RIGA - The Farmers' Union said last week that it would no longer support extending the county's military mission in Iraq. The surprise decision signifies the first cracks in the coalition's support for the Iraqi mission, and has been widely perceived as pre-election posturing to woo the electorate.
The Farmer's Union, which is in league with the Green Party in Parliament, said that since Saddam Hussein had been removed and a vote held there was no longer a reason for Latvian soldiers to serve with the "coalition of the willing."
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga immediately repudiated the move, pointing to next year's parliamentary elections as the party's real reason for the sudden change of heart.
The Green Party, meanwhile, said they were unlikely to make a decision until members heard out the government. If they decide to support their party colleagues, the combined group could use its 12 votes to obstruct passage of another mandate.
Still, even without the Greens and Farmers' Union, the coalition would have 57 votes in Parliament. Provided that no other party or parliamentarians change sides during the mission, which runs until the end of this year, the government could cull together enough votes for an extension.
Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs supported the Greens and Farmers, a party he has strong ties to, in a Sept. 5 editorial in the daily Diena. The controversial mayor wrote that the presence of the country's military forces in Iraq put Latvia in danger of a terrorist attack.
What's more, if an attack took place, it would likely be in Riga or Ventspils, opined Lembergs, explaining that the chemicals and other products the Venstpils port deals with would make it an attractive target.
The opinion piece was ridiculed the following day by Diena columnist Aivars Ozolins, who pointed out that Lembergs was a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 and that the mayor's opinion changed as his relationship with Russia changed. Once oil stopped flowing through the pipeline to Ventspils, support for the U.S.-led war emerged, while previously he had been opposed to NATO expansion.
Lembergs is reportedly considering a run for parliamentary office next year in conjunction with the Greens and Farmers' Union and the upstart New Democrats.
The union of the Greens and Farmers 's typically left-wing and more right-wing, respectively 's is a political marriage unknown in Europe.
Curiously enough, Lithua-nia's Liberal Democrats 's a party similar in structure to the Farmers' Union 's also called for troops to be sent home from Iraq due to the increasingly palpable threat of terrorist activity. The Liberal Democrats are led by former President Rolandas Paksas.
Latvia's leadership, however, has reiterated its support for Iraqi peacekeeping.
"They (the Farmers' Union) have taken this position in an attempt to raise the number of their supporters with a view on the upcoming elections," Vike-Freiberga said in a radio interview.
"The multinational forces are going to stay in Iraq only as long as necessary, and not a day longer. They will be withdrawn as soon as the security situation in Iraq stabilizes and the leadership of the country and its security forces are able to ensure control over the situation," Foreign Minister Atis Pabriks said.
Analysts were not surprised by Lemberg's move.
"Naturally things will change," said Atis Lejins, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. "Why didn't he [Lembergs] say this six months ago?" He said that Lembergs could be angry with the United Sates because of pressure for Latvia to crack down on corruption.
Poland, which headed the multinational forces where the 136 Latvians served, said it would withdraw the bulk of its military from Iraq by early next year due to domestic unpopularity for the mission and a lack of funds and soldiers.
If the mandate is extended, then military units will most likely serve under Danish leadership.