Another year is brought to conclusion and new year will be born. Time again to sum up the main events that took place in Latvia during 2015. Last year 2014 I called the “Year of peril”. It was the peril of war coming from our eastern neighbor. That peril remained for rest of the 2015. However, a new trend showed up in Latvian public discourse. It was fear from terrorism, refugees and homosexuals that was stirred up by populist nationalist forces and forces with close ties to Kremlin. The last two months brought a another political crisis that is currently developing and it may have highly undesirable outcome. That’s why 2015 was the year of fright. In this post the main themes selected by me will be discussed in detail. This analysis entitles my personal opinion.
Major Malfunction in the Latvian Politics
The origins of this major malfunction can be traced in November 2013. After the tragic Maxima supermarket roof collapse that took away lives of 54 people the government of Valdis Dombrovskis resigned. Valdis Dombr0vskis from Vienotība (Unity) party had been Prime Minister of four governments since 2009. He resigned to take the “political responsibility” for Zolitūde disaster. Immediately, after his resignation a discussions begun of new PM from Vienotība who would replace him. Solvita Āboltiņa a parliamentary speaker and leader of the ruling party refused to take the PM seat. Vienotība placed bets on Artis Pabriks then a Minister of Defense to become a PM. However, president Andris Bērziņš refused to appoint him for some personal dislikes. So as its happens in Latvian politics when top political players refuse to take a front position a person from the back door is placed forward. Laimdota Straujuma for many years served as secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and as non party member was issued for Minister of Agriculture by Vienotība. She was not a public person and had less attention from the media. Now from January 22 2014 she suddenly became the first woman in Latvian history to lead the government. It was a result of a long practice of salon politics in Latvia.
Laimdota Straujuma first said that she intends to lead the government until 2014 elections. When election campaign came she was placed forward as PM candidate to lead the government for next four years. A brave words since never in Latvian history there was a government that lasted full parliamentary therm. Likewise when she formed the government with three parties – Vienotība, Green Farmers Union and National Alliance (NA) many predicted that her government will not last long. However, there was a reason her government was politically stable during first half of 2015 – from January to June Latvia was a presiding state over the Council of the European Union. It was first time Latvia had such an important task in EU and it was done without much problems and without major strides. Thankfully, for Straujuma the conflict in Ukraine had gone to stalemate and there was not much of pressure from Russia as some expected.
The troubles for Straujuma started after the end of EU presidency. First major issue for Latvian government was the refugee crisis. The war in Middle East and North Africa had caused a sharp influx of refugees coming to EU countries. Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Italy could no longer sustain hundreds of thousands refugees who are stranded in refugee camps akin to to go more wealthier Germany, France of Sweden that would offer work, living place in education. To maintain this ongoing crisis the EU leadership made plan that all EU countries must settle a number of refugees. Latvia as many other Eastern European nations resisted assigning quotas, but agreed to host a fixed number of people. At first the number was 250 people, few months later the number rose to 534 people. The coalition party National Alliance begun stiff opposition and objected to hosting any refugees at all. A large anti-refugee protest supported by the NA was hosted near the governmental building, causing tensions among the government. At one moment the Green Farmers also started to object the government decision and insisted on parliamentary vote. Then the President Raimonds Vējonis came forward with ultimatum to government to stop quarreling and make a joint decision. In the end despite NA continued protests Latvia will have to host above 500 refugees from Middle East and North Africa next year. With them Latvia already has its own problem of illegal immigrants coming from Russian and Belarusian border. The Vietnamese, Afghans and others. The challenge of the future government is how to properly host and integrate these newcomers strangers to our country.
Straujuma also managed to sell the Citadele bank to Ripplewood foreign investors despite controversy, scandals caused by eccentric Minister of Healthcare GuntisBelēvičs with his reform plans and problems with law and teacher strike caused my mismanagement by Minister of Education MārīteSeile.
