It was over-ambition that killed the beast

On the extraordinary fairy-tale of how a majority government, commanding all significant power, mercilessly skilful in its political manipulations, and with a weak and divided opposition, tried to over-gorge itself, played several tricks too many, started unravelling and 5,000 rain-bedraggled fairy princesses demonstrated the wrath of the previously unheeded and helped bring it to its knees…

Just who is writing this script? The coalition government was the most secure in Latvian democratic history, with Aigars Kalvītis himself the first prime minister to be returned to office after an election. An iron discipline characterised the the coalition parties, with little open internal dissent. Ministerial positions were allocated and reallocated behind closed doors with the losing party on any nomination biting its tongue. Crucial decisions, such as the election of surprise candidate Valdis Zatlers as the new president, were pushed through without compunction and—in the actions of several members of the Saeima—with complete contempt for public opinion.

Now, Kalvītis may be about to resign in a bizarre scenario where he will hang on by agreement just long enough to push through a budget. Speculation is increasing about whether the president—appointed as a seeming hand-boy of this same coalition—may yet have to decide to take the unprecedented step of dissolving the Saeima before its term is up.

And astonishingly, American diplomats have started to pay renewed attention to little Latvia, from the ambassador in Rīga to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the most diplomatic terms—like some Greek chorus in the background—they have been whispering that Latvia might, should, perhaps, you know, like, at the highest level, look, at… um… corruption…?

Some sense of crisis arose earlier in the year, when outgoing President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga delayed security service amendments that had been passed twice by the Saeima, forcing the issue to a referendum. The referendum did not gain the required number of participants: 50 percent of the number of voters at the previous Saeima election. The government (quietly) and the anti-Vīķe-Freiberga press (loudly) gloated over this failure, but at the time it seemed perhaps of little matter as the parliament had already overturned its own legisation. But the feeling lingered that the legislation that would have allowed access to security information by a far larger number of persons was in the interests of certain oligarchs who themselves were under investigation by the security services and courts.

The unpopular process by which the new president was elected was another step, though at the time the ruling coalition saw it a its greatest triumph. The feeling of unease exploded in quite unpredictable ways when Kalvītis attempted to stand down Aleksejs Loskutovs, head of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, on charges of irregularities in financial matters. At the time of his appointment Loskutovs had been a publicly unpopular candidate, but was voted in by these same coalition parties. The charge against him, it turrned out, regarded some irregularites in bookkeeping in the anti-corruption bureau. No money had gone missing or gone into the wrong hands, no secret deals or other nefarious financial activities had been engaged in, but the bookkeeping was irregular.

Then it all started to unravel. First, these bookkeeping events were known to the national auditor as early as May, and communicated to the prime minister in June, but only came to light in late Sepember—significantly—after a new president had succeeded Vīķe-Freiberga. Kalvītis could not explain the delay.

Second, the example of pouncing on the anti-corruption bureau (known in Latvian as Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB) stands in sharp contrast to the lack of action over several much more serious auditing issues in other ministries where millions really had disappeared, most particularly in the Transport Ministry, the stronghold of coaliton head-kicker and Latvijas Pirmā partija (First Party of Latvia) nasty Ainārs Šlesers. Various authorities, including the chief prosecutor, could not see why the bookkeeping of KNAB would justify Loskutovs’ dismissal.

Third, Kalvītis destroyed his own credibilty when it turned out the prime minister did not have the power to remove Loskutovs or even suspend him. This had to come from the Saeima.

Fourth, this was seen as a dangerous turning against corruption-catchers and very much politically inspired. Apart from its work on the oligarchs, KNAB had also been looking at irregularities in electoral funding, including by Kalvītis’ own Tautas partija (People’s Party).

And troubles for the government started to come elsewhere. Changes in the national television channel, where the most popular and critical current affairs program was axed, brought huge protests. The publication of the sensational book Tiesāšanās kā ķēķis, apparently based on recorded telephone conversations with lawyer Andris Grūtups, revealed corrupt practices by judges and questioned the government’s dedication to combatting corruption. Continuous attacks on the State Audit Office, particularly from Šlesers, also heightened disquiet.

Long-repressed internal dissent also opened up. Regional Development and Local Government Minister Aigars Štokenbergs had opposed several government initiatives—and more. He criticised the role of Andris Šķēle, founder of the Tautas partija and now simply a rank-and-file member, but seen by many as one of the oligarchic powers. In a move that already well-illustrated his future course, Štokenbergs did not attend the glittering inauguration ball for the new [resident at Rundāle Palace, but instead joined in the “alternative” ball arranged by numerous oppositional groups at the wonderful new artists’ colony on Andrejsala—the once deserted strip of Riga’s inner docks. The party finally had had enough and threw him out, while Kalvītis demanded his resignation as minister. Foreign Minister Andris Pabriks, meanwhile, resigned in protest over the Loskutovs affair. The most recent resignation of Dagnija Staķe as welfare minister compounded these problems. And Štokenbergs is talking of starting a genuine new political party.

Yet it was the Loskutovs question that swung the whole issue. On the very rainy morning of Oct. 18, some 5,000 peop;e turned up outside the Saeima to protest any action the parliament might take against Loskutovs. Overwhelmed by the unexpected turnout, the security police managed to provide just one narrow path through the crowded street for parliamentarians to walk through, giving them an unusually close encounter with a public opinion they have overwhelmingly ignored in the past. This demonstration has galvanised politics all around and seen the start of continuing political actions and large public protests. Many are calling for this discredited Saeima to be dissolved.

Looking back, the government has absolutely no one to blame except itself. When King Kong in the famous movie climbed to the top of the Empire State Building with a blonde heroine in his paw, he was shot down by airplanes. The verdict of the film: it was beauty that killed the beast. In the case of Kalvītis and the dissolving government, it was a thing not of beauty at all, but lust of another politically familiar kind. It was over-preening political ambition that killed this beast.

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