Echo of the Latvian political turmoil in Lithuania

  • 2011-06-08
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - It all started on May 28 with the speech of now already outgoing Latvian President Valdis Zatlers calling for a referendum which will probably dissolve the current seven month-old Latvian parliament, causing a new parliamentary election in Latvia. Zatlers’ speech followed the Latvian parliament’s refusal to allow for law-and-order institutions to search the home of Ainars Slesers, Latvia’s MP and oligarch. A majority of Latvians greeted Zatlers’ speech because they are fed up with the role of Latvian oligarchs in their country’s politics. The Latvian political turmoil provoked some echo in Lithuania. Antanas Valionis, Lithuanian ambassador in Latvia, was forced to resign due to his comments on Zatlers’ speech.

Immediately after Zatlers’ televised speech on the evening of May 28, asked Valionis to comment on it. Valionis said that new parliamentary elections will be beneficial to pro-Russian forces in Latvia and the current Latvian political turmoil will be bad for the Latvian economy and its investment climate. Such comments, although they are more suitable for a political analyst or politician than for a diplomat in a friendly country, would not cause his resignation. However, Valionis went further in his comments, criticizing Zatlers as a person. “It is just revenge. Many people think that this man appeared to be more inferior than a president should be,” Valionis told He also said that Zatlers’ intentions “don’t smell very good,” probably suggesting that Zatlers just wanted to get some political points.

Zatlers expressed dissatisfaction with Valionis’ remarks. Then Valionis stated that the published interview did not represent the exact words said by him to the correspondent of Valionis also said that he just quoted Polish media and Polish political analysts in that interview, though he did not name those Polish sources. After such self-advocacy, the Lithuanian LNK TV news broadcast the audio recording of the Valionis interview for of May 28, and also put the audio recording of that scandalous interview on its site. It was obvious that quoted Valionis correctly.

Valionis was called by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry to Vilnius for “consultations.” On May 31, Valionis met with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in the Lithuanian Presidential Palace. Meeting him, Grybauskaite did not shake his hand, which was a bad sign for him. Their conversation was short – just 14 minutes. 

After the meeting, Valionis and Linas Balsys, spokesman for Grybauskaite, gave their short briefings in the Lithuanian Presidential Palace. “I regret the incident ever took place. I apologize to the Latvian president, who was insulted by my words. I think I should not continue working in Latvia,” Valionis said, announcing his resignation from the post of ambassador in Riga. “A diplomat should respect the country where he resides and the order existing in that country,” Balsys said, adding that Grybauskaite was satisfied with Valionis’ decision to resign.

Immediately after Zatlers’ speech of May 28, the views on that speech, similar to those expressed by Valionis in his controversial interview, were echoed by Emanuelis Zingeris, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Lithuanian Parliament, and Saulius Peceliunas, chairman for the Lithuanian Parliament’s group for relations with Latvia. However, Marius Laurinavicius, political observer of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, praised Zatlers’ fight against Latvian oligarchs. Readers of the most popular Lithuanian Internet site supported Zatlers’ speech as well. On May 29, asked its readers “How do you evaluate Zatlers’ decision to seek the dissolving of the Latvian parliament?” According to this poll, 65 percent of readers stated “positively, it is needed for Lithuania as well,” 15 percent chose the answer “negatively, it destabilizes the country,” and 20 percent answered “I don’t care about Latvian politics.”

According to all surveys, Latvia is regarded by Lithuanians as the friendliest country to Lithuania. It is the only country where people speak a language which is close to Lithuanian, which is the most archaic Indo-European language. Kazimieras Buga, Lithuanian linguist of the beginning of 20th century, described the Latvian language as the Lithuanian language after 800 years, i.e. a more simple one and with more influences from other languages. Lithuanians also know that there is an incredibly big number of Russians living in Latvia. However, apart from these facts, the average Lithuanian knows little about Latvian politics.

At the end of May, Arvydas Juozaitis, a Lithuanian philosopher living in Riga for three years already, presented his book titled “Riga – the civilization of nobody.” The book provoked interest due to the current turmoil in Latvian politics. On May 31, northern Lithuania’s newspaper Siauliu Krastas published an interview with Juozaitis.

“The presidential elections, which will be held in Latvia on June 2, are absolutely not understandable according to our criteria [the president of Lithuania is elected in a nationwide election following a nationwide election campaign]. On May 24, the registration of candidates to the post of president was finished (it is done by MPs who elect the president). Two days before the election, only one candidate was registered, the current President Zatlers. And then, another candidate was registered, MP Andris Berzins, who during the independence period became one of the richest oligarchs and who is now the richest Latvian pensioner. […] Another oligarch, Aivars Lembergs, mayor of Ventspils, who backs the Union of Greens and Farmers, stands behind him,” Juozaitis said.

He also spoke about other Latvian exotica: the ethnic tensions are high in Latvia and both communities still fight their WWII there. “The Latvian Waffen-SS is unofficially glorified in all layers of Latvian society,” Juozaitis said, adding that 30,000 Russians gathered in Riga on May 9, 2011, to celebrate Russia’s victory day in WWII. Juozaitis said that he fears that the Latvian nation can disappear soon due to its demographics. Lithuania will survive not much longer if Latvia will fall, according to him.

Juozaitis wrote in his book that Latvia reminds him of Italy and Russia due to its oligarchs’ participation in politics. According to the list of top 50 richest Baltic businessmen, which was published in the latest issue of Lithuanian magazine IQ (the Lithuanian partner of The Economist), Latvian oligarchs are not rich in pan-Baltic terms. There are 29 Lithuanians, 12 Estonians and nine Latvians (eight of the latter are in the bottom 20) in that list which roughly coincides with the sizes of the three Baltic economies. Only Lithuanians (four of them) are Baltic billionaires if counting their property in litas. There is only one Estonian and one Latvian (Lembergs) in the top 10.  The obvious difference between Baltic rich people is the following: only Latvians (Lembergs and Andris Skele – both involved in the recent Latvian scandals of alleged corruption) have the inscription stating “politician” near their names on that list. There is only one Lithuanian politician indirectly present in the IQ list – Jolanta Blazyte, wife of Labor Party leader Viktor Uspaskich. She is No. 48 in the list. Actually, the average Lithuanian has no clue of what the richest man in the Baltics, Nerijus Numavicius (one of the owners of the Maxima supermarket chain in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bulgaria), looks like – he avoids not only politics but also public gatherings of the business and political elite, as well as interviews with the media.

Anyway, the problem of oligarchs is Latvia’s domestic business. On June 3, Grybauskaite, who officially declared her negative attitude to the influences of oligarchs in the past, sent her congratulations to Latvia’s President-elect Andris Berzins, where she emphasized that “Latvia is Lithuania’s neighbor and key partner not only in the region, but also within the European Union and NATO.”