Kristopans passes off the ball for another game

  • 2000-02-03
  • By J. Michael Lyons
RIGA — In seven months Vilis Kristopans has gone from prime minister to legislator to plain old civilian, the latest title coming after he abruptly resigned from parliament last week.

Saying he's tired of back-room shenanigans and an increasingly greasy business, 45-year-old Kristopans on Jan. 26 walked away from a seven-year political career that included nine months as the prime minister tasked with steering Latvia out of the Russian financial crisis.

"Politics today in Latvia is a little too dirty," Kristopans said in a telephone interview. "I don't know why, maybe it's the privatization process, but politics is too tied with business."

A successful businessman himself, Kristopans plans to pursue a string of possible business opportunities that might include restaurants and investment banking.

"I have many interests, many proposals," he said.

As prime minister, Kristopans fell victim to hallway politics last July when members of his minority government coalition deserted him, claiming his government was doing little to curb unemployment and to fix a widening budget deficit made worse when the Russian economy, Latvia's biggest export partner at the time, fell to pieces.

After nine months in the government's top post, Kristopans resigned his post as prime minister July 5.

His government, a fractious coalition of his Latvia's Way party, the centrist New Party and right-leaning For Fatherland and Freedom that took two months to form, survived a no-confidence vote last May.

But two months later, a wobbly government finally fell, and Kristopans was pegged with a familiar moniker in recent Latvian politics — former prime minister.

"I look back and I don't see mistakes," said Kristopans of his stint as prime minister. "I lost the prime minister's post through a political process, not by mistakes."

His exit provided an opening for Andris Skele, a political opponent and another former prime minister, who assembled a new government for another try at the top job.

What Kristopans set out as his goals as the country's new prime minister in October 1998 – an invitation to European Union accession talks, closing the budget deficit, increases in defense spending to meet NATO - came true late last year under Skele's watch.

Though Kristopans feels his government laid the bricks for Latvia's road toward the EU, Skele was the one making headlines in Helsinki last December.

"We prepared the EU accession plan," said Kristopans. "We worked very hard on it and we got it ready."

But Kristopans considers his help guiding Latvia through growing pains during terms in all three post-Soviet parliaments as his most important achievement.

"Democracy, a market economy," he said. "These last seven years was a big job."

New Party leader Raimonds Pauls, a close witness to Kristopans' exit as prime minister, said he may be better off outside the political arena.

"He is a businessman, a well-off man," Pauls said. "I understand his decision, because there is sometimes no other way after the bitterness piles up."

Former Latvia's Way MP Mariss Andersons, a journalist who served briefly in the present parliament and a full term in the country's first post-Soviet parliament, will fill the vacant seat.

As for Kristopans, he was already connecting with business contacts in Germany this week and says he will devote more time to the basketball school he founded in Riga three years ago.

He says he will leave the ebb and flow of party politics to younger legislators.

"I finished having had the highest position," he said. "I don't want to go back down."