Latvia made international headlines twice last week 's first by electing president a medical doctor who habitually neglected to pay income taxes in full, and then three days later by holding a peaceful gathering of sexual minorities' rights activists. One could say that, in sum, the two events amount to a "one-step-forward, one-step-back" for the Baltic state. Political culture has taken a significant leap backwards, while a collective sense of basic human rights and tolerance has improved, if only marginally.
Valdis Zatlers could prove to be a fine president. However, the trickery and bad faith with which he gained the nation's top job is bound to leave a sour taste in society for some time. The four-party ruling coalition put forward Zatlers as a compromise candidate late on May 22 while at the same time rolling forward the first ballot from June 6 to May 31.
The second decision proceeds directly from the first: in order to minimize scrutiny of the unknown surgeon, coalition partners cut the interim between nomination and initial vote to nine days. That's all the time Latvia's small corps of journalists was given to race around town, uncover the dirt and pose the troubling questions to the inexperienced Zatlers. In a healthy democracy, the fourth branch of power has a bit more lead-time to do its job properly.
But not in Latvia. Here the government of Aigars Kalvitis has a nasty habit of trying to ram key decisions through the back door (the national security amendments being the classic example). The ruling coalition, which is commanded by the nation's three so-called oligarchs 's Andris Skele, Aivars Lembergs and Ainars Slesers 's finds itself the target of multiple criminal probes, including the Ventspils affair, Kempmeyer digital TV and vote-buying in the Jurmala City Council. The stink of impropriety surrounding them can be smelled from afar, and so to cover themselves they and their parties needed to cooperate on "appointing" the next president.
The coalition's attitude was best demonstrated by Janis Lagzdins, a lawmaker from the People's Party. Leaning out the window of the faction offices, Lagzdins made a rude gesture to the crowd that had gathered on the street below to support Aivars Endzins, the other presidential candidate. It was typical of the current government's attitude toward its citizens: "You can all go to hell 's we're gonna do whatever we want."
Thus Zatlers will begin his presidency at an obvious disadvantage, but if he and his advisers are worth their salt, they'll work toward surmounting the dissatisfaction 's disgust might be a better word 's and win over Latvians of all backgrounds. Otherwise, the schism in society that Zatlers says he wants to bridge will only deepen.
We don't agree with those who choose to castigate Zatlers for not paying taxes on "cash-rewards" offered by patients over the years. Few people pay income taxes in Latvia; the good doctor is simply part of the system that created him. He can make amends, pay a penalty, and put it in the past. If anything, his example can bring many medical workers out of the gray economy.
Far more crucial is the degree of independence the new president will display. Will Zatlers be a lackey of Andris Skele, or will he be fully capable of wielding the fierce independence that Vaira Vike-Freiberga is renowned for? This will be the true measure of his integrity. Europe will be watching.
On the bright side, Latvia finally managed to organize a peaceful gay rights' parade in downtown Riga. It proved that the third time is indeed a charm, and let us hope that in future years the government will not need to mobilize a police battalion to ensure security during similar events.