Tag Archives: Latvian Politics

Latvia 2016: The Gathering Storm

2016 is heading for closure and it’s time to set the record what happened this year and what to expect of next 12 months. Many has called 2016 as one of the worst years in the decades. It was time of rather unexpected events, sad events and tragic events. While Latvia overall had mostly peaceful year it all can change basing on all the events that happened abroad. The country is planning to spend 60 million euros on 100th anniversary on independence on 2018. Two years are still in wait for that. But, these two years are could be the most crucial for our country and might as well determine will Latvia be able to mark its 100 years of independence at all. For there is a danger that in 2-3 years Latvia might lose its independence and sovereignty. In this review it will be explained why this can happen and what could we do to prevent it.

 

The weakening of the West and its impact on Latvia

 

Two most crucial events that will go down in history of 2016 will be the Brexit and US Presidential election. Both events weakened UK, EU and US on political and economic scale. It revealed a wide fraction of society in US and EU that is not satisfied with politics of the liberal and leftist elites that had ruled for last 20 years and has given their votes for populism, far right clinging politics and authoritarian style of politics. Their dissatisfaction with current so called establishment is both rational and irrational and is based on their personal experiences and misfortunes. Despite the obvious Russian meddling and support for these movements it’s clear that they have strong support base and these movements have managed to strike on both of UK and US and that is bad news for our country. Firstly as UK has yet to make the crucial step to leave EU there is plenty of speculation of how it will affect the thousands of Latvian guest workers in UK, how it will affect the EU market and what impact it will leave on our economy. So far UK has kept its solid position in NATO, the new foreign minister Boris Johnson is widely critical on Russian criminal foreign policy (regarding his past warm connections with Russia), but we will see how this will change after new elections 2020 that is however a long wait from now. In US the situation has become unpredictable every day. The country has been affected by Russian secret service orchestrated hacking that helped Donald J. Trump to win, who has high expectations of friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and who has shown disregard to NATO and the defense of Europe. Donald Trump runs his politics as reality show, every day feeding twitter with his outlandish tweets and load announcements and claims. He has made US unpredictable just as Russia has been for years. From words to actions he has appointed an oil cooperation CEO Rex Tillerson as State Secretary who of no doubt is in unfavor of  Russian containment policy that means sanctions against his business partners and low oil prices. Judging by the logic of business not politics his and Trumps decision in 2017 would be full or partial   removal of sanctions against Russia.

For Latvia this means a dangerous return to diplomatic situation of 1938-1940. Back then Latvia had no real allies. UK and France was distant and skeptical about their support for Baltic States against Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. In the end the fate of Latvia was determined by Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, both of whom Latvia had signed non-aggression pacts. Left without support from outside it was forced to choose between bloody war of survival or shameful silent submission. It choose the second option and we still bear the bitter fruits of that. Russia is aiming to repeat this once again. We really cannot predict Trump’s politics – will he remove sanctions, minimize US involvement in NATO and drop pledge to defend every each of them? Or the Trumps expectations of Putin and Putin of Trump would end in mutual disappointment and confrontation would again increase? Then there is more hardly calculable factors in Europe that threaten to create this situation – first its elections in France that would bring right-wing leader Marine le Pen or François Fillon to power. Both has shown their open sympathy to Russia and suggesting the ease of relations on expense of Ukraine and Baltic States. Then there is Germany – Angela Merkel has been in power for 11 years and her leadership is fading in light of integration failure, refugee failure and recent terrorist act. In 2017 she faces Federal Elections. Again her competitors is making criticism on relations with Russia. If both of these countries drop the Russian containment policy the diplomatic and security position of Latvia would severely weaken.

Let’s be clear however, while Germany and France can be still called reliable allies for the Baltic States they are certainly no friends for Ukraine. The so-called Minsk ceasefire that has not been in effect since its implementation, brokered both by Holland and Merkel has made Eastern Ukraine into active frozen conflict where lives are lost almost daily on both sides without much achievements or changes. “No change on the Eastern Ukrainian Front” one would say. The constant bleed out of Ukraine only serves the Russia. US and EU is giving Ukraine both carrot and stick. A carrot of some humanitarian or non-lethal military support on basis of not breaking ceasefire and stick of continuing criticism and pushover for lack of reforms in the country that is not entirely unjustified. But such situation cannot last forever, Ukraine has to strike back and regain villages and cities used as bases for constant attacks on Ukrainian positions. And who to judge Ukraine for doing so – it’s their land, that has been captured by foreign country disguised as separatists. The ones who will judge will be wealthy European countries who does not have an open border with Russia – yet.

So both for Ukraine and the Baltic States a situation can be possible in next two years when they have no allies. One ally could still be Poland. While it’s rigged with inner political struggle between nationalistic government and liberal opposition, its shows a stiff opposition to Russia and calls for militarization and tough response. If Finland or Sweden would join the NATO, with their proximity to Russia they may show reliance to Baltic States. But, if UK, Germany and France would drop out of collective security policy and most important the US than Latvia as well as Poland is in danger. The very aim of Russia is to defeat the NATO adversary without a fight. A direct conflict could end in bitter destructive defeat. So the proper aim for Russia is the break up the collective security, contribute to the election of Russia friendly candidates that may allow another Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. A pact that would give Russia a free hand on Ukraine and Baltic States. Our political and military leaders have vowed to not repeat the mistake of 1939-1940 and resist, but will this wove would be kept knowing of low or confused support from other countries. In the end Europe again could divert to situation of 5th-19th century when it was a collection of warring rivaling countries and brief alliances. In such situation for a country with less than 1 million people and weak economy and army has no place for existence. Latvia can only exist with strong united friendly Europe and strong supportive US. And weak Russia. It’s doubtful Russia and Latvia would ever achieve mutual friendship. So if Latvia cannot attain a concrete support from its western partners it’s doomed to lose at least its sovereignty to Russia.  This will be the challenge for this country for next two years.

Latvian inner political and economic weakening

 

Last year when talking about year 2015 I predicted the rise of nationalistic-isolationist populist government forming in Latvia itself. In result a government lead by Māris Kučinskis from Green Party and Latvian Farmers Party alliance was formed in early 2016. Māris Kučinskis with his lack of English skills keeps low profile in foreign gatherings, but his profile as Prime Minister is also very low profile. While he can be praised for being calm of steel nerves he also quite lethargic and has lead his government into flow of scandals and mishaps without affecting much of himself. The main points of conflicts in Latvian interior policy was grand issues with State Revenue Service and raise of taxes for small enterprises. In the spotlight of this is Daina Reizniece-Ozola a Finance minister a chess champion and a flashy talker. All year we saw her battling the corruption in State Revenue Service and taking sharp criticism for poorly managed raise for taxing the small enterprises. The latter issue brought to a bitter conflict with coalition partner liberal Unity (Vienotība) and even brought to a danger of collapse of government. So far the danger was averted and how long this inept government continues to exist remains to be seen.

On political ratings scale (as much of these ratings reflects the real political opinion is always a question) it has been successful for pro-Kremlin Harmony party (Saskaņa) Green Farmers and National Alliance and misfortune for liberal Unity. Unity lost its leading position gained since 2008, after poorly managed inner party coup that lead to collapse of Laimdota Straujuma government. Unity ratings went downhill and its long standing leader Solvita Āboltiņa had to resign from party leadership. Ex EU commissar Andris Piebalgs the new party leader tries to restore the parties fading image and power. Right now Unity’s poll rating is above 5% that would make a miserable fraction in newly elected parliament. Harmony party rating is 17%, Green Party about the same and National Alliance 7%. Plus the eccentric MP’s Artuss Kaimiņš party KPV and two elected small parties Latvian Regional Alliance and To Latvia from Heart is lagging behind 5% looking to take Unities votes.

If this continues there is a great chance of future Latvian government without a liberal party. Either its share of power would be minimal or it won’t be represented at all. There is a small chance that another liberal party called “For Prosperity of Latvia” (Latvijas Attīstībai) might take Unities place but that depends how its leader Juris Pūce would fair in Riga municipal election against incumbent Harmony party mayor Nils Ušakovs. Ušakovs who leads the capital city with scandals, failed street restoration projects and future projects facing major protests, who still has large support base mainly from Russian speakers, however his image is tainted by his offensive remarks towards Latvians and open support for Kremlin policy. But, knowing the population base in Riga he still has high chance to get clear third term as mayor of Riga.  Harmony party meanwhile in parliament functions as opposition party and supports the coalition when it’s bargained. Green Farmers and National Alliance as for now would not consider them in government at least for now.

