Another year is coming to an end and as always I will gather all what was important in Latvia during the 2013. The year 2012 was labeled by me as the year of quarrels, now in 2013 these quarrels have become a full time struggles. Struggles between various political forces and forces within the society have resulted in many calamities like the burning of the Riga Castle, the Zolitūte disaster and the breakdown of the Valdis Dombrovskis government. The results of these struggles are yet to be foreseen for next year as they are still unfolding in full strength. This was truly the year of Snake as the unpridicatbaly of the Snake was the eminent within the events of Latvia and elsewhere.
Municipal elections with a record low turnout
Municipal elections took place on June 1 a very hot summer day. Was this the reason for such a low participation of voters – 686 097 or 45,85% of all eligible voters? More possibly it was a political passivity within the towns and rural areas, the lack of new voters because of emigration. In such almost in every major city there were no big surprises. Cities such as Ventspils, Liepāja, Jēkabpils kept their mayors who had been in office for some 20 years. There were major changes in Daugavpils. The old leadership by Žanna Kulakova was voted out, as she made a poor move by joining the declining Reform Party and was caught up in corruption scandals. She was replaced by old time mayor of Daugavpils Jānis Lāčplēsis from the Unity. However, the most votes were acquired by the Harmony Center party. While securing stable win within the center of Latgalian region – Rēzekne, Harmony Center still is unable to take a clear lead over the second largest city of Latvia with the mayor Russian speaking population. Also the resort town of Jūrmala, favored by Russian millionaires, with one of the most unstable municipality with more than 4 mayors in four years, finally got a “stable” municipality with “just” five parties and Gatis Truksnis as the mayor. Despite his flamboyant arrogance and attempts of making a cult of personality he managed to secure leadership of the resort city. Harmony Center was unable to seize power in the major parts of Latvia, but one point of the Latvian map became their stronghold – the city of Riga, also known as the capital of Latvia.
Riga Municipality – a state within the state with a Tzar Nil Ushakov
When the young journalist Nil Ushakov from First Baltic Channel entered the politics he was portrayed as the new political hope of the pro-Russian parties. Seemingly good intellect, perfect Latvian knowledge skills and magnetic personality were what convinced many to elect him into parliament in 2006. However, the work in the opposition was boring for him and so on the 2009 he was placed as a first runner for the Riga municipal elections. With the help of the massive election campaign, using the 9th May celebrations, assisted by the advisers from the Russian Embassy, he secured a first great victory for the Harmony Center. He however had to share his power with Ainārs Šlesers an experienced businessman and a political gambler. By leaving the New Era party and the Civic Union who later united in Unity party, Ushakov and Šļeser had a stable dual leadership. Some said that Ushakov will be just a puppet in the Šlesers hands. But, on 2010 Šļesers made another gamble to gain entry into the new parliament that proved to be a political disaster for his party. The Vice Mayor Šlesers was replaced with his party member Andris Ameriks an experienced politician. Ushakov now gained a upper hand in all the deals within Riga and started to rule as sole Tzar of the city with Ameriks as his faithful First Advisor.
The power changed the actions and the personality of the Nil Ushakov. After the failure of his party in 2011, when it failed to enter the coalition despite gaining the most votes, he made a crucial step by supporting the two language referendum initiated by the Russian nationalist radicals. He now alienated himself from the leading Latvian parties and set path to long run hostile opposition in the Harmony Center. With Harmony Center in hapless opposition within the parliament, Ushakov made Riga as a fortress that disobeys the central government. While Dombrovskis government desperately pursued the austerity policy looking to lower the state budget deficit, Ushakovs made populist moves like giving free public transport for pensioners and school students. A multi million flower pavilion with no toilets and screeching doors, enormous andministarive resource spending on boosting on political advertising. Also dark cases such as assault on freelance journalist Leonīds Jākabsons who uncovered Ushakov association with the Russian Embassy. There is no proof of Ushakov has been involved in this crime against Jākabons, but the cynical tweet by Ushakovs – “I have an alibi!” at the time of the assault showed the face of the Tzar of Riga.
With all this on 2013 municipal elections the coalition parties should have to devise a way to topple him from his throne. Instead all was done to allow Ushakov to gain victory more easy. Instead of making a united election list each party went on their own. The Unity first runner was Sarmīte Ēlerte a notable figure from the times of Third Awakening, former editor of the newspaper Diena and former Minister of Culture. She however picked up a poor election strategy by centering on the nationalist slogans, “If we loose Riga, we loose Latvia!” a slogan more preferred by the National Alliance. National Alliance took advantage of this and made Baiba Broka as the first runner a jurist, working in the Ministry of Justice. A charming, calm but also a cunning woman Broka instead of emotional nationalist slogans put forward argumented social policy and in the end National Alliance won more seats than Unity. However, Ushakov’s Harmony Center unified list with Ameriks new party Honor to Serve Riga gained 54% of votes and secured the fortress of Riga.
