RIGA -- Just hours before thousands of protestors descended upon the Latvian parliament to demand the resignation of the government and ministers began to fight amongst themselves over their botched attempt to sack anti-corruption head Aleksejs Loskutovs, The Baltic Times spoke with Sandra Kalniete, one of the main figures around whom opposition is gathering.
Q. Latvian politics at the moment seems characterised by corruption scandals and incompetence. You remain a political figure who commands more respect than most. What is your overview of the present situation?
The chain of events that has developed since the last election is greatly worrying. You have to see that they are attempts 's systematic attempts 's to put certain limitations on the exercise of democracy. In a country where civil society is not as active as it is in countries with a longer democratic tradition, it is quite easy to do that, because there are no strong non-governmental organisations to oppose [the government], or there are only a few.
Another element that I consider highly dangerous is the diminishing of the role of parliament. Parliament represents the people. We have a mandate to speak on behalf of the people and with the present coalition, parliament is practically just an appendix to all decisions proposed by government.
Q. Wouldn't the government argue that they have a mandate, too?
They don't have a mandate to act as it pleases them. They have to keep up a regular dialogue with voters. One of the major recent events was the vote against the changes to the security laws. More than 300,000 people voted against those changes. Referendums are votes for or against government and this was a massive vote against the government. In any normal country with normal political practices, a party having received such a massive political disappointment would immediately have reshaped their policies to think long-term. The impression is that in Latvia presently, those who are governing the country are thinking short-term.
Q. Would you say that was basic arrogance?
Absolutely. It is arrogance with no respect for the people, and also ignorance.
With the diminishing of the role of parliament it looks as if we are moving towards a situation not unlike what we are seeing in Russia.
Q. To outsider this can make modern Latvia look a little like a 'banana republic'. At the heart of this is there really a drive to remove checks and balances, as you have suggested? Is that why Loskutovs was removed?
Loskutovs is a logical consequence of all that has been done since the last elections. First of all it was the vote to appoint the judges to the constitutional court. By happy coincidence the governing coalition failed in its bid to privatise the constitutional court because a joint opposition effort meant we managed to push through our candidate behind the scenes. They were not quite aware that it was our candidate. I tell you this just to show how we have to work, how difficult and hopeless it sometimes is.
Q. So you have to hide your own true position?
Yes. Secondly there was the attempt to appoint an ombudsman who would be completely loyal to the government coalition. Then there was the attempt to change the security laws and now it is the turn of weakening the fight against corruption. Loskutovs is only the beginning. The pretext on which he has been removed is completely unbalanced, if we look into other cases where millions are spent on not-quite-clear purposes, which we can find in the reports by State Control. He [Loskutovs] had only minor irregularities in the accountancy rules, which is completely disproportionate.
I see that the fact of a state based on the rule of law is in danger in Latvia. If the rule of law is in danger, then the state itself is in danger.
Q. Is the ruling elite simply doing whatever it can to consolidate its own power, or does it go beyond that?
There are two important criminal cases under investigation at the moment. One is related to Aivars Lembergs and another case is related to the so-called 'digitalization affair' where more than 20 persons are accused already but it could be that these are not allâ€¦ Both cases touch very important economic groups including the oligarchs who stand behind many decisions in Latvia.
From the point of view of ordinary citizens 's and I consider myself an ordinary citizen 's I see this year as a turning point in Latvia's development. Latvia could go forward again if we are able to start out from a 'clean floor', or Latvia will become a sort of country where democracy exists on paper, with people resigned to things as they are.
In a way it reminds me of how we lived in the Soviet Union because in that period also we were absolutely powerless to have any influence on decisions and we became resigned to that. That is the end of any civil society.
Q. That touches on some of the points made by the American ambassador, Catherine Todd Bailey [on Oct 16]. What did you make of her speech?
I felt profound humiliation. So many years after independence, and it's not a president of state or a prime minister who pronounces a speech like this. We have to listen to this 's justly 's from a friendly country, our main strategic partner, the United States. Having been an ambassador myself I know that ambassadors are entitled to make such moves only if dialogue with the state authorities has failed.
The most important part of that speech was that no-one will come to clean our house for us. It is up to us to clean the house.
Q. Can you re-engage people so that they don't drift away from political involvement completely?
I'm not very optimistic because in the background there is economic mismanagement and people are so taken by their own current affairs, but in upcoming days we will see.
From what I have read on the internet, this strength of comment has not appeared for years. I get the feeling that with this decision on Loskutovs, the government has stepped over a red line and many people in Latvia are saying "that is enoughâ€¦"