U.S. ambassador speaks out on Latvian corruption

  • 2007-10-17
  • By TBT staff and wire reports

STRONG WORDS: Ambassador Catherine Todd Bailey took centre stage with a major speech (Photo: U.S. Embassy)

RIGA -- U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Catherine Todd Bailey, finds herself an unlikely focus of the nation's political life this week after delivering a speech at the University of Latvia that included an strongly-worded attack on corruption and a warning that the country could be backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Speculation had been rife about the speech for some days after what appeared to be leaked accounts of its contents found their way into the media, with the result that the hall was packed with journalists, politicians and other public figures as well as the intended audience of students. One of the highest-profile attendees was Aleksejs Loskutovs, the KNAB anti-corrpution head who was being controversially kicked out of his job at a cabinet meeting on the same day. 

Todd Bailey started conventionally enough, noting that Latvia and the United States share many common values and that so far cooperation between the two countries has been dominated by "our shared commitment to freedom, to democracy, to the rights of the individual and to basic standards of fairness."

The ambassador pointed out that Latvia has undergone an "amazing transformation."

"A market economy and free enterprise have replaced state command and control. Free and fair elections have been held to elect members of Saeima [parliament] and to resolve essential questions in referendums. New institutions have been developed to ensure the protections of the rights of the individual. As a result of this difficult work, Latvia took its rightful place as a part of Europe and the Trans-Atlantic community, joining the European Union and NATO in 2004. Students here today benefit from this with opportunities of work, study and travel available to them that even five years ago seemed hard to imagine," the American diplomat said.

So far, so predictable. But then Todd Bailey dropped the dull diplomacy and posed some uneasy questions.

"Will Latvia, safe in the European Union and NATO, decide that it is has done the hard work and let the state become the playground of a few individuals where they go to line their own pockets and those of their friends?" she asked.

"To put it a different way 's it is hoped Latvia will continue the hard work of building the institutions and judicial system that are needed to ensure a democratic and prosperous future for the people of Latvia, or is there a possibility Latvia will slide back and begin to resemble those countries that have not undertaken extensive reforms?"

"Attempts to pack the courts, with judges who "will know what to do," efforts to manipulate the laws governing the security services to allow greater avenues for political interference in their operations, and, public campaigns to discredit the institutions of justice and the rule of law in the country.

"I have tremendous respect for so many Latvians, that I have met… These are hardworking, committed individuals who want to see Latvia succeed and prosper. But, I have to say, I have also seen them beaten down by having to take instructions from unelected officials in the clouds or down by the sea."

That last, enigmatic phrase has caused perhaps more debate than any other of Todd Bailey's words. Various theories as to what she meant are circulating with the most persuasive being that she is referring to Latvia's two highest-profile court cases, one involving shady dealings over digital TV rights (the TV building is a prominent Riga skyscraper) and the other involving corruption in the coastal town of Ventspils. 

Todd Bailey also drew attention to the need to reassure potential investors that Latvia is a good place to do business, saying: "The development of the rule of law in Latvia is also an important issue for the global business and investment community. I have actively encouraged American companies to consider Latvia as a place to do business.

"But investors want to know that their money is safe and their investment protected. They need to know that they will be able to do business without being asked to pay bribes or 'protection money,' and that their bids for contracts will be considered on their merits."

Clearly, the ambassador's speech must have been given prior approval by her bosses in Washington and as such it should act as a huge wake-up call to the Latvian government.

After listening the speech, Latvian Institute director Ojars Kalnins told journalists that the address was in line with U.S. President George W. Bush's policy in the Baltics and the region in general.

"Americans have a tradition of influencing politicians in those countries in which they have interest. If the U.S. did not have such an interest, there would be nothing. It means that we are in the spotlight," Kalnins said.

"The speech was meant to remind [us] that we have agreed on common values," Kalnins concluded.

Despite the presence of numerous opposition politicians in the audience, no members of the government attended the address, and their reaction was generally dismissive.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said: "As to the imperfections of the judiciary, we have identified them, and both the political power and judiciary are aware of these issues. Such problems exist in many countries that have been founded or restored recently."

The only real note of acknowledgement from the government came from Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks.

"We appreciate the ambassador's willingness to meet with the public, and it facilitates mutual confidence," Pabriks said. "The strength or weakness of a state is based on trust, but the confidence of our society in state institutions is not strong, and we politicians, must work to boost this confidence."