RIGA - She was a controversial last minute choice for Latvia's European commissioner, and her nomination even sparked emotional protests, but Parliament Speaker Ingrida Udre was given a major show of trust from Europe when the European Commission assigned her to the challenging post overseeing customs and taxation.
European Commission President designate Jose Manuel Durao Barroso named Udre to the post on Aug. 12, a move that some observers said might even amount to a boost in East European countries trying to stave off tax harmonization efforts by older West European member states.
Still, many questioned whether Udre was qualified for the position.
"She doesn't have the experience. She isn't an independent thinker on a European level," said Atis Leijins, director of the Foreign Policy Institute of Latvia.
"You have to be pretty good to make an impact, and she is not going to be able to do it," Leijins added.
"I've been with customs for nine years, and even now I can't say that I fully understand customs affairs," former customs administration director Martins Tols, who is now customs and tax manager for Deloitte & Touche in Latvia, was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.
Udre, a former basketball and volleyball player, worked as chief accountant for the SWH software company and was a specialist at the Agricultural Ministry's foreign relations department. Holding a master's degree in economics and being licensed as an auditor, she worked as a senior auditor for Coopers & Lybrand from 1993 to 1997.
Udre first entered politics in 1998 as part of Ainars Slesers' former New Party and became economy minister for a brief stint in 1999 before the party imploded.
When Slesers re-emerged with another newly created party in 2001, Latvia's First Party, bolstered by a cadre of priests, Udre headed the union of Greens and Farmers, a marriage of electoral convenience for two groups that, though otherwise representing opposite viewpoints, feared failing the 5 percent threshold in the October 2002 parliamentary elections.
That election was instrumental in the recent wave of criticism against Udre, since it was then that she campaigned on an outspoken Euroskeptical platform. At the time she proclaimed that Latvian farmers would be irreparably harmed by EU membership and could benefit more outside the union, as an offshore to Russian investment.
In an interview with The Baltic Times in October 2002, Udre freely admitted that both the Greens and the Farmers separately receive money from Ventspils interests, which are widely known to be controlled by Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who has led the city's executive for 15 years. She did, however, remain a staunch supporter of NATO membership.
Upon returning from Brussels last week, Udre said she told Barroso that she possessed a "healthy Euroskeptism."
Despite widespread criticism of Udre's nomination by Prime Minister Indulis Emsis in favor of Sandra Kalniete, who had been nominated by the previous government, some supported the move.
A columnist at Neatkariga Rita Avize daily said Udre's experience as a an athlete proved that she knew how to play on a team, which is critical for the European Commission, the EU's executive body.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, speaking through her spokeswoman Aiva Rozenberga, pointed to Udre's experience as a key asset.
Still, Udre has not been immune to political gaffes.
Not only did she bring her hair stylist along on international trips at the state's expense, but she also offered heated denials against the anti-corruption bureau when it uncovered alleged illegal third-party financing.
To top it off, after her secretive flight to Brussels on the day of her nomination by Emsis, Udre returned to publicly chastise a reporter from Diena, the country's leading daily, after debarking from her plane in front of television cameras.
Delna, the local chapter of Transparency International, hasn't remained on the sidelines either. The organization said Udre would "take her worst experience of nontransparent decision-making to the European Union."
Delna head Roberts Putnis said in a press release on Aug. 10 that, "Latvian political decision-making is corrupt, which has been confirmed by most surveys and researches. This procedure strengthens the impression very much."
With Udre's departure for Brussels, her seat as speaker of the Parliament has opened, but few coalition members are willing to speculate publicly on who will receive it. PM Emsis is expected to replace Udre as leader of the Green Party.