In security policy Latvia seems to be doing well. The President Raimonds Vējonis an ex-minister of Defense is good negotiator with NATO so as the current Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis. An important step this year was the NATO’s decision to store permanent NATO’s international battalion in Baltic States and Poland. Lucky for Latvia the head of forces stored in Latvia will be Canada that has always been loyal to the principles of NATO and has taken part in many operations across the world. Of course the governments and policies can always change. Some people may say that these merely thousand troops would provoke and threaten Russia. First of all Russia has some 30 thousand troops stored in Kaliningrad region alone and these forces will be combined into 30th army next year. Russia has stored nuclear capable missiles in this region, plus the Russian forces who are constantly drilled for attack situations in Pskov and Leningrad region are in thousands. While this international battalion and all three Latvian armies would create a great losses for Russians in case of invasion in the Baltic Sates; they are useless for attacking Russia, so who these forces actually provoke Russia is what people saying these things cannot provide no explanation. While this small NATO force is no match for greater Russian armies, it serves as buffer; should one of its soldiers die from Russian hands it would provoke a conflict. However, every soldier and general serves the politician – as we talked here before – its Russian goal to defeat the West on political level before defeating it on military level. Weak politicians mean weak military in the Western world. So this rather small NATO force in Latvia by its means serves as no guarantee to our security and independence.

Latvian economy has been stagnating for last few years. While Latvia did made a tremendous recovery from 2008-2009 crisis by painful austerity policies, the continuation of these policies are rather stagnating economy that might start to enter decay next year. The overall economic and political climate is passively negative and opens door for populist political manipulations. For this reason a future without liberal party is possible. Latvia could be either ruled by alliance of populist right-wing conservatives and nationalists or it can be ruled by pro-kremlin forces. The next year’s municipal elections will show how strong are ruling parties and how strong is pro-Kremlin Harmony. Harmony could take over more cities in Eastern Latvia and the second biggest city Daugavpils that despite its Russian speaking minority has never had a Harmony mayor. For fading liberal Unity the only chance is to use the weaknesses of their conservative foes in the government and act as inner opposition that is doing now slightly successfully and try to achieve great results in Riga and other cities. Rather dangerous move is to bring down the government that again could lead to unforeseen consequences.

The challenge of 2017-2018

 

Some say history goes in circles and one wave replaces another. A wave of liberalism, multiculturalism in Europe and US seems to have dwindled and new wave of nationalism, isolationism and populism has taken its strength. To those who support this wave following lines are not of concern and they can stop reading this article. For those who fear this wave hear the following words. Stand your ground to this wave and don’t let it bring you down. Question, protest and resist policies made against collective security and seeking common ground with Russia. To seek a common ground with Russia as it has emerged today would be same as making common ground with Nazi Germany. It will be another Munich agreement in far worse consequences. Convince people to go to elections. Many of the populist voters are hard to convince as they vote by their emotions rather than reason. As more people avoid elections the higher chance for populists to gain upper hand. The US elections showed how crucial was the number of absent voters. Also support your army every way possible. When surrounded by militant forces calls for pacifism and unreasonable criticism of the home military brings no fruits. There are no civilians in the war for these forces. Question everything that comes from Russian or pro-Russian news outlets, as deception that turns into truth is their main instrument. Question everything that is in the social nets and even from your trustful state TV or relatives or friends. The amount of propaganda and disinformation these days would make Dr. Goebbels role in his grave. Do not give in to threats by terrorists and enemy armies by submitting to their demands or just give empty #standwithyou styled condolences. The time for that has passed. Empty words and hashtags have no power. Resilience and relentless to all the threats and dangers are the one that enemy fears off. Weakness it what it seeks and we cannot give him that weakness.

 The future for Latvia and neighboring countries has become more unclear and shady more than ever. Either Latvia would continue as independent prosperous country that gives others a reason to respect it and stand for it or it will become a pariah state that would be seen as expendable to other countries in the world. The war is what we fear the most. Riga could also turn into Aleppo if enabled so. In the end the war would determine if this nation has deserved and secured its position as independent country or it will go down in the annals of history as another lost kingdom succumbed by outside forces. If we will reach November 18 2018 with this warning as not fulfilled then the words said in this in this article would had reached their purpose.

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Paul Schiemann 1876-1944

schieman

There are people whose legacy has outlived their lives and whose actions and deeds were praised many decades after their deaths. During their lifetimes however, they were viewed with controversy, they had many critics and enemies and so as they friends and allies. However, only many decades later their legacy has been fully understood and they are again placed into spotlights. One of them is Paul Schiemann – jurist, journalist and political leader of the Baltic Germans. During his lifetime his liberal policies, support for independence for the Baltic States and campaigning for national minority rights were supported by some and opposed by many. He never scored mutual support among all Baltic Germans. He was a man of principle, a man with high sense of justice that caused him to lose the support of his fellow nationals and was forced to go into obscurity. At the end of his life he did the most humane act of his life – rescued a Jewish woman from the Nazis and was recognized as the Righteous among Nations. Because of memoirs left by his rescued Valentīna Freimane and historical research done by British historian John Hidden (1940-2012) the legacy of Paul Schieman one of the strongest voices for liberalism and minority rights protection has again been remembered and has scored his place in Latvian history.

Paul Schiemann was born in Jelgava (Mittau) on March 17 1876 in Baltic German family. His father Julius Schiemann was a jurist, known for his liberal views and who was against the majority of nobility in courts and state authorities. He was citizen of Russian Empire, but still considered himself a German patriot. However, the Russian government from 1870 started multiple reforms to weaken the Baltic German autonomy within the Baltic States. The new Russian emperor Alexander III started Russification policy and imposed Russian language as the primary language in high schools. The new laws also prevented the Baltic Knighthoods to nominate and dismiss court and police employees. Russian policy was to weaken the German power in Baltic province and impose more direct rule from St. Petersburg. Germans held their autonomy in education very dearly and were shaken by the flash of Russian nationalistic reforms directed against them. These reforms also affected the Latvian education.

Paul Schiemann because of these reforms took “underground” private lessons in Schiemann house in German only opposing Russifacation. In the end Schiemann and his elder brother Oskar went to Germany to get proper education. Here Schiemann finished school and choose further studies in jurisdiction. On 1896 he was drafted by the Russian army and sent to Caucasus. On 1898 in Lithuania he became the reserve officer of Russian army. On 1902 he graduated doctor’s studies in Greifswald. During his studies he enjoyed literature, philosophy and became passionate in theater. In Germany he was supported by his Uncle Theodor Schiemann a conservative historian who emigrated from Russia and worked in German Foreign Ministry.

Schiemann was bohemian who could smoke and drink to early morning hours and then show up for work as usual. He became involved in theater and even had affair with famous actress Hertta Weeren. Despite all this he graduated the doctor’s studies with highest excellence and applied for German citizenship. He was turned down for being Russian reserve officer. As foreigner he could not become a lawyer in Germany and therefore started carrier in journalism. Schiemann considered that journalism is the same fight for justice as in jurisdiction. His uncle Theodor considered his liberal views as illness wanted him to become an official German news editor in Japan. Because of this Schiemann took freelance job in newspaper in Norddeutsche Allegmeine Zeitung and took English lessons. But, he was turned down as the Russian relations with Japan were heading towards war. Schiemann’s Russian reserve officer was doing more harm than good.

After this failure Schiemann returned to Baltics and moved to Dorpat (Tartu) and discovered that according to Russian laws he needs more years in courses to gain lawyers rights. Instead he took job in journal Baltiche Monatsschrift and became a theater critic in Nordlivandiche Zeitung. After breakup with his lover Hertta he moved to work in Reval (Tallinn). There at local German newspaper he became the theater critic. On 1905 the revolution started in St. Petersburg and spread to Baltic provinces. Schiemann stood against the enemies of the Baltic Germans the social democrats that encouraged country side people to attack the mansions of the Baltic German nobles. He criticized the Russian government that their 17th October manifesto that proposed new parliament (Duma) as it did not weaken the violence and influence of the far right. In last months of 1905 the riots moved to country side. German noble mansions were burned, cities taken by armed mob. In response a punishment expeditions were sent by Russia and ended the revolution in bloodshed.  Despite that Schiemann called to use new rights to form parties and joined the Estonian Constitutional Party as secretary. It was sister party to Baltic Constitutional Party. Party was moderately liberal and tried to appease all social classes. 180 000 Baltic Germans lived in Reval so party needed also support from ethnic Estonians who considered the party as reactionary German movement and none of the Baltic Germans were elected into Russia Duma. On 1906 Schiemann started working in the Provincial Council that was made of representatives of nobility, farmers and city dwellers. However, the council had no effect on decisions within Baltic provinces and on 1907 the Russian Prime Minister Stolypin dismissed the second Russian Duma.

The Baltic Constitutional Party official newspaper was Rigache Rundschau based in Riga. The publisher Richard Ruetz asked Schiemann to join the editor team and Schiemann came to Riga. A cosmopolitan city filled with Latvians, Germans, Russians, and Jews and was politically diverse. Schiemann observed the growing national tensions between Germans and Latvians and he considered that only thing that can unite the both sides is equality in political and social rights. He was also started to oppose the conservative German forces that called for protection of the rights of nobility and was against the Latvian national movement. Soon he gained enemies from Baltic German reactionaries, was dismayed on their press as “red”. Opposition led to his worry of his publishers and his publications were reviewed. However, it was his strong worded articles that made the run of the Rigache Rundschau from 6 000 to 20 000 from the time period of 1907 to 1914. On 1907 he became the chief editor.

