Some leaders, despite reputations, offer Latvians hope through crisis

  • 2009-10-28
  • By Arta Ankrava
RIGA - A recent survey by DnB Nord Latvia Barometer reveals that 32 percent of Latvians do not trust anyone for economic advice. However, among those who are being trusted are ex-president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, mayor of Riga Nils Usakovs and ex-mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, who is currently still involved in a criminal investigation involving bribery and corruption charges. Their popular trust level with regard to economic forecasts is 14, 16 and 19 percent, respectively. Such indicators speak volumes about the perception of economic acumen in Latvian society.

While Usakovs enjoys unprecedented levels of popular support as head of Riga, as his and Deputy Mayor Ainars Slesers's pro-active approach is still proving quite refreshing with retrospect to previous leaders of the Latvian capital, the inclusion of Vike-Freiberga and Lembergs among the most trusted economic advisers deserves slightly more explanation.

Vike-Freiberga enjoyed massive popularity as president, representing the country through several paramount developments, such as joining the EU and NATO. Famously disinterested, she kept her distance from party politics, seemingly bearing the country's best interests in mind at all times. Vike-Freiberga's independence established her reputation as a firm, professional leader and was a factor in the initial contempt for President Valdis Zatlers, her successor. Zatlers' links with the ruling coalition undermined his authority and stature as head of state from the get-go. Albeit such aversions did quiet down as Zatlers tried to find his own political stance as president. Latvijas Fakti (Facts of Latvia) inform that the head of state had decreasing approval ratings of 36.5 percent in August, a more than 10 percent reduction from April this year.

This could very well illustrate the notion that individual uprightness, symbolised by Vike-Freiberga's political detachment, is the reason that even after more than two years in office, President Zatlers cannot compete with popular trust, owning only half the support, or 7 percent in the recent poll.

However, political impartiality and apparent moral soundness is evidently not the only criterion for popular support on an important issue like financial forecasting. Lembergs was the mayor of Ventspils, a profitable transit port town on the west coast of Latvia, for almost twenty years. He gained the favor of locals by turning the city into one of the cleanest and wealthiest towns in Latvia. Yet in 2007, Lembergs was accused of bribery, money laundering and abuse of elected office. He is suspected to be linked with one of the country's most lucrative companies, Ventspils Nafta (Ventspils' Oil), and his wealth is speculated to be anywhere from 85 to 230 million euros.
The corruption charges, connecting Lembergs as mayor with major business activities while in office, have not stopped him from being surprisingly popular. His remarkable achievements in the development of Ventspils are hardly overcast by his criminal charges. They are seemingly almost laughed off; acumen for making money and, most importantly, sharing the success with one's townspeople, are what is still stressed most about this prolific and cheery character.

While having the highest popular trust rating of all in the poll, 19 percent, Lembergs summarizes the more than questionable moral values, for the lack of a better term, of the people of Latvia. Here is someone who has attained remarkable wealth by considerably shadowy operations, blurring the line between his position as elected official and successful businessman. Yet, this moral predicament is no obstacle for Lembergs to retain significant support, owing to his heyday when mayor.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and the President of the Bank of Latvia, Ilmars Rimsevics have the trust of only 6 percent of the surveyed when it comes to financial predictions, leaving the Minister of Economic Affairs, Artis Kampars at the bottom with a mere 1 percent support. Furthermore, more than half of the population do not trust any ministry, proving yet again that personal loyalties and success trumps party or government efforts.

It is unclear where this raw dependence on individual capabilities stems from, even if they put the subject in a compromising position with the law, but it can probably be traced back to the early 1990s and the dog-eat-dog economic mayhem they are remembered for in Latvia. A textbook example of survival of the fittest by the capability of momentous adaptation to new circumstances, it bred the notion of self-reliance as key in the age of wild capitalism. While the Latvian state was incipient and trying to balance between several political experiences in the formation of a new one, reigning economic instability allowed for the emergence of capable, entrepreneurial individuals who could make the best possible use of the situation. Economic volatility became political dividedness, making individuals such as Vike-Freiberga so valued and highly regarded when she was elected in 1999.

Now, in a time when economic uncertainty prevails yet again, the population is looking for successful, pro-active people with indubitable economic acumen. Their questionable moral decisions and political loyalties are put to the side, while their purported business mastery is celebrated, as in the case of Lembergs and arguably also Slesers, who is trusted by 9 percent of the respondents. Vike-Freiberga being a somewhat unexpected choice for the top three still symbolises another kind of individualism 's political, or rather, explicitly apolitical and impartial. It is clear that the two traits are somewhat similar in celebrating individuality, while in essence serving as evidence of a struggle between two major moral categories in contemporary Latvian society.