Vol 0, No 20
8 February 1999
T H E A M B E R C O A S T:
Is This Really Latvia's Way?
Hands down, since the restoration of independence in 1991, the most successful political party in Latvia has been Latvia's Way (Latvijas Cels). They have participated in every government since the first, fully-free general elections in 1993, leading three of the five. In fact, Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs has been running Latvia's foreign policy since the beginning. It appears that Latvia is certainly on Latvia's Way, but whither?
Some argue it is Latvia's Way to prosperity, to EU and NATO membership, to re-integration with the West. Others argue that it is simply Latvia's Way to ruin, to shadiness, even back Eastward. The last entry is a cynical view, but the direction Latvia's Way has taken Latvia has some cause for concern, especially in the past few months.
That seems odd to some, since the primary members of the party have not changed much since its inception. It was founded as a liberal, centrist movement bringing together an odd combination of former Soviet-era bosses, emigre activists, lawyers, academics, and the ever-loved biznesmeni. For years the foreign policy push by Foreign Minister Birkavs has been fully towards the West. The man, known for his soundbytes, once said: "Russia is like a big vacuum cleaner and we must always run forward to be rooted in Western society. If we stop running, we will be sucked in." It is staggering to see allegations that the party is straying from its original goals and drifting back towards the other direction.
The recent row began with the astonishing interview with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana published in the Russian-language paper Respublika, in which the NATO chief made many derogatory remarks about Latvia's commitment to reform and democracy. What made it astonishing was not merely the severity of the comments, but their existence. Immediately NATO headquarters sent notes of complaint to both the newspaper and the Latvian Foreign Ministry, exclaiming that there has never been such an interview. Soon the "interviewer" from Respublika, Mikhail Mamilov, admitted it had been "compiled" from many sources, including a press conference Solana held in Riga a year earlier. Many of the comments, however, still cannot be attributed to Solana and the case appears to be a clear-cut case of falsification.
To be honest, some people at first jumped on the fact it was a Russian-language paper that published the piece. But soon it became more intriguing when it was revealed that Mamilov is also the press secretary of Latvia's Way. Though he claimed there was no link between his party and newspaper work, and the party vehemently supported that claim, it already opened the floodgates of speculation from within Latvia and beyond. The firing of Mamilov from Latvia's Way, nor his half-hearted statement apologising for taking some liberties (far short of a retraction), helped calm the waters.
Soon the prestigious Jamestown Foundation reported that the questionable piece in Respublika was perhaps not an isolated incident. They pursued the matter and noted that earlier, Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans argued that Latvia could very well follow a Finnish model of development and relations with Russia, hinting at the "Finlandisation" of Latvia. Jamestown went further by suggesting that Moscow-influenced politicians in Latvia are attempting to re-steer Latvia away from NATO membership in order to promote the lucrative transit market. The article noted that many of Latvia's Way members are tied closely with transit interests. This makes the result of a survey by SKDS, which stated over 82 per cent of the public believe that financial backers of political parties have a significant influence on policies, ever more worrisome.
Immediately comments issued by the government (which is led by Latvia's Way) were scathing, calling the Jamestown analysis "ridiculous" among other things. While main centre-right opposition People's Party (Tautas Partija) called for an explanation, Prime Minister Kristopans responded with several off-the-cuff remarks that are less than diplomatic and courteous. Clearly this issue has touched a raw nerve with the Prime Minister. Foreign Minister Birkavs, a man of calm nerves, tried to repair the damage done to Latvia's reputation abroad, but was not helped by his party colleagues back in Latvia. As reported by LETA, Latvia's Way chairman Andrejs Pantelejevs suggested that the Jamestown Foundation is but "one of a thousand organisations based in Brighton Beach." Brighton Beach, known to some as "Little Odessa", is the part of New York City which is home to thousands of émigrés from the former Soviet Union, mostly Russia. Though not directly related, during a budget debate in the Saeima , the Prime Minister launched a diatribe which can best be called a temper tantrum, at the opposing People's Party. Clearly tempers are frayed with Latvia's Way, which do not help their popularity nor programme.
Since taking office a few months back, Kristopans has done an about-face from what many analysts predicted. The Prime Minister has slowed down privatisation to re-assess the conditions, much to the surprise of the Wall Street Journal Europe and other publications. His half-hearted pledge to battle corruption has focused on the drafting of more laws instead of enforcement and prosecution. Many members of Latvia's Way, including the current PM, had been targets of corruption probes in the past few years. Kristopans even resigned his former post as Transport Minister over a scandal. Latvia's Way chairman Pantelejevs was actually found guilty for not filing correct financial declarations, but escaped prosecution due to the "marginal" violation of the law. A significant number of the public believes the government has no interest in dealing with corruption, according to a World Bank study.
Overall, the direction taken by the two-month old government of Vilis Kristopans has been alarming to analysts. His erratic and temperamental behaviour has become an antithesis to the calm nature of his foreign minister, Valdis Birkavs. Public perception, especially on issues like corruption, is decisively negative against the government. Latvia's reputation abroad has been tarnished further the more Kristopans tries to defend his original interview. Is the former basketball star running Latvia's Way to ruins? Because if that's the case, it could very well be Latvia's way to ruins.
Mel Huang, 8 February 1999
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