RIGA - Government ministers took the current wave of NGO hysteria to new heights this week when they suggested that billionaire George Soros had organized an attempt to overthrow the ruling coalition via nongovernmental organizations.
Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons' Aug. 19 statement that the security police would begin to analyze Delna, the local chapter of Transparency International, and that billionaire financer George Soros may be behind its actions caused consternation in the capital.
This was followed by an interview with Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers in the Russian language tabloid Vesti Segodnya on Aug. 27, in which Slesers claimed that Soros "wants to control the power in Latvia" and added that Delna and Latvian Television were effectively instruments under Soros' control.
"The goal is obvious - to overthrow the Cabinet of [Prime Minister Indulis] Emsis," he said.
Slesers, who together with Jekabsons founded Latvia's First Party, one of three in the ruling coalition, went so far as to suggest that Delna chief Roberts Putnis might have a direct line to Soros in order to coordinate plans to bring down the ruling coalition.
Finally, on Aug. 30 millionaire oil baron and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs reiterated to journalists the same speculation, only augmenting the conspiracy theory by adding New Era head Einars Repse and the leading Latvian daily Diena as co-conspirators.
According to Lembergs, Delna had become a weapon of New Era, and since the NGO was financed by foreign entities, the conclusion was obvious.
"Thus foreign countries are meddling with Latvia's internal affairs, as Delna is dealing with political activities," he said.
The string of accusations was preceded and complemented by attacks in the press - mainly Latvian papers Neatkariga Rita Avize, Latvijas Avize and the tabloid Vakara Zinas - which are all owned by the same organization, Preses Nams, which is majority owned by Ventspils Nafta, the oil terminal controlled indirectly by Lembergs.
The coordinated attack against Delna is even more bizarre considering that Slesers and Lembergs are bitter rivals - even enemies, some would claim. Still, they seem to have found common ground in their resentment against New Era, Delna and the daily Diena.
Slesers, in his interview, also singled out New Era general secretary Uldis Grava as censoring the news and turning LTV, the state owned television station, against the government. He cited recent programs criticizing government decisions as evidence.
Grava denied the charge.
"The accusation is absurd. Much of Latvia's media is controlled by economic interests, but Latvian Television and Radio is independent," he told The Baltic Times. "Even when I was the director general of Latvian Television my presence in the newsroom was not particularly welcome, and that is how it should be."
Lembergs has been named as one of the principal backers to the Greens and Farmers Union, an upstart coalition including Emsis and Parliamentary Speaker Ingrida Udre.
Udre previously worked on the privatization of Ventspils Nafta when she worked as an auditor at Coopers & Lybrand.
Responding to the charges, Repse said "such claims are simply a cause for laughter."
While political analysts dismissed conspiracy theories involving Soros, the security police's sudden interest in NGOs in a country where memories of a repressive Soviet security apparatus are always close to the surface, caused great unease.
"I have received support for my research and policy analysis since 1999 from the Soros Fund, and not in a single instant have I ever felt any influence," Valts Kalnins, a Delna board member, said.
"I only know of the public statements made by Jekabsons, and I definitely took them as a threat," he added.
Indeed, the specter of repression and a shadowy security service charged with fighting foreign influence while looking at domestic NGOs was roundly criticized.
Andris Aukmanis, head of Soros Foundation Latvia, said this was the first time that high-ranking government officials openly attacked Soros.
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks, who received a Soros grant in the past and is a member of the People's Party, called the Soros-conspiracy "very original."
He said he dismissed Slesers' argument "as it was put," since Vesti Segodnya has a history of misquoting officials, including Pabriks, in the past.
The interior minister's spokesman, Krists Leiskalns, denied the possibility of phone taps and surveillance on either Delna or the Soros Foundation Latvia.
"We are just looking closer. It does not mean like during the Soviet times," he said.