Same old new government set for power

  • 2000-04-27
  • By Philip Birzulis
RIGA - May 4, 1990, when Latvia's Soviet-era Parliament voted for independence, is remembered as a day of national jubilation and unity. In contrast, the 10th anniversary of this bold step finds the country's politicians squabbling over the shape of the eighth administration in the last decade.

The current crisis sprang from the April 12 resignation of Prime Minister Andris Skele of the People's Party after just eight months in the top job. Differences within the ruling coalition over privatization policies came to a head when Skele attempted to sack Economics Minister Vladimirs Makarovs of the For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK faction, who in turn had wanted to sack Privatization Agency head Janis Naglis, an ally of Skele. Latvia's Way, the third coalition partner, preferred Makarovs to Skele and withdrew support from the PM.

After Skele's ouster, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called on Riga Mayor Andris Berzins to put together a new coalition. Now Berzins is on the verge of making the step up to national leadership after piecing together an administration virtually identical to its predecessor.

As TBT went to press, the People's Party, Latvia's Way and the small New Party, another center right outfit which was part of the coalition before last, had agreed to team up. Dissatisfied with the cabinet portfolios it had been offered, Fatherland was still holding out but looked likely to join the team following ongoing discussion with the others. If the four come together, they will command 70 seats in the 100 member legislature, a very comfortable majority. The Parliament may vote to approve the new government on May 4, while if this is not possible there have also been proposals to call a special sitting on May 6, a Saturday.

This turn of events leads to the question of why Latvia had to go through the ritual dance of selecting a new government which looks almost exactly like the previous one. It is equally logical to ask whether the whole charade won't be played out in another eight months time.

Latvia's Way MP Inese Birzniece is confident that this new incarnation will last longer. Unwilling to face fresh elections, a prospect that President Vike-Freiberga considered before giving Berzins the nod, will motivate the factions to work together.

"It's not a hurried process, there is a real determination to form a government that will serve until the next elections in October 2002," she said.

Without specifying who exactly was to blame, Birzniece said that "personalities and people" were an important factor in the collapse of Skele's government. Many politicians have over the past few years criticized Skele for what they see as his prickly and domineering ruling style. In contrast, Birzniece praised Berzins' "skills as a diplomat and communicator" and expressed confidence that running the Riga City Council has been good preparation for the premiership; it covers a third of Latvia's population, is the motor of the national economy, and is controlled by a complex coalition similar to that at the national level, she said.

Aleksandrs Kirsteins, a People's party MP who has also served as a minister in several previous governments, was also confident that this model will last the distance. The completion of the privatization process will remove one of the most contentious issues for decision makers, and a little turbulence at the top is normal for a young democracy like Latvia, he believes.

"It will take at least another two elections to form a system with two big parties divided between left and right," he said. "Everything is normal, Latvia is a democratic country."

He also denied that the frequent changes ignore the wishes of the electorate.

"If every six months we changed the government declaration, then that would be laughing at the voters. But that does not change and this government will follow the same right-wing course," he said.

For Kirsteins, that means a government that involves itself in the economy as little as possible. Having already passed a raft of social measures to satisfy European Union demands, he said that finishing privatization, reforming local governments, and making some changes to higher education are the relatively modest ambitions of the new coalition. He dismissed frequently aired grievances about rising unemployment and poverty, especially in the countryside, as ignoring reality. While on paper Latvia might have one of the lowest incomes per capita of any former communist country, Kirsteins claimed that the gray economy hides just how well off people really are. Incomes may be lower but apartments are cheaper than in the West, Kirsteins claimed.

If the parties that control the government change little through the crises, the opposition is also fairly stable. Ostracized by the other parties for advocating liberalized policies towards Latvia's ethnic minorities, the left wing For Human Rights in a Democratic Latvia faction is also sitting this one out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Juris Sokolovskis, one of the party's MPs, doesn't see the new coalition as being any more stable than its predecessors, and thinks the lack of long term governments doesn't allow for strategic policy making. He thinks that the battle to control the last enterprises left for privatization is what really motivates the ruling parties, and that money adversely affects the political process in other ways as well.

"The ruling coalition can work for three and a half years for itself, and then in the last half year use technology and the mass media to get elected. Unfortunately, that is the sort of democracy that exists in Latvia, if you can call that a democracy" he said.