RIGA - There is concern that efforts to fight corruption in Latvia could be hamstrung amidst strong government politicking following an ultimatum issued by the president (see story Page 1).
European Corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) has been campaigning heavily for the strengthening of Latvia's Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), which has been without a head for about six months.
In a list of key demands issued to parliament following the violent riots of Jan. 13, Latvian president Valders Zatlers called on the government to take immediate steps to appoint a KNAB head.
The calls have been welcomed by TI director Laura Mikelsone, who told The Baltic Times the president's stance showed "muscle".
"Our president for the first time has shown a clear opinion, an opinion not necessarily in line with that of the governing coalition," she said.
TI is campaigning for a strengthened KNAB that would see it placed under parliamentary control.
Given the competing self interests of Latvia's major political parties, Mikelsone said TI still held serious concerns about the implementation of an adequate framework which would allow KNAB to function without government interference.
"Of course our hopes are up, but the question is how these key demands will be intertwined in the broader government structure and policy," she said.
There are also fears a government-appointed puppet head could jeopardize high profile KNAB cases currently before the courts against governing parties relating to illegal election funding in 2006.
"We are concerned that at a time when political speech is starting to reflect the process of politicians in campaign, that daily and very important issues, which should be our government's number one priority, issues such as finding the best way of utilizing this massive resource from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and finding a solution for this country to the current economic situation, will become second or even third priority," said Mikelsone.
According to TI Latvia, current economic and political uncertainty is a fertile breeding ground for corrupt practices.
Mikelsone said a fully functioning KNAB body is essential to ensuring government accountability.
TI is also pushing for clearly defined and transparent framework for the distribution of Latvia's 7 billion euro loan from the IMF and other European agencies.
There is potential that fallout from the current political turmoil and ongoing populist campaigning in the lead up to the elections could further delay the establishment of such key legislation, said Mikelsone.
The watchdog plans to fight the government's proposed merger between KNAB and law enforcement bodies within the Ministry of Interior, saying the plan will destroy KNAB's capacity to prevent and combat corruption.
Mikelsone said the non-profit organization would be closely monitoring both the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections, and would seek to draw international attention towards any attempts to weaken or undermine KNAB functions.