RIGA - In perhaps the most controversial development since the minority government took power in March, Parliament confirmed the Cabinet-backed Aleksejs Loskutovs on May 27 as the new head of the Corruption Prevention and Control Bureau, Latvia's anti-corruption division.
Loskutovs, who will serve a five-year term, beat out acting head Juta Strike for the post thanks to unflagging support from Prime Minister Indulis Emsis, who had vowed to replace Strike as soon as he took office.
Polls conducted on the issue showed without exception that Strike, 33, was by far the favorite candidate among Latvians, while the little-known Loskutovs barely registered.
The contest for the bureau's top spot was extremely crucial given the position's lengthy term and its sweeping powers in fighting endemic corruption in Latvia.
For this reason Loskutovs' candidacy was bitterly debated in Parliament. Opposition MPs, particularly from New Era, blasted Lokutovs, who headed the bureau's analysis and methodology department, claiming that he did not have the people's trust and would not stand in the way of a corrupt ruling coalition.
Loskutovs had been dogged by criticism for an interview he gave the Black Panther erotic magazine several years ago, where he graphically described his sexual preferences. While this proved to be publicly embarrassing, Emsis took the opportunity to defend his candidate for the anticorruption bureau, saying Loskutovs' sexual revelations proved he was both honest and open, elements essential to fighting corruption.
In the run-up to the vote, the prime minister continued to criticize Strike, going so far as to suggest she was a contracted lackey of right-wing forces, though he refused to reveal the true nature of the information in his possession, claiming it was classified.
To be sure, Strike's position had been unstable for months since she was left in place after being rejected by Parliament twice during Einars Repse's premiership. At the time Repse's intransigence was roundly criticized by NGOs and analysts, who said that if Repse's government were to fall, so would Strike. This prophecy proved prescient, particularly since the young law enforcement official was aggressive in her position and not shy about taking on the country's major political parties.
"The drive from the beginning has been strong and clear to get rid of Juta Strike and put in her place someone else," anticorruption expert Valts Kalnins told The Baltic Times.
Under Strike's leadership, the bureau uncovered tens of thousands of lats in illegal campaign donations and demanded their immediate return. The Greens and Farmers itself was ordered to transfer 55,000 lats to the Finance Ministry after having failed to prove the contributions' origins.
Emsis therefore was swift to replace Strike as soon as he took office. He nominated Juris Reksna, state secretary of the Interior Ministry, but the move was blasted in the media.
Public pressure over the bureau mounted, and finally Emsis agreed to hold a new competition. The top three candidates all came from the CPCB, including Loskutovs, Strike and Alvis Vilks. A jury of six experts reviewed the candidates, with three preferring Strike and two - one of which was Emsis - choosing Loskutovs.
As a result, instead of recommending one candidate for a Cabinet vote, the panel offered three candidates, thereby assuring Loskutovs' easy passage through the government.
"It appeared [ruling coalition] would do anything, use any means, and that undermines any credibility that Emsis might have had," Kalnins said.
Still, both publicly and privately many observers admit that Loskutovs is very qualified, having written 44 publications and having spent 15 years as a lecturer in criminology and criminal law. However, they also admit that he's in an unenviable position due to the politics surrounding the anticorruption bureau.
However, Loskutovs immediately complicated his position by saying in an interview with TV5 that the occupation of Latvia was "a normal process in the expansion of the U.S.S.R." Officials from both the opposition and the government lamented the statement, and Culture Minister Helen Demakova went so far as to write a long historical explanation to Loskutovs. Others have called upon the anticorruption chief to visit the Occupation Museum.
But by the beginning of the week the opposition's pessimism about Loskutovs seemed to bear itself out. A Riga court on May 31, just four days after Loskutovs' appointment, struck down an earlier CPCB decision demanding that Greens and Farmers Union, the party to which the prime minister and speaker of Parliament belong, return 55,000 lats (84,300 euros) in illegal campaign donations.
The local press immediately took the decision up as an example of the shifting tone in the country's anticorruption battle, though the ruling coalition was quick to point out the bias in the bureau's original decision.
"We were deeply convinced about [the exoneration]," Greens and Farmers faction head Augusts Brigmanis said after the court verdict. "It was clear from the very beginning that [the CPCB's decision] was a political order,"