The government of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis finds itself in political crisis following a week that saw a warning from the U.S. ambassador about the course of Latvia’s democracy, a protest outside the Saiema by thousands demanding that heads roll and, on Friday, the resignation of Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks.
Now some political observers say that Kalvītis will—or should—soon step down, an eventuality the prime minister has not completely ruled out.
A number of unpopular decisions by the government, plus a growing mistrust of the country’s political leaders, are the catalyst for the turmoil, according to Latvian media reports. Among them are:
- A controversial decision by the Cabinet of Ministers earlier this month to fire Aleksejs Loskutovs, director of the state-run Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB), over allegations of accounting irregularities. Some critics say the firing is simply another attempt to direct attention away from the corruption bureau’s investigations of Latvian politicians.
- The government’s January emergency decree introducing amendments to two national security laws. The decision eventually led to a showdown with then-President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and a national referendum. Although the referendum was held after the Saeima rescinded the amendments, and although it failed to garner enough voters to make it count, more than 95 percent of the 338,765 citizens who cast ballots were against the amendments.
- The proposed 2008 national budget, aimed in part at cooling Latvia’s overheated economy, initially limited wage increases for state employees including teachers, medical workers and police. Following protests by labor unions, the government is reconsidering how and where to tighten the belt. The Saeima may vote on the budget as early as next week.
Trouble for the Kalvītis government has been mounting for a while, but things got worse in recent days. In an Oct. 16 speech at the University of Latvia, U.S. Ambassador Catherine Todd Bailey raised concern about democracy in Latvia.
“We have seen a pattern of events that appear to be inconsistent with our shared values,” Bailey said, “for example, attempts to pack the courts with judges who ‘will know what to do,’ efforts to manipulate the laws governing the security services to allow greater avenues for political interference in their operations, and public campaigns to discredit the institutions of justice and the rule of law in the country.”
She referred to hard-working Latvians who have been “beaten down by having to take instructions from unelected officials in the clouds or down by the sea.”
Some politicians, including People’s Party (Tautas partija) leader and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle, condemned the speech. Kalvītis, the current prime minister, is a member of the People’s Party.
On the morning of Oct. 18, in a quickly arranged action, umbrella-toting protesters gathered in the rain outside the Saeima building in Old Rīga to demand that Kalvītis step down. Estimates put the number of protesters between 2,000 and 5,000.
The same day, the opposition parties New Era (Jaunais laiks) and Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) asked President Valdis Zatlers to recommend dissolving parliament. The president has said he would not do so. Under the Latvian constitution, the president can only recommend that the Saeima be dissolved, but it takes a popular referendum to actually accomplish the deed. And if the referendum fails, the president has to step down.
Kalvītis, in Portugal for a European Council meeting, cut his trip short and returned to Rīga for consultations.
During an Oct. 19 meeting, the People’s Party decided to shut out Aigars Štokenbergs, the minister for regional development and local government, for disrupting party unity. Kalvītis, according to media reports, reached Štokenbergs in Spain and told him of the party’s decision—and also informed the minister that his resignation would be expected. Štokenbergs has been at odds with party leader Šķēle.
During the same party meeting, Foreign Minister Pabriks said he is stepping down after he broke with Kalvītis over the dismissal of the anti-corruption bureau chief. Kalvītis told journalists he would not accept the resignation, but a terse Oct. 21 press release from the foreign ministry appeared to confirm Pabriks is leaving.
“The resignation,” the press release read in part, “is the minister’s protest against the government’s action in dismissing from his post Aleksejs Loskutovs, head of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau.”
That would mean the coalition government would now be down by three ministers: Pabriks, the foreign minister and a member of People’s Party; Štokenbergs, the regional development minister and also a member of the People’s Party; and Jurijs Strods, the economics minister and a member of For Fatherland and Freedom (Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK).
Strods announced Sept. 17 that he was stepping down to spend more time with his family, but this came after Latvia was criticized by several international observers for failing to rein in inflation. As a replacement, Kalvītis recommended Einārs Cilinskis, a member of the Rīga City Council and of For Fatherland and Freedom. However, on Oct. 18 Cilinskis withdrew his candidacy, citing differences with the prime minister about the Loskutovs affair and about economic policy, according to a report by the Apollo news and information portal.
Also to be gone is Normunds Broks, the special assignments minister for administration of European Union funds. Broks, a member of For Fatherland and Freedom, is losing his job after Kalvītis and Broks’ party agreed European Union funds can be administered by other ministries, the LETA news agency reported.
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