Doors are open - the ball is in their court

  • 2004-05-20
Artis Pabriks
- Born 1966
- associate professor of political science at Vizeme's University
- doctorate in political science from Aarhus University in Denmark
- speaks Latvian, English, German, and Danish

The weather may be unseasonably chilly, but Latvian politics is on the burner and about to boil. To get an inside view on the situation regarding education reform and the stability of the coalition, Aaron Eglitis met with Artis Pabriks, a parliamentarian representing the People's Party (one of the three parties in the coalition) on the foreign affairs committee, and a political science professor.

Why are both the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia and the right-of-center New Era trying to bring down the current minority government?
As usual in politics, the motivations are different, but the goal is the same. The radical Russian parties are trying to attack the government coalition because the coalition is not doing what the demonstrators in the street are saying. We are flexible on education policy, but we are not going to change the law.
Now for New Era it's also a pre-election trick, but in the longer term they would like to be in the government. It's obvious because they know they could be in this government, and they have learned from their previous mistakes.

Are parties turning more extreme on the eve of the Europarliament election to appeal to their electorate?
Well, we foresaw that some Russian politicians are ready to use more extreme means. What we did not foresee until today was a similar approach from the ethnic Latvian side. So we cannot agree with accusations from [Janis] Jurkans' or [Tatyana] Zhdanoka's party that this reform became an opposition between two groups. Latvians are not organizing in support for this part of the reform.
After the Europarliament elections, both the People's Party and New Era will be sitting in the same wing in Strasbourg with the European People's Party. Will that be strange?
Well, it was already strange before this government was formed - when the People's Party was in opposition. I still believe that a stable government could be had with New Era in the coalition. The problem is with their leadership and democracy within their party. We do not regard our standing against each other as long-term, we always keep our doors open for them to join our side. The ball is in their court now. The problem is they always had different ultimatums for joining that we did not have. If you look at the understanding between New Era and the People's Party, it's always been very good. We frequently vote the same way - the problem is with their leadership.

How do you see the New Era attack on the removal of Special Task Minister for Integration Nils Muiznieks. Alexanders Kirsteins, a member of your party, also wrote a critical piece of Muiznieks in the media.
I think it's a silly move by New Era because the ministry was established by a government led by New Era. Minister Muiznieks was appointed by Einars Repse, and Minister Muiznieks was supported by Repse. At this moment, when Muiznieks remains a minister in this government, suddenly he is the most guilty person, while he didn't do anything more or less now than previously. Nothing changed in this policy compared to the previous times.
Kirsteins was presenting his own personal opinion and not that of the party.

How do you see the ongoing controversy surrounding the coming education reform? On May 1 Shtab was able to get more protesters to come to its rallies than ever before, and it seems they are drawing more influence away from moderate organizations like Lashor.
It's obvious they are going away from the moderate organizations, because the goal of these activists is not to have negotiations. They basically want to show that the system is unstable here, and that the state is not controlling its policies. They want conflict. The question is not about education at all - the question is about the legitimacy of this government.
I had today a very interesting discussion with a delegation from Russia, both members of the liberal forces, and political scientists, and I was extremely impressed that the information in Russia is so distorted. They thought that there were differences in social benefits between ethnic Latvians and Russians, and when we started talking we realized that we agree on almost everything concerning what is done here, but that information is not available in the Russian media - either here or there.

Not long ago Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said we should keep our relations with Russia on a bilateral basis. Should we go through Brussels or keep issues going by way of Riga?
Well, I don't think we can keep totally to this stance. As with many countries in the EU we have bilateral relations. I believe there will be some overlap, and there will be enough issues to go not only through Riga and Moscow, but through Riga, Moscow and Brussels because we are a EU member state.
If we could have a strengthening in our relations with Moscow through the EU, then why not?

How do you see development of civil society in Latvia over the last 10 years?
When we speak about politics we frequently forget about informal organizations. My party and myself personally, we have always been supporting the initiative as free individuals. Ten years ago we almost did not have NGOs here, now we have quite a few. The younger generation would probably like to make use of all those new opportunities.

Historically one of the defining characteristics of Latvian identity has been their agricultural background. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy has been very good at reducing the number of farms in the EU. What kind of effect could a reduction in the number of farms have on Latvia?
It's very difficult to plan how it will be in the 21st century. In some way, yes, Latvians are very closely tied to the land - also to nature and farming. I don't think we should be dreamers and believe that this will be the way to economic sustainability, but it can be part of our lifestyle. Which could be supported financially, even if we are a right-wing party in economic terms, we are also a conservative party.
We need to find a balance to maximize financial gains and also protect cultural identity. It's no longer a question of economy, it's a question of identity, and as a small country people care about this.