The portal that influences public policy

  • 2004-07-22 is one of the few places in Latvia where the elite meet and debate current issues affecting the government. The Soros Foundation-funded NGO gives experts a forum to offer criticism on issues ranging from education reform to media integrity and human rights. The Web site (which has an English-language component - is an outgrowth of the public-policy center Providus. Editor in chief Nellija Locmele met with Aaron Eglitis to speak about NGOs, politics, minority issues and relations with Russia.

What exactly is
[When we set it up], we didn't want to make something that would compete with the traditional media, but rather a source that would offer something extra, something that would establish a new niche of information and an exchange of opinions. And I think what we have done is create a stage for people who are involved in creating different policies - to get the public policy community involved in discussion. When we publish research and studies by state agencies it somehow changes the attitude of all people involved. We can be described as a "public library." We publish studies and materials, while we also commission opinion articles.

Do you feel that the civil society is able to influence political decisions here in Latvia? Sometimes it appears that no matter how much uproar there is in the media, as in the case of [anti-corruption bureau chief] Aleksejs Loskutovs, no one listens.
Yes, but of course it's very difficult to influence decisions. You have to be constructive and present a solution. For example, a government creates a declaration of what are the most important issues that it wants to focus on, and initiated an NGO roundtable with [members of] the previous government, and we submitted our proposals to this declaration.
It's too late if you wait until the elections. You have to influence things right from the beginning.
Another example is the systemic change in the party finance law. If there hadn't been these monitoring projects - with their recommendations - and if there had not been pressure from society, no change would have likely happened. This is real progress.

Is the arrival of a party like New Era, a party whose main platform was anticorruption, a sign of political maturity?
Yes, it's a change, but you can't talk about a mature democracy when with each election you have a number of new parties. We have many of the same faces on the same lists. I think that [in this sense] politics is messy, and we have to clean it up. Every party says something is wrong, and we will make it better. They don't say there is a problem and we will fix it because we have PhDs in economics and so on. New Era said they were going to be honest, and this of course means that all other politicians are dishonest. This is very appealing to the public, but it's not the best way to build coalitions.

Will we see a time when political parties are not as tied to personalities?
I think that personalities are very important; you can't just have platforms. But in the West I have the feeling that these personalities somehow bring up these platforms. Here in Latvia these personalities are more or less "trust me," and that's it. We need some elections in which no newcomers win. If you don't have newcomers who do not need to account for what they have done but just offer a wish list, then people will be more interested in finding out the difference.

One of the more interesting aspects of your Web site is that you bring people from all across the spectrum of any debate to discuss a political issue. One issue you recently touched upon was the education reform. Do you have any feeling about what will happen come Sept. 1?
I don't see any chance right now for a compromise. The government has said that we are ready for dialogue but only on one precondition - which is there will be no change. That is exactly what these people are protesting, and with such a precondition you cannot reach a compromise.

The more this government seems to avoid dialogue, the more power seems to be moving to Shtab to shape the dialogue and away from Lashor.
To be heard it seems you have to scream louder, which means politically you have to be even more radical. You can also see from the European Parliament elections that this radicalization is happening not only on the Russian side but also on the Latvian side. I really don't think that the government is trying to consider the effectiveness of this particular law. This is not a policy situation - it's a political situation. When you have a conflict and cannot reach compromise, to take a step forward looks like a retreat. I think that everyone loses in this situation.
I can't imagine that schools will be empty on Sept. 1. This government depends on the so-called leftist parties, and for them it's also very critical since they can alienate their voters. This radicalization process hinders converting support to political power.

Looking at the Latvian political landscape, there is no traditional left-right split. We have Latvian parties and Russian parties. As naturalization continues, do you think we will eventually see Latvian parties trying to reach out to the ethnic Russian voter?
I think this would be a most beneficial development for the state's future. The constructive way to think, for both Latvian parties and Russian voters, is to find a way to cooperate. Then try to make your choice not on some irrational motive but for yourself on what kind of country you want to live in.

The OSCE parliamentary assembly recently criticized Latvia, asking it to give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections and to ratify the framework convention on national minorities.
I can't see politically a way for [noncitizens to vote] in local elections right now, that these so-called Latvian parties would be willing to accept such changes. We can see that For Fatherland and Freedom received a lot of votes in the Europarliament elections, creating pressure for other Latvian parties to follow suit. Latvian politicians are going to repeat all the time now that there is a process of naturalization and that [noncitizens] can receive citizenship and acquire the right to vote.
Because of this radicalization in society, this education reform, politicians are afraid of what would happen in Riga if, for example, you granted the right to vote in local elections. There is no way for change, and this is exactly the reason that Russia is attacking Latvia.