The empires strike back

Latvia’s coalition government is determined to wield power and has worked hard to marginalise or co-opt the opposition and the newer political forces trying to provide alternatives in politics. Meanwhile, Russia is relentlessly trying to intensify its influence, buoyed by Latvia’s gas dependency and by a curious side-step into sport.

April saw a successful outcome of the trade union-led petition for a consitutional amendment to give the electorate the power to initiate the termination of the Saeima and force it to an election. Many more voters signed the petition than the required 10 percent of the number voting in the previous parliamentary election. The constitutional change process required the proposal be debated by the Saeima. If the Saeima agreed, it would become part of the constitution. However, if the Saeima rejected the proposal, the proposal would go to a referendum. The proposal—always opposed by the coalition government—was in fact rejected by the Saeima, leading now to a national referendum on Aug. 2.

The success of the petition, and the success in early opinion polls of new political groupings led by Sandra Kalniete and Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis (Pilsoniskā savienība, or Civil Union) and by Aigars Štokenbergs and Artis Pabriks (Sabiedrība citai politikai, or Society for a Different Politics), initially forced the coalition to tone down its political ambitions. The coalition’s previously much-questioned reappointment of Jānis Kažociņš as director of Latvia’s main intelligence organisation, the Constitutional Defence Bureau (Satversmes aizsardzības birojs) finally went through with all coalition parties publicly supporting him (though several coalition Saeima members it seems nevertheless voted against him in the secret ballot). More trouble arrived for the government when Ina Gudele, the minister in charge of “e-matters,” had to resign when she used government finances to pay for her birthday celebration, which included a media-appealing strawberry torte. Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis’ announcement of achievements during his first 100 days in office was decidedly muted.

Yet these setbacks have clearly stirred the coalition into renewed action, trying to bolster its flagging fortunes, regain the political initiative and still do well by its mates.

Almost as a godsend (or from more earthly powers?) for the coalition came the April revelation that around LVL 130,000 had been stolen from the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB). It was the previous government’s desire to dismiss KNAB Director Aleksejs Loskutovs that led to public outrage, the “umbrella revolution” and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis’ eventual resignation late last year. The unexplained theft brought Kalvītis and others to call once more for Loskutovs’ dismissal. Also related to money matters, the Saeima has just passed a late surprise amendment to water down a criminal law proposal for confiscation of illegally gained assets, leaving everyone wondering in whose interests this was done. President Valdis Zatlers has responded in a curious fashion. Although he has the power to ask the Saeima to reconsider, at the time of this writing he is cautiously asking an ad hoc committee to advise him on what he should do. And also related to criminal law, a dubious coalition-backed candidate, Ivars Bičkovičs, was voted in as chief judge of the Supreme Court by the Saeima.

Prime Minister Godmanis has worked hard, not always helped by his ministers, to regain public trust in his government. But in May normal political transmission was interrupted by an attention-grabbing stunt featuring Kalvītis again: a group of ice-hockey backers had succeeded in having a team Rīga Dinamo join the newly re-created Russian hockey league lavishly sponsored by natural gas giant Gazprom. Despite all protests about Latvia’s energy dependence on one Russian source, Gazprom will expand its business in Latvia with the imminent building of a new gas-fired power station. Among the backers for both the power station and the new hockey team is now ordinary Saeima deputy Kalvītis. The measure of the man is seen from this exchange on his hockey dealings in an interview in the newspaper Diena:

Diena: Your declaration of income [required of all parliamentarians] does not show that you will be able to pay for your Rīga Dinamo shares.
Kalvītis: Don’t worry. That’s my business. I have already paid 50,000 and over the next year I need to pay another 150,000.
Diena: Where will you get the money?
Kalvītis: I’ll earn it.

No doubt he will.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties and new political groupings struggled. In May’s opinion polls the Kalniete-Kristovskis and the Štokenbergs-Pabriks partiea both slipped below the 5 percent mark they had earlier reached. (Five percent is the threshold a party must reach to have members elected to the Saeima). New Era (Jaunais laiks), which Kalniete and others abandoned, slipped even further below the 5 percent barrier, aided by persistent rumours it may make an alliance with the coalition’s leading People’s Party (Tautas partija). Some commentators stressed that this was typical of a period of lull when elections are not near and apathy takes over, but others warned this signalled a deeper malaise within the new political forces, which were essentially not new people but known politicians recycled.

Internationally, Latvia-Russia relations again soured when the Latvian documentary Soviet Story was released. The film showed not only the publicly known face of Nazi-Soviet collaboration as in the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, but hitherto unknown details of much longer collaboration between the SS and NKVD (KGB) on tactics and methods, down to anti-semitism and its uses in both Germany and the Soviet Union. Several prominent Russian historians contributed to the film. Although well received by western media, Russia reacted sharply. Director Edvīns Šnore was burned in effigy in Moscow by members of New Russia, the youth organisation fostered by former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This alarmed members of the European Parliament (the film was partly subsidised by European Union money), who added this to their list of Russian anti-democratic initiatives that are now felt more sharply by some in Western Europe.

But to show that local Latvian politicians are every bit as able to undermine Latvia’s interests as any force across the border, there is renewed agitation to dilute the language Laws and give greater legitimacy to the use of Russian in Latvia. Former President Guntis Ulmanis waxed eloquent at a Latvia-Russia forum about the greater role the Russian language was playing in Latvia. Surveys show many companies and organisations continue to use Russian rather than Latvian in their work. And while Foreign Minister Māris Riekstiņš told the local Russian-language press he would no longer answer questions in Russian, Godmanis still uses Russian frequently in public to “explain” policy to Russian speakers, now some 19 years after the initial language laws restored official status to Latvian. Employer groups have fought moves to extend Latvian language requirements to more occupational groups, and a particularly dangerous initiative is being debated that may allow universities to teach in Russian again, threatening to restore a Soviet-era two-track higher education system.

Given summer’s arrival and the looming Song Festival, the coalition will have hoped the distracted population will pay even less attention to politics and to its particular machinations. But anger over the stolen assets legalisation, the appointment of Bičkovičs and the referendum could lead to a hotter summer than the coalition expected.

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