Ushakovs now a comfortable leader with two cats living in his cabinet to show his good side made two poor choices. First an attempt to make a special Riga resident card for people registered in Riga. People with such cards would have a cheaper public transport prices, while others registered in other parts of Latvia would have to pay more. A wave of protest soon followed against such segregation of the people of Riga. After all many people who live in other towns have a daily work in Riga, or those who live in Riga, but have declared address in other municipalities. Despite governmental disapproval, protest campaigns Ushakovs went against all odds, even by openly bypassing the law issued these Riga Citizen Cards. On December 18 the Riga Town Council issued a budget deficit of 35 million Lats. Obviously a Riga Card was a vain attempt to fix the deficit issue. Free public transport for elders and school children is not exactly free, but funded by Riga tax payers. Another mistake by Ushakov was an erratic response to Zolitūde disaster. First showing sings of strong leadership and responsibility, after the resigning of Dombrovskis, Ushakovs showed an erratic behavior of calling the Dombrovskis resignation as the act of populism and aggressively denied any calls of resignation for himself. In the end Ushakov just showed that he is just another Eastern type politician who sees the resignation as a sign of personal weakness and taking responsibility as a sign of humiliation. Just like Vladimir Putin in Russia whose party United Russia has signed a cooperation agreement.
The fight within the coalition that lead to collapse of the Dombrovskis government
Already in 2011 after the emergency elections were over the new Dombrovskis government were seen as short lived by some. There were simply too many different parties with different aims. Unity party kept their Prime Minister seat, the Chairman of the Parliament, Finance, Defense and tried to lead the coalition. The Zatlers Reform Party already loosing six elected members in the first of parliament working day was badly traumatized. The leader Valdis Zatlers soon lost his control over the party because of his illness. So the party was simply renamed to the Reform Party. But, the reforms pushed by the ambitious Minister of Education Roberts Ķīlis that met a strong resistance right from the start finally ended when he resigned April on behalf of his poor health. Later he was caught in making drunk driving which resulted in a car crash. His replacement Vjačelavs Dombrovskis is more known for his scandalous press secretary Anna Kononova who previously worked for Ushakovs. Another Reformist Edmunds Sprūdžs also faced his defeat against the oligarch mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs in vain attempts of removing him. He resigned and later left the party as the new leadership was now looking to work with the Lembergs Green Farmers. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edmunds Rinkēvičš, Minister of Economy Daniels Pavļuts and the Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis had better results, but since the Reform Party ratings are below 5% the Reformist struggle started by Valdis Zatlers has suffered a mayor defeat.
Meanwhile the third coalition partner the National Alliance was playing a partisan warfare against the Dombrovskis. Constantly threatening the bring down the government if their demands are not met, they never came close to actually do it. Fight against the residence permits in return of investments for non EU citizens, resulted only in partial victory. The Minister of Culture Žanete Jaunzeme Grende a business lady tried to instore order over the Latvian National Opera. Despite Latvian Opera artists being famous all over the world, the Opera had financial problems. Jaunzeme Grende decided that the only way to save the opera was the change Opera leadership. But, the longtime director of the opera was wealthy Andrejs Žagars, with too many connections with National Alliance rivals and vast support base of the artistic society. In the end Valdis Dombrovskis dissatisfied with the Opera scandal dismissed Žanete Jaunzeme Grende sparking anger from the National Alliance. However, Dombrovskis also decided not to cancel the removal of Žagars. In such he shot two rabbits with one shot. Opera was then taken over by famous composer Zigmārs Liepiņš known for his conservative views and connections with the National Alliance. A pyrric victory for the National Alliance.
The NA defended Žanete Jaunzeme Grende in the most aggressive way, but in this same way they wanted to remove their own minister of Justice Jānis Bordāns by excluding him from his party and asking him to resign. The official reason was his affiliation with the Democratic Patriots an offshoot movement from NA. However, the real reason was the Bordāns desire to reform the insolvency process. Many of the NA leaders including the General Secretary Aigars Lūsis where an experienced insolvency administers boosting the party profit. Bordāns soon became involved in conflict with the NA jurist clan lead by Gaidis Bērziņš his predecessor. In the result he was excluded, despite his desire to continue working with the NA. But, NA could simply fire Bordāns from his office and replace him with Baiba Broka. Valdis Dombrovskis could only fire his ministers and he decided to keep Bordāns as the Minister of Justice. Confused NA declared the coalition agreement no longer in effect. Despite such calls, the coalition continued to work and even managed to issue a state budget for 2014. The coalition was like breaking building with unstable foundations and one great trigger was needed to destroy it completely- and that was the disaster of Zolitūde.
