Ventspils 's where politics always smell fishy

  • 2006-02-22
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - In its campaign to enlighten residents, politicians and the media on the misuse of administrative resources during the pre-election period, Delna, the Latvian branch of Transparency International, set out for one of Latvia's most anti-democratic cities: Ventspils.
The NGO knew it was about to wage a lost battle. It is no secret that Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs keeps the port town's affairs on a tight leash and has, in recent weeks, called for the strict monitoring and restriction of NGOs such as Delna.

So when head of Delna Roberts Putnis showed up in Ventspils on Feb. 16, only to be told that the NGO's scheduled meeting with Lembergs, local politicians and the media had fallen through, he was less than surprised.

"We've had a tradition of problems with the Ventspils City Council." Putnis told The Baltic Times. "We're used to being met with difficulties in our project, but this time I was surprised by the level of our problems 's which were all about scheduling."

When Putnis and political analyst Liga Stafecka arrived at the Ventspils Castle museum, where they had scheduled a public meeting a week before, they were told that no conference room was available. Deputy director of the museum, Armands Vijups, said he was not expecting the organization since the City Council had rejected their written request for a public meeting, the daily Diena reported on Feb. 17.

"We wanted to inform political parties and the local media about the aim of our project, and so we formally invited Lembergs, some politicians and members of the press to speak at this meeting," Putnis explained.

Delna also placed an ad in the local paper, Ventas Balss (Ventas Voice), inviting the public to attend the event.

Apologizing, Vijups told Putnis he had received a notice informing that the meeting had been cancelled, as Delna's reservation for the conference room was not received in time.

The organization was eventually able to find a meeting place at the Latvian Association House. But due to the late announcement, only a handful of people were waiting there - one older lady and three reporters.

"We spoke to several NGO members who told us that this sort of situation was typical for Ventspils," Putnis said, adding that the incident clearly illustrated the port city's attitude toward Delna.

"Frustrating is the right word for me," he said. "This is the biggest problem that we face 's you can't get in touch with the locals."

In Ventspils, the only one who seems able to reach the people is Lembergs, and the local (and national) newspapers that help toot his political horn.

"We hear from the opposition that local reporters are working as messengers for Lembergs and his party," the head of Delna said. "This makes it extremely difficult for us 's that even journalists are negatively contributing to this anti-democratic political campaign."

Recently, headlines about Lembergs have stretched well beyond Ventas Balss. In early January, the Latvian media was awash with reports that the Ventspils mayor was planning to run in parliamentary elections, possibly even with an eye for the prime minister's seat - a report that Putnis is taking very seriously.

The mayor sparked another scandal when he refused to accept Ojars Grinbergs, a member of New Era, a party that is highly critical of Lembergs, onto the board of Ventspils Free Port. Lembergs said Grinbergs' letter of appointment did not specify his personal code, birthday or other information establishing his identity.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis asked the Economy Ministry to prepare a new letter of appointment for Ojars Grinbergs, this time verifying his personal code.

The Prosecutor's Office then launched a criminal probe against Lembergs for failing to comply with the government's decision. The investigation, which is currently being conducted by the anti-corruption bureau, a subordinate to the Cabinet of Ministers, seeks to determine if the mayor's crime caused serious consequences and was committed with a purpose to gain profit.

Although critics remain sceptical as to whether Lembergs will, in fact, go after the prime minister's position this fall. Putnis believes that it's almost certain.

"I'm personally very afraid that Lembergs will become prime minister," Putnis admitted. "His attitude against NGOs is in the post-communist tradition and completely undemocratic. If you look at the resources he can use, and add this to the political mistrust of Latvian citizens, Lembergs unfortunately has very good chances of becoming an important political player on the national level."

But for the time being, Delna must worry about what's happening at the municipal level. Putnis said the watchdog would try once more to get its message across to Ventspils, although it will have to be by mail and word of mouth, which is more difficult. However, they are not ready to give up.

"The most we can hope for is that the Prosecutor's Office will find Lembergs a criminal before October's elections," Putnis said. "This would give Latvians back their hope in justice and rule of law, which they have lost over the past 15 years."

But he's also realistic. Most likely, Putnis said, Lembergs will once again sway this year's elections, and the local media will back him until the end.

"In this city administrative resources are abused. In this city, money is used to influence the opinion of voters. You simply can't speak of democratic elections in Ventspils," Putnis said.

In Latvia mayors are elected by city councils, not the electorate.