• 2005-11-23
Latvia was treated to another bizarre legislative spectacle this week when the People's Party suddenly rammed through a law forbidding municipalities from enacting zoning restrictions on casinos, slot machine halls and other gambling institutions. They blamed regional authorities for changing the rules and the "border lines" too often, and that by yielding regulatory control over the industry to the federal government, some semblance of order would finally appear.

To find the People's Party's true motivation, one needn't look beyond Riga. In the dynamic Latvian capital alone, there are hundreds of casinos and so-called spelu zales (game halls), to the point that a blind man can find his way around downtown Riga by just listening to the sound of the slots. Few would argue that the situation has grown out of control and needs to be regulated.

Reigning in the rapidly developing gaming industry was an often talked about area for the Riga City Council, indeed a law that would have taken effect in the new year to relegate casinos to hotels in the capital has now been nullified by the new legislation.

The federal law regulating gaming was marked urgent with the help of New Era, although afterwards a proposal was attached by a MP from the People's Party that stripped the rights of municipalities from regulating the industry, and the measure barely passed with the help of the left wing Latvian Socialist Party, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia. The way in which the law was passed, hurried through with little debate and no presidential overview, set off a wave of speculation that corruption and backroom deals played a part in getting the legislation accepted.

The consequent backlash was so intense that Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis was forced to admit that the law might have been rushed and needed more work. To be sure, an eighth-grader could have admitted as much before the legislation was ever passed. Which makes one wonder about the level of leadership in Latvia right now.

Indeed, if it weren't for elections next October, this coalition would collapse. Latvia's First Party is beset by internal squabbles (one of its founders, Eriks Jekabsons, quit this week), members of the Greens and Farmers Union have become increasingly ornery, and now the People's Party has secretly put together its own agenda. Inflation has run wild and begun feeding on itself in a vicious circle and the government has proven utterly incapable of dealing with it 's preferring to blame it all on energy prices.

Little wonder then, that the next parliamentary elections in Latvia will be greeted by cheers of elation.