RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a figure regarded by many Latvians as above reproach, was greeted by members of the NGO community with derogatory white masks with fake red smiles at an industry-related ceremony on Aug. 24.
Local NGOs have in recent days expressed their frustration with the president after her remarks that NGOs should register as political parties if they wanted to organize protests and influence public opinion.
Vita Terauda, head of the public policy center Providus, delivered a letter to the president signed by prominent members of the NGO community requesting a meeting on Aug. 27 to hash out differences.
The confrontation began when Vike-Freiberga denounced an unsanctioned protest held by Delna, the local chapter of Transparency International and the European Movement, demanding that Ingrida Udre's nomination to the European Commission be recalled due to its nontransparent nature.
Prime Minister Indulis Emsis unexpectedly nominated Udre in place of the popular Sandra Kalniete, who had been put forward by the previous government.
The president initially said that Delna had violated the constitution, since only members of Parliament could call for the resignation of such a public official. She said later in a television interview that if Delna wanted to play politics it should register as a political party.
This challenge sparked a reaction among NGO leaders. Delna went so far as to claim that there could be irregularities in Imants Freibergs' (the president's husband) recent land deal in Jurmala.
Cabinet members immediately jumped to the president's rescue. Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons called for an examination of Delna and even signaled out George Soros as a culprit for partially funding its activity.
According to Krists Leiskalns, spokesman for Jekabsons, the security police are examining but not investigating Delna.
Delna expressed shock over Jekabsons' statements, and New Era demanded an explanation.
President Vike-Freiberga stuck to her position and even elaborated it in television interviews.
"Every NGO has its rights," presidential spokeswoman Aiva Rozenberga said, dismissing charges of repression in connection with the security police's examination of Delna.
The Transparency International branch was not without its backers, and many in the NGO community supported the organization in the pages of newspapers and other media.
Political analysts were shocked.
Commentator Karlis Streips, in a column titled "Was That Her?" on the Apollo Web site, referred to the president as Vaira Vike-Freiberga "or an alien inhabiting her body," since the decision was so uncharacteristic of her leadership.
Many other commentators expressed surprise as well.
"I personally think it's unacceptable for the president of Latvia to do that," said Nellija Locmele, editor in chief of public policy portal politika.lv. "Those members of the NGO community here that have expressed their opinion are very critical."
"She is patently wrong - it is the job of the NGO sector to express its opinion, which is often contrary to the government's," Daunis Auers, a political scientist, said.
The perception of corruption should have been addressed by the prime minister, who gave no reason for Udre's appointment over Kalniete, the head of Delna, Roberts Putnis, said. He attributed much of the emotion surrounding the controversy to "touching a weak spot." While public attacks have focused on Delna, the pro-EU European Movement, which also participated in the anti-Udre protest, has largely escaped the ensuing opprobrium.
Udre, who worked as an auditor before entering politics, later admitted that her party, the Farmers Union, received a number of large donations from Ventspils-based companies, which has fed much of the speculation on her nomination to the EC post by Emsis, a Green Party member who merged with the Farmers Union.
Putnis further said that the daily Neatkariga Rita Avize was considered part of the Ventspils media, and indeed, when Udre, upon returning from Brussels earlier this month, claimed to have no time for an interview, an exclusive interview in Neatkariga appeared the following day.
Juris Paiders, a columnist for Neatkariga, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Delna, condemning the NGO twice in recent columns. He claimed the organization was unethical because it had not spent all of its donations the previous year. He also wrote that the organization was suspect since it receives funding from a number of foreign embassies.
Prime Minister Emsis meet with the head of Transparency International in Berlin, Peter Eigen, who supported the local chapter Delna.