On February 2 1914 he married Charlotte Shuler and was well known in Riga and beyond, had many critics among the conservatives and he tried to gain some Latvian friends in his plight to unite both nations in the name of democracy. All this was interrupted when Russia entered war with Germany on 1914. Schiemann was Russian reserve officer and as it hard it was for him to fight against his German brothers his principle that “war can be opposed only in the time of peace”. He joined the Russian army, while his brother Oskar served the German. He was wounded during fighting while his newspaper was taken over by state authorities following anti-German campaign. On 1915 Lithuania and Courland and Semigallia was occupied by Germans and many of the local Germans and within Germany called for annexation of the Baltics. Schiemann although saddened by the anti-German campaign was still loyal to Tzar. Following the February revolution Schiemann joined the new Baltic German Democratic party. On December 3 1917 the German army marched in Riga and the party was banned. Schieman moved away from Riga and again joined the Russian army. After the bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg Schiemann felt grave danger and left Russia on March 1918 and made to his wife in Riga. The experiences of war made Schiemann strongly against both radical nationalism and bolshevism.

The Brest-Litovsk peace agreement on March 1918 included call for all German occupied Baltic territories to decide their future on the will of the people. However, German authorities suppressed the Lithuanian and Estonian governments who had declared independence. Meanwhile conservative Baltic German landtag sent letter to Berlin on April 12 1918 with plea to German Kaiser to unite Baltic province under single Baltic State that would serve as German protectorate in union with Prussian crown. The plea gained widespread opposition within German Reichstag who wanted to weaken the Kaisers power and feared such move would endanger peace with Soviet Russia. Schiemann who arrived in Riga on March was against the Baltic State was arrested by occupation authorities as a pro-Latvian spy. He was placed in house arrest until in August he moved to Germany.

Gaining financial support from his friends in Germany and his new book “The Fiasco of the Russian Democracy” he came to Berlin and started to acquire a net of supporters for liberal ideas. Schiemann supported the Baltic independence from Russia and insisted that fate of these countries lays on the will of the local majority. Meanwhile he warned about the rise of the Latvian Social Democratic workers party that would only lead to bolshevism. The enemies of Schiemann were alarmed by his influence in Germany, his uncle Theodore was also against his ideas. However, on November 11 1918 war came to an end with revolution in Berlin and ceasefire on the Western Front. The Baltic German conservatives could no longer hope for their Baltic State instead on November 18 1918 Latvia declared its independence. As the new Republic promised equal rights for all nations in Latvia Schiemann was in full support of the new state.

Schiemann moved to Latvia and joined the democratic German forces and worked together with the new Provisional Government led by Kārlis Ulmanis. Soviet Russia had declared war on Germany again and was preparing to invade Baltic States. Latvians were forced to accept that German army and Landeswehr the Baltic German land guard stays in Latvia and fights with them against the Bolsheviks. The new Baltic German National Committee hoped to gain privileges for Germans from the new Latvian state and opposed the Bolsheviks.  Their demands for national parity with Latvians were declined by the Latvian Provisional government. That led to conspiracy by German reactionaries and General Rüdiger von der Goltz against the Latvian government. On April 16 the baron Hans von Manteuffel and Goltz Iron Brigade made a coup against the Ulmanis government, but failed to arrest it. The new pro-German government led by Pastor Andrievs Niedra was not supported by French and British who helped Ulmanis government to escape on ship Saratov. Most Latvians were against Niedra and Goltz. On May 22 Germans chased the Bolsheviks away from Riga who had occupied since January 1919. On June 22-23 the tides of war moved against German reactionaries as Estonian and Latvian forces defeated the Iron Division and Landeswhehr and forced to sign ceasefire and give up the Niedra government.

Schiemann returned to Latvian politics formed union with moderate conservative baron Wilhelm von Firkss who became the leader of the National Committee. With his efforts and allied pressure Ulmanis government included two Baltic German ministers in his government Edwin Magnus as Justice and Robert Erhart as minister of Finance. Firkss founded his own conservative Baltic German Peoples Party. Baffled by many liberals he chooses to co-operate with conservatives while still trying to achieve common ground with Latvians. Schieman wanted Baltic Germans to be united to gain as much as they can from the new Latvian state, but by democratic means. He again became the chief editor of the restored newspaper Rigache Rundschau that became the main Baltic German newspaper in Latvia and his newspaper was read also by Latvians and his voice was heard and his views were always known. He became leader of the re-founded Baltic German Democratic Party.

One of his first achievements was influencing the new State Education Law. Karl Keller was appointed as deputy for Minister of Education and he and his team influenced by Schiemann made important proposals to gain school autonomy for national minorities. The new law was accepted on December 8 1919 and created autonomous school authority within Ministry of Education for German, Russian, Jewish, Polish and Belarusian schools. Germans were assured now that Latvians will not harm their education as it was done by Russians in the past. That eased the German relations with Latvian state.

Latvia survived the attack from the West Russian Voluntary Army that was made from German Freikorps and White Russian forces looking to destroy independent Latvia once and for all. Frikss managed to persuade Landeswehr from joining the war against Latvia while Schiemann campaigned for Baltic German support for Latvia during the critical days of war.  When the war was over the new elections were called for Constitutional Assembly. The election law allowed only political parties to enter elections and the Baltic German National Committee was abolished. Three new Baltic German parties emerged: moderately centrist right wing Baltic German reform party, conservative Baltic German party lead by Frikss and Liepāja City Unity party.  Schiemann undertook efforts to unite all parties under common Baltic German list for better results in the elections.

His efforts were successful creating the German Party Committee and in every election until 1931 the Baltic Germans gained more seats than they share of national population could allow. No other national minority except Poles could achieve such unity. Russians making 10% of the population had division between Old Believers, Conservatives and the Liberals. Large percent of Russian rural population living in Eastern regions were illiterate and therefore politically inactive. Jews making 4% of the Latvian citizens had division between Zionists and Orthodox Jews, while Zionists had their own left and right wing division. They also spoke different languages, Russian, German and Yiddish and often could not find common ground. Poles 2% of the population had one central party and support from the Poland, but during the 1931 conflict with Latvian government their split up in two rival factions. Germans were 3% of the population and their common goal was to preserve their national rights and keep their presence within Latvian politics and economy.

However, it proved to be tough and often un-successful battle. Schiemann was first elected into Riga Town Council and then moved to Constitutional Assembly. The main tasks of the Assembly were to write new constitution (Satversme) and realize Agrarian reform. The reform involved in confiscating large plots of land from German noble families. For centuries the majority of the rural land was owned by German nobles. Latvians at first were subjected to them, when serfdom was abolished they had to either rent or buy small plots of land from them. The new reform wanted to expropriate their land without compensation. For many of the noble families such reform would be disaster. Frikss and Schiemann proposed to nobles to give their land voluntary in return for compensation. Their proposal was turned down and all they gained was that land owners could at least keep 50 hectares of land and delay the question of compensations. Latvian Social Democrats left the parliament room in protest, but the Baltic German fraction voted for Agrarian reform. Many of the German conservatives felt betrayed by Schiemann. He himself understood the needs for reform, but saw it as weapon for aggressive chauvinism.

Kārlis Ulmanis compromise with national minorities led to his government downfall and new one by Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics that based on more nationalistic premises was not supported by minority parties. Schiemann also went on tour to Germany to convince Baltic German émigrés that resistance against internationally recognized Latvia is pointless and combated the propaganda spread by exiled reactionaries. In his tour to Germany and Austria he joined discussions for common national minority rights amongst the League of Nations. He made proposals for the new constitution and two of them to guarantee free usage of the minority languages and guarantee to create autonomous associations for cultural proposes were accepted in the constitution. However, the legislators failed to vote for second part of the constitution that was focused on civil rights and determined equal rights for man and woman, freedom of press and political rights and also defined national autonomy. Therefore national minorities were cut short of promises to ensure their protection of rights and  state refused to define their rights in detail as they had promised when it joined the League of Nations. Schiemann was disappointed and called the constitution half-baked. His efforts from now on were only not to defend the rights of Germans but all national minorities of Latvia and beyond.

On 1922 the new Latvian parliament Saeima was elected. Schiemann along with Frikss, Karl Keller, Egon Knopp, John Karl Hahn and Manfred von Vegezack were first elected Germans. The parliament was in deep division between right wing parties, left wingers, regionals and minority parties. Schiemann was elected in all following elections in 1925, 1928 and 1931. He took active part in parliamentary work and legislation. He a lot of time protecting the minority schools as many parties of the Latvian right wanted to limit school autonomy. He did not manage to win battle against the Latvian parties for the main churches in Riga. The Catholic St Jacobs cathedral was the first to be overtaken by the Latvian Catholic clergy, and tough campaigns for Lutheran Dome Cathedral and St. Peters church followed resulting in referendums. On 1924 Social Democrats finally achieved that no compensations should go to nobles with confiscated lands.

