In Latvia, a false calm after the coup

An eerie calm has settled over the Latvian political scene since one of the most scandalous moments in recent Latvian political history: the voting in the Saeima (Parliament) against the reappointment of Chief Prosecutor Jānis Maizītis.

For those used to more predictable parliamentary process, the sheer lying and hypocrisy of the April 15 vote comes as a shock, but also serves as a salutary reminder of the realities of Latvian politics.

Maizītis has served as chief prosecutor for the past 10 years, during which time a number of high-ranking persons have been successfully prosecuted for corruption or other criminal matters, and several others are still awaiting trial. Most conspicuous among them is Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who is one of Latvia’s most influential oligarchs and is favoured as a candidate for prime minister by the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS). The manipulations of Lembergs’ supporters were decisive on this occasion.

The chief prosecutor is voted on by the Saeima after being nominated by the chief justice, and the candidature is discussed by the Saeima Judicial Committee, which in this case unanimously supported Maizītis’ candidature. All except two factions in the Saeima had also declared their support for Maizītis, with the ZZS and the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā Partija, or LPP) not voicing any criticism of Maizītis and declaring their deputies had a free vote on the issue.

Yet in the secret ballot of the 100-seat Saeima (the standard procedure for such appointments), 45 members of parliament voted for his appointment and 47 against. It is also significant that at no stage was there ever a single word spoken by any MP as to why Maizītis may not be a suitable candidate. This was a well-orchestrated manoeuvre, which also had its precedent. Last year, a well-credentialed candidate for the Supreme Court, Māris Vīgants, was also voted against by the Saeima after public expressions of support for him. Vīgants’ apparent demerit was that he was the lower court judge who refused to grant Lembergs bail at the beginning of his prosecution process, leaving Lembergs in custody.

The wider political implications

The vote on Maizītis was followed by a spectacular display of politicians blaming each other for going against their publicly stated positions.

According to highly regarded journalist and commentator Aivars Ozoliņš, the vote showed how the present minority governemt of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis is really a prisoner of a highly capricious and well-organised would-be coalition of several factions, including ZZS and the People’s Party (Tautas partija, or TP),  which are part of the government coalition. The TP, the party formerly most powerful in the Saeima, has commenced talks on forming a coalition with oligarch Ainars Šlesers’ LPP. Both TP and LPP are showing an increasing cosiness with the Russia-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs). The TP and LPP are facing potential annihilation at the October Saeima election. They are each polling only around 2-3 percent of the vote, below the 5 percent needed to gain parliamentary representation, and their only way forward is to combine, discredit the government (even from within the ranks of the present coalition government), run a huge publicity campaign, and thus manipulate their way to power after the elections, marginalising Dombrovskis’ Unity Party (Vienotība) even if that party (as recent polls indicate) will do well in the elections.

With only five months to run to the election, it seems unlikely that there will be an overthrow of the Dombrovskis minority government. Just before the Maizītis debacle, Dombrovskis’ attempt to gain a majority government fell short when his offer to the LPP to join the coalition was rejected, though Šlesers did say he would not destabilise the government—a dubious promise, as it turned out. Rather than overthrow Dombrovskis and have to take the responsibity for Latvia’s financial woes, the government’s enemies see more value in undermining the government by showing its inability to get its measures adopted, use the Saeima capriciously and bluff their way into power.

Dombrovskis is not easily shaken, has held his nerve through numerous crises, and his own genuine calm in working thorough problems seems to have allayed more ferocious criticism of his government, while his Unity continues to hold the lead in monthly polls. However, with 15 percent unemployment and a continuing flow of people leaving the country to seek work elsewhere, Latvia’s economy is still shaky. The problems in Greece and Europe generally threaten to dent all European economies, and that perhaps is the biggest challenge to the present government.

The political calendar in May

May is the month when two dates show the extreme oppposites of Latvian politics. On May 4, the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of the declaration of sovereignty, a moment stark in the memories of those in Latvia but perhaps less well recognised outside it. While Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union, in early 1990 the first relatively free elections to the Supreme Soviet—the parliament in the Soviet system—resulted in a majority of People’s Front (Tautas fronte) deputies being elected. On May 4, 1990, they passed a resolution asserting Latvia’s sovereignty, beginning the moves that culminated in the formal declaration of independence on Aug. 21, 1991, during the anti-Gorbachev putsch in Moscow. The May 4 resolution was achieved under enormous pressure, with heavy criticism from Moscow and the rump of still-Communist deputies. It was followed by a surrounding of the Supreme Soviet building by Soviet army troops and a tense standoff with independence supporters.

On May 9, the end of World War II is celebrated in Russia (one day after Western Europe marks the end of the war) , and is marked too by hardline pro-Russian supporters with often rather drunken celebrations in Rīga at the Soviet victory monument, thankfully on the other side of the Daugava river to central Rīga. A controversial moment has been the participation by Latvian President Valdis Zatlers in the celebrations in Moscow on that day (Estonian and Lithuanian presidents were not there). The question of how Latvia should respond to this date has long been a vexing issue, but goes well beyond simply marking of this date. In Latvia there are battles in many areas—from school curriculum to official support and payment for public events—between essentially two different versions of history, represented by these two dates.

The Dombrovskis government must balance firm handling of relations with Russia with an awareness of the strength of pro-Russian political parties—and their opportunistic potential allies among Latvian parties.

It is a race to the October elections betweeen a minority government seeking to make the most of its desire to not walk away from the economic realities of contemporary Latvia, and a series of opponents who will do anything to undermine it while on the surface feigning a desire for stability. It will be a desperate race.

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