The ‘scandal’ of a Latvian minister in Australia

It is rare for Australia to be mentioned in Latvian political despatches: as in most of the world, news from Australia usually only covers bushfires, floods, sharks or crocodiles.

Yet over this Christmas-New Year period, considerable political passion was spent on Latvia’s Minister for Culture, Žanete Jaunzeme-Grende’s visit to Australia. She was in Adelaide to attend the biennial Latvian Cultural Festival and other cultural events and was accompanied by her husband, spending 10 days in the country. Yet the political storm this created reveals a still nasty underside to Latvian politics and more generally social attitudes there.

Why was she there? Why had she chosen to go to Australia in their summer? With her husband – who paid for his ticket? How much was her airfare? Who knew or did not know about her trip? She changed from one hotel to another, closer to the beach! How much did the overtaxed Latvian taxpayer have to fork out for her junket?

Jaunzeme-Grende is from the National Alliance political grouping, and was made Minister for Culture when in coalition negotiations the Alliance was given this portfolio. She is not a professional politician, and has in fact an unusual background for this Ministry – such a position is very prominent and important in Latvia, and has usually been held by people closely associated with the cultural field. Jaunzeme-Grende has a business background, run her own successful risk management firm, and has headed several business organisations.

People in the culture industry in Latvia thus generally do not see her as one of “us”, but she has her own articulate view of cultural priorities: she sees that Latvia produces excellent cultural products, but these need to be publicised, sold and marketed to the world; yet given the long-standing fiscal crisis in Latvia and its slow recovery, resources for culture and the arts had diminished. Latvia has significant cultural events coming up – the notable Song and Dance Festival in July this year, and Riga will be one of Europe’s cultural capitals next year; the much fought-over National Library will also be completed then. And as the economy recovers, these cultural items are important for the Latvian economy and for its profile and brand.

As can be imagined, Jaunzeme-Grende may have people who do not wish her well from within the cultural community, and indeed they were notable in their lack of support for her when trouble brewed. Her visit, which had not received any attention before it happened, was picked up by journalists and the active political scandal sheet

For some reason President Andris Bērziņš, who has little connection with the Minister’s day-to-day affairs, stepped into this, stating he could not understand the reason for the Minister’s trip to Australia, it did not appear useful and did not see it as an effective way of keeping in contact with Latvians overseas. Indeed, he pointed to his own more effective way: in the previous year he had met, in Latvia, with a number of the Honorary Consuls of Latvia in Australia (several states in Australia have such positions) and felt from that meeting he had all the understanding he needed of Latvians in Australia and their situation. Now, Bērziņš has a terrible record in relation to the Latvian diaspora: he is best known there for his comment that the next Director of Latvia’s security service, currently the ex-British Latvian Jānis Kažociņš who is not seeking renomination, should be a “Latvian from Latvia”. His comments were widely criticised and interpreted as wanting a more political ‘insider’ and less independent candidate for the job. His address to the diaspora on Latvian National Day on November 18 was almost incoherent, stodgy, totally uninspiring; it is not clear whether this was poor rehearsal, or indicates growing personal feebleness.

Yet the President’s effort did not end there. The Mebourne-based Latvian online newspaper contacted the President’s office to ask if his comments meant that he would never himself envisage travelling to Australia as President to meet Latvians there? They received a classic back-flip – No, of course the President would be pleased to visit if circumstances permitted, it was important to keep up relations with the diaspora etc. We have problems with our President.

An equally poorly-briefed Prime Minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, looked serious in his doorstop interview, commenting darkly that this was the first time any ministerial visit during his government had raised concern, and said he would investigate the matter. Now, either of these two leaders could have easily stopped the supposed scandal as soon as it had begun, all they needed to say was that the Minister was doing her job. Dombrovskis, an economic technocrat who has done well in the eyes of this commentator to guide Latvia through its financial crisis, unfortunately seems to be completely inarticulate in fields outside economics; yet culture, education (where Dombrovskis also has not supported the Minister with this portfolio), welfare, social integration and having a vision for Latvia’s future are now urgent matters, and demand leadership. Are we beginning to have a problem with our Prime Minister too?

Unfortunately, Jaunzeme-Grende did not endear herself on her return to Latvia – shocked by the allegations, she responded emotionally, and in relation to a very vitriolic campaign against her in the social media and some newspapers who had themselves generated the ‘scandal’, in one interview she quoted Coco Chanel’s aphorism “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all” – and later needed to retreat and apologise for this.

As it came out in the wash, all the allegations of ministerial wrongdoing were without foundation. Her husband paid for his trip himself, she participated exhaustively in the cultural activities in Adelaide, the visit was perfectly in line with government policy – visiting the diaspora is often done by leaders including the President and Prime Minister, and the government is also finally showing increasing concern about the number of people who have left Latvia to find work in other countries, often carrying with them very negative attitudes towards the Latvian state. And yet, Jaunzeme-Grende is still being pursued: she has been reported to the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), but one of the grounds for this appears extraordinary: that she did not ask for compensation from her husband for his share of accommodation in Adelaide, even though the hotels charge exactly the same price whether one person or two persons occupy the room!

We still face a political culture where scandal can be raised at any time, where because of the suspicion of corruption exaggerated details are seen as major wrongdoing, where Ministers are often left to hang, and where Latvia’s leaders show poor judgement on who to support and for what reason.

One thought on “The ‘scandal’ of a Latvian minister in Australia

  1. Good article Uldi. It really shows that some people don’t think or check their facts before making comments. I agree withyour comments about President Bērziņš 18. nov. speech

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