RIGA - Latvia was plunged into a political crisis when President Vaira Vike-Freiberga invoked her constitutional right to suspend the publication of two sets of highly controversial national security amendments, an unprecedented move for the head of state. Parliament overrode the president's veto on March 1, but the power afforded to the head of state by Article 72 of the Constitution allowed Vike-Freiberga to suspend promulgating the legislation for two months and initiate a popular referendum on the bills, that the president has criticized.
In some of the strongest words of her presidency, Vike-Freiberga said that she wanted to "raise a very serious alarm on the situation [of changes to] the supervision and control over the state security institutions in our country." She even went so far as to focus the onus of responsibility for the amendments on shadowy "oligarchic interests."
The amendments allow the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior affairs and justice to become involved in the National Security Council's work. They also allow other ministers and the heads of security institutions to attend the Security Council's meetings if invited.
The president argued that only the Constitution Protection Bureau, the Security Police and the Military Intelligence Service should be entitled to grant access to state secrets that might now be available to a far wider array of people.
She argued that these changes would be harmful for Latvia's international relations, as the entire security system was "scrupulously coordinated with the NATO partners" before entering the alliance.
Vike-Freiberga said that now the bills will undergo the intensive discussion and debate that she had previously found lacking. Initially the government, using a special rule, passed the amendments while Parliament was in recess, drawing fire from the president.
"As president, I expect the amendments to be discussed in Parliament now. They will be discussed in substance, holding consultations with experts, and we will find a solution that does not endanger the security of the country," she said.
It is now up to the election commission to assign a 30-day period sometime in the next two months for collecting signatures from the general voting public in opposition to the amendments. Each local authority will have to open a station to gather signatures for at least four hours per day for 30 consecutive days.
If the petition is signed by 10 percent of eligible voters 's approximately 150,000 signatures 's then a referendum will be called on withdrawing the bills. The only way Parliament can avoid a popular vote is by passing the amendments yet again, this time with at least a 75 percent majority.
Central Election Commission Chairman Arnis Cimdars said that the process of collecting the signatures would probably begin in two or three weeks. "We need time to prepare... But first I have to receive formal information from the president," he said.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis has expressed hope that Parliament would be able to resolve the problems with the amendments within a two- to three-week time period and avoid a popular vote.
"I do not think that the nation would be the best advisor in this situation. I believe that it is an issue for the professionalism of politicians. They have to deal with it," he said.
The prime minister stated that it is normal in a parliamentary state for the government to have this level of control over security issues. "It is a common practice in the world," he said in an interview with Latvian television.
Kalvitis has also said, however, that he agrees with the president in that the amendments need to more clearly define who will be involved in issues of national security.
A number of other political heavyweights have voiced their opinions on the issue. Krisjanis Karins, a member of the opposition New Era, told The Baltic Times that the party fully supports the president in her quest to annul the bills.
"[These amendments] open a loophole as to people being allowed to have access to state secrets. If our allies in NATO see that we are careless with these secrets, then they will be less likely to trust us with them in the first place," he explained.
Karins said that New Era supports the president's use of Article 72. "It opens an irreversible path toward a referendumâ€¦ The MPs are not stopping this bill, so now the president is asking the people to do it," he said.
Aivars Lembergs, mayor of Ventspils, defended the amendments. He told a March 12 press conference that the president's decision to suspend the amendments has been presented to the public in a "special political sauce" which taints the public's views on the issue.
Lembergs, who is a main backer of the Greens and Farmer Union, a member of the ruling coalition, claimed that increased parlia-
mentary control over the security institutions is giving greater control to society, which will increase transparency. He said that the security institutions were currently being used for political, economic, and personal interests. He implied that these bills could help prevent this sort of misuse.
This is the first time since Latvia regained independence that a president has suspended promulgation of a law.
The president initially vetoed the bills, criticizing both the content of the amendments and the haste with which they were pushed through. On March 1, however, Parliament overrode the veto by a vote of 57 to 32 on the national security law and 53 to 32 on the amendment regarding state security forces.