A short-lived support group of Chicago-area Latvians who want to see the controversial Ainārs Šlesers become the next mayor of Rīga has disbanded in the wake of increasing criticism of the effort.
Chicago lawyer Roberts Blumbergs, organizer of the support group, told Latvians Online in a May 27 e-mail that the effort is being disbanded because the sharp reaction against it has led several members to quit.
“When I founded the Ainārs Šlesers support group in Chicago, the idea was that many Chicagoans would be ready to work with who would most likely be the next mayor of Rīga,” Blumbergs wrote in a May 27 letter announcing the group’s dissolution. “The group did not speak for all Latvian-Americans, but that was the impression created in the press, causing a great deal of speculation.”
The group, Aināru Šleseru par Rīgas Mēru Čikāgas Atbalsta Grupa (Ainārs Šlesers for Rīga Mayor Chicago Support Group), was formed earlier this month in advance of the June 6 municipal and European Parliament elections in Latvia. In a letter to Šlesers, Blumbergs told the candidate that the support group’s membership would include a number of familiar members of the Latvian-American community. Although they may support a candidate, Latvian citizens outside the homeland are not able to vote in the country’s municipal elections.
But not everyone has agreed with the support group. Both the United Latvian Associations of Chicago (Čikāgas Latviešu organizāciju apvienība, or ČLOA) and the American Latvian Association (ALA) issued statements in the past several days “strongly” distancing themselves from the support group.
Šlesers, a member of the conservative First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija / Latvijas ceļš, or LPP/LC), is the leading candidate for mayor of Rīga, according to recent polls. His chief rivals are Nils Ušakavs of the socialdemocratic Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) and Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis of the relatively new Civil Union (Pilsoniskā savienība).
In his bid for mayor of Rīga, Šlesers has campaigned on a platform of economic development that would see Latvia’s capital city become “a Northern European regional center in the areas of finance, business, tourism and services,” according to his Web site, www.slesersrigai.lv. He has promised his administration would work to create thousands of well-paying jobs within five years. Šlesers also promises a war on bureaucracy.
However, as the nation’s transportation minister in the governments of former prime ministers Ivars Godmanis and Aigars Kalvītis, Šlesers found himself named in several controversies, including the “Jūrmalgate” election scandal, and has been criticized for political heavy-handedness and the degree of influence he has in placing family and friends in government jobs.
The Chicago support group sought closer ties between Latvian-Americans and whom it expected would be the new mayor of Rīga. In the letter to Šlesers, Blumbergs said the support group wanted to help promote foreign business interest in Rīga and to develop cultural and humanitarian programs.
“We hope that you will be able to visit Latvians in America and hear our ideas and suggestions, as well as welcome our representatives in Rīga,” the letter continued. “We would like to begin cultural exchanges, for example, so that children from Latvia could visit Latvian summer camps in America, and our children could travel to summer camps in Latvia.”
The support group’s membership, according to the letter, included a recipient of the Order of Three Stars (Latvia’s highest civilian award), Latvian school teachers and parents, and members of Latvian fraternities.
Reaction to the group’s efforts began shortly after a May 12 opinion piece by Blumbergs appeared in the Rīga daily newspaper Neatkarīgā. In the article, “Buldozers līdzīgs Obamam un Deilijam” (A Bulldozer Similar to Obama and Daley), Blumbergs lauded Šlesers’ potential for lifting Rīga out of economic crisis.
The ČLOA board issued a May 23 statement distancing itself from the support group, adding that it is convinced that the majority of Chicago-area Latvians agree.
The statement, signed by board chairman Jānis Vilciņš, also reminded the support group that cultural and educational exchanges with Latvia, as well as humanitarian programs, have been in place through various Latvian organizations since the country regained independence in 1991.
Echoing the Chicago associations’ announcement, the national American Latvian Association on May 26 issued its own statement. The ALA in part sought to dispel the image that the Chicago-based support group spoke for all Latvian-Americans.
“This group does not represent U.S. Latvians,” the ALA statement said. “It expresses only the political convictions of its 15 members, to which it has all rights.”
The ALA statement, signed by Chairman Juris Mežinskis and Director of Public Affairs Jānis Kukainis, continued that as a nonprofit educational organization it is not allowed to support any political party in Latvia.
However, the statement added that in Latvia’s elections ALA members traditionally have supported conservative parties. The statement noted that in the 2006 parliamentary election, Latvian citizens in the United States overwhelmingly supported New Era (Jaunais laiks), while LPP/LC received just 2 percent of the vote. A support group for Jaunais laiks operated in Chicago during the 2006 parliamentary election.
“Let these facts illustrate U.S. Latvians’ support for the popularity of Ainārs Šlesers’ party in the United States,” Mežinskis and Kukainis wrote. “As far as is known about this support group’s composition, we can safely forecast that LPP/LC’s popularity in the U.S. will not be improved.”
Although his support group is disbanding, Blumbergs said he remains convinced that Šlesers is the best candidate for mayor of Rīga.
“I and some former members still plan to apply our skills and sweat to work for Rīga,” Blumbergs wrote in his May 27 letter, “both to develop business and cultural ties, as well as to form a sister city program with Chicago.”
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