The event that triggered her demise was emerging scandal over Latvian national airline Air Baltic. Air Baltic survived the economic crisis and still stands as the biggest airline in the Baltic States. However, it needed an investor and investment advisory company Prudentia recommended a German businessman Ralph Dieter Montag-Girmes who promised to invest 52 million Euros with government adding further 80 million. The investor has connections with Russian Aviation industry and the deal could involve the purchase of Sukhoi Superjet planes for Air Baltic fleet. At first the Minister of Transportation Anrijs Matīss denounced this proposal and broke agreement with Prudentia. Then at the last hours before governmental meeting over Air Baltic funding he placed forward this proposal ” as the best of the worst decisions”. In midnight November 4 government approved this decision.
Then in the morning Laimdota Straujuma fired Matīss “for failing to inform the government about the Air Baltic funding deal”. The deal was approved not just by Matīss but by whole Laimdota Straujuma government – in that moment she missed her rightful moment of admitting a mutual mistake and resign. However, the show started and lasted till December 7. Straujuma was defiant and supported by president, however criticized by Solvita Āboltiņa and some other members of Vienotība. On December 6 Vienotība held congress that some hoped would bring change to decaying party popularity and some statement would be issued over Straujuma governments future. No such thing happened and the congress turned out to be parody of boredom. Nothing was changed, no new statements. Straujuma was still defiant. Monday came and on 11:00 Laimdota Straujuma visited president Vējonis and announced of her resignation. A salon politics had again made their score.
What happened afterwards is turning in to major political malfunction. Solvita Āboltiņa who possibly played leading role in this coup is the best of the worst candidates for Prime Minister. She was not elected in last parliamentary elections and only entered parliament when his party member Jānis Junkurs who came above her in voting results immediately resigned from MP seat in favor of Āboltiņa. Āboltiņa disgraced herself when she walked past protesting pensioners and booed them. All the apologizes could not save her fading grace and despite that all she was placed forward as the Vienotība top PM. But, NA took a strict stance that they will not enter government formed by Āboltiņa. A small group of Vienotība members in parliament the so-called “liberal group” also stood against Āboltiņa. So if Āboltiņa does not came up with some clever combinations to force her opponents to accept her she will be unable to form a long-lasting government without NA and facing a possible party split up. Vienotība has been framed by Dzintars Zaķis election fraud scandal, had suffered from misdeeds of Āboltiņa and lost its many stronger members. Valdis Dombrovskis now works in EU government, Artis Pabriks is in EU parliament. Veiko Spolītis a popular leading anti-Kremlin policy advocate was fired from the party for drunk driving incident. Vienotība ratings has come to rock bottom to 5%.
So that may lead to government lead by two more popular former coalition parties. Green Farmers and NA. While their party leaders refuse to stand up to PM candidacy they have their own candidates from the salon. Green Farmers may propose Māris Kučinskis a political veteran who was top leader of now defunct Peoples Party. NA may came up with Roberts Zīle – another veteran from the nationalist right specter who now serves as MP in EU parliament. The chances of Green Party lead government would mean a rising prominence of mayor of Ventspils city Aivars Lembergs – a leader of the Green Farmers who is also accused of state forgery and corruption on the highest levels. Its also means a greater influence of Latvia nationalist conservative right who has become ill famous for its purity laws, anti-refugee policy and corruption on justice sector. Aivars Lembergs has been known as the opponent of NATO and sympathizer of Vladimir Putin. NA while being anti-Kremlin on paper is known for sympathizing Kremlin conservative policies and being outright EU skeptic. A new populist anti EU government like one in Poland and Hungary is on the rise and its also up to our new president Raimonds Vējonis to choose if he wants such government. He was also member of the Green Farmers Alliance.
“Ok, I must take a drink first!”
