Latvia 2013 November Political Crisis

Collapsed Maxima Superstore that shaked the Latvian political system

It’s rather sad and frustrating to see all the events that have taken place during the last week since November 18, the day that most Latvians held dear. It also not pleasant to write about these things, but its my duty to report and say my opinion about what’s happening now in Latvia.

It was November 21, a rainy and dark day in contrast to bright and sunny November 18. Beautiful military parade was held involving NATO planes. Great fireworks display ended the rather positive and patriotic Independence day. And then on November 21 a tragedy happened that shocked the whole nation.

On 17:48 local time the State Fire and Rescue Service received news about roof collapse in Maxima supermarket Priedaine Street 20 at Zolitūde suburb. Maxima is shopping chain service from Lithuania. Entered the Latvian market in the economical growth years the Maxima soon became key player in Latvian shopping market. Its rivals are Rimi from Norway, Stockman from Sweden and other smaller shopping chains. As the name implies Maxima company is focused on maximum profit. And that was one of the reasons for this tragedy. This medium size supermarket was located in Zolitūde suburb on  the left side of river Daugava. Zolitūde named after word solitude soon became the center of national attention.

The roof had partially collapsed over the busy supermarket. As it was end of workday it was filled with people and for the worst the most part of roof had collapsed right on checkout counters.First rescue unit arrived and issued a state of severe danger. Reports described a large numbers of suffering people. Then on 19:01  the roof collapsed for the second time burying more people and rescuers under the rubble. And there was another more shocking thing: around 16:21 a fire alarm went off in the crowded supermarket asking people to evacuate. According to eyewitnesses no  proper evacuation by the shopping center administration was made. According to later statements by Maxima representatives the fire alarm was caused by welding construction in the basement. So it was considered a false alarm plus they also found unable to turn it off. However, other smaller shops like Narvesen and Drogas within the building ordered the evacuation of their employees. Maxima instead kept everyone inside that was crucial mistake. According to western safety standards even in case of false alarm the building should be evacuated until the reason for the alarm is determined. Instead only few rushed out, while others continued to shop under the breaking roof.

As enormous numbers of rescue service was brought to action, the size of rescued grew, but more worse the number of victims grew even steadily. At the end of third rescue day the final report was 29 injured and 54 dead. Along with them 3 firefighters lost their lives.

What was the cause of this tragedy? First we must describe this supermarket building project for its a unusual one: The building was completed on November 3 2011. Architectural design was by Zane Kalinka and Andris Kalinka from the local architectural firm of KUBS. It was developed by Homburg Valda and built by the company Re&Re. When the building was finished, it won the Latvian Building of the Year award. Just several months after its opening, a fire broke out in the market in which nobody was injured. At the time of the collapse, there was construction taking place, also by Re&Re. The area of supermarket was 4,750 m2 (51,100 sq ft). and cost around €1.4 million. The part of the building where the Maxima supermarket is located is owned by SIA Tineo, but originally was owned by The Homburg Group, which still owns the apartment building next to it.

The construction that took place on the roof of the working building was attempt of making winter garden with kids playgrounds. The Riga Building Administration had allowed to make construction works on the top of working supermarket. Originally the project just included green roof, however then the focus came to build garden with stone pathways. Plus the large residential building that was connected to the supermarket may have extorted its wall and destabilized the supermarket roof foundation. If this true then the building is in a danger of collapse that would bring even more tragic consequences.  More speculations follows about integral flaw in design and construction. But, the bottom line was that not one of the involved sides declined to take any responsibility until the end of investigation. Plus also they started their own investigations. And that opened door to widespread criticism and calls for resignations and swift changes. As its widely known in Latvia the investigations are slow and bring no clear results.

