• 2007-03-21

cartoon by J. CHeKSTERS

What a week it was for Latvia. In three days the country was treated to glaring episodes of its two most ineluctable problems: political corruption and societal division. It has been years since the Baltic state has witnessed such tumult, especially factoring in that the arrest of Aivars Lembergs threatens to bring down the whole house of cards. If rumors prove true that numerous members of Parliament have indeed received a pay-off from the Ventspils mayor, then a dissolution of the legislature is a real possibility.

The crisis runs even deeper. Four days prior to Lembergs' arrest, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced she was enacting Article 72 of the Constitution, which allows her not to promulgate legislation and appeal to the electorate in a referendum. She is outraged by a number of amendments to laws on national security that were passed in an emergency order, and thus virtually without debate, by the Cabinet of Ministers. The amendments, which will essentially increase parliamentary oversight into high-profile criminal investigations, are being rammed through by "oligarchic interests," the president said. Her use of the opaque word "oligarch" is testimony to her aggravation.

The government seems to have backed down. The four coalition parties cannot stomach an open confrontation with the extremely popular head of state. If push comes to shove, the electorate will back Vike-Freiberga 's hands down. But since the president's days in office are numbered (her term ends in July), the four parties 's three of which are backed by so-called oligarchs 's can easily return to the amendments later this year after electing a more docile head of state. More than likely this is precisely what ministers and coalition parliamentarians are thinking right now.

Which is why the upcoming election for Latvia's next president has obtained a sense of urgency it lacked, say, at the beginning of the year. A president with less independence and integrity than Vike-Freiberga might have supported the national security amendments, which will cast an unfavorable light on Latvia's integrity and may even result in disillusionment with Latvia among the country's NATO allies. According to Janis Kazocins, head of the Constitutional Protection Bureau, the nation's top law enforcement agency, this is precisely what will happen if the amendments become law.
Therein the paradox: the more Latvia cracks down on oligarchs and corruption, the more the oligarchs will need the amendments as a buffer to protect themselves. Well aware of Kazocins' fears, the oligarchs are prepared to risk Latvia's repute for the sake of preserving their fiefdoms.

The ending to this riddle is not a foregone conclusion, and will be played out in the coming months. Latvia has finally been given a stark choice: either a continuation of the endemic corruption, or a blacklisting by its closest security allies. A third choice, backing down and returning to the status quo, is also possible, but now that Lembergs' arrest has opened a Pandora's box of allegations, it would appear that outcome has become the least likely.