Those were the first words of newly elected president Raimonds Vējonis when he came to speak after being elected as the President of Latvia. These words were probably spoken in emotional reaction to his election after four exhausting voting runs by the parliament. Surely a leader of the Green Party would like a refreshing still water. But, such slack attitude became signature of the new president. He took part in Latvian version of “Saturday Night Live” where he drove a bobsleigh, he took part in basketball game and many other public activities. His predecessor Andris Bērziņš who became 70 years old last year in these therms was a sharp contrast. Andris Bērziņš who had become annoyance of his mindlessness, lack of fast decision-making and bad English skills was forced to abstain from placing his candidacy for second therm. Raimonds Vējonis was a long running Minister of Environment and then unexpectedly became Minister of Defense. When war in Ukraine started he took a tough stance on Russia, called the events in Ukraine as the “Russian aggression”, laid out the plans for increasing militarization and helped to increase the NATO presence in Latvia. He condemned Aivars Lembergs outlandish criticism of NATO presence in Latvia and as president still takes a tough stance in defense issues. Will Raimonds Vējonis will be responsible enough to avoid a Russia leaning EU skeptic government to came to power next year? That will be first major responsibility of the new president.
Latvia – one of the most pro-Kremlin member of NATO and EU?
The above statement may sound provocative. Greece, Hungary, Czech Republic all have state leaders who had leaned towards Kremlin or praised the Putin’s policy. Latvian leaders always have spoken out their support towards NATO and EU and called for support for Ukraine and Georgia. But, if we move from words to actions we may see a surprising scene- Latvian politics in many ways are very pro-Kremlin. And that posses a danger to our state and society. Lets see what are the main points of Latvian pro-Kremlin policy.
One of the leading themes of Kremlin anti-western propaganda is that western liberal democracies have corroded the family values, has institutionalized perversion and that has led to complete degradation of the European civilization. And there are supporters of this thesis among members of the Latvian government. This year Latvia held annual Europride that was met with rapid homophobia within Latvian social nets, but did not lead to any violent protests as in Ukraine at the same time. However, the conservative “family support groups” gained support of the pro-Kremlin party Harmony who made proposal for “purity teaching” in the Latvian schools. The proposal aimed for censorship of learning content to limit mentioning things like homosexuality, transsexualism, and instead pushed on promoting on heterosexual relationships as only preferred choice of life. Harmony the opposition party gained support from NA who also thinks that liberals in Europe and especially in Scandinavia are degrading family values. In Estonia a gay unions are allowed while Latvian constitution only defines marriage between man and woman. After a load discussions between “purity law” supporters and opponents the amendments that opened doors for censorship in education and beyond. Latvian politics had fallen prey for Russian anti-western propaganda and it was supported by most Russophobic party. Currently there are many active organizations in the country that are promoting Kremlin family values that will seek to affect the state laws even more next year.
Latvian resistance to Russian propaganda was also weakened by the Latvian coalition parties. The legislators made amendments to radio broadcasting laws that insisted that radio stations that has 50% of its content in Latvian must broadcast fully in the state language. There are many Russian language radio stations in Latvia, some of them like “Russia Hit Radio” that has frequency in Latvia and its tied to Kremlin propaganda was the target for this law. Radio station “Russia Hit Radio” owner Uģis Polis started to protest and gained support from Green Farmers MP Armands Krauze who introduced now amendment that raised the Latvian language cap to 51%, meaning Uģis Polis station would avoid the full move to Latvian language. Such changes only would prevent Russian radio stations from broadcasting in Latvian and continue to relay Kremlin propaganda. And again this was supported by leading NA politicians. President Vējonis turned down the changes and sent back for review, however after “minor” corrections the amendment was voted in again. And that came after many speeches promising to limit Kremlin propaganda. Not only that also the NA and other party members managed to fire the chairman of National Electronic Media Council Ainārs Dimants who was considered in informal conversations as too liberal and allowing “homosexual propaganda” in the state media.
