RIGA - Leading right-wing politician and MP Aleksandrs Kirsteins was expelled from the People's Party last week for behavior that many party members felt was anti-Semitic and slowly eroding the country's reputation.
The final straw for the People's Party, one of four in the current ruling coalition, was Kirsteins' comments that Latvian Jews should stop "acting like they did in 1940 when they welcomed the enemies of Latvia."
He also suggested that the Jewish community rid its ranks of KGB agents.
Kirsteins was responding to a rare press release by the local Jewish community accusing him of providing cover for ultra-nationalist elements that were trying to rehabilitate Herberts Cukurs, an experimental pilot turned war criminal.
"A controversial individual who gets involved in rhetoric harmful to the state should not be in this post. We do not need Zhirinovskys [managing] our foreign policy," Janis Lagzdins, faction head of the People's Party, said after the May 26 decision to oust Kirsteins, who was head of Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
Kirsteins' remarks prompted the Israeli embassy to recall their ambassador to Jerusalem for consultations to show their displeasure. "The ministry views such threatening language with the utmost gravity and utterly condemns these insinuations," Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
This was not the first time that Kirsteins had created controversy in society and unease within the People's Party. Last month he sparked anger among minorities when he proposed not only putting a temporary halt to naturalization, but testing those that had recently received citizenship to determine whether they were sufficiently loyal to the state.
He had also spoke of signing a pact with Russia, similar to the one Latvia had with Nazi Germany in 1939, for the repatriation of ethnic Russians.
Kirsteins' sharp tongue had become a symbol of scorn in the local Russian language media, yet within his right-wing party he managed to survive because he retained a degree of popularity among the electorate.
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, both of the People's Party, earlier complained in the media that Kirsteins' actions were harming the state's ability to work with foreign partners. Reportedly Kirsteins also had problems working with foreign embassies.
Last year he oversaw the hiring of Liene Apine as secretary for the foreign affairs committee. Apine was deputy editor of DDD, the most blatantly radical newspaper in Latvia. DDD 's standing for De-occupation, De-colonization and De-bolshevization 's has in the past published the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a document drawn up by czarist police claiming a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The publication will soon face prosecution by the state for incitement of ethnic hatred. (See brief on this page.)
But it was his recent statements about the Jewish community that tipped the scales and forced his colleagues to act. Some said they were outright anti-Semitic, and after the 13-hour session in Parliament needed to pass the Framework Convention on National Minorities (see story on Page 1), the People's Party board voted in a closed meeting to give Kirsteins the boot.
Kirsteins was in Slovenia at the time.
"The expulsion was the end point in a long series of statements over a period of time. This last one was extreme, but may have not been the most extreme,"said Ilze Brands Kehris, head of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.
It was the second time Kirsteins was expelled from a political party. In 1997 he was removed from the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party.
Kirsteins struck out at his critics. In a lengthy interview to Latvijas Avize, a nationalist daily that has often championed him, he offered harsh words for critics and party members. He called Atis Slakteris, People's Party chief, a collective farmer. "If he's not stealing, he isn't living. Or if he isn't lying, he isn't living," he said of Slakteris.
Remarkably, Latvijas Avize ran a caricature on its front cover showing Kirsteins crucified on a cross, with his assailants made up of New Era and the People's Party. Former Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks 's who has relations with neither party, nor is he currently in Parliament 's is shown hammering in the last nail.
The future of Kirsteins is already the subject of much debate. Though he told the Neatkariga Rita Avize daily he may return to being an architect, the rumor mill holds that he will attempt to form a new national party that will vie with For Fatherland and Freedom, the People's Party and New Era for the right-wing vote.
Vaira Paegle, a member of the People's Party and a former presidential candidate, is likely to be named the new chairwoman of parliament's foreign affairs committee.