A total of 32 Latvian embassies and consulates abroad will be among locations open April 3 through May 2 to gather signatures in favor of a national referendum on controversial changes to Latvia’s security laws.
The signature drive begins just days after the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, overturned its own decision to approve the security law amendments.
At least 10 percent of Latvian citizens registered to vote in the last Saeima election—a total of 149,064 individuals—must sign in favor of the referendum for it to be called, according to the Central Election Commission.
If successful, some observers say, the referendum could be seen as a popular vote of no confidence in the government and the parliament.
The signature drive was put into effect March 10 when President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga froze for two months implementation of two controversial amendments to the country’s National Security Law and the State Law on Security Institutions.
The changes, which expanded the list of who in the government could have access to state secrets, were adopted in January by an emergency decree of the Cabinet of Ministers while the parliament was not in session. Among changes was the makeup of the National Security Council, which under the existing law was made up of the heads of the country’s security institutions. Under one amendment, the National Security Council instead would be led by the prime minister and would consist of the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior and justice.
The cabinet’s move surprised a number of observers, who criticized the action as heavy-handed and politically motivated. However, the amendments were endorsed by the Saeima in a Feb. 1 vote.
Supporters argued the amendments provide more oversight and transparency of security institutions, but the president apparently was not convinced. Citing concerns that the amendments “could threaten the successful and professional work of state security institutions” as well as Latvia’s relations with its partners in the NATO defense alliance, Vīķe-Freiberga vetoed the amendments on Feb. 9. The Saeima in turn overrode her veto on March 1.
The president’s decision to freeze implementation of the amendments—the first time she has invoked such power—forced the call for a national referendum. If the signature drive is successful, the referendum in separate questions would call for rescinding the parliament’s approval of the amendments to the two laws. According to Latvia’s constitution, lawmakers can avoid a referendum by passing the amendments again with a 75 percent majority vote in the 100-seat Saeima. However, that does not seem likely to happen because the government coalition led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis has only a thin majority in the Saeima.
In fact, the call for a referendum may be moot, because the Saeima on March 29 overturned its own decision, returning the laws to their original versions.
Citizens who are at least 18 years old and who have a valid Latvian passport may sign the referendum petition. A total of 615 stations have been set up around Latvia, while 32 will operate abroad.
Locations abroad include the Latvian embassies in Austria, Azerbaidjan, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia (both the embassy in Moscow and the consular section in Kaliningrad), Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States, as well as the Latvian consulates in Vitebsk, Belarus; Bonn, Germany, and Pskov and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Offices are to be open four hours per day to collect signatures, according to the Central Election Commission.
Unless they happen to travel to a place where a petition is available, Latvian citizens in a number of countries—including Australia, Brazil and Venezuela—will not have the opportunity to sign on. The honorary consuls in those countries could not guarantee they would be available the required four hours per day, Kristīne Bērziņa, spokesperson for the Central Election Commission, said in an e-mail to Latvians Online.
The American Latvian Association’s board of directors on March 31 adopted a resolution supporting the president’s decision to block the amendments and encouraged Latvian citizens in the United States to sign the petition. Political scientist Jānis Peniķis, in a letter to the ALA board, wrote that despite the Saeima’s March 29 about-face, the referendum drive should continue because there is no guarantee the Kalvītis government and its majority in the parliament will not again attempt to modify state security laws. A successful petition drive, he added, could at least put up a barrier to the Kalvītis government.
“Our view is that the changes in the state security laws were wrong,” Mārtiņš Duhms, chairperson of the ALA, said in an e-mail. “The referendum will allow Latvian citizens the opportunity to express their opinion.”
Further information about locations and times is available from the Web site of the Central Election Commission, www.cvk.lv.
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