Riga City Council sacks Aksenoks, supports Birks as new mayor

  • 2007-02-21
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

SHOWN THE DOOR: Aksenoks, the first Riga mayor to be voted out of office in mid-term, fell victim to political infighting on the national level.

RIGA - Mayor Aivars Aksenoks was sacked on Feb. 19 in an emergency session of the Riga City Council after disgruntlement and infighting in the 60-member council boiled over. A new four-party coalition was formed, and the parties immediately elected Janis Birks, previously deputy mayor, as the city's new chief. Aksenoks, a member of the center-right New Era party, was ousted in a no-confidence motion, with 33 members in support in the 60-member council and none voting against. Birks, who belongs to the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom, received 34 votes.

The sacking in many ways was expected, yet uncanny. Aksenoks, who was mayor for almost two years, had not been mired in scandal or compromised as is often the case in municipal politics. As Latvian media commented, his opponents could not offer any specific misdeeds that would warrant his removal.

It was also the first time that a Riga mayor was ousted on the basis of no-confidence.
Speaking to the council before the vote, Aksenoks asked his opponents to verbalize one argument as to why they were seeking his dismissal, but the best his critics in the coalition 's the People's Party, Latvia's First Party, For Fatherland and Freedom 's could come up with were opaque accusations that "nothing in being accomplished" in the council.
Since the start of the year Aksenoks has come under fire for rejecting a high-profile construction project 's a 63 million lat (90 million euro) state-of-the-art concert hall on the left bank of the Daugava River.

The hall is one of the three pet projects of Culture Minister Helena Demakova, a member of the People's Party, and she has been increasingly vocal about Aksenoks as a result of his resistance to her idea. Previously she has described New Era's opposition to the concert call as "obscurantist."
Aksenoks has also been slammed in recent weeks for poor policies in relation to gambling halls and casinos in Riga. Critics claimed more gambling locations were opening in the city despite an explicit moratorium on new halls.

But the dominant factor was national politics. Since leaving the ruling coalition in the national government in 2006, New Era has fallen out of favor with partners in the Riga government. Tensions in the Saeima (Latvia's parliament) filtered down to the municipal level, especially in Riga, where the stakes are so high.
The new coalition will consist of the People's Party, Latvia's First Party, For Fatherland and Freedom and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. The latter was previously in the opposition.

The coalition is likely to follow up on Aksenoks' removal by dismissing Eriks Skapars, Riga's chief executive and also a member of New Era. Skapars' spokesman, Ugis Vidauskis, said for now the chief executive is continuing to work and it is unclear how he could be removed. As a civil servant, Skapars has certain rights protected by law, the spokesman added.
In contrast to many cities worldwide, in Riga the mayor is the head of the city council, or the legislature, while the city executive leads the various departments that carry out the law and regulations.
Speaking to LNT television on Feb. 20, Birks said that his primary task will be to correct the numerous mistakes that the Aksenoks administration committed over the past two years.

Priorities would include tackling Riga's worsening traffic and advancing the concert hall project.
"The pace will speed up. In the remaining two years we will manage to do all the jobs that have been delayed," Birks, referring to the next municipal elections in 2009, was quoted as saying.
Birks is a member of Latvia's Doctors Union. He owns a 39 percent stake in Latvijas Juras Medicinas Centrs (Latvian Maritime Medical Center).

New Era refused to comment on Birks' qualifications as the new mayor. On the national level, New Era and For Fatherland and Freedom have been close allies in the past.