The nationalistic Latvian forces saw Schiemann as one of their main adversaries, while conservative Germans were opposed to Schiemann’s liberal policies that they called appeasing Latvian chauvinists. He was forced to be in regular power balance struggle to keep his ruling position within German Party Committee and his editor seat of the Rigache Rundschau. The Latvian governments were unstable and Schiemann had to choose which new coalition to support or not. On 1927 he was even asked to form the government but as he understood he would not receive enough support he refused the offer.

Latvian cartoon about Paul Schiemann and his German Party list. From Svari 1928.

Latvian cartoon about Paul Schiemann and his German Party list. From Svari 1928.

One of the main failures faced by all minority parties was failure to create laws for national autonomy. In Lithuania and Estonia such laws were made. While in Latvia one of the main reasons for failure was that each minority made their own autonomy proposals. The national autonomy proposals not only included cultural autonomy, but also permitted own national councils and use of minority language in state affairs. None of the proposals from all sides ever came to voting floor. In defense of Latvian parties one must state that some of these proposals were too radical and would mean “state in state” situation that was undesirable. On 1925 Schiemann joined the First Congress of Organised Ethnical Minorities (Nationalities) in European Countries in Geneva as and served as its Vice President from 1929 to 1936. Congress goal was to form a link between the ethnical minorities of Europe. And to afford their responsible heads an opportunity of regularly exchanging views and constantly co-operating for the purpose of throwing light upon, and solving the problem of, nationalities in order to eradicate the principal cause of European wars. Schiemann’s views became more internationally known. During his time in the congress he developed many new theories about the defense of the national minorities and liberal democracy. Many of his ideas came to realization many decades later. For a brief period when Germany was influenced by powerful liberal politician Gustav Streseman the Foreign minister with his special  focus on Eastern European countries and policy towards national minority as similar to Schiemann, there was hope for democratic and liberal Europe. Streseman met Schieman many times and supported his ideas for national cultural autonomy in Europe. Streseman died on 1929 on early age and since then the situation begun to deteriorate for Schieman and national minorities.

The 1929 financial crisis took one of the strongest hits on Germany and created a outburst of protest and resentment towards moderate and liberal policy creating opportunities for National Socialists. The rise of nationalism was eminent in Latvia too and was present in both Latvians and Baltic Germans. In this crucial time Schieman fell ill with tuberculosis. His constant smoking habits made him to move to rehab in Davos, Switzerland. There in 1930 he learned of first major Adolf Hitler party victory in the German elections. During this time the famous French politician Aristide Briand who came forward with his plans for European economic and political union. Schiemann was against any union that would exclude Baltic States and was skeptical of such union if it would be based on old 1914 principles.

Meanwhile the Baltic German parties in Latvia became more conservative and influenced by events in Germany. This was also a reaction to rise of Latvian nationalists who called for “latvianization” of economy and education. On 1931 first Baltic German Nazi organization Ostgruppe started activity in Latvia. While Schieman was in Davos many of his colleagues became found of the Nazi ideas, read their newspapers and made contacts with them. Schieman from his rehab reacted by sending strong worded statements to his newspaper  Rigache Rundschau increasing conflict with Nazi sympathizers.

Meanwhile the economic crisis deepened in Latvia and Latvian nationalistic parties started campaign to expropriate Dome cathedral from German Lutherans. Ailing Schieman was forced to gives his MP seat to V Sadowsky who next behind him in his party list because he could not take part in the vote for the church. The campaign created a wave of anti-German sentiment and alienated German fraction from the Latvian government. In the end on 1931 despite failed referendums the Dome Cathedral was removed from German Lutheran parish and they could only rent the church.

On 1931 last parliamentary elections took place in Latvia. Schieman returned to Riga, and Germans scored six seats as usual. However, the new nationalistic coalition led by ex moderate social democrat Marģers Skujenieks created more doubt and was not supported by Schieman. On 1927-1928 Marģers Skujenieks was Prime Minister of left wing coalition that was in good relations with Schiemann and achieved trade agreement with Soviet Union.  Now one of the new Skujenieks government ministers of education Atis Ķeniņš started an offensive against minority schools. Atis Ķenins wanted to make Latvian language as official state language as until now the status of Latvian language as official was more de facto than de iuire. He also wanted to increase the use of Latvian within minority schools and called Latvia a “Eldorado” for minorities. After the collapse of Skujenieks government many of his ideas were not realized, but growing tension only increased Baltic German support for Nazi ideas. Instead of using liberal ideas against nationalism and chauvinism as Schiemann did many turned to use same weapons against their adversaries. Also many Baltic Germans scared by the rise of Latvian nationalism believed that strong and unified Nazi Germany would come and protect them. Sciemann was strongly for creation of un-national state – the state with no dominating nation that focuses on cultural and national equality in all matters of the society. For years he fought his efforts, but as of 1933 it seemed his hopes of such states would never be realized.

On 1933 Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Rigache Rundschau was also co-financed by Germany and question was raised should this newspaper be led by openly anti-Nazi editor? As pressure grew the Sciemann’s health begun to weaken again and he was forced to go to rehabilitation to Austria. The Baltic German parties became penetrated by local Baltic German Erhard Kroeger and his Movement (Die Bewegung) that was supported and financed by Berlin. On 1933 Wilhelm von Frikss one of the main leaders of the Baltic Germans died and Schiemann lost a valuable ally. Schiemann left the editors post of his beloved newspaper and also left the German fraction in the parliament and lost his leading role in Baltic German politics. The 1933 was endgame for Schieman. On May 15 1934 Kārlis Ulmanis and his supporters took power by coup and created a personal dictatorship. All parties were banned and that meant even greater Nazi influence on Baltic Germans as now National Socialism was seen as resistance against Ulmanis dictatorship.

Paul Schieman could no longer live in Latvia and immigrated to Austria that was still democratic but also influenced by Nazis. Schieman was alarmed by persecution of Jews in Germany and was saddened by the breakup of the Congress of Organised Ethnical Minorities. In Austria he continued journalism and followed events in Europe and Latvia with deep concerns. On March 1938 Austria was invaded annexed by Nazi Germany. Paul Schieman was on the Nazi dossier as potentially dangerous liberal activist and Schieman had to return to Latvia where lived in political isolation. He was isolated both by the state and his Baltic Germans who were convinced that Hitler would come to liberate them.

On August 23 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact shocked them all. Hitler in exchange for one front war on Poland made agreement with Stalin. Latvia was assigned to Soviet Union as its sphere of interest. On September 25 1939 in Soppot SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler informed the leader of the Baltic German Nazis Erhard Kroeger about the secret protocols and shocked Kroeger begged not to leave Baltic Germans behind in case of Soviet invasion. Himmler was surprised by such concern and promised to speak to Hitler about it.  On October 6 1939 Hitler decided that he needs Baltic Germans for colonization of the recently conquered Polish lands and also wanted to keep them away from Soviet repressions. The repatriation came as surprise to everyone including Schieman who resisted this. Schiemann’s protests were heard by Swiss and Swedish press he was against that Germans leave their country behind making great economical problems caused by their departure and move to country with imposed ideology alien to our religion and sense of morality. Meanwhile majority called “that that who stays it’s not real German!” Schiemann called repatriation a death sentence to Baltic German culture. But, only few listened to him. Latvian government endorsed the repatriation and official press celebrated the event. In just few months the most historic national minority in Latvia with strong cultural roots became extinct. Majority of the Baltic Germans were sent to occupied Poland. Schieman could not he stayed in Latvia doomed for soviet occupation.

Schiemann was opposed to Communism as much to Nazism. Latvia was occupied by Soviet forces on June 17 1940. Kārlis Ulmanis decided not to resist and was removed from his presidential seat and replaced by Soviet agent Dr. Augusts Kirhenšteins. New “elections” were issued and Schiemann even wrote a letter to Kirhenšteins to inquire his intentions and future of Latvia. He was recommended to join democratic list by led Atis Ķeniņš, but he refused to add a German candidate. And better off as soon the democratic list was declared illegal and all the candidates arrested. A single list was elected with 96% results issued by Moscow before votes were finished counting. As Soviet Union was still in good relations with Nazi Germany Schiemann was spared for a while. First who were repressed were Latvian politicians and intellectuals. Schiemann unable to work as journalist stayed at home and made notes where he criticized dumb and deeply flawed Bolshevik regime. He was horrified by the mass deportations of June 14 1941 where 35 000 people were sent to Siberia. But, it was just beginning of the storm.

