Tension among ruling partners escalates as Repse resigns

  • 2006-01-04
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - Defense Minister Einars Repse abruptly resigned last month after the prime minister's announcement that the anti-corruption bureau would begin a probe into Repse's investment portfolio.

The sudden departure threw a dark cloud over the Latvian government, but Repse did not insist that the party he leads, New Era, leave the coalition.

With parliamentary elections just nine months away, politicians are reluctant to destabilize the situation.

Repse said he would also give up his MP mandate and would focus on party activities in the upcoming months.

"This is the right step, which allows me to clear myself from any suspicion in a perfectly legal way," Repse said on Dec. 22, adding that he did not intend to hide behind his posts.

He stressed that his resignation was due to fabrications cooked up by the People's Party, a right-wing party whose leader, Aigars Kalvitis, heads the government.

Kalvitis, Repse said, crossed a legal boundary when he divulged information about the criminal investigation launched into Repse's business deals. "Such behavior on the part of the prime minister is unacceptable," Repse said.

"To clear any shadow of suspicion cast by political 'technologists' from the People's Party, I will be open to any law enforcement institutions," he promised.

But the threat of a government collapse quickly passed. New Era secretary general Edgars Jaunups said on Dec. 22, "When political opponents slander the party and use law enforcement institutions as their instrument, [these] do not improve the climate in the coalition."

He added, "Our ministers will continue their work in the coalition, for one reason: since the main aim of these activities was pushing New Era out of the government, we will not give this delight to the ruling coalition and other parties."

Repse is a former head of the Bank of Latvia who rose to power in 2002 on an anti-corruption platform that included jabs at the People's Party.

Repse had apparently wanted to quit the government earlier, but President Vaira Vike-Freiberga dissuaded him from doing so. She told public television on Dec. 22 that the defense minister could have stayed on while the probe continued and that he made his decision after consulting party colleagues.

"It is a political decision and his responsibility," the president noted.

She also called on the parliamentary commission investigating Repse's business deals to work more actively, as it has been working "a whole year already and has not found out anything."

Vike-Freiberga admitted also that Repse's way of doing business was a "bit extraordinary."

While serving as prime minister in 2002 's 2004, Repse took on millions of euros in loans to invest in a number of properties across the country. Many questioned the ethics of such steep investments, particularly for a public official, whose salary alone might not be sufficient to pay the interest on such debt.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis announced on Dec. 21 that the anti-corruption bureau had launched a criminal investigation into Repse's investments.

After the defense minister's resignation, Kalvitis said that Repse had not been a problematic defense minister. "I appreciate some of his initiatives," the prime minister told the Baltic News Service.

"If he had not acted so emotionally, he would probably remain in the minister's post," he added.

Indeed, the entire episode once again demonstrates the latent tension in the coalition, which is dominated by the People's Party and New Era. The two party's have continuously bickered over the past year, with the previous spat centering on an initiative by the People's Party to allow the federal government to regulate zoning controls for casinos and slot-machine halls.

According to the most recent poll, New Era remained the most popular party in Latvia, though its relative position has fallen. If the parliamentary poll were held today, New Era would receive 12.4 percent of votes, down from 14.8 percent in November, while the left-wing alliance For Human Rights in United Latvia would fetch 9.9 percent and the nationalist alliance For Fatherland and Freedom 8.7 percent. The People's Party came in fourth with 8.4 percent.

MP and New Era candidate Linda Murniece was nominated to fill the defense minister's post. She said her main tasks would be to strengthen Latvia's Home Guard and prepare for the upcoming NATO summit in Riga in November this year.

Murniece headed the anti-corruption committee while in Parliament.