RIGA - In the wake of a National Security Council decision to recommend that exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky be barred from traveling to Latvia, Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons abruptly resigned. Jekabsons, who has previously met and spoken on the phone with Berezovsky during the latter's two visits this year, said that, although he did not support the billionaire's persona non grata status, the decision to step down was the result of insufficient budget funds allocated to his ministry. The Interior Ministry has lost hundreds of personnel this year because of low pay.
At the same time, Jekabsons recently took a heavy dose of criticism from President Vaira Vike-Freiberga for setbacks in meeting security requirements for joining the non-visa Schengen accord in Europe. In unusually harsh language, the president called the current situation a "catastrophe" and directed the blame to the Interior Ministry.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis accepted Jekabsons' resignation and, temporarily taking over the post of interior minister, signed a decree placing Berezovsky on the list of persona non grata.
The exact reasons for blacklisting Berezovsky were not disclosed.
"This is a collective decision, but I cannot reveal argumentation in more detail, as it is secret," President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said after the council's decision was promulgated. The National Security Council includes the president, the prime minister, the speaker of Parliament, the chairman of Parliament's national security commission, as well as heads of the security services.
The council's decision to bar the one-time Russian oligarch came swiftly after his trip to Riga in September. Vike-Freiberga expressed doubt as to why law enforcement agencies would allow someone wanted for arrest in Russia to enter the country, while Kalvitis called Berezovsky a "threat" to national security.
Berezovsky was quoted as saying that he would appeal the decision with Latvia's court system, and he impugned the security council for giving in to Kremlin pressure, an opinion that Jekabsons also expressed. Later, however, in an interview with Latvian Television, the former oligarch mentioned that Jekabsons, a member of Latvia's First Party, refused to support his blacklisting during the National Security Council meeting, suggesting that he had been given inside information as to the content of the high-level security meeting. This immediately raised alarm bells in the government, and Kalvitis asked the Constitutional Protection Bureau, the state's secret service, to investigate whether a leak had occurred (See story above).
A parliamentary committee will also examine the issue.But his two visits this year have caused considerable concern, with questions focusing on conspiracies and clandestine meetings, real estate deals, and Russian pressure. What was the billionaire doing here? Few answers have been available for the public.After his second trip last month, where he was accompanied by Neil Bush, brother of the U.S. president, security authorities began to suggest Berezovsky was a threat to the country. Russian prosecutors demanded his extradition, where he is wanted for fraud, but since Berezovsky has been granted political asylum in England he cannot be handed over to the Russians. He currently travels on a British document with the name Platon Yelenin.The imbroglio has threatened to destabilize the ruling coalition.Latvia's First Party has put other candidates forward to fill Jekabsons' vacated place, but so far arch-rival and coalition partner New Era has said it would be in no hurry to confirm a First Party candidate. New Era Faction head Karlis Sardurskis told the Leta news agency that his party would wait to see what kind of program was offered before providing support. Without New Era's votes, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to confirm a replacement. Dzintars Jaundzeikars, deputy faction head for Latvia's First Party, said that if New Era were to block its candidates, the stability of the coalition government would be jeopardized. Former Interior Minister and First Party member Dainis Turlais has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Jekabsons. A rotation of sorts may now take place as Jekabsons returns to Parliament, pushing out the reverend Janis Smits.The Schengen accord links a number of European Union member states, and a few non-members, together in a Europe without borders, where checkpoints between countries have been abolished, leaving only a heavily guarded external border. While previously joining Schengen was a choice, the decision has been included in the Acquis Communautaire, the body of EU law that must be accepted by new member states.The new member states hope to join Schengen by 2007, Latvia, which is behind in meeting the criteria, will reportedly ask for an extension to meet the deadline. If Latvia misses the date, it risks losing substantial EU funding to implement the project. Reportedly the country may miss out on 56 million euros in financing from the European Commission.