On June 22 1941 Nazi Germany began war with Soviet Union. On July 1 1941 German army moved in Riga. Schieman now had to face Nazi terror in face. The new occupiers included Latvia into Ostland reichcommissariat administered by Alfred Rosemberg. Latvian general district was administered by Otto Heinrich-Drehsler. Germans created self ruling bodies filled with Latvian collaborators and Baltic Germans who came back to Latvia. One of them Hugo Vitrock was appointed as mayor of Riga and was one of the strongest Schiemann’s opponents before the war. However, because Schiemann’s illness they did not considered him dangerous and instead just prevented him from journalism and kept him in the house arrest. Schiemann was under observation however, he did one last thing to oppose the Nazis – he provided shelter for young Jewish girl Valentīna Friemane. Freimane was born in February 18 1922 in Riga was a German speaking Latvian Jew. She spent her childhood in Berlin and Paris. On 1941 she married and when war came she took shelter with her husband. After he was arrested she hided in many other places until she ended up at Schiemann’s house.

Schiemann was sick with tuberculosis and diabetes and was under care by Jewish doctor Idelson who was rescued from Ghetto, but during German evacuation from Riga caught and shot. Valentīna Freimane spent with him his last days. He dictated her memoirs and she managed to gather up his memoirs up to 1919. Schiemann treated her with dignity and respect. On 1943 the Germans started to form Latvian Waffen SS Legion, Schiemann was visited by guests who described the Legion as heroic patriots. After the left he came over to Freimane’s shelter and complained over fools that wish to combat one evil with other. It 1944 and Soviets came even closer to Riga. Before his death he was visited by representatives of the Latvian Central Council who opposed the Nazi regime. They offered him to sign manifest for restoration of independence in hope that after the war such would be possible. Schiemann rejected signing for “another castles in the sky”. Schiemann was afraid that Soviets when they come back would arrest him and his wife, but he could not leave as he was too sick. On June 23 1944 at the age of 68 Schiemann passed away. Valentīna Freimane moved to another family the Melnikovs and spent last months of the war. His wife gave her his photo and few his books, they never met again.

Valentīna Freimane with her husband

Paul Schiemann funeral took place June 26 1944. A small funeral was taken place under observation by Gestapo. Month later his wife Charlotte was ordered to evict her house and moved to Germany. Remaining Schiemann’s archives were taken by his wife and later moved to the Baltic Central Library in Lineburg. Paul Schiemann was viewed with controversy by surviving Baltic Germans. Many had resentment for him not joining repartition and there was still a sense of conservative even post Nazi views among the Baltic German exiles.

Valentīna Friemane became doctor in arts and now lives in Berlin. She helped to spread the story of Schiemann as Jewish rescuer and on 2000 the Israeli Yad Vashem awarded Schiemann with title Righteous Among the Nations. On 2010 she published her memoirs “My Atlantis” where she described her refuge and last days of Paul Schiemann. 140 years later after his birth many of his ideas of un-nation state, minority rights and cultural autonomy has been realized. Many of these ideas are under danger from new wave of nationalism and humanitarian crisis. Paul Schiemann called “the defender of minorities” is one of the symbols of interwar Latvia. Only now we can fully review his legacy and place him in the spotlight of the Latvian history.

Selected Sources:

Hidden, John. (2004) Defender of Minorities. Paul Schiemann. 1876-1944. London. Hutrst&Co.

Šīmanis, Pauls. (1999) Eiropas Problēma. Rīga. Vaga.

Freimane, Valentīna (2010) Ardievu Atlantīda. Rīga. Atēna.

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Latvia 2015 A Year of Fright

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!

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Latvia 2014 The Year or Peril

Another year is heading for an end. The last post of this year will be review of events that took place in Latvia during 2014.  In past I called the 2011 as the year or troubles, the 2012 the year of quarrels, the 2013 the year of struggles. What I choose for this year will be the Year of Peril. It was the peril of the aggression coming from our eastern borders, it was the peril of the new economic backslide and peril of perpetual troubles and struggles that started on 2009. Yet to start reviewing this year we must go back to November 21 2013. First it was the start of the protests in Kyiv, Ukraine that later affected our country and the Maxima supermarket roof collapse that took away 54 people’s lives  and lead to the collapse of the long-standing Valdis Dombrovskis government. Both these events that took place on the same time affected the Latvian inter and foreign policy. Around these two events the story of the perilous 2014 year will  be told.

Latvia and the Ukrainian Conflict

Last September I had chance to listen to the famous journalist and author Anne Apelbaum. The author of Gulag A History  and The Iron Curtain was no rushing to finish the book about the Golodomor the Great Ukrainian famine on 1932-1933. The book was delayed for many years because the publisher considered Ukraine as unimportant topic as nothing ever happens there that would boost the sales. So it seems that suddenly 2014 became actually the year of Ukraine. But, what started in Ukraine was no coincidence nor it was unexpected. The signs of brewing revolution and conflict were visible on summer 2013 when nation was discussing the coming EU Association agreement that the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych had promised to sign. At same time some publications were suggesting of possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine in case of moving towards west. One publication was called “Russia could blow up the situation in Crimea”.

The initial protests in Ukraine echoed in Latvian media and social circles. First support actions took place on December near the Ukrainian embassy. They were attended by 20-30 people, mostly the members of the Latvian Ukrainian Congress and the members of the National Alliance that expressed the support to the Ukrainian revolution. Yet the National Alliance  is pro-EU only for geopolitical reasons and their members like to play hockey with the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Yet, every further Ukrainian support action gathered more people from all kinds of political parties and social circles. For the starting slogans of the Euromaidan were for joining EU, saying no to corruption and adapting the western values of democracy were appealing to Latvia. We had our barricades on 1991 were we stood against communism and destroyed the communist symbols. While Kyiv was celebrating the demolition of the Lenin monument in Kyiv we are wondering what happened to most Lenin monuments that were taken down on 1991. Yet it was not just about monuments and agreement signing it was a fight for independence and sovereignty. What the 2004 Orange revolution failed to achieve the Euromaidan struggled with blood – full freedom from the yoke of Moscow. Something that every Russian neighbor strives for and for Ukrainians it is matter of historical honor the original Kievan Rus against the Grand Duchy of Moscow – the remnant of the Golden Horde.

The Latvian official policy towards the Ukrainian revolution was supportive and it welcomed the new government that formed in the outcome of February 24 events. Yet what followed next – the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and further invasion in Eastern Ukraine started the year of Peril. Many call this ongoing situation as the “New Cold War”, originally this therm was coined by British journalist Edward Lucas on 2008. When Russia provoked Georgia in to war and occupied two of its regions. Later both Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev   later admitted that they planned this war to prevent Georgia from joining EU and NATO. Yet back then the Western leaders swallowed this event with shame. Soon the worldwide economic crisis shadowed the events that took place during summer. Yet the warning was given but not heard – Russia is always in for confrontation towards west no matter the costs. For the Cold War thinking was never given up for the Kremlin rulers.

To explain why Russia in confronting the west right now and has did for last 20 years is to tell the metaphor or the bear and octopus.  Russia likes to portray herself as angry bear. Yet, the bear mostly sticks to own territory and himself. He only goes outside his territory when  he runs out of food. Otherwise he is mostly peaceful if not attacked or disturbed. That is not Russia. Russia is an octopus. Its head and main body is within Moscow but its testicles stretches all around the Eastern Europe and Asia. It tries to hold all its neighboring countries within its grasp. Any attempt of trying to break free is met with hostility and anger. The octopus is also afraid of others trying to cut of his testicles and reach for its head. Without all of its captured assets the Moscow would be powerless and left to decay. And that’s why Russian propaganda is  telling tales of encircled fortress, the hunted bear and struggle to prevent aggression. But, from the history we know that all foreign invasions in Russia from the western side started as response to Russian aggressive policy towards the west. Since the octopus is trying to hold all whats around him this the reason why Russia did not respect the sovereign independent policy of Georgia and Ukraine, while open intervention in neighboring country is “brotherly help”, the involvement of the western countries in the Russia’s neighbors is viewed as aggression against Russia itself.   Therefore Russia views all its border states as their sphere of interest that no other country can mingle. And it’s not like EU and NATO really wants the Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia for their sphere of interest. Ukraine needs west more than west needs Ukraine. And the reason is the claws coming from Moscow.

