PASSING THE TORCH: Andris Berzins (left) seen as the oligarchs’ puppet, has to work to gain people’s trust.
RIGA - The latest online edition of the government’s official newspaper Latvijas Vestnesis includes Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ (Unity) announcement and evaluation of the recent presidential vote, reports news agency LETA. Dombrovskis points out that “a majority of Saeima members did not take into account society’s demand for politics without the oligarchs’ influence and punished President Valdis Zatlers for his courage.”
“I wish the next president, Andris Berzins (Union of Greens and Farmers), to listen to society and continue combating the oligarchs’ influence in politics. The nation will express its opinion on July 23, which will provide a clear signal to the new president. I will continue to work in order to ensure stability, economic recovery and to overcome the consequences of the crisis,” emphasized the prime minister.
On June 2, Berzins was elected as the new president of Latvia. 53 Saeima deputies voted for him during the second vote of the presidential election - 44 voted against.
In the wake of the vote replacing current President Valdis Zatlers with Andris Berzins as the next president of Latvia, the chorus is rising rapidly throughout the country against the extreme grip, real or perceived, that the so-called oligarchs have over the country’s politics and business interests.
The voting results prove that the parliament is controlled by oligarchs, believes the Unity political bloc, said Unity press secretary Laila Timrota. Only new Saeima elections can help ease the oligarchs’ grip on Latvian politics, believes Unity.
“The parliament, which President Valdis Zatlers has proposed to dissolve because a majority of Saeima members did not wish to work in the interests of society, has elected a new president without taking into account society’s opposition,” said Unity Chairwoman Solvita Aboltina.
Unity cannot quit the government and join the opposition at a time when the parliament is about to be dissolved and an unpopular president has been elected with the help of oligarchs, however, Aboltina said. She holds that changing the makeup of the ruling coalition, with just four months remaining until the emergency Saeima elections, would be impossible.
“We must not let the political crisis develop into a new economic crisis,” said Aboltina.
President Zatlers said of the June 2 vote against him that the vote will convey a negative signal to the populace. “When I proposed Saeima’s dissolution, I was aware that my chances of being re-elected will decrease,” said Zatlers.
The president also noted that the vote was similar to the vote on the requested search of MP Ainars Slesers’ (For a Good Latvia) home. Most likely, Berzins was elected by the same political forces, said Zatlers.
“Today’s vote was a negative signal. It shows that there is a connection, and Slesers’ vote was not a coincidence,” emphasized Zatlers afterwards.
With the election of Berzins, a new presidential era has not begun, but a huge step backward has been taken in achieving political independence from Latvia’s oligarchs, former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said on June 2.
The former president did not wish to comment on Berzins’ election, but after considering it a bit, she said that President Zatlers wished to begin a new era and break the 20-year influence of oligarchs in politics in proposing the dissolution of parliament.
Answering a question from the press whether she believes Berzins is an “oligarch puppet,” she answered: “I have not put such words in my mouth, members of the press can say such things.”
The Estonian newspaper Aripaev wrote in its editorial that the results of the Latvian presidential elections show that there is reason “to feel sorry for Latvia,” reports BBN. The title of the article in the Estonian newspaper is called - Oligarch Andris Berzins elected as Latvian president.
“There is a problem in the country if the current president proposes to disband the parliament as a last resort to curb the power of so-called oligarchs, and is then forced to watch how one of these oligarchs, a former banker, is given his job,” the article claims.
The article goes on to say that although Estonia definitely has its share of powerful businessmen who tend to mix politics with business (Vjatcheslav Leedo, Nikolai Ossipenko and Tiit Vahi, to name a few), the overall situation seems to be relatively better than in Latvia. In the opinion of Aripaev, the reason was the speed of privatization, which meant that most of Estonia’s larger enterprises were acquired by foreigners, which did not allow local businessmen to amass assets.
“Another difference is that, unlike in Latvia, Estonia has never had such large banks as Parex, that belonged only to a few local businessmen, and most of the banks were acquired by foreigners relatively quickly,” the newspaper points out.
“The third area where Estonia has done better than Latvia is independent media. Unfortunately, the exodus of Bonnier, parent company of Aripaev, from the Latvian press market did nothing to increase transparency,” the article says.
“All this is having its impact on the Latvian political system. The way it is going now spells trouble.”
Marco Mikhelson, the chairman of the committee on foreign affairs of the Estonian parliament, pointed out to Estonian national broadcasting (ERR) that Berzins’ election has created concerns in Estonia. Mikhelson points out that Berzins himself is not an oligarch, but that “he is supported by the same oligarchs mentioned in the Latvian media.”
The Estonian politician also points out that Berzins has since come out with some peculiar announcements, and that the election process itself leads to suspicions.
The result of the first vote of the presidential election in Saeima demonstrates that Harmony Center has concluded a certain political agreement with Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, the conditions of which are unknown, but as a result, Berzins “will be elected the next president of Latvia,” said political scientist Iveta Kazoka. Kazoka said that this should have happened already in the first vote, but since one ballot slip was not valid, a repeat vote was held.
Looking at Harmony Center’s ideological stance, there is no rational explanation for the party to support Berzins. No one from this party has previously attempted to argue in what way Berzins is a better candidate than Zatlers. It is clear that a political agreement has been made, Kazoka said.
Latvia’s international reputation will suffer after the presidential vote, Foreign Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis (Unity) said. “I believe that we must take into account the emergency nature of this election, as well as the theme brought up by President Zatlers in fighting the influence of oligarchs in Latvian politics. Seeing that after such an announcement by Zatlers he was not re-elected, the international assessment of the Saeima vote will not be flattering,” Kristovskis said.
According to the foreign minister, this will leave a depressing impression to the international community, which pays much attention to issues of corruption.
“[Berzins] has been elected and must be congratulated. However, a shadow of doubt will linger over him,” the politician added.
The newly-elected president fielded some tough questions from a crowd of reporters at a press conference in Saeima after the election. Several correspondents mentioned the matter of the oligarchs, and Berzins declared that he has felt no influence from them in his experience as chairman of the Economic Committee, “not counting the fact that Ainars Slesers sits on the committee.”
“If someone hopes that I will be led by a leash, then I say - it won’t happen,” said Berzins.
Though he lacked any notable support by the people of Latvia, Berzins nonetheless commented that he feels like a president “elected by the people,” promising to do more than the duties set for a president in the Constitution.
During a stroll through Old Town Riga to meet with the people, Berzins was met with jeers and shouts of “No to the oligarchs!” Berzins was met by a disgruntled crowd of demonstrators of over 200 people. They booed him, showed thumbs down and shouted various other slogans towards him, including “puppet” and “step down.”
At a press conference, Berzins promised that residents will feel life becoming better over the next four years. He apologized that many people have left Latvia, pointing out that only about 1.9 million people are left in Latvia at the moment.
We haven’t heard the last of President Zatlers, though, as he said on June 6 that after his term of office expires [July 7], he “definitely won’t be standing on the sidelines,” though he has not made a decision yet on his future endeavors.
“These [new] political processes [are ones] I have initiated, so naturally I won’t be standing on the sidelines,” the president declared, adding that he does not rule out any of the possibilities widely mentioned in the media, which include his establishing a new political party, joining the Unity alliance, or setting up a new NGO.
Berzins will be the fourth Latvian president since the country regained independence in 1991 and the eighth president since the country was established in 1918.