Latvia 2013 A year of disasters
When Latvia is mentioned on the first page of any international news page? A) Election event, B) major sports victory, C) a major disaster. Sadly enough on 2013 C) variant was the most frequent. The first event was in March during the Good Friday on March 30 223 under ice fisherman became stranded on the ice cap that was washed away from the coast. Navy ships and army helicopters were involved to get them back on the land. Fishing on frozen ice is a tradition in Latvia for decades, and every year at least 2 fisherman is lost because of unstable ice. But, when they start to fish on the ice of the frozen sea the trouble begins. Rūdolfs Blaumanis already at the end of the 19th century wrote a novel called “In the Shadow of Death” of ice stranded fisherman in the open sea. This shows how long Latvia had dealt with this issue. For news agencies like CNN this might had been amusing, but for Latvia nothing unusual and rather shameful.
The frosty winter took away 23 lives of Latvian citizens. But the hot summer was not only hot in temperature, but also in the flames that destroyed the Castle of Riga. The Medieval Castle surviving many wars, renovations had never caught a fire in his history. But on the night of June 20, when the repair workers had gone away the castle roof erupted in massive flames. The Castle again had renovation works, the Presidential residence was moved to the House of Blackheads in the main Old City Square. But, the Museum of Arts, and the Museum of National History were still working there. The whole night of June 20-21 was spent in the heroic struggle of extinguishing the flames. In the end the museum collections survived, but they will be moved to other places next year. The Presidential block however suffered the most.
The November 18 the Latvian Independence day seemed very happy and full of patriotism. Most could not imagine the calamity that took place on the late evening of November 21. A roof over crowded Maxima supermarket collapsed burying many people under the ruins. Safety services again tried to rescue people from the rubble of blocks, 3 firefighters were lost in the process. 54 people died resulting the biggest disaster in the Latvian history.
The rescue works were not over as the struggle to find the responsible begun. One blamed the Re&Re company that was responsible for the building, others blamed Maxima shopping chain because it continue to work while there was buildups of artificial garden on the roof. And also for making evacuation because of alarms that for some reason went off an hour before the roof collapsed. The Maxima response was a communications disaster when its arrogant and cynical Latvian Maxima director Gintars Jasinskis made comments that angered the whole Latvian society resulting boycott of the Maxima shopping chain. Jasinskis was later fired.
As Ushakovs and Dombroviskis was unwilling to take political responsibility that is where the President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš came in. In his first speech after the disaster he called the event as “murder” and called for political shakeup. And then he realized his words with actions. A week after Valdis Dombrovskis the longest serving Prime Minister resigned after a long conversation with the president.
Andris Bērziņš now turned everything into even greater confusion by his inability to pick up a new candidate. The Unity put forward Artis Pabriks the Minister of Defense, but since Bērziņš disliked the strong anti-Putinist Russia stance by Pabriks he was turned down. Bērziņš then added even more confusion by asking to make people elected president, with full powers over all controlling state offices like the Bank of Latvia, The Anti-Corruption Bureau, Constitutional Defense Service ect. A president with such functions will be almost Vladimir Putin in Russia. After that some even asked about the mental state of the aged president. As Bērziņš is continuing to play games by not calling an exact candidate for the Prime Minister; it makes a question – are his actions dictated by the foolishness or a rafinate political cause. After all Bērziņš was from the Green Farmers party, the party of Aivars Lembergs is looking for revenge after the dismissal of the parliament in 2011. Or an old time Communist Party official is looking for a slick way to allow the Harmony Center in the coalition. The answer for this question will reveal on next year.
The next year may be labeled as the year of changes. The new Euro currency, the parliamentary elections and many other things that will happen along the way. There were many positive things of 2013. The Song and Dance Festival, many achievements of our sportsmen and international cultural achievements. Latvia became more closer to Catalonia by its Prime Minister acknowledging their legitimate struggle for independence. A connection that must kept within the next year as Catalonia will hold a concluding referendum next year. The Dalai Lama visit was inspiring for many.
Next year is the year of the Wodden Horse for it may be a good omen fast victories, unexpected adventure, and surprising romance. It is an excellent year for travel, and the more far away and off the beaten path the better. However, as the Trojan Horse was made from the wood we must let to make 2014 go off that way. Let’s work, act and pray to make the year 2014 as the year of our personal and mutual victories!