Emsis unafraid of getting hands dirty

  • 2004-08-12
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - Five months after coming to power in what many considered a doomed, near-impotent coalition, Indulis Emsis not only continues to balance the precarious government but even bends Cabinet policy according to his will.

When the Green Party member ascended to the azimuth of power in Latvia in the beginning of March, analysts openly wondered who he was, what he stood for and what interests he represented. Some pointed to environmentalists, others to Ventspils business oligarchs. And while that question largely remains unanswered, one thing is certain: the prime minister has not been shy about taking unpopular decisions.
He took tremendous flak for ditching the popular young chief of Latvia's anti-corruption bureau, Juta Strike, in favor of an ethnic Russian. Yet he survived.
Earlier this summer he backed a controversial initiative by the People's Party, a coalition partner, to strip the country's highest-ranking officials of the right to hold two passports. While the jury is still out on the move, Emsis may very well get the amendments passed.
Last week he stuck his neck out again when he nominated party colleague Ingrida Udre to represent Latvia on the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, over Sandra Kalniete, the popular dignitary also popular among the population.
And once again, he survived.
Emsis has also managed to fight another of his pet battles – this one with Lattelekom – while incurring minimal damage. This week he said that the entire council of the company, in which the state holds a 51 percent stake, needed to be replaced so the government control in the near-monopoly telephone operator could be strengthened.
The words are another slap in the face of TeliaSonera, the foreign investor holding a 49 percent stake in Lattelekom, which had been hoping a deal struck with the previous government of Einars Repse would allow it to gain majority control in both Lattelekom and LMT, a mobile operator.
Concerning TeliaSonera's request that Lattelekom pay out 4 million lats (6 million euros) in dividends, he said this week the Scandinavian company could all but forget it. Emsis wants half that sum to be spent on modernizing rural telephone networks.
And when it comes to attacks against him, the criticism seems not to bother the prime minister. When asked why opposition parties did so well and his so poorly in the Europarliament elections, he just brushed off the poll results, claiming voters tend to dispatch undesirable politicians to far-away lands so that they can't meddle in vital domestic affairs.
"I think that the active criticism targeted at me is connected with economic projects," he was quoted as saying this week. "I am absolutely against the privatization of Lattelekom and will even try to strengthen the role of the government in this company, and someone must not like my negative position on the pulp mill project."
Indeed, the prime minister is not shy about defending a strong role for the state in business interests. This week Emsis said that despite a powerful lobby, including on the party of Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, the government would not privatize any of the country's lucrative road repair companies that employ some 3,000 people.
"Just the opposite," Emsis said, "we're trying to strengthen state-owned enterprises – raise their value and use the profit wisely for filling the state budget."
Even speculation that the People's Party could leave the coalition and pair up with New Era doesn't faze the prime minister.
"I have seen such rather dynamic changes in political rhetoric, such unbelievable alliances, but in this case it is really very hard to imagine a model of cooperation for New Era and the People's Party," he said an interview to SWH radio.
Admitting that the two parties' programs and goals were similar, Emsis said, "The methods, experience and people are so different that it is hard to imagine how such a system could operate. But I wish them to at least find out if they are indeed looking in the same direction or not."
Looking ahead, the budget could help Emsis survive the upcoming weeks. The main reason: a 54.4 million lat budget surplus that can be divvied up among coalition partners and its leftist allies in Parliament.
Indeed, there were reports this week that Emsis was paying particular attention to requests from the left-of-center National Harmony Party, which was instrumental in helping the prime minister pass the confirmation vote back in March. Party leader Janis Jurkans wants to see more social support for the Latgale region, and Emsis is reportedly prepared to consider the idea.
With municipal elections around the corner, spreading the federal wealth could be just the ticket to brining Emsis beleaguered Greens and Farmers Union above the 5 percent threshold in opinion polls.
The real test, however, could be Sept. 1, when schoolchildren, parents and teachers, many of whom will be led by radical organizations, hit the streets in protest.
Speaking last week to reporters, Emsis said cryptically, "The state is the state and not a soft teddy-bear everyone can pull around as he pleases."
While cognizant that problems could arise, the prime minister tended to see the upcoming series of demonstrations as a political and not a social problem.
"You see, this is not a fight for the reform as such any more, about teaching the Latvian language in tenth grade classes and about two more subjects in Latvian, which, in my view, has long since been forgotten. All this is about a much more serious issue, and these ideas are being pushed in a way so as to constantly maintain tension and for those to whom it is a political advantage," said Emsis.