Bizarre business meeting befuddles Latvia

  • 2005-09-28
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - An exiled Russian oligarch and the brother of U.S. President George W. Bush met with Latvian businessmen last week in what was widely perceived as Latvia's most uncanny event in years.

Boris Berezovsky, a Russian billionaire wanted by Russian prosecutors for fraud and tax evasion, made a surprise visit to Riga on Sept. 21 at the behest of Neil Bush, brother of the American president, to help promote Ignite!, an educational software company in which both reportedly have a commercial interest.

Bush and Berezovsky met with the creme de la creme of Latvia's business community, including former Prime Minister Andris Skele, telecommunication pioneer Peteris Smidre, and transport businessman Julijs Krumins.

As soon as they learned of Berezovsky's arrival in Riga, Russian law enforcement authorities contacted their Latvian colleagues to request extradition, but the latter declined to hand the former oligarch over. It was his second trip to Latvia this year.

Berezovsky travels on a British refugee document under the name of Platon Elenin. In light of this, Latvian border guard chief Gundars Dabolins repeatedly stated that no one named Berezovsky entered the country.

Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons carefully dodged the issues, telling the Baltic News Service, "I would like to express my conviction that nothing has changed since his last visit. The Latvian Foreign Ministry and the Latvian Prosecutor General's Office have already given an answer to Russia."

In Moscow, the pro-Kremlin youth organization Moving Together picketed outside the Latvian Embassy and demanded Berezovsky's extradition, with signs calling him a "traitor" and his detention in prison. Reportedly more than 100 turned out, and many clashed with local police.

Still, a great deal of attention was afforded to Neil Bush, whose presidential brother touched down in the Latvian capital in May. Speaking at an impromptu press conference, Neil Bush said that education was his "great passion in life" and referred to current education practices as "boring" adding that the company had business partners all over the world.

Latvia had great potential, due in part to the diminutive size of its bureaucracy, Bush said.

Ignite! sells education packets designed to teach schoolchildren American history and science through a variety of songs and cartoons. The programs are relatively expensive and include the latest in education technology. Ignite!'s most recent offer is a computerized - not to mention mobile - learning machine.

Reportedly Bush has called calculus "useless" when previously promoting his company, which focuses on the "hunter/gatherers" of society that may need to learn in a different way than other students.

Bush held meetings with University of Latvia staff to promote the software.

The press conference, however, reflected the strange nature of the visit. Dozens of journalists were packed into a tiny room, and one of the first questions 's addressed to Bush - came from an American teacher who made a point of lauding Ignite! and asking how it could be used to the benefit of Latvian schoolchildren.

journalists at the event were of the opinion that the question was orchestrated.

Other questions focused on the company's interest in Georgia and Ukraine, two countries that have recently undergone western orientated revolutions. But reporters were mainly interested in Berezovsky, erstwhile cardinal of the Kremlin, and why he was in Latvia and what role he played in the Ukrainian revolution last December.

Indeed, the appearance of both Berezovsky and Bush captured the attention of the country's elite and the media. Bush said that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called him through another channel to chat on the phone, while Berezovsky reportedly had meetings or telephone calls with other top officials, including Parliamentary Chairwoman Ingrida Udre and Interior Minister Jekabsons.

Neil Bush doesn't come bereft of a background as local media discovered when they turned to quick searches on the Internet. Among other highlights, he was involved in the savings and loan scandal of the early 1990s, which lead to a tax-payer bailout of over $1 billion. Other news reports have focused on the salaciousness of his divorce proceedings.

Indeed, according to a widely quoted article in The Washington Post dated two years ago, Neil Bush has a long history of profiting from companies in which his main responsibility appears to be to provide access to powerful people.

But it was Ignite!, his new company, that brought him to Latvia. He has offered the company's services in places like the United Arab Emirates and has made a number of trips to the former Soviet space, including Kazahkstan. Ignite! reportedly has foreign investment from Egypt.

The Houston Press described the actual composition of some of the materials, which have been employed in select Houston schools. Parts of the material use rap lyrics to explain history and even the country's constitution.

According to a number of media reports, reviews have been mixed, from positive, citing an increase in success at passing state exams, to the negative, charging Ignite with dumbing down history.

Skele told the Leta news agency that he would support the introduction of Ignite! education tools even before they could be "localized," perhaps in schools with English as the language of instruction.