 when the then government won a bitterly contested referendum on changes to the citizenship law, but on this occasion the response saw the government in disoriented damage control. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis immediately offered to drop the contentious legislation—so much for national urgency—and various coalition leaders also offered to repeal Article 81. No one in the government stood up to defend the legislation, which had been pushed through with such insistence on its importance. Amazingly, talk swiftly turned to whether the govenment should stand down or whether it will fall, despite its comfortable majority in the Saeima, and many urged the president to dissolve the Saeima. It is a pregorative in the constitution but has never been used.
So cravenly apologetic has the government been, and so unable to defend its actions, that speculation increased on why it had tried so hard to push its legislation through. The government had been accused of using the legislation to corruptly help its mates in business forestall various corruption and shady deal investigations. Others have pointed to the sheer arrogance of a government that beleived it could do anything with its majority. Its abrupt abandonment of its legislation (it clearly fears it has no chance of winning the referendum) and complete turnaround on a number of related issues has given the appearance of a political rabble, with veteran commentator Aivars Ozoliņš characterising the government’s response roughly as “Anthing, anything, just don’t spank us!”
The arrest of Lembergs just four days later turned an already peculiar crisis into more of a circus.
No more common term of abuse in Eastern Europe exists than “oligarch.” President Vladimir Putin justified his undemocratic grab of all significant power in Russia as a defence of the nation against oligarchs reaping fortunes off Russian resources and sucking the country dry. Latvia’s far less ostentatious oligarchs have in turn not escaped investigation, as in last year’s “Jūrmalgate,” where the buying of votes in the mayoral election involved Tautas partija (People’s Party) ex-leader Andris Šķēle and Latvijas Pirmā Partija (First Party of Latvia) leader and chief nasty Ainārs Šlesers, who was dumped from the Transportation Ministry for his involvement but now is back in office. The concluded Jūrmalgate trial admirably sentenced the smaller front figures to gaol terms, but the shadow remains over Šķēle and Šlesers. All along such figures have claimed the criticism of them is politically motivated, seeking to discredit hard-working leaders and economy-enhancing businessmen.
Lembergs is seen as the most significant of the oligarchs, and until now the most unreachable, ensconced in his Ventspils mayoral seat with its glittering civic environment. He did however wander into the political field when the aļo un Zemnieku Savienība (Union of Greens and Farmers) proposed him as a presidential candidate—a proposal from which it is now also hastily retreating.
Significantly, the president herself had briefly touched on her concerns that the security legislation could be used to favour oligarchs—she used that word—when delaying the legislation. And when Lembergs was arrested on the morning of March 14, the conspiracy theories were given full rein. Was there a connection between the presiden’s actions and the impending arrest of Lembergs? Did the president know? Can this be coincidence?
Lembergs was arrested for a series of alleged corrupt deals largely dating from the mid-1990s involving undeclared offshore arrangements and a conflict of interest with his mayoral position. He was denied bail as it was feared he could attempt to obstruct justice. His lawyers and the newspaper he owns, Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, are working overtime to argue the conspiracy. But in more poor news for the government, other figures such as a controversial coalition candidate for the Constitutional Court has been linked to poor court decisions made in favour of Lembergs.
Opposition paper Diena is somewhat glowing that its own theories of the danger of oligarchy, which it has argued repeatedly and somewhat repetitively, seem to be justified.
And what a time for a great opposition political party to reassert itself and take full advantage of the situation to demand a change to a disorganised and defensive government. But it is not to be, as the main opposition party, Jaunais laiks (New Era) is embroiled in inter-party disputes, and its increasingly criticised leader Einars Repše has said little, mouthed a few populist slogans, and remarkably has been rather distancing himself from the fray.
This completely unanticipated presidential initiative has revealed a worrying weakness in government and the formerly invincible coalition parties. While much still remains to work itself out, it has seriously steered Latvian politics away from “business as usual.”
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