On the road to better democracy

  • 2011-08-24
  • By Philip Birzulis

It has been a dramatic year for Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and his Unity party. Returned to office last October despite making painful economic reforms, Unity’s second period of governing has been clouded by a slow return to growth and disputes with coalition partner the Union of Greens and Farmers over anti-corruption measures and the choice of Latvia’s next president. Things came to a head on May 28 when then-President Valdis Zatlers ordered a referendum on dismissing the Parliament. Voters sacked the legislature and so the country goes to the polls again on September 17. Philip Birzulis spoke with Solvita Aboltina, Unity’s Chairperson and Speaker of the Latvian Saeima (Parliament), about further economic reforms, Latvia’s dreadful roads and potential new coalitions.

At last October’s elections, voters gave the Unity block a strong mandate in spite of the economic crisis. Since then your approval rating has fallen significantly. Does this worry you as Latvians go to the polls again?
This is a complex question. We are grateful to our voters who supported the Dombrovskis government’s reforms, including unpopular measures like cutting wages and pensions, which stabilized the country and saved it from bankruptcy. People thought the reforms would turn everything around after the elections. It didn’t happen so quickly, but if we look at Latvia’s current economic indicators, we are now in a much stronger position than many other countries as the world faces a possible second wave of the crisis. Our main promise was to save the country from bankruptcy, and this has been done. But we made a mistake in not clearly outlining the next steps we have to take to promote the country’s development.

What are those steps? If Unity gets another term in government, how will it promote development?
Firstly, Unity stands for the rule of law, the cornerstone of any democratic state. In order to bring Latvia out of the crisis, make people proud of their country and encourage those who have left to return, we must have much faster, consistent economic development. Our campaign must not be limited to highlighting the Dombrovskis reforms and the fact that the international loans program is about to end. We have to look at the example of countries with successful records of development, such as Germany. The key factor in any development is education, and here Finland is a model. We also have to look at Estonia and ask ourselves why it is doing better than Latvia in many areas.

What can Latvia learn from Estonia?
When the world economy was booming the Estonians built up a surplus while we had politicians who pursued a “full speed ahead” policy. Instead of trying to balance imports and exports we squandered a lot of money on bureaucracy and a bubble economy. Instead of developing key production sectors or setting national development priorities, we invested in real estate. Then the bubble burst. The Dombrovskis government has received a lot of criticism since 2009, but the fact is that we have set out priorities for development, including education. We want a better planned, growth-oriented system. We have started doing this and the work must be continued. What Unity offers is already reality in other countries.

Do you keep in touch with small and medium business owners? Can you name three things that the government could do to help these businesses grow and to employ more people?
Business people, small or otherwise, often say to us, “If you can’t help us then at least get out of our way!” Maintaining contacts with business people is an important part of the job for all Unity politicians, not just for the Economics Minister. We promised to regularly meet with voters in between elections and we are doing this. The first thing that small and medium sized enterprises need is predictability in state administration and fewer bureaucratic barriers. Anyone dealing with the civil service knows that state administration is fragmented and the so-called e-government and e-signatures don’t work, that you have to chase countless papers around countless government departments. So properly introducing e-government would be a big step. Secondly, anyone who takes risks by going into business wants a stable tax structure. Unity has promised to gradually reduce payroll taxes, and this will be done. Thirdly, we have to develop the common national infrastructure. People want energy security and they want to know that the government is allocating resources to infrastructure.

Do you drive on Latvia’s roads?
Yes I do. I’m elected from the Kurzeme region, and I can assure you that the road between Kuldiga and Ventspils is one of the worst. Latvia is currently one of the leaders in getting European funds for roads, but there are a number of reasons why our roads are still the worst in the Baltics. And it’s not just asphalt roads in bad condition like the one I mentioned - Latvia has one of the highest proportions of unsealed roads in Europe. And not just in Latgale, the least developed region which we should be trying to bring up to the level of the rest of the country, but also in Vidzeme, a relatively well-developed region.

Do you think that in the long term Latvia’s electoral system could be changed so that a particular town or municipality has an MP to represent it? Perhaps this could lead to a more equitable distribution of resources across the country.  
That has already been tried and failed. Over the last 20 years, the party in power has allocated resources based on political patronage, for example giving money to a school for a new roof or windows regardless of whether they were needed or not. The same for healthcare – some regions got hospitals with expensive equipment even if it was not necessary, while regions which needed resources didn’t get them. National development means that the Saeima has to make decisions reflecting the country as a whole, and this also applies to Cohesion Funds, which is our priority area for next year’s EU budget. We have to be honest enough to tell the European Parliament that we haven’t always used this money as wisely as we could have. We have to keep fighting for our right to receive these funds, but we have to analyze whether they are spent in the best way. Regarding the electoral system, Unity’s policy is to split the current five electoral districts into smaller units so that voters have more say in who they vote for. Latvia is a small country, and introducing a majoritarian, or mixed, electoral system would only worsen fragmentation.