Latvian politicians also like to speak of increasing the security and gain energy source independence from Russia. Lithuania in therms of energy independence has taken a huge steps. Lithuania and Estonia have vastly boosted their defense and security over the years. Latvia has only begun boosting the long neglected defense budget after March 2014. Latvian Armed forces have bought first armed vehicles in 25 years which were used before by British army. Latvia has managed to rebuild its only military airfield in Lielvārde so US jets may land there. Latvian Interior Affairs Ministry has issued plans for fence among the completely unprotected Russian border. With 100 meter gap in every 1000 meters to sustain “animal migration”. Bears, wolves, illegal immigrants and Green men rejoice! Luckily after journalists discovered this the idea of animal migration holes were dropped. But, that just shows how shortsighted is the Latvian defense planing.
In terms of energy independence the Russian Gazprom again gained victory in Latvia. Despite EU directive to cancel gas monopoly in Latvia that belongs to Latvijas Gāze company, half of its stocks belonging to Russia Gazprom and importing the gas only from Russia still kept its sole position. Formerly Economics sector was led by Vienotība who delayed the liberalization of the gas market. When the Ministry of Economics were taken over by Daiga Reizniece- Ozola from the Green Party she finally begun steps to remove Latvijas Gāze monopoly. And the former chess champion met stiff resistance from Latvijas Gāze leadership and was outplayed. Latvijas Gāze new president was former Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis. His right hand woman was former chief of state chancellery Elita Dreimane who before was leading documentation against the Latvijas Gāze now went renegade and used all her knowledge against the state. Latvijas Gāze recruited many other former politicians and former state employees. So the liberalization failed and Latvia will be still solely dependent on the Russian gas supplies.
Lastly its the growing notion of anti-EU sentiment boosted by refugee phobia. The refugee issue caused a outburst of racism in Latvian society. Racism, homophobia and antisemitism has always been present in the society but this time it was boosted by Latvian politicians. The anti-refugee protests and marches supported by NA were dominated by openly racist slogans. While pro-refugee activists raised arguments that Latvians were once a refugees after Word War II and were granted refuge in Europe and America, their received response that since Latvia refugees where white that does not count as an argument. Refugee phobiac’s blamed EU for forcing Latvia to accept “blacks” while forgetting that Latvia is committed to EU not just EU to Latvia. Echos of Kremlin propaganda was clearly visible as protesters blamed Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs open homosexuality for such pro-refugee policy. When Latvian public choose young Latvian singer Aminata for Eurovision song contest many complained that a black singer was sent to represent Latvia. After she gained highest results in five years there was disappointment that Latvia has no white singer to gain such results. Racism and homophobia was not created by Kremlin. Yet Putin’s Russia openly promotes racism and homophobia and its good it has not begun openly promoting antisemitism. If Latvian politics and society are choosing to support Kremlin values there is no need to relay on support on defense from Kremlin tanks. Its our own choice if we want to create insecurity or security for us and our children.
Challenges for 2016
The main challenge of 2016 is withstood ever-growing Kremlin influence. Eiroskeptick government influenced by oligarch accused of criminal charges is a danger to our country. Our inability and unwillingness to host and integrate a small number of refugees is also an obstacle to our security. The dangers from two terrorist supporting forces the Islamic State and Russia’s Kremlin will grew stronger in 2016. There is possibility that after cease of the Mensk (Minsk) agreements the war may again erupt in Ukraine. While Russia is bombing Syria, lets not forget Russia is merely testing its weapons and gadgets for conflict in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. The falling oil prices and rapid decline of the Russian economy may increase the possibility of Russian involvement in more military conflicts. As war is one of the ways to avoid domestic failure. Latvia must sustain itself in the face of this threats. Have truly liberal pro-EU and pro-NATO government. We must resist the rogue influence and strengthen our security. This is our responsibility to generations ahead. Will we celebrate 100 years of Latvia and will we celebrate 200 years that is decided by our actions right here and now.
In the end of this long post that I hope the readers have taken note of many of the issues and warnings written here, I wish everyone a happy and safe 2016. 2016 is the year of the Monkey. Smart and versatile creature, also very cunning and manipulative and we are heard of the monkey with grenade in his hand. Lets be smart and versatile and cunning to defeat our foes. To talk with you again in 2016!