The past month’s political events have tended to overshadow the coming referendum on July 7. And this—in some cases—was what they were seemingly intended to do.
The appointment by the Saeima of a deeply unpopular (and possibly compromised) President Valdis Zatlers at the insistence of the coalition parties has once more led the ruling coalition in Latvia to believe it can get away with anything. President Vīķe-Freiberga’s earlier stopping of two amendments to security laws was the most serious rebuff to such assumed omnipotence, and made her from that moment the extreme enemy of the ruling coalition. (The amendments alarmed the NATO defense alliance as they would have given a far wider range of unaccountable people access to security information.)
Every move since then has come with the calculation of blunting Vīķe-Freiberga and counting down the days to her departure. Equally important has been ensuring a successor who lacks the independence so characteristic of Vīķe-Freiberga’s term of office.
The considerable kerfuffle over Zatlers’ appointment has concentrated on the infamous “envelope” practice—the custom since Soviet times of giving medical personnel a gift or consideration to ensure better medical attention, and Zatlers like all medical personnel had received such additional payments. In a ludicrous, post-appointment action Zatlers then went to the Taxation Office to declare this never previously declared income, and both he and the head of the Taxation Office urged others to report these payments as well. Press reports a few days afterwards said a total of three individuals had done so.
Yet the ruckus over the envelopes, wounding as it may be to Zatlers, itself has drawn attention away from what is the more serious failing of the man: in not one public appearance or statement has Zatlers demonstrated the least expertise in any aspects of politics, either internal or external. Moreover, as a sign of how cynically the appointment was seen by the coalition, in all the debates not one single relevant quality of the man was ever articulated by those proposing him. Being a clinician and medical administrator was the sole qualification mentioned as sufficient for being a president—that, and being proposed by the coalition.
For a further example of the stance of the coalition, Tautas partija (People’s Party) deputy Jānis Lagzdiņš immediately after the Saeima decision on Zatlers went out to the sizable crowd protesting Zatlers’ appointment and gave them a physical “get stuffed” sign. Appearing smiling before the Saeima’s conduct committee, his punishment was the expected rap over the knuckles with a wet noodle: a warning.
The coalition’s hope for an earnest, administratively neutral, presentable but ultimately quiescent president may or may not be fulfilled. For the coalition, Zatlers is of course a completely expendable figure.
The arrival of the new president now signals the impending end of Vīķe-Freiberga’s term. In her last address to the Saeima, she gave her customary sombre recounting of political problems mixed with praise for economic and social progress and words of hope for Latvia’s future. But apart from the words, two aspects of the aftermath of her speech were noteworthy. Her speech ended without even polite applause from the Saeima—the coalition parties (and some opposition parties) cannot wait to see her go. Secondly, the standard ritual of presenting flowers to the president was overlooked—in the flower-mad culture of Latvia, where the slightest appointment or distinction or event, merited or not, will bring garlands of flowers to whomever, such an omission cannot be seen as mere forgetfulness.
The conduct of the Saeima and its deputies appears to have fallen to its lowest ebb.
Journalism, too, has deteriorated, as seen in the antagonism between Diena—fierce critic of Zatlers and the coalition while staunchly supporting Vīķe-Freiberga—and Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, supporter of exactly the opposite. NRA praised Zatlers’ appointment, and on this occasion made hay of Diena’s discomfort. Diena added to its own woes in two episodes at Zatlers’ first press conference after his election. One concerned two Diena journalists, pressing questions regarding the envelopes, resorting to angrily shouting their accusatory questions. Take time to think about whether you have ever seen this happen anywhere before—journalists shouting at an appointed president. And perhaps worse was to follow: when a Chinese journalist covering the event asked a question on Latvia’s relations with China, these same Diena journalists pulled the sides of their eyes into slits to mock him. This gesture is far from being just infantile nonsense or a joke, but a deeply disturbing sign of how racial stereotypes are still spontaneously current in Latvian life and how little journalists understand even the basics of their profession.
NRA meanwhile has stepped up its own campaign of denigrating Vīķe-Freiberga’s term of office, of which we are likely to hear a great deal more.
The referendum and what is at stake
July 7 is the referendum date but also, in somewhat bizarre irony, the last day of Vīķe-Freiberga’s tenure as president. And while much has happened to cast the referendum into the shadows, there is no doubt this is the main political event now before the summer silly season, and a crucial test also of Vīķe-Freiberga’s standing.
At the symbolic level, her departure is being used by her supporters as an occasion for a massive show of support. A “hill of flowers” (flowers again!) was created June 30 at Turaida to acknowledge her contribution. As Diena correspondent Laila Pakalniņa splendidly observed, such an agreeable undertaking was however rather beside the point: the best show of gratitude for Vīķe-Freiberga would be a massive “yes” vote in the referendum.
While technically this is a referendum about amendments to two laws on security arrangements, politically much more is at issue. If the referendum does not get the required numbers, it will be triumphantly seen by the ruling coalition as the uselessness of the president’s action, the impotence of an opposition and the general irrelevance of any public opinion to the running of the country in the coalition’s own interests. Never mind that the coalition, under fear of backlash, itself immediately withdrew the amendments after the president froze their implementation: all the pompous self-righteousness will be directed at those who dared oppose the coalition. On the other hand, a “yes” vote in the referendum will not unseat the coalition, but it will cause it to have trouble brushing off the rebuff as merely a hiccough and as irrelevant. No doubt a successful “yes” vote would redouble the coalition’s efforts to reimpose its hegemony and in particular put extra pressure on President Zatlers to never have any piece of legislation rejected by him. But it will also give confidence to the opposition to challenge this further. The stakes, as always, are high. A vote in the referendum is essential.
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