Ones asked to boycott or even ban Maxima chain. Others pointed their fingers at Re&RE. The company responsible also for many other grand projects like the repair works of Riga Castle, that went in flames in July during the repair works. It also turned out that one of the Re&Re built supermarkets Alfa had suffered a roof collapse on October 25 2012.  Since it happened in the night when the shop was closed the supermarket was not evacuated and the very event was kept silent. Yesterday in the State TV interview two owners of Re&RE company stated that they were not informed about it. And another roof collapse took place in Riga school also maintained by Re&Re, luckily it happened in the night right before Autumn semester. Meanwhile many were talking about the systematic incompetence and corruption in the building process that is widespread. It is no secret that many new buildings in Riga and other parts of Latvia are built in low quality. Many experienced flaws in quality just few months after unveiling, as they were built by incompetent builders. With large part of experienced builders emigrating to Western countries the Latvian building sector suffers of lack of skilled builders in all levels. Also the RE&RE as other such companies do not build themselves – they give job to lover level companies, but takes the most profit. What is worse the building companies enjoy very light control from the building inspections. On 2009 the Latvian parliament Saeima in the spirit of austerity policies closed the State Building Inspection. Since then the building inspection is only carried out by local municipal inspections. In such way the control over the buildings were weakened, and on 2013 more changes were made within the Building Law to ease the administrative control over the private builders.

This lead to question is the government of the Riga municipality responsible? Latvian President Andris Bērziņš sent a strong emotional message calling the tragedy as “murder” and called for statewide responsibility. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in his usual slow tempered style called the event as “crime” and demanded a fast investigation. The Chairman of Saeima (Parliament) Solvita Āboltiņa compared the disaster to 9/11 in America. Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual style rather blamed government and fired some members of Riga Building Inspection that signed the documents approving the supermarket construction. He however, did not saw much blame for himself.

On October 27 Valdis Dombrovskis after meeting the President Andris Bērziņs issued a resignation. Longest serving Latvian Prime Minister who survived the hardest years of crisis and the dismissal of Saeima of 2011 now made a decision to resign. It may seem that he was forced to resign by the president as he was meeting him in smile, but the left the meeting in unusual emotions and in tears issued his resignation. An event that surprised most including his party members, ministers and advisers.

Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual arrogance declined that he should resign too as he was supported by 55% of voters and he needs to finish his job, not to quit. A typical gesture of pro-Kremlin type politician who sees the resignation as the sign of weakness. Instead he would just put others to blame not himself. It’s a systematic belief caused by post-soviet thinking that taking responsibility is a sign of weakness and  vilingful resignation is a sign of humiliation.

Valdis Dombrovskis came to power when Latvia was deeply hit by the economic crisis. The previous government by Ivars Godmanis had left an inheritance of flawed state budget, nationalized PAREX Bank and International Monetary Fund connection. In his first government Valdis Dombrovskis managed to hold a government filled with hostile Peoples Party who was one of the blame for the crisis. He pragmatically pushed tough austerity measures and won the 2010 election. He led the coalition with the Green Farmers Union lead by Aivars Lembergs accused of corruption charges.  Despite heavy pressure from Green Farmers he kept his seat and was left unscarred by the dismissal of parliament on 2011. Despite his party Unity that came in third he again took the Prime Minister seat and took over a complicated coalition with Reformists lead by former president Valdis Zatlers and National Union that constantly opposed him. His third government was in constant struggle, two of the Reform Party ministers had resigned because of great criticism from the society. National Union Minister of Culture was asked to resign by Dombrovskis, while the National Union had excluded their own Minister of Justice from their party. As Dombrovskis decided to keep him, the National Union called that they no longer apply to coalition treaty. His coalition was slowly collapsing, but most predicted that it will last till the 2014 elections. Because there was no one good enough to replace him.

What is the political future of Latvia? It will be tough work to find a proper candidate, most parties have seldom choice of leaders especially National Union and the Reform Party. As Dombrovskis has stated that he will not lead the next government the Unity will had to wage struggle to keep the power. Green Farmers will probably try to enter coalition. Harmony Center actions are unpredictable as their may ally with  Green Farmers to secure power or will stay in opposition to gather forces for 2014 elections. And the responsibility of the President Andris Bērziņš in this situation is crucial.

In the eve of 2014 elections such situation is unbearable. The political rivalry could overshadow the Maxima disaster investigation. The stable currency change from Lats to Euro may be strained. A national ethnic rhetoric may again rise as opposing nationalist groups will try to gain attention. Russia who has become excessively hostile to most Western countries may try to take advantage of this situation. And new political forces lead by re-emerging politicians as Einars Repše and former state  controller Ingūna Sudraba will use to boost their political capital. Latvia is in for political rivalry and social instability. Rationality and carefulness can bring us to better while irrational and dubious politics may bring us in to nowhere.

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