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Still speaking the truth to power

  • 2010-09-29
  • Interview by Philip Birzulis

Last fall, a mass walkout by staff at Latvia’s most respected newspaper, Diena, over relations with its new owners sparked questions about increasing control of Latvia’s media by political and business interests. Ex-Diena journalists have since founded Ir, a weekly news magazine championing independent reporting and democratic values.  Philip Birzulis recently spoke to Ir Chairman of the Board and commentator Pauls Raudseps, an American-Latvian with two decades of experience in the Latvian media, about the country’s upcoming elections, which many are billing as the most crucial polls since independence.

There’s just over a week left before the election, and there seems to be a fair bit of uncertainty. Can you make any bold predictions about how you see the arithmetic adding up for the Saeima?
Barring some extreme last minute surprise, I think it will line up pretty much the way the polls show right now. The real question is whether some of the parties who are on the border of the five percent barrier get in or not. There are two very much on the border – For Human Rights in a United Latvia and All for Latvia!/For Fatherland and Freedom – and there may be a question about For a Good Latvia, although I think they will make it. Whether one or both of the first two I mentioned get in will have a huge impact on how the seats are distributed.

If Fatherland get in, this is essentially a vote for Unity.
Most likely yes, because [Prime Minister Valdis] Dombr Fovskis is talking about the present coalition having a majority, and if the Union of Greens and Farmers andatherland get in, and especially if For Human Rights doesn’t get in, the present coalition will have a majority, and my guess is that this will be the ruling coalition after the elections as well.

The Farmers have said they could support either Unity or Harmony Center.
No, Farmers leader Augusts Brigmanis said in an interview three weeks ago that their preference is for continuing the present coalition. And judging by the rising tide of complaints from both Harmony Center and For a Good Latvia about how Lembergs is involved with Dombrovskis, that’s what they’re expecting as well.

Part of the attraction of Unity to voters is that they appear to represent cleaner politics. Doesn’t the alliance with the Farmers and (Ventspils mayor and Farmers’ backer) Aivars Lembergs somewhat undermine this?
That’s a question that many people ask themselves, obviously. But the voters will make their choice and you have to decide based on what’s there. The whole Lembergs question is troubling, there’s no doubt about that. On the other hand, for the 18 months that the present coalition has been in power we haven’t seen any major corruption scandals. This has been a relatively clean government as far as one can tell. And if you talk to Unity supporters, they say, “look at Dombrovskis, he still lives in a three room apartment, and we respect that.”

But Mr. Lembergs is a man who is under a cloud, to put it mildly. He has enormous political muscle, and it is probably undeniable that the former Prosecutor General Janis Maizitis didn’t get a third term because of Lembergs’ influence. Isn’t going soft on Lembergs one of the obvious quid pro quos for the support of the Farmers?
Unfortunately, I think that that is possible. But the fact is that unless Unity gets 51 seats, there’s going to be a quid pro quo someplace, and it comes down to which of those quid pro quos is most acceptable to the Latvian voter. Somehow you have to cobble together a majority.

What is the continuing appeal of the oligarchs to Latvian voters?
I grew up in Boston, where the former Mayor James Curley won an election while he was in jail. I lived in Chicago for over a year where the infamous Democratic Party machine of Richard Daley was incredibly corrupt. I lived in New York, which is famous for Tammany Hall. I find this unfortunate, but the fact is that in almost every country where people vote they will vote for someone who is clearly corrupt if they get something from it. That is a dividing line that runs through practically every country in the world. In Latvia, I think that the line is a bit too far to the side of these people, but the fact is you won’t find a single country in the world where these kinds of politicians don’t have support.

After the elections, whoever is in government will face tough decisions about reducing the budget deficit. Gazing into your crystal ball again, do you think this will place unbearable pressure on the next coalition?
Undoubtedly, this is the number one question facing Latvia. A lot of people are hoping the economy recovers faster than expected, and it’s already doing better than was forecast. Latvia has to reduce its budgetdeficit to 6.5 percent of GDP next year, but the more the economy grows, the less we will have to cut spending and raise taxes. Nevertheless, there will have to be a consolidation, which won’t be easy, and we will have to look for some savings in the social budget. Now they’re talking about the contributions to the second pillar of the pension system. Obviously this is not ideal, since it decreases the motivation for people to pay into the social budget, but there’s a fair amount of cash there.

