RIGA - The integrity of Latvia's parliament, elected last October, was thrown into doubt after rumors spread that as many as 31 deputies may have been on the payroll of Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who was arrested March 14 on charges of bribery, money laundering and tax evasion. The allegations, stemming from records that were seized by police during searches of Lembergs' home and offices, are so serious that they have thrown the very future of the 9th Saeima (parliament) into doubt.
It is unclear whether the 31 deputies are all part of the current 100-seat parliament or include members of previous legislatures.
Lembergs, whose Greens and Farmers Union finished second in the election, was initially detained for questioning, but a court ruled late on March 14 that he should remain in police custody. Prosecutors successfully argued that the mayor could influence the ongoing investigation into corruption in Ventspils business and politics.
The arrest, punctuated by images of Lembergs in handcuffs, capped off the most dramatic week in Latvian politics since the pedophile scandal in 2000, and possibly since independence. Earlier in the week President Vaira Vike-Freiberga used her constitutional right (Article 72) not to approve amendments to national security laws and instead hold a referendum on the changes, an unprecedented move for the head of state.
The prosecutor's office has so far refused to comment on the alleged list of names, but opposition MPs and influential politicians are calling for immediate publication prior to the start of the presidential race, which will take place this summer.
According to Article 48 of the Constitution, the president may propose dissolving Parliament, a decision that would have to be supported by at least 50 percent of the vote in a national referendum. However, should the president lose the referendum, she would have to resign her position.
It is unlikely that Vike-Freiberga, whose term in office expires in July, is willing to take such a legacy-altering risk in the waning months of her presidency.
Regardless, both the confrontation between the head of state and the government over the national security laws and the widespread crackdown on high-level corruption are testing the mettle of Latvia's constitution, law enforcement agencies and court system.
Lembergs, who has been under investigation since last July for a separate batch of money-related crimes, denies all charges against him and says that the bribes to MPs 's dubbed "stipends" in the Latvian media 's are a fiction.
"What stipends?" he countered when asked by journalists on March 19 in a Kuldiga court, where Lembergs is under litigation in a minor abuse of power case. "This is being done in order to dissolve the Saeima." As Lembergs explained, the chief forces behind this push to disband parliament are Vike-Freiberga and political structures backed by U.S. billionaire George Soros.
"What's taking place is reminiscent of American PR methods. A good question 's why does the head of state [Vike-Freiberga] need this?" he said.
Lembergs' arrest was handed down by the Riga Center District Court. It was expected that the Riga Regional Court would hear an appeal later in the week. Lembergs is now residing alone in a two-person cell in Matisa Prison.
The arrest is being interpreted in Latvian media as a wider campaign against the country's so-called oligarchs, which primarily refers to Lembergs, former Prime Minister Andris Skele and current Transport Minister Ainars Slesers.
The leading daily Diena wrote in an front-page article that the noose has tightened around Skele, whose name is continually brought up in connection to the ongoing investigation into fraud in a digital TV project.
Slesers, meanwhile, has found himself embroiled in a vote-buying scandal in the seaside town of Jurmala.
Though the term oligarch has been loosely defined and even dismissed, it recently gained credibility when Vike-Freiberga used it in her March 10 press conference, during which she castigated the government and Parliament for supporting amendments to the national security law.
She said "oligarchic interests" supporting the amendments were jeopardizing the integrity of Latvia's national security system and throwing doubt on the country's reliability as a NATO ally.
Lembergs has been mayor of Ventspils since 1988, and Vike-Freiberga president since 1999. Historically, the two have managed a tenuous relationship, with the head of state reluctant to publicly criticize the mayor, but in the run-up to last year's election the president made no qualms about pointing out charges made against Lembergs and how this has tarnished his credibility as a leader. Lembergs had been the Greens and Farmers candidate for prime minister.
For his part, Lembergs has become increasingly critical of the president, and now mentions her name in the same sentence as George Soros with increasing frequency. Soros, for Lembergs, has become the focal point of supposed nefarious external influence on Latvia's domestic affairs, as has the government of the United States.
The Neatkariga Rita Avize paper, which is owned by Preses Nams and is part of Lembergs' business empire, is on a daily basis filled with numerous attacks on all three.
The March 20 issue contains a front-page headline proclaiming "the U.S. Embassy wants its Latvian government." The article goes on to claim that U.S. Embassy officials are conducting "intensive consultations" with political forces about a new coalition government in Latvia.
Unofficially, there are reports that the United States is indeed displeased with the amendments to the national security laws, as the changes, if implemented, would essentially strengthen parliamentary control over law enforcement structures and widen the sphere of persons with access to vital national security data and secrets.
As Latvia is a member of NATO and neighbor to Russia, leaks in the country's national security arena could do substantial harm to the military alliance.