Vladimir Putin may have prevented Georgia from fully joining NATO and made the same harder for Ukraine. However, his most crucial failure was to prevent the Baltic States from joining the Western block. The Baltic States joined NATO and EU on 2004 leaving Russia frustrated and trying to bring their claws back ever since. The Russian aggression in Ukraine suddenly raised the question of the Latvian security. The Latvian political games had managed to remove the influential minister of defense Artis Pabriks from the main political scene. The often hawkish politician for years called for boosting up the neglected Latvian defense budget. It never reached the NATO 2% of the state budget standard.  After collapse of the Valdis Dombrovskis Pabriks was called as one of the potential candidates for the Prime Minister. However, the President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš rejected him. Later he was elected as member of EU parliament.  The current minister of defense Raimonds Vējonis is a leader of the Green Party. A seemingly unusual choice for such post yet nothing is its seems in the Latvian politics. Vējonis has taken his job seriously and taken steps to boost our military budget. He has brought more NATO troops in Latvia, even tanks from US. However, the army itself needs capable army. The lack of armed vehicles is compensated by buying used ones from UK. The army needs new anti air radars to intercept low flying Russian KA-50 attack helicopters that were stationed near the Latvian borders. Even more crucial is the training of the new servicemen, the support for the National Guard and so on. As Latvia just cannot relay on Estonia that has barely reached 2% defense budget requirement and  slightly more equipped Lithuanian army. Furthest neighbor Poland is boosting up military while Sweden is just waking from confusion of the Russian submarine within its waters. Russia is constantly testing the Baltic security by doing almost daily air force flights near the Latvian air space. With their transponders off they force the NATO Baltic patrol planes to take off to intercept them. Recently even the old but majestic TU-95 strategic bombers took flights within the Baltic Sea. Recently Russia has brought Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave for “drills”. All this has made opposite effect – NATO is bringing even more resources to ensure the Baltic security.

The Latvian inner security is also under question. The underfunded police force and seemingly slow and invisible special services raised doubts. The Security Police had change in leadership – the ongoing general Jānis Reiniks was replaced by Normunds Mežveits. Trough out the year there were various attempts by locals to support terrorists in Eastern Ukraine.  From raising donations to sending actual recruits. While Estonian security service had exposed many Russian agents, the Security Service and Constitutional Defense Bureau had found none. The other important question was the Residence Permits in exchange for real state property program for Russian citizens. By buying real estate in Latvia the Russian, Chinese or other non-EU citizen could gain residence permit within EU countries. The National Alliance had campaigned to close it down for years, sparking concerns of danger to the state security. The defenders of this policy says its helps the crisis hurt real estate to survive and that some of the residents from Russia are opponents of the Putin’s policy. True that small portion of Russian dissidents has left Russia for Latvia, for it’s a country with high use of Russian language and that the former Lenta.ru banned by Putin is now working in Riga as Meduza.ru. But its only a small number. One part of the Russian investors only buy the real estate but is not living there, renting or selling to others and giving no other investments to Latvian economy. Russia a country with official anti-western policy but with tons of investments and property within EU and US is a danger to Latvian economic and inner security. So far this residence permit security has not fully abolished.

Latvia joined the EU and US joint sanctions against Russia. The Russian response – to ban the import of EU food products, meat, fish and dairy products affected some of the Latvian companies. Not only that the Lithuanian and Polish apple importers were forced to send their production to Latvia alarming the local apple sellers. But, the local apple harvest was poor this year anyway.  While most Latvian traders accepted this and tried to compensate the losses others openly protested therefore boosting the Russian propaganda. One of the most prominent complainers was Major of Riga Nils Ušakovs. Leader of the mainly Russian speaking voters party left unreasonable rants about the sanctions in twitter and said that he is going to Moscow to “beg” to allow at least some of the Latvian products. His main concern was his special Rishij Dvorik Latvian food stand that grew empty after sanctions. Despite his visit to Moscow were he met Dmitri Medvedev and Grand Patriarch of the Moscow Orthodox Church   Kirill his Rizhkij Dvorik remained empty and went to rock bottom after Russian currency crisis.

Ušakovs also sent apologies to the blacklisted Russian singers and actors who expressed support for the Russian aggression. Among them Josif Kobzon, Valeria and others. In the end International Music festival “New Wave” hosted by the Russian television decided to leave Jurmala resort and move somewhere else presumably Crimea. The Ušakovs rants about sanctions and blacklists raised another issue- the issue of the pro-Moscow parties within Latvia. The Harmony Center now known simply as socialdemocratic party “Harmony” found itself unconformable with the Ukrainian issue. While confirming they support the Ukrainian territorial integrity, they were reluctant to denounce the Russian invasion and broke the association agreement with the United Russia party – the leading party in Russia. While Harmony balanced as usual the other one the Latvian Russian Union openly supported the Crimean annexation. Their leader Tatjana Ždanoka – the communist orthodox from the 1989-1991 came to Crimean “referendum” as EU observer. Despite the condemnations Ždanoka was re-elected as member of EU parliament openly pushing the Kremlin interests within Brussels. Her party however failed to reach any success in the parliament elections. The other more radical forces the movement “Zarya” (The Awakening) run by far right Ilarions Girss and Jevgēņijs Osipovs were preaching that Latvia should become another Donbass. Throughout the year   various Russian ideologues entered Latvia as part of the organization Media club “A-3” and expressed the ideas of Russian world and Euroasian state. Also the newly elected member of the parliament Ingūna Sudraba raised doubts about her connections with the Russian secret service and Kremlin elite. More bizarre was here connections with bogus religious group “Urantia” that believes in reptilian conspiracy against Russia and Putin as the holy savior. The invisible yet so visible reach of the Moscow octopus takes many passages to be described but this is a short glimpse.

The Collapsed Roof of the Latvian politics

The Maxima disaster left great shock to the Latvian society. The radicals wanted heads to roll immediately. However, the Latvian old saying of responsibility – Everyone is responsible, therefore no one is responsible again worked. The president Andris Bērziņš who called disaster as major mass murder had to approve his rhetoric.  After harsh talk with prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, the latter resigned. Dombrovskis who had been Prime minister of several governments since 2008, lead the country trough the crisis and pawed Latvia to Eurozone had to resign ending an era. A question yet remains who stands behind his resignation that seemed unintended, – the president, parliamentary speaker Solvita Āboltiņa or the oligarch Aivars Lenmbergs   or all of them together will not be answered now. It will take time to answer what happened on late  November 2013. Right now Dombrovskis serves as European Commissioner for the Euro and Social Dialogue.

What was left after  Dombrovskis was political vacuum before 2014 October general election. As mentioned Artis Pabriks was turned down by the president or he was let down by his own party. The leader of the Unity party Solvita Aboltiņa refused to take PM office. The grey cardinal was growing unpopular within the voters so placed forward a compromise figure – the non party minister of Agriculture Laimdota Straujuma. A discrete careful woman the Straujuma became the first female PM in Latvia.  As the anti-lemberg Reform Party went into decay, the Lembergs lead Green Party Union returned to coalition and took over many important sectors such as Defense. Straujuma firstly considered herself only as temporarily Prime Minister until elections in October.

However, the power gap in Unity party was clearly visible. Two most prominent leaders Dombrovskis and Pabriks were elected to Brussels. The other members were not strong and influential to lead the country. So Straujuma remained as PM candidate for the elections and now serves her second therm.  The elections became nightmare for the party leadership. The party chairman also the chairman of the parliament (Saeima) Solvita Āboltiņa was not elected. The ongoing red-haired speaker has grown infamous for here arrogance and schemes. However, let’s be honest – the Latvian society dislikes strong powerful woman in office. But, Āboltiņa did not surrender. Jānis Junkurs the member of the Reform Party separatists, rather quiet and mysterious young man, now turned to Unity to run in elections. With his self funded election campaign he gained more points than the Grey Cardinal with Red hair and made in to parliament above here. But he was absent from the public scene after the election. Then on the day when the  new parliament was called he announced his resignation from the parliament. In such matter according to election laws the Solvita Āboltiņa replaced him. Leaving no comment the Junkurs left the scene and founded new company in Hong Kong.   Many obviously pointed that he was forced to give his seat to Āboltiņa. She soon took the seat of the National Security Parliamentary Commission showing that foxes never give up.

The National Alliance gained extra seats in the elections. Known as champions in conservative ideology they were known as champions in justice corruption. Of course nothing is proven. Only that both of their ministers for Justice and Regional Affairs were rejected to receive state secrets. So were taken out of game. Still Nationals secured the control over justice after the elections, and also gained the most valuable parliamentary speaker  seat that was taken by Ināra Mūrniece.

The Green Farmers – alliance between Latvian Farmers Union and the Green Party and the Ventspils city party of Aivars Lembergs benefited the most from the Dombrovskis downfall. Their main opponents the Reform Party had went into collapse. The Green Farmers returned to coalition and secured their old sectors – agriculture and welfare and also conquered the strategically vital ministry of defense and ministry of economy. The later was taken by chess champion Daiga Reiznience-Ozola.

The Harmony party failed this year. Despite winning the election by percent, they did not gain enough seats to form coalition. Nor they were asked to because of the  Ukrainian conflict. Their potential allies – For Latvia With Heart only gained 7 seats. More interesting was the new Regional Party elected member Artuss Kaimiņš. Outspoken, aggressive, often rude actor, he owned videoblog that was aired on radio for some time, where he interviewed his guest in the most bombastic way now entered politics. His main flagship was the Maxima disaster investigation on parliamentary level  and exposure of the corruption and injustice. After few months he was denounced for his drunk fight in rock cafe.  Its remains to be seen if he will evolve into Latvian Alexander Zhirinovsky.

Latvia so far rather successfully survived the national currency Lats transition to Euro. The patriotic nostalgia of the old beutiful currency soon was washed away by the war in Ukraine, as it was more important to be part of the strong global currency. The Russian propaganda tales  of the Eurozone collapse now is dwindled away by the real collapse of the Russian ruble. Now our neighbor Lithuania will enter Eurozone on 2015 making Baltic states under single currency.

Latvia – challenges for the 2015

Latvia will become the presiding nation of the EU. The EU presidency during these turbulent times will be crucial. In both of state security and international prestige. Russia openly harassed Lithuania during its presidency this year. Informational war and military threats are potential danger. Latvia has been exposed to the Russian propaganda for years and it will grow even more. Great concern is if Russia is planning more than informational warfare but a hybrid warfare using gaps in our security. Such actions can be dangerous for both Russia and Latvia as we are the NATO member. Another danger is looming in our neighboring country Belarus. For 20 years this country has been ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko whose semi-socialist economy is depended on Russia. As the ruble in Russia went into decay the over inflated Belarusian ruble took a hit. Lukashenko is looking to avoid maidan in Belarus, by balancing between    Moscow and Europe and his people. Same as Yanukovych the Lukashenko maneuvers will end at one point leaving country in danger of either revolution or the Russian incursion. Since Belarus is our neighboring country that also should be considered as the fourth Baltic State, any major disturbance especially if its involves EU and Russia will be the prime interest for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Certainly the Belarus could be potential hotspot and game changer on 2015.

  The economical development is at constant caution. Latvia seemingly recovered from the economic crisis on the end 2013. We entered Euro, the remnant of the 2013 crisis the Citadele bank – the former Parex Bank that state had to nationalize was sold to foreign investors this November. The economical and energy dependence on hostile Russia must be limit if not cut all together. Russian economy is collapsing because of the western sanctions and the falling oil prices. Greater economical ties and cooperation must be established with Ukraine and Belarus. Russian economic sanctions are likely to increase on Latvia during 2015. On 2015 Latvia will be on the front of the international rivalry between the West and the Moscow octopus. The 2015 will be the year of the Goat. Goat is symbol of smartness, independence and wealth. Yet Goat is also the symbol of the Devils face. The Goat year previously was 1919 and 1991 the two very crucial years for Latvia. Lets be smart and independent and also courageous on year 2015 and reach new milestone and achievements.

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Latvian Parliamentary Elections 2014

Next Saturday October 4 Latvia will held elections for 12th Saeima the – Latvian parliament. Last elections took place 3 years ago on September 17 2011. They were emergency elections since former president of Latvia Valdis Zatlers dismissed the parliament and it was approved by the voters in the poll. In Latvia to dismiss the parliament a referendum is needed to approve the president decision. So the 11th Saeima was result of the Presidential Decree Nr.2. The results of this decree was varying. The pro-Kremlin party Harmony Center gained 31 vote majority. Valdis Zatlers with his Reform party came in second with 26 seats, leaving past leaders Unity (Vienotība) with 20 seats. The National Alliance and Green Farmers Union also made it. However, Harmony Center could not run the government and was left. in opposition. The Unity PM candidate Valdis Dombrovskis resumed his office and held the coalition together with Zatlers Reform Party and National Union. Green Farmers accused of being led by oligarch major of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs was thrown in to opposition. As it was one of the main election slogans to get rid of the oligarch parties. On November 27 after Maxima supermarket disaster Valdis Dombrovskis resigned and government was formed by Laimdota Straujuma from Unity. This time the Green Farmers came back in coalition, as the Reform Party was in path to disintegration. Indeed Zatler’s vision on his Decree Nr.2 had failed. At the first day after forming government his six elected members left the party. Zatlers was not elected as Chairman of Saeima and was assigned to lead the National Security Commission. His two most ambitious reformers Roberts Ķīlis Minister of Education and Edmunds Sprūdžs the Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development failed to achieve his goals and resigned. As Zatlers became sick with cancer he lost the direction of his party and in result the party was disbanded. His most successful members joined either Unity or National Alliance. So in these elections one of the leaders of the 2011 elections will not stand. But 13 parties will stand in 2014 elections so this article will describe who are the main contestants, what they offer and what they have done.

Unity (Vienotība)

Unity for last 5 years have been known as the leading party in the Latvian politics. From 2009 to 2014 Valdis Dombrovskis lead the country as the Prime Minister. His consequent approach on getting country out of the economic crisis was not without difficulties and protests, but in the end he came in history as the one man who brought Latvia to Eurozone on 2014. He survived the Saeima dismissals and coalition rumbles, but the Maxima Supermarket disaster on November 21 2013 made him resign to take the political responsibility. He was replaced by Laimdota Straujuma a Minister of Agriculture a rather silent personality to Latvian public and media. At first it seemed that Artis Pabriks from Unity a popular Minister of Defense would take the PM office. As the Russian aggression in Ukraine was looming he seemed obvious choice. However, President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš turned him down and instead named Laimdota Straujuma as the Prime Minister. She was chosen as compromise person that would lead the country until next elections. Now she is the candidate for PM from Unity again, but she does not exclude the possibility to give PM seat to another Unity member such as Andris Piebalgs   European Commissioner for Development at the European Commission. Straujuma is pragmatic and careful person, however sometimes she shows timidly and lack of concrete stance when regarding the security and international affairs. As Pabriks and Dombrovskis is now in EU Parliament the two past leaders are not on the election list.

The Unity election list leaders are Straujuma, Solvita Āboltiņa chairman of the Saeima, Edgars Rinkēvičs the Foreign Affairs Minister, Anrijs Matīss and Jānis Reirs in four election districts. Solvita Āboltiņa has been the chairman since 2010. She has been described as the Red Cardinal of the Latvian politics not just because of her red hair. A master of the salon politics she has great influence on coalition work and assigning important offices. A question yet remains if her backdrop politics serves good for her party and our country.

Unity has accumulated many former Reform Party front-runners. Edgars Rinkēvičs a professional and responsible Minister of Foreign Affairs  has shown strong supportive stance towards Ukraine and has reacted venerable national stance towards aggressive Russian policy against Latvia. Rihards Kozlovskis a Minister of Interior Affairs another ex reformist despite many issues has lead the Interior security carefully. His main issues are constant underfunding of the police force, slow investigation of the Maxima disaster and problems with Latvian Secret Services who are accused over lack of actions regarding the countries security. Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis an ex reformist took the office of education and now serves as Minister of Economy is a professional politician. His weak side is rather questionable relations with her adviser Anna Kononova an ex press secretary of the Riga Town Council. Not only the fact that she worked with pro-Kremlin Major Nils Ušakovs for many years, but also because of rumors about “too close” relations between her and Dombrovskis. Indeed this was not the only case in past 3 years when ministers and their advisers became too close and state issues may have been decided in bed.

 Apart from that the Unity has many pros and cons to be voted to rule for next five years. Being ruling party for five years has made a bit like its past rival Peoples Party, a desire to control every aspect of the state affairs, arrogance and intrigue – all that naturally comes when opposition party becomes the ruling party. Also the sacrifice of two most strongest leaders – Artis Pabriks and Valdis Dombrovskis is a great cost. Artis Pabriks showed greet effort towards national security in his long-term as the Minister of Defense. In the time of international crisis around, Latvia lacks strong leaders. The President Andris Bērziņš and Laimdota Straujuma lacks significantly towards the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania. So if Unity really wants to rule the country during these rough times, it should set intrigues and ambitions aside especially within the inside the party.

That same can be said about the National Alliance. Formed from two national conservative forces – For Fatherland and Freedom and All for Latvia the party has grown more powerful in last two elections. But, the party has been plagued by the scandals and controversy. Its have been the champion of the minister resignations and unfilled threats to bring down the government if their demands are not met. The Minister of Culture posh businessman Žaneta Jaunzeme-Grende who viewed this sector rather from financial side  then cultural, got in endless conflicts with various players of the sector. The most hardest player was the Latvian National Opera. Despite having worldwide reputations, best opera singers on the world stage, the opera experienced financial issues. Grende’s attempts to address the issue ended with bitter conflict with the opera director Andrejs Žagars. In the both Žagars and Grende was fired from  their office. She was replaced by long time ministry employee and professional Dace Melbārde who now runs from NA as the front-runner.

Because of the Reform’s Parties demise the Ministry of Regions and Environment was handed over to NA. Einārs Cilinskis a veteran in nationalist politics took over the office and was quickly dismissed because he disobeyed the PM. On March 16 the annual remembrance of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion took place. Because the “referendum” in Crimea took place on the same time, there was fear from Russian provocations. Straujuma warned no state official to take part in the commemorative march in the city center. Cilinskis who always participated in the event came anyway and was fired. He was replaced by Romāns Naudiņš a businessman who failed to gain allowance for the state secrets.

More gloom was the NA leadership over the Justice. Gaidis Bērziņš with experience in this field resigned after he refused to discuss the Jewish property restitution. Was this just a cover up reason to hide his corrupt dealings with Ventspils reminds a speculation. He was replaced by Jānis Bordāns. Bordāns did not re activate the Jewish property problem, instead he even attended some of the Jewish events such as concerts or Holocaust events. But, his main issue was the insolvency reform. It started to became clear that insolvency sector had great influence on NA. Many of the insolvency lawyers were the members of the party. As insolvency sector sometimes proved to be corrupt and unlawful, Bordāns tried to reform by introducing changes in the law. He was then excluded from his own party and asked to resign. The official reason was his close ties with Democratic Patriots society that wanted to became a party. He was accused of insubordination. The real reason as said by many was because he stepped on the parties interests. As the insolvency business has a shallowly grip on the party. However, as only the PM can ask minister to resign, Bordāns stayed in the office until Dombrovskis government resigned.  Left without party and ministry Bordāns raced to create his own New Conservative Party. That however seems  to be an ill fated choice as his new political force has less chance to reach above 5% barrier.

The new Straujuma government assigned NA leader of the Riga Town Council opposition Baiba Broka. She quickly dismissed all the proposed changes in insolvency – no wonder as her professional past was associated with it. But, then a grave problem came- she did not received permit to access the state secret from Constitutional Defense Bureau (SAB). SAB a top counter intelligence agency refused to explain why, so Broka resigned. A path reached the start again as Gaidis Bērziņš took the office again. If NA wants to lead the Justice sector further it must explain the voters the controversy over its problems with insolvency sector.

Another thing to explain for NA is why its front leaders Raivis Dzinars and Imants Parādnieks from All for Latvia has refused and continue to  refuse to take important offices. Instead the minister seats are allocated to For Fatherland and Freedom old timers and people from outside like Žanete Jaunzeme-Grende. Their PM candidate is EU parliament deputy Roberts Zīle another old-timer, who will rather stay at Brussels than really take over the country. As Baiba Broka who seemed a good candidate for  PM has demised from the scene the question of leadership from NA is important. Another question- if one of the All for Latvia ideologues Jānis Iealnieks, who is known for his dubious remarks about Norway massacre on 2011, and love for Christmas ginger bread swastikas will not cause embarrassment on the international scene.

Green Farmers Union was on high heels on 2010 when it formed a powerful two-party coalition with Unity. A year later Valdis Zatlers declared a crusade against oligarchy. His hit list was Ainārs Šlesers, Andris Šķēļe and Aivars Lembergs. Lembergs a oil business tycoon, a major of port city Ventspils for 20 years is also on trial for state-wide fraud. His Venstpils Party is also part of the Green Farmer Alliance. After 2011 election the party lost its power and came only with 13 seats and was dropped into opposition.  Lembergs who was stripped from his administrative powers continued to lead the  Venstpils city and was victorious in the 2013 municipal elections. Reformist Edmunds Spūdžs tried to legally oust him from the office, but failed.

After Dombrovskis resign, Green Farmers came back to coalition and took over the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Welfare. A rather exotic choice was to assign a Green Party leader Raimonds Vējonis as the Minister of Defense. The ex minister of Environment affected by the Ukrainian crisis begun to make calls for boosting the military budget, buy a new equipment and prepare for war.   Meanwhile Lembergs openly criticized the NATO, wrote open letter to NATO leadership about the bad behavior of the NATO sailors in Ventspils. He was then condemned by Vējonis. But, in the end Lembergs was again put forward as PM candidate.  With promise to end constant “obeying” to EU and NATO.

Harmony Center (“Saskaņas Centrs”), the main force of the Russian speaking community and leftist forces now enters as the Socialdemocrat Party “Harmony”. For years its main line that they are social democrats, that stood not just for Russians, but for all people in Latvia. Meanwhile the PM candidate Nils Ušakovs enjoys a posh lifestyle, spends the administrative resources for his political rallies and has led the state capital with deficit for many years. Ušakovs played significant role on 2012 two state language referendum of which he endorsed. His endorsement for referendum organized by Russian national radicals boosted massive support for the two state language movement. The referendum failed as 80% voted no, but Ušakovs achieved disharmony rather than harmony. When Latvia joined EU sanctions against Russia, and Russia in return banned the import of EU products, Ušakovs agonized over the closure of the Riga food store in Moscow. He blamed the Latvian government and went to Moscow to “beg” not to close the Rizhkij Dvorik completely. In process he met the Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kiril II. Also in the interview with the liberal Russian TV Dozhd he said that Vladimir Putin is the best one for Latvia, as if he would be replaced by Alexei Navalny who would be danger to the neighboring countries. Since Putin’s invasion in Ukraine, such talk seems ridiculous. Some 2 years ago placing Vladmir Zhirinovsky or the Russian ultra nationalists as scare crow not to replace Putin seemed to work. Now it does not work anymore. Harmony Center has failed to state what is happening in Ukraine and why they have association agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.  So they cannot no longer hide that they are pro-Kremlin party.

There is another pro Kremlin party that does not even hide it. Latvia Russian Union the ex Party for Equal Human Rights in Latvia, has taken the ultra nationalist spirit currently in Russia.  Their leader Tatjana Ždanoka a EU parliamentary deputy went to Crimea as “independent observer” for the Crimean referendum. A supporter of the Eastern Ukrainian “separatists”, she even went to Scotland to compare their legal referendum to Crimea one. The candidates of this party constantly warns  the voters of impeding Crimea in Latvia, if they would not be elected. Latvian Russian speakers are no strangers to Russian nationalist propaganda. There are many people here that would greet the Russian tanks in the same way some people greeted tanks in Crimea.

Ingūna’s Sudraba’s party is the biggest question and intrigue of this election. An ex State Controller, outspoken critic of the state funding and state policy after leaving the office her political future was in question. She was named as a potential PM candidate from the Harmony Center. Her connections with the Russian Secret Service was in question for many years. Then on same day when Dombrovskis resigned she came out with announcement to enter politics and form her own party. When she learned the news that Dombrovskis has resigned she fainted. That was just the beginning of her political crash course. Her new party is called  To Latvia with Heart “No Sirds Latvijai”. Party issues rather leftist messianic ideology to free Latvia from poverty and injustice. Her party gained large funding from unclear sources. Many of her party front-runners left the party because of the secrecy of the funding sources. If that was not enough Sudraba’s connections with Russian radicals and Russian agents popped up on the news one by another. Sudraba denied every each accusation as black PR. Even a video where she goes to private plane that belongs to Russian FSB agent, she denied that she is in that video. And then even more bizarre discovery was unrelieved yesterday. She has connections with a spiritual center “DVS Urantija” that preaches that Putin is a “child of the light” who fights against reptilians and grays. A kind a popular conspiracy theory in Russia, that describes that USA and EU is lead by aliens, and Russia is the only remaining spiritual country that fights of this invasion. That could explain rather messianic feel of Sudraba election campaign. As Bible has warned of the danger of a False Prophet, the Orthodox baptized Sudraba should bear the warning.

There are other more  smaller political parties, that could reach the 5% barrier. The ex Unity politician Einārs Repše has made political pro business movement (For the Development of Latvia) Latvijas Attīstībai. His second comeback seems rather doubtful as people had enough his time in politics and his liberal pro business utopia does not fit today reality.  Regional Alliance (Reģionu Apvienība) is formed from politicians within Latvian towns and municipalities. While their main  place of advance is the Municipal elections they hope to gain seats in the Parliament to affect local politics. That remains in the hands of the voters. Meanwhile Ainārs Šlesers a political veteran has never missed a chance to take place in elections. His last two elections was a failure, but it seems that a man has constant election frenzy. This  time he comes with party United for Latvia (Vienoti Latvijai). And he comes together with old timers PM Ivars Godmanis, Aigars Kalvītis, Jānis Jurkāns and others. Will people vote for the symbols of the old pre-crisis times, a times of spending corruption- Šlesers might also guess the answer – no. But, what is elections without Šlesers and friends?

Without mentioning the small fringe party lists, this concludes the story of the election contestants. This might be the most important elections in our history for decades. Will the right-wing Latvian parties keep the power and unite against the common enemy in Russia? Or the pro-Kremlin parties under “spiritually guided” Inguna Sudraba will take over? So all Latvian readers are urged to vote and make their votes responsible. The following weeks will be crucial for our country. Another west and east choice will take place. As Latvia is on the frontline of the New Cold War, the Latvia must choose between our independence and security or a Latvian Maidan.

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Latvia 2013 The Year of Struggles

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!

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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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