Justice Minister Berzins steps down amid Jewish restitution dispute

  • 2012-06-27
  • From wire reports

RIGHTFUL OWNERS: Gita Umanovska says public buildings that belonged to Jewish organizations before WWII should be returned to the Jewish community.

RIGA - The reason for Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins’ (All for Latvia!-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK) resignation last week is not, as many suspect, the Jewish restitution issue, according to political observers interviewed by LETA on June 21. University of Latvia professor and political scientist Juris Rozenvalds believes that the Jewish restitution issue was just used as an excuse, and is not the true reason for the resignation.

“The real reason is to use this issue, which is a very sensitive issue with the public, to the party’s advantage and try to increase their influence within the coalition. Since the formation of the current government, we have seen Unity’s dominance, with the Reform Party and VL!-TB/LNNK being left behind as the little brothers. VL!-TB/LNNK is attempting to demonstrate that it, too, has its own point of view,” submits Rozenvalds.

Political observer Iveta Kazoka believes that there are currently four scenarios for why Berzins resigned. She says that the first version is using this over-the-top reaction, based on “strange reasoning,” to discuss the issue of restitution with coalition partners and come to some sort of an agreement, with everything then returning back to normal. The second scenario, according to Kazoka, is an attempt to redistribute power.

“I believe that using such sensitive issues to achieve some sort of goals is very low on the part of VL!-TB/LNNK. I really do hope that the party has not acted in this way to obtain a specific ministerial post or some other advantage. If this turns out to be true, it becomes a very cynical game using highly sensitive issues, hoping that the public’s attitude towards Jews is such that they will not notice a redistribution of power within the government and coalition. But if we see VL!-TB/LNNK begin to push for specific changes within the government, this could be [the reason],” Kazoka said.

The third version, she says, is much more complicated, and Berzins’ resignation could be only an episode in a larger game involving selfish interests. As an example, Kazoka mentions the Pasazieru Vilciens train procurement case. She recalls that Berzins has been mentioned by the media in Latvia as being associated with the interests of one of Latvia’s so-called oligarchs - controversial Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs. “This step could just be a smoke screen for much larger changes within the government. If this turns out to be true, we will see interesting things take place in the coming days,” the political observer said.

Kazoka also mentions a fourth version, that Berzins’ decision was his own, and not one made within the party. She says that some kind of information might have been made known to Berzins, which could be used to discredit him.

Seeking justice
If the Jewish organizations’ pre-war properties in Latvia are returned to the Jewish community, this will mean restoration of justice, believes Mordehai Amihai Bivas, director of the Northern Europe Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
The Israeli official arrived on a visit to Riga on June 25 to meet with Latvian Foreign Ministry representatives and visit the Israeli Embassy in Riga. During a press conference, Bivