Latvia 2012 The Year of Quarrels

As every year comes to conclusion this site gathers all the important events that happened in Latvia. Last time I called the year 2011 as the year of Troubles as the emergency elections, bankruptcy of bank Latvijas Krājbanka and national ethnic issues were truly troublesome for Latvia. This year will be called the year of quarrels because of the various issues in political fields that often sparked quarrels between politicians and the various groups of the society. This was the year of reform attempts that faced great contra-reaction from those who opposed the changes for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, many of the government cabinet ministers were asked to resign in almost regular basis by various groups of society. Also the inner instability within the government coalition is clearly visible although the government still works and most of the ministers except one still keeps his seats. This was an interesting year full of discussions and actions and the main events and themes will be outlined here.

The two state language referendum fails and issues about other possible referendums continues.  

The necessary 180 000 petitions for initiation for making Russian as the second state official referendum was gathered at the end of the last year by Russian nationalist radical organization “For Native Language” led by Vladimirs Lindermans the ex national Bolshevik. It may be that the referendum would not take place if the Major of Riga Nils Ušakovs would not join the campaign along with other members of pro-Russian leftist party the Harmony Center. Although both sides denies it the Harmony Center and the Linderman party has secretive ties together. Linderman and his radical members saw the referendum as their kick-start for their political career. In 2013 a municipal elections will take place and Linderman hopes to enter the elections in some municipalities with significant Russian population.

The referendum itself took place in 18 February. 70,66% of the voters or 1 091 757 citizens of Latvia. 74,80% said decisive no to two state languages, 24,88% said yes and Latvian as the sole national language was kept secure by the majority of people. The great voter activity was achieved by calls from all Latvian parties to take part in the referendum and say “no” to show the strong position of the Latvian people. On the other side of the front those who voted “yes” wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the current Latvian government and their national position.

The example of what could be achieved by such referendum did not went unnoticed by other Russian political groups. The political party “For Equal Rights in United Latvia” that has lost last two elections initiated the referendum to give citizenship to all non-citizens of Latvia. This sensitive issue was raised by them to resurrect popularity of the forgotten party. There are still about 15% of Latvian people who are non citizens that live in Latvia. Most of them are Russian speakers the ones that entered Latvia during the Soviet times as immigrants. By the citizenship law made in 1995 these people who had no legal nexus with prewar independent Latvia was not eligible for citizenship as they or their ancestors did not resided in Latvia before 1940. The Soviet citizenship was not taken into account as the Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, during the last 20 years the legislation allowed most of the non citizens go trough the naturalization process to acquire the Latvian citizenship. But, some of them did not because of lack of language skills or strict stance against naturalization. One part of them acquired Russia citizenship that was more easier for them and maybe more suitable.

The lawmakers saw great danger in using referendums as tools for making political instability and national ethnic troubles and rushed to change the referendum law to make the petition gap larger than 10 000 sign-ins. As always the legislation process was slowed down by the opposition parties and various groups and experts. The first version accepted by Saeima (parliament) was turned down by the president of Latvia Andris Bērziņs. At last the law was passed in November that now required 30 000 sing-ins in the first step and then after 2015 there will be only one step with 154 000 sing-ins. Before that the first step required 10 000 sing-ins and then 150 000 sing-ins. Opposition and liberal political groups said that this makes initiating new referendum impossible and the opposition parties are threatening of gathering sing-ins for referendum against the new referendum law.

But, the gatherers for citizenship free giving referendum achieved their goal and gathered 10 000 sing-ins for the first step. But the lawmakers saw their project for the changes in the Satversme (constitution) as unconstitutional and against the principles of the state. This was approved by various law experts and now the pressure on Central Election Commission was to not approve the referendum project for the next sing-in step. And after month of thinking in November the Central Election Commission for the first time decided to turn down the referendum project for the next sing-in step. Some political commentators saw this as threat to democracy while Russia again spread out the news about “ethnic discrimination in Latvia”. While the all the attempts of preventing destabilizing referendums may really hurt democracy the history shows that in most cases the referendums in Latvia were mostly based on national issues even before WWII and really made divisions and instability within society.

But the Russian radicals along with Vladimir Linderman continued to be active players in politics. The Linderman’s newest project is the Autonomy of Latgalia (Latgale) region from Latvia. Since Latgalia had the highest percent for support for Russian language he thinks that its rightful that Latgalia deserves autonomy. He however did took account of Latvian Latgalians who may not think so. Because of these actions his office and apartment was raided by the Security Police. Security Police also has noted that his party is illegal since he did not made all the steps to fully register his party but because of gaps in laws the society and party registry cannot cancel his party existence and Linderman still presses ahead and hopes to gain success in 2013 municipal elections even though he is not a  Latvian citizen.

