The maelstrom of frustration at Prime Minister Indulis Emsis' last-minute decision to change commissioners has spread beyond Latvia's borders to the European community and has given rise to innuendos of cronyism and conspiracy in reputable newspapers. Europarliament members, many of whom may be looking for an easy target at the upcoming hearing for the 25 commissioners, are poised to take up the matter.
Stories critical of Emsis' decision recently appeared in the Seuddeutsche Zeitung and The Wall Street Journal Europe. In the latter, journalist Benjamin Smith, a former reporter for The Baltic Times, said of the move: "While nobody questions a new government's right to name its own people, observers across Europe are scratching their heads over Ms. Kalniete's replacement with Ingrida Udre, a former basketball player."
The German broadsheet Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung has run two articles on the subject, one of which was titled "The Oligarchs of Riga." The paper went so far as to say that Latvia "risked becoming the bridgehead of Russian corruption."
The Swiss paper Le Temps has also weighed in, asking whether Udre is qualified for the post. Another Swiss news source, the L'Agefi business daily, predicted that Udre would have a difficult time at the confirmation hearings since she would have to defend her "incompetence" as well as her extravagant lifestyle.
Critical stories have appeared in The Economist owned publication The European Voice, and political Web sites Transitions Online and The Jamestown Foundation.
With this kind of mass speculation, Udre, who is a candidate for a five-year term on the European Commission, the crucial EU executive that essentially allows the 25-member union to operate on a day-by-day basis, is indeed in for a battle.
The commission has seen its share of embarrassment in the past. In 1999 the entire commission had to resign when Edith Cresson, who oversaw research, education and training, refused to step down over accusations that she had funneled 150,000 euros to her former dentist by filling out false orders. As a result, all 20 members had to resign.
Admittedly, times have changed, and former Commission President Romano Prodi required commissioners to hand in their letters of resignation before taking up their position.
Udre could be vulnerable for a number of reasons other than the nontransparent nature of her nomination. First, she is notoriously close to Ventspils business interests. Mayor Aivars Lembergs and individuals involved in the transit business are believed to be the main backers of the Greens and Farmers Union, which Udre belongs to. She even worked on the privatization of Ventspils Nafta while employed at Coopers & Lybrand in the 1990s.
Second, the Greens and Farmers' Union was cited with allegations of corruption by the state's anti-corruption agency, receiving nearly 80,000 lats (120,000 euros) in third party donations, some even from people who do not exist.
Third, there could be questions about Udre's qualifications for her proposed position as commissioner responsible for corporate taxation and customs. Her position on tax harmonization is also unclear, since in her answers to questions from the European Parliament she stated rather ambiguously that the commission should move toward harmonization, while earlier on Latvian television she had stated that each country should decide for themselves. Emsis tried to put spin on this by saying that her comments were merely "diplomatic."
Then there are more venial matters. Udre was apparently disingenuous in the most recent CV she sent to Brussels. For example, while she states she was the Minister of Economics in 1999, her term in office lasted only 59 days. She also claimed to be active in Parliament's European affairs committee, but as The Baltic Times learned, few of her committee colleagues saw her there.
Furthermore, her attendance at Parliament, where she is the speaker, has also been erratic, as she missed over half of the sessions.
"I never saw her there (at the European Affairs Committee). It's possible she was there a few times, but in principle she did not participate," Liene Liepina, a member of New Era, said.
But as Udre's press secretary Inese Aunina was quoted as saying by The European Voice, "Nobody cares about such tiny details."
True enough, much of the criticism, allegations of corruption and controversy surrounding the decision may remain out of the debate in Brussels. Guntars Krasts of the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom party is a member of both committees that will question Udre, but he said he would keep his questions confined to the technical.
"I am not going to ask these questions. There is no clear evidence that something was wrong with her nomination," he said.
In the meantime, it appears that the Latvian daily Diena will remain alone in criticizing Udre's qualifications for the job, while the remaining four major dailies, all tied to Ventspils business interests, will continue to impugn the reputation of anyone with links to billionaire George Soros or to Delna, the local chapter of Transparency International. And while much of the hysteria surrounding Soros' alleged influence on Latvia's internal politics has died down, stories continue to appear in newspapers friendly to the government that claim a perverse web of influence. Some have even tried to link Soros, Diena and Delna.
Importantly, Delna and The European Movement issued a scathing letter to MEPs on Sept. 21 demanding that they hold Udre accountable for the allegations of corruptions and her tendency to evade direct questions.
While the Danish and Dutch commissioner nominees have faced criticism at home for alleged conflicts of interest, it will be the debate revolving around Ingrida Udre that promises to be the most interesting of all. The hearings are scheduled to take place in Brussels on Oct. 7.