The previous attempt to cut pensions ended up with a court ruling overturning it, and pensioners are not a quiet, compliant lobby. Will there be another major fight over this issue?
Quite apart from what happens to the budget next year or in 2012, the social budget is going into an immense deficit right now, so there would have to be changes even if the budget deficit situation was less pressing. Because of rising unemployment, the growing number of pensioners and the declining number of working age people, the social budget is rapidly going into ever deeper deficit. This has to be fixed regardless of what happens in next year’s budget and it is not something that can be put off forever. Because all of the parties have come out during the election and said they won’t cut pensions, it is going to be hard, but something has to be done.

If the opposite scenario to what was mentioned earlier comes about and Harmony Center forms a coalition with the Farmers and perhaps For a Good Latvia, is there a danger of populist measures? During the campaign we’ve seen Mr. Lembergs, Harmony Center leader Janis Urbanovics and For a Good Latvia’s Ainars Slesers all bashing the IMF.
I think what would happen is they would make a show of standing up to the IMF, but due to rising interest rates, pressure on the lats and the faxt that Latvia really has nowhere else to turn to finance its budget deficit, in the end they would be forced to go back to the IMF. But it would cost Latvia a lot of money and the good reputation we have built up over the last year. Because the fact is that Latvia has a very large budget deficit that we still cannot finance without the IMF and the EU. These guys may have some fantasies about solving these problems some other way, but that’s not going to happen.

What impact would a government dominated by Harmony Center have on Latvia’s relations with Russia and with the West?
We wouldn’t see any kind of dramatic break, but Latvia would gradually slip into a kind of second-class status in organizations like NATO and the EU because, over time, they would lose faith in our ability to be a solid partner with the West. Mr. Urbanovics has clearly said that his orientation is toward better relations with Russia. You can say those things and remain in NATO and the EU, but it just means you won’t be in the core, and in the long term that could become a security problem. The Russian government policy document leaked to Newsweek this spring states unambiguously that Russia plans to increase its influence in the Baltics by buying up strategic enterprises in logistics, transport and energy. A Harmony Center government would give Russia even more leverage over the Latvian economy than it has right now. Recently the EU Energy Commissioner said that Latvia pays 30 percent more for natural gas from Russia than Germany. This is not good for the Latvian economy, but that’s what happens when you become dependent on one supplier, and if we get that kind of government this kind of stranglehold will increase.

Do you think there is any political will to break this monopoly? Lithuania has proposed building an LNG terminal, which could supply Latvia and Estonia – is there any will in Latvia to go with a project like that?
I don’t think you can solve the whole problem through LNG, and I think the atomic energy station proved it is difficult to work with the Lithuanians. But we have extensive forests and therefore huge renewable energy resources that are being underutilized. There are politicians who are interested in increasing the use of local energy sources and there are politicians who aren’t. These elections will have a big impact on whether we gradually produce more of our energy locally and break this dependence, or if we just import more and more gas.

How are things going for your new magazine Ir?
They’re going well. Subscriptions and advertising are going up, so I think we’ve found a readership. People are still coming up to me and saying how much they like it and I’m especially pleased that young people seem to like it. There’s still a long way to go, but I think all the trends are good.

When you and your fellow journalists left Diena there was an apprehensive feeling that the media in Latvia was becoming more controlled by politicians and business interests. Is this a worrying trend in Latvia?
I think it is. Public television has become increasingly tame in its coverage of politics; all the major newspapers are now owned by business interests with political agendas, so this is a problem. At the same time, a significant part of the journalistic community has a real commitment to covering the news and does not simply accept having someone say, “now you’re going to write a nice article about this guy or that guy.” So there are limits to how much this kind of political influence can achieve. Also, despite this increasing control, it doesn’t seem to be moving the polls. It’s possible that people have become smart enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and they get what they need from the media. But a problem I see, especially with the newspapers, partly because of the owners and partly because the newspaper business is so troubled due to the crisis, is that we’re not seeing investigative journalism anymore. It used to be that Diena broke stories about the world of power that you couldn’t get anywhere else, but that’s not happening any more. The real danger isn’t overt propaganda – the real danger is that you only get to know what the politicians want you to know. o