Corruption simply routine in Latvia

  • 2010-08-19
  • Interview by Kira Savchenko

Aigars Freimanis is one of Latvia’s most famous political analysts and a director of the public opinion research agency “Latvijas fakti” (“Latvian facts”).  Freimanis has observed Latvian politics from the early ’90s and has a lot to say ahead of the national elections in October. Since the last elections four years ago, the country’s economy has shrunk dramatically and the authorities have been forced to ask for an international bailout; taxes were increased and unemployment has topped EU statistics. The Baltic Times sat down with Aigars Fremanis to discuss what choice voters are likely to make now, what can be done with Latvia’s notorious corruption and what to do with the country’s inviolable tycoons.

Opinion poll results show that a huge percentage of people do not know whom to vote for, and many Latvians may refuse to participate in the national elections in October. Does this mean that citizens are dissatisfied with authorities?
You are right. About 20 percent do not know whom to chose, but almost 15 percent do not see any sense in the elections. Compared to the last parliamentary elections, this last number has increased by 50 percent. That is quite significant. People are sure that nothing can be changed and our politicians deserve such an attitude. And we cannot blame them: for the past four years we have not seen many rational and wise actions. The coalition was unable to cope with the economic crisis and to talk to people. All decisions were made in secrecy and taxpayers were informed at the last minute.

Do you think that the Latvian tycoons, the leader of the People’s Party Andris Skele or Riga Vice-mayor Ainars Slesers, etc., who are involved in so many corruption scandals, such as the so-called ‘digitalgate’ or ‘Jurmalgate,’ have a moral right to run for the parliament? Moreover, these people were found guilty by most analysts in having a hand in today’s economic crisis.
Politics is amoral by definition. It is up to the electorate to decide if a certain person is to be elected again. However, a big part of Latvian society’s attitude to corruption scandals is liberal. This is the most delicate word I can find. People are cynical and have very short memory. This is quite typical for Latvia. You see, the country’s biggest problem is the huge variety of political parties and, therefore, the lack of responsibility. The Cabinet falls so often that, as a result, almost every party in a certain period is involved in the coalition. It is not the UK or any other Western European country, where just several big parties exist for a long time. Thus, each Latvian party has a possibility to blame their opponents for wrong decisions and say that “we were unable to do anything, because the others did not allow us to.” This is a magical formula for Latvia. Actually, it is the philosophy of Latvian politics: how to find an explanation for why they did not fulfill our promises. I am afraid that is the only area in which our politicians have succeeded.

How could you explain the phenomenon of the Russian party Harmony Center, which has the highest popularity now?  According to the last opinion poll, they could get 38 seats in the parliament. Riga’s mayor is a leader of this party. Could they get the prime minister’s post?
That is a very good question and I have been thinking about it a lot. Lately many politicians and highly respected Latvians admit that it was a great mistake to ignore Russian parties and not to take them into the coalition. This is a very serious sign and the chances of Harmony Center are extremely high. However, we all understand that the party which wins more places in parliament than the others may [still] be left in opposition. The second biggest faction will be Unity (Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ party) and it depends on which of them will be able to negotiate with potential partners more quickly.

There is much talk that Russia’s influence in Latvia is increasing. Do you agree?
In some way it is true. However, nobody here knows how Moscow plans its policy. In terms of every day life, it is certainly growing. The media scene, for example. Many people have cable and watch Russian TV channels a lot. Almost all parties, even Latvian, speak about the necessity of improving relationships with the Kremlin. Russia did better in the global crisis and I see nothing bad if Latvia would communicate more with its big neighbor.

How will the local Latvian-Russian conflict develop?
In spite of all political speculations on our painful ethnic problem, people have gotten used to each other. There are many mixed families, companies. However, politicians try to keep this deep-rooted conflict on the agenda. It is just a resource for them to be elected and, as some nationalistic parties do not have any other tools, they will try to keep this one. To cope with this situation a change of generations is needed. This will happen naturally and we do not have to worry too much.

There is a common belief that Latvia is a kind of corruption citadel. Are things really that bad, and what could be done to tackle it?
The greatest problem is that there are several levels of corruption. The lowest level is well-known by everybody. It is widely spread in public service. For example, almost every Latvian has once given 10 lats [14.2 euros] to the road traffic police for exceeding the speed limit. This is absolutely normal here. The more complicated and dangerous level is above, in politics; nobody knows about it for sure and nothing can be proven.

Most of the time we spot it when the corruption act has already taken place and the wheeler-dealer has received his benefits. And then again, we cannot prove it, we can just suspect. It happens because of the lack of responsibility and long-term policy, because of a sense of impunity. Most of the politicians want to have a quick big bite and then disappear with the money. They do not care about the state or its people. The latest example is the state-owned power company Latvenergo case. At least 3 million lats of taxpayer money was written off, and the guilty were not found or punished. Only nominees were arrested and the real creators of the criminal scheme, from political quarters, are unknown. This was a very impudent and cocky crime and the most injuring for the public conscience.

The worst is that corruption became an every day routine in Latvia; it is absolutely natural and is perceived as nothing special, compared to in Scandinavia or the UK, where it is a great scandal every time. In addition, people often mix up fraud and corruption with the shadow economy, which is also a big problem, but an absolutely different one.

Some analysts believe that the reason for the high corruption level is the too low salaries in the public sector. Do you agree?
In some cases I could agree. For example, Jurmala’s city council members receive less than 1,000 lats, and they have to take decisions on real estate worth millions of lats. (Already three Jurmala mayors were the target in a criminal investigation, one is proceeding right now) The pressure of money is incredible there. I guess, only monks can resist such temptations. Therefore, the only possible way out could be the joining of Jurmala municipality to Riga. However, the situation in Latvenergo was completely different. The ex-president of the huge company, Karlis Mikelsons, accused of money-laundering, received about 100,000 lats per year and he is accused of this crime not because he is poor. Probably he was just a puppet and somebody else from the political elite pulled the strings. It seems like we will never know who.

This year the parliament approved a bill which guarantees party financing from the state budget. However, no limit on donations from private sponsors was set. Could this law still help to prevent parties’ dependence on tycoons’ money?
It can open the door into politics for new people. But I am afraid that is the only benefit. Unfortunately, the absence of limits means that taxpayers’ money will become an additional source of money for existing parties, which could be spent, for example, on stationary. If the regulation could be amended, it would be a revolutionary step in defeating the corruption and bribery, but I do not think that the parliament is ready for this, neither this one nor the new one. It is not only my personal feeling. According to our opinion polls most of the people believe that the new MPs will not be much different from the present ones.

What changes do you expect in Latvian politics in the next five or ten years?
The most significant factor will be a change of generations. It means that all politicians who started their career in the Soviet Union will leave. It is very important, because the new leaders will have different habits, life experiences and principles. The local tycoons’, such as Aivars Lembergs, Andris Skele or Ainars Slesers, influence will decrease. The cause is very simple: they will get older. Along with that, people will not base their choice on the ethnic factor only. They will look more closely at the economic program. This will not happen all at once, of course. Democracy in Latvia is very young and it needs to grow up.