Since the last elections, power has been held by a chaotic and unwieldy coalition. The two parties in the coalition, Unity and the Union of Greens and Farmers, seem to have radically differing views on important issues. Are you optimistic that the upcoming elections will produce a result that avoids a repeat of this situation?
We must be optimistic. If we look at the enthusiasm with which voters participated in the referendum on dismissing the Saeima, I don’t see this as just a desire to punish the current Saeima. No, it is a judgment of the policies pursued over the last 20 years. People are unanimous in wanting a different kind of politics and a different kind of Saeima, and the only power to enact these changes that the people have under the Constitution is elections. Voting is a big responsibility because people realize that there will probably be a coalition again, but they can decide what kind of a coalition they want. With regard to the justice system, as a former Justice Minister I can say that a range of good measures have been adopted by the current Saeima. But other important measures relating to reducing the influence of money in politics have run into big difficulties in this Saeima because Unity and the Union of Greens and Farmers have diametrically opposing views. It must be said that important decisions about stabilizing the economy were taken, and the Union did not abandon the government like the People’s Party did in the previous Saeima. But there is a very low level of public trust in the current Saeima, and it is up to each voter to decide how to get a Saeima that works better for developing the country.

You have publicly stated that you are in favor of a coalition with Harmony Center. However, the Civic Union wing of Unity is opposed to this. Why do you support including Harmony Center in the coalition?
This is one of the most controversial issues within Unity. We are generally in agreement about the party’s ideology, economic policy and many other important questions, but the issue of Harmony Center has always been a polarizing one. Any political party would be ill advised to state before an election who they will or won’t form a coalition with. After the voters make their choice, we will have to look at the composition of the Saeima and talk to all political parties, and after that we will make a democratic, majority decision on whether or not to form a coalition with them. At the same time, we won’t go into a coalition with a political force which plainly declares itself to be against the country’s fundamental values. We have said that economics is not the only thing that matters - the sort of country we live in, including how we understand our history, is also important. Regarding the question of whether Latvia was occupied, look at the Constitution and the oath that MPs swear to obey the laws of the Republic of Latvia. These include the August 1991 law on the restoration of Latvia’s independence. That document clearly states that Latvia was occupied, and that the Latvia we live in today is the same Latvia that was established on November 18, 1918. This interpretation of history is the basis of our entire legal system. Harmony Center has proposed that we not talk about history for the next three years. We interpret this to mean that we shouldn’t be discussing what is plainly set out in the Constitution; otherwise, any cooperation is impossible.

What do you think of the decision by Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, from Harmony Center, to attend the celebrations at Riga’s Soviet Victory Monument on May 9?  
This is a highly politicized move which plays to a particular section of the electorate. I’m much more worried about the economic policies of the Riga City Council. Harmony Center’s policy program clearly supports the same economic policies which brought Latvia close to bankruptcy – living off borrowing. Right now we see the Riga City Council handing out free concert tickets to pensioners and doing similarly generous, popular things. Harmony Center’s economic policy does not support Latvia adopting the euro and calls for reopening talks with international lenders to extend the terms for loan repayment. In other words, they clearly advocate a policy of going into debt rather than strengthening and developing the country. I’m also concerned that Harmony Center’s program does not say a word about reducing the power of money in politics and the role of the oligarchs.

So your differences with them are about more than just interpretations of history.
I consider the fact that their policy does not support Latvia joining the euro shows that instead of wanting Latvia to be a developed, independent country they want us to remain on the fringes of Europe.
Last year, you and a number of other female MPs called for amendments to the Reproductive Health Law, making it mandatory for women seeking abortions to listen to the heartbeats of their unborn children. What are your views on abortion rights?
The Saeima did not send the amendments on to the committee stage, so they were rejected, but yes, such a proposal was made. I am against banning abortion, because practice shows that this threatens the health of both mothers and their children; it leads to abortion services being exported to other countries and so on. Every woman has the right to choose, and every woman also has the responsibility to take care of her own health and that of her unborn child. But given our very low birth rate, we are physically dying out, and the prime minister has made the demographic situation a priority. We have to find not only economic and social, but also emotional solutions to ensure that more children are born. As a woman, I personally struggled for a long time to be able to have children. It may sound cold hearted, but if a woman becomes aware that she may lose her child forever, it could have a decisive effect on her decision. And of course the amendments provided that if she decided to go ahead with an abortion, no one could stop her. Although I wasn’t the initiator of the proposal, I supported it because it raises awareness about these issues. But I have never been in favor of banning abortion, because a child has to be wanted, and in a free country a woman has the right to decide for herself.