• 2006-04-12

cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

It's been a banner week in the Baltics 's two government crises in the span of several days. An astonishing performance, one that will attract much attention in both Brussels and Moscow. All the talk about European integration, EU membership, catching up with the West has been tossed out the window. Forget about them; they're no fun. Because for real entertainment, Baltic leaders have clearly shown that they prefer political instability.

In Latvia, the crisis was triggered by tit-for-tat corruption allegations among ruling parties. Latvia's First, a moderate party, was irreconcilable after its leader, Ainars Slesers, was recently sacked from his position as transport minister. The party went on a hunt for its antagonist and singled out Krisjanis Karins, the economy minister and second in charge at New Era, a right-wing party that fashioned itself as crusaders against corrupt governance. After the Latvia's First controlled Interior Ministry launched an economic crimes case against Karins, New Era said enough was enough and told the prime minister he had a choice: either Latvia's First, or New Era.
Aigars Kalvitis effectively chose Latvia's First, and New Era walked away from the coalition. So now Latvia is being run by a minority coalition, the second time in three years.
In Lithuania, the situation is far more complicated, and more serious. The crisis involves old grudges, partisan ambition, presidential jawboning, EU funds and the sale of an oil refinery. In a nutshell, the populist Labor Party, the country's most popular and with the largest number of seats in Parliament, was fed up with playing third fiddle in the government and decided to dump the lot. In one day the party's leadership lashed out at President Valdas Adamkus, calling for an investigation into his job performance, and Parliamentary Speaker Arturas Paulauskas, whose name came up in a scandal involving the chancellery. Laborites joined opposition lawmakers to oust Paulauskas, and in doing so put the Cabinet on the brink of collapse. The country may have to hold elections to break the gridlock (unless someone seriously thinks that the SocDems and Conservatives could get sit side-by-side in a Cabinet).
Perhaps it would be erroneous to search for a common thread in the two crises beyond the elemental components of human psychology. The one denominator that does stand out, however, is EU funds. In both countries they played a secondary role in destabilizing government coalitions. This is an important message for the future.
On a brighter note, Latvians and Lithuanians can take pride in the fact that, despite the upheaval, both countries will continue to undergo robust economic expansion and whittle away at the gap between themselves and the wealthiest members of the European Union. If there is any indicator of membership to the club of civilized nations, it is namely this: in times of political crises, nation-states can still succeed economically.
At the same time, events of the past week have shown what happens when lunatics begin running the asylum. Callow politicians make for dangerous madmen, and if Balts do not become vigilant about their choices and their leaders in the nearest future, they will miss the window of opportunity courtesy of EU development funds and remain in the basement of European prosperity for a long, long time to come.