The fight between parties within coalition 

The emergency elections in 2011 was won by Harmony Center but it stayed in opposition and because of support for two state referendum it may stay there until next elections. The Green Farmers Union has bad relations with Unity and the Reform Party that categorically dismiss any cooperation with it is also locked up in the opposition. With that that the centrist Unity, liberal Reform Party (ex Zatler’s Reform Party) and national conservative National Alliance along with six non party members the “Olšteins six” has great chance to lead the country for three more years with the leadership of Valdis Dombrovskis who was lead the state since 2009.

But it seems that Reform Party and especially the National Alliance dislikes the bossy attitude by the Unity. The latter has made many sabotaging and blackmailing attempts on Unity. The first one by them was the resignation by the Minister of Justice Gaidis Bērziņš over issues of returning the Jewish property. For years the Latvian Jewish community has asked to return or at least compensate the lost property of various Jewish organizations after the WWII. Bearing the fact that these organizations were many and their property very valuable the various Latvian governments were unable to met the Jewish demands. The government of Aigars Kalvītis was ready to pay large compensations but then changed their minds. But, the national minister Gaidis Bērziņš who first firmly declined any chances of looking at this issue again, then resigned after he was asked by Prime Minister to consider it after-all he resigned because of “discrepancy of opinions” between Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister and National Alliance and the Unity. It’s a question if this move was dictated by antisemitism, or just inter rivalry between nationalists and Unity. Others however note that Gaidis Bērziņš had secret ties with oligarch Aivars Lembergs and was caught up in corruption therefore he used the Jewish question as the way to hide his true issues with the law. Other reason was simply the fears by the nationalist party to lose its hardline voters.  Whatever was the true reason this made a strain on Latvian-Jewish relations.

But that was not enough from the nationalists and they turned to blackmail. At the October in time of new budget approval the National Alliance threatened not to vote for the new budget if significant amount of money would not be allocated for the demographic policies that truly require attention. If the budget is not approved the government must resign. After load quarrels and  political bargain National Alliance achieved at least half of their demands bringing new financial improvements for the new parents.

However, the National Alliance had another antic in mind. Ahead of approving decision of joining the Eurozone in 2014  five members of the national fraction declared that they are not sure about voting for joining Eurozone. For two weeks a rest of coalition attempted to convince nationalists to make up their minds to vote for Euro. If they would vote against the chance to enter Eurozone in 2014 will be missed and Latvia will not fulfill the obligations to EU. The Nationalists decided that this antic is too dangerous and decided to vote for Eurozone. The hardline nationalists and ultra-patriots now saw National Alliance as traitors and their gamble backfired against themselves.

The reforms and counter-reforms

When ex-president Valdis Zatlers called emergency elections he said that new swift reforms needs to take place. In so he formed his own Reform Party. And after entering coalition the Reform Party gained power of Ministry of Education, Ministry of Economics, Ministry of Regional Affairs and Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs and the Minister of Economics Daniels Pavļuts were mostly praised, the Minister of Education Roberts Ķīlis and the Regional Minister Edmunds Sprūdžs met most stiff opposition to their reforms.

Roberts Ķīlis is a social anthropologist with education in Cambridge University. With his pro western outlook and admiration to western education system he had ambition to completely reorganize the Latvian education. He has many ideas like extending the learning semesters, replacing text books and workbooks with tablet PC for every schoolchildren. But for Academic Education he has even more ideas: removing study budget places completely and replace them with vouchers and force students to take credits compulsory. Closing many higher education facilities like Universities and colleges because they are inefficient and make one University that is in Europe top 10. While on ideal basis these ideas seem great in practical basis they are draconian. The whole educational system that is based on Latvian limited resources cannot adopt to such reforms altogether as the most of the personnel of the educational system are not ready for such changes. Therefore,  most of Higher education facilities called Ķīlis to resign as Ķīlis backfired calling them treacherous stagnates. His campaign against the Higher Education will bring more bad than good as many youngsters seeing this will choose to go to abroad to get Higher education. In the end the stiff quarrels between Ķīlis and education representatives ended with health problems and surgery for Ķīlis. He however stays defiant and promises to return after the recovery. But, now even the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has doubts in him.

The Regional minister Edmunds Sprūdžs has no Higher Education yet, but great plans and ambitions. One his ideas that came trough but faced great stiffness from the municipalities was to scale down the size of the deputy seats in Town municipalities. Other his great struggle for he is known is the fight against the oligarch Aivars Lembergs the major of rich port town Ventspils. Because of his corruption charges he has no full rights of authority as the major. But the prosecutors thought that he still uses his major title to affect the courts. So Edmunds Sprūdžs decided to discharge Lembergs from his major duties. Despite the fact he already was in fact discharged by the prosecutors.  But Lembergs called this decree illegitimate and still went to work as majors office as usual and went to court to appeal against the sentence. With the elections drawing again in 2013 Lembergs has great chance to become major again because of vast support from citizens of Ventspils despite all the corruption charges. And with that the eternal fight against Lembergs will start once again.

Ķīlis and Sprūdžs are political amateurs with great plans, but with lack of experience. But these two ladies from Unity party has big political experience but still a great opposition. The Health Minister Ingrīda Circene has always used iron fist policies during his previous terms as a Health Minister and she is using them again now. She was asked to resign because of inability to raise pays for doctors and making new provisions for family doctor qualifications. She also came out with strict provision that those who only pays taxes are eligible for state paid healthcare. In situation were many are not able do that it would sound draconian.

The Minister of Welfare Ilze Viņķele from Unity is also a iron lady who has many great ideas but very straight assertive way of communication that many would dislike. When she was interviewed in Latvian Playboy magazine she was asked why the pensions for people who worked in Soviet times are much lover than they earned back then. Her explanation shocked the Latvian Pensioner Federation and she was asked to resign. Before that she was attacked by conservative organizations about support  for children’s book that promoted gender change. Viņķele is called as the next possible replacement for Valdis Dombrovskis as she has already lead few government meetings in the absence of Dombrovskis but her strong language may scare away the weak hearten  voters.

The photo Radar saga

The last notable point for quarrels was the photo radars. The photo radars are seen as the important tool for road safety and minimizing  the traffic accidents. They are in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland and the rest of Europe and so logically the Latvia needed them too.

But, as in many similar events in Latvia the way how the photo radars were introduced brought them to their failure and removal. In neighboring countries the photo radars are set up and maintained by state police. But, in Latvia because of lack of money the photo radars were set up and maintained by private firm “Vitronic”. The problem was that the contract between Vitronic and police allowed Vitronic to take half of the money earned from speed fines. Of course the private company was interested not in preventing the speed limit breaking, but to gain as much of money from it. So the dreadful green boxes were placed   along all the streets of Riga, often disguised and because they were portable their location always changed. The contract required to make stationary radars but the company was slow to that also no radars were placed outside Riga. The great resentment from drivers was big, the radars were vandalized, others put home made signs to warn drivers of the hidden radars. In the end the contract with great expense was broken and radars disappeared from the streets before Christmas.

Prospects for the next year

The main event in 2013 will be the state-wide municipal elections. The main battleground will be Riga, were Latvian right-wing parties will be battling to oust the pro-Russian Major Nils Ušakovs along with his Harmony Center party. For years the young ex-journalist Nils Ušakovs has become powerful, arrogant and eccentric ruler of the main city. His city government works as caviar socialdemocrats, who spends a lot of money on popular decisions like free tickets for pensioners and school students while shunning the frugal state government. Despite the large spending and placing the party members in public city enterprises Riga has still many problems and the city government has sunken into corruption.  But, because of Russian speaker majority that adores Ušakovs the right-wing parties will have to show a stiff fight to mobilize against Ušakovs.

The next great issue will be the economic recovery and the drive to Euro. The opposition against the Euro in Latvia is great and often irrational, so the forces who will call for referendum to join Eurozone will be strong. Although Latvia technically already agreed to join Eurozone in 2003 when voting for EU membership, many people don’t understand this. If such actions will be taken the joining the Eurozone will be canceled and Latvia EU membership will be doubted in general. Some big country across the Eastern border will probably like this.

And off coarse as the reform process has not yet finished if not even went few steps further the quarrels between ministers and the representatives will continue. The year 2012 was the year of Great Fire Dragoon so no wonder this year was quite stormy all over the year. The next year is year of Snake so lets look out for treachery and intrigues judging by whats to expected they may be many of those. But also the Mayan calendar ended in 21 December bringing new Earth time cycle, the beginnings and  endings are always difficult, but whats to come in between should be worth to work for.

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