RIGA - Latvian politics took a dramatic turn last week when the Prosecutor General's Office opened a criminal case against Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs for bribery, money laundering and abuse of office 's all of which the controversial figure allegedly did over a decade ago.
Not coincidentally, the prosecutors' decision, qualified by many as a shamelessly politicized decision on the eve of parliamentary elections, occurred on the same day that the Greens and Farmers Union, a party with close ties to Lembergs, nominated him as the party's possible candidate for prime minister.
Investigators wasted no time throwing their weight around and immediately moved in to search Lembergs' City Council office in Ventspils, where on July 22 they seized unspecified property and documents.
Prosecutors allege that Lembergs accepted several sizeable bribes between 1993 and 1995, when he received shares in the Swiss-registered Multinord AG, which he later turned around and sold for 453,000 lats (644,500 euros).
Prosecutors also claim that Lembergs, considered to be one of Latvia's richest men, then used these illicit funds to do business with Kalija Parks, a company in which the mayor has reportedly held a secret stake since 1994. Lembergs then allegedly used his influential political position to take important decisions concerning Kalija Parks, which is one of the largest potassium salt and bulk mineral fertilizers handling terminals in the world.
Bail was set at 1 million lats, and prosecutors banned Lembergs from leaving Latvia without special permission.
The Ventspils mayor, who is either loved or hated, faces 15 years in prison and confiscation of assets.
Lembergs slammed prosecutors, claiming their case had been launched to thwart his political ambitions. He said that it was hardly a coincidence that the Prosecutor's Office had decided to go after him on the same day that the Greens and Farmers' Union board nominated him as its official candidate for Latvian Prime Minister.
The ZZS board later confirmed that Lembergs would remain the party's first choice for the post of PM despite the charges being laid against him.
On July 24 well-known sport personalities and musicians gathered in Ventspils at a rally in support of the besieged mayor. Participants carried posters saying "Lembergs Is Our Mayor" and "Lembergs Is, Lembergs Will Be," etc.
Participants of the rally admitted that their event was not authorized by the City Council.
Lembergs said that he would consult with his lawyer about appealing against the huge bail. When asked whether he would pay the exhorbitant bail, Lembergs said he did not have that kind of money at the moment.
Lembergs also pointed out that the Prosecutor's Office was unable to prove his guilt during an earlier probe into his dealings.
The accusations are the result of a three-year investigation, when in July 2003 the then Prosecutor General Janis Maizitis annulled the prosecutor's office decision of 2000 on refusing to open a criminal case against Lembergs. A request for judicial assistance was sent to Switzerland, and judging by the scale of the new accusations, prosecutors now have a trove of evidence.
"In the last moment of luck, the snare has caught the bear around his paws," said People's Party member Janis Lagzdins, describing Lembergs' unlucky timing.
When asked if Lembergs should give up his position as mayor, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said, "Personally, if I were in his situation, I would absolutely step down during the investigation period, to prove my innocence."
Skeptics, however, say the entire case is a sham 's a way of nipping Lembergs in the bud before the Greens and Farmers become too strong, or possibly win the October parliamentary elections. Given that this year's election, compared with recent years, lacks a new party or personality, Lembergs' participation could draw out many regional voters who would like to see an outsider take over the helm in Riga.
Indeed, for many Latvians Lembergs represents municipal progress and strong administrative control.
"Each party has the right to bring forward their candidates, and must take responsibility for their candidates," Kalvitis said. "Lembergs is not in the coalition, doesn't work for the government and isn't a ZZS member, therefore [what he does] will not influence our work."
He pointed out that the Prosecutor's Office had investigated these allegations in 1999 's 2001 but had found no grounds for proceeding with criminal charges.