Only a new cork in the old bottle?

Dramatic events in the last few days, with defections from the New Era (Jaunais laiks) party, represent an understandable and welcome move to get away from the morass into which the government and the totally discredited Saeima have fallen. While at the time of writing these events are still to be fully worked out, they hopefully could see the beginning of the end of the self-seeking, autocratic and unresponsive politics of Latvia of the past few years.

How did we come to this?

After huge dissatisfaction with the government and mass demonstrations in the “umbrella revolution” of October and November, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis resigned—in the most leisurely way possible—on Dec. 5. This paved the way for Ivars Godmanis, past prime minister at the crucial period of 1990-1993, to return to the position. Godmanis is certainly a more serious and substantial figure than the bumbling and completely unethical Kalvītis. But to many this change has been simply a continuation of the old corrupt coalition politics under a slighlty more acceptable leadership. A new cork in the old bottle? Indeed it would be naïve to believe that simply changing the prime minister would necessarily change all that the coalition had entrenched.

After Kalvītis’ resignation, the same four parties as before formed the new coalition, again sidelining New Era. Despite a couple of defections, the dominant People’s Party (Tautas partija) is still the largest party in the coalition and has close links with the leaders and largely obedient followers of the other three coalition parties. The Saeima has not been dismissed, as many had hoped for, but continues very much in its errant ways, fiddling endlessly with legislation on such matters as declarations of earnings of public officials. While Godmanis has ushered in new procedures demanding that each minister in turn regularly appears before the parliament and answer questions about their porfolio, there is doubt that the Saeima has the intellectual wherewithall—or desire—to bring ministers to account.

An increasing number of scandals and deep worries about directions taken have continued unabated. Crucially, a number of these have involved relations with Russia:

  • Latvian State Television’s decision, after obvious pressure from Russian diplomats, to not show a documentary film on Russian President Vladimr Putin the evening before the recent Russian elections. The head of Latvian television unconvincingly cited problems ranging from translation difficulties to a techncial hitch in the “horizontal time code,” all shown immediately to have been lies.
  • Continuing uncertainty whether the full story is known about the border agreement with Russia, signed and now ratified by both governments.
  • Significantly, relations with Russia have taken on an appearance of great warmth, with Russia often praising the “pragmatic” approach of the Kalvītis government and hoping for the same under Godmanis. Russia has recently invited President Valdis Zatlers to visit Moscow, an invitation long denied to previous President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga.

Local scandals have been plenty, too. Perhaps the most disturbing was the revelation in January that around 100 passports had been unlawfully issued by immigration department workers, some of whom have now been arrested. This incident has received an extraordinary response from government figures, who claimed that no harm was done, the passports were only used to create easier travel in the European Union, all the passports have been accounted for, it can never happen again… Investigations, as they say, are continuing, but the fear again is that things will be swept under the carpet.

In a perhaps even more extraordinary incident, former government bodyguard Edgars Gulbis, who has since been charged with a number of criminal offences, in late September happened to find himself in the Daugava River while being escorted handcuffed in a police convoy! No credible explanation has yet been put forward for this. Did he escape? Was he pushed? Was he meant to have survived?

On the more positive side, the hard working State Audit Office of Latvia (Latvijas Republikas Valsts kontrole) is having considerable success in uncovering an increasing number of shady deals particularly in property, telecommunicatiosn and transport, many of them areas under the control of government nasty Transport Minister Ainars Šlesers. 

For the past few moths there has been a feeling of dread that those who see politics as essentially an extension of their own self-enrichment and ignoring of national interests are still firmly entrenched in the Saeima and in government, shrugging off any criticism and indeed shrugging off the change of government.

The latest target, in just the last week, has been someone rarely heard of in the daily news but of vital importance for Latvian security: Jānis Kažociņš,  head of the main security body the Constitutional Protection Bureau (Satversmes aizsardzības birojs). Kažociņš is from the West, having served in British military intelligence, and his term of office ends in May. Recently he gained some prominece when a Russian spy was detected in Latvia by the security services and consequently expelled. Yet questions have now been raised by a number of government politicians as to whether he will be reappointed.

It is against this ominous background that there came the welcome news of defections from New Era.  The party had been the hope of many in the 2002 Saeima elections when it won many seats and brought the promise of a new, anti-corruption politics in Latvia, led by the charismatic and successful former head of the Bank of Latvia, Einars Repše. But Repše had become increasingly idiosyncratic and erratic, making poor political judgments, including twice dissolving New Era-led governments and going into the opposition. Repše remains the main figure in the party, but the formal leader is now Krišjānis Kariņš, a sober but relatively ineffectual leader formerly from the United States.

The final straw for many in the party was the seeming total inability to politically capitalise on the government’s recent self-destruction and popular mobilisation in the umbrella revolution. New Era remained outside the ruling coalition again, but also was never able to lead popular opposition to the government. The strength of the party, as many have noted, lies not in Repše or Kariņš but in a phalanx of outstanding women: former foreign minister and Eurocommissioner Sandra Kalniete, ex-Consitutional Court Judge Ilma Čepāne, and former Justice Minister Solvita Āboltiņa, among others. It was precisley some of these women (Kalniete and Čepāne) who led the defections. Four New Era Saeima deputies and numerous regional mayors and office-holders also have defected. Meanwhile, Āboltiņa remains with the party and is a likely future leader.

The intention clearly is to create a new political power without Repše’s baggage, perhaps (though this is by no means certain) through linking up with some members of the For Fatherland and Freedom Party (Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK) who are critical of that party’s compromised role as the junior coalition partner, or with some other defectors from major parties.

While much remains to be done to create an alternative force, while mistakes may be made and while the ruling coalition will cling to power for all it is worth, things may be moving in dramatic new ways.

It may soon be time to unfurl the umbrellas again.




One thought on “Only a new cork in the old bottle?

  1. There will not be any changes unless the parties gets a base of at least 10,000 of members all over the country and the local party organizations send delagates to party convention to elect the party leadership. Then the party discusses an action line in communities and at convention and decides the party policy. The party leaders become tied up to follow this or have to go at next conventio outvoted by the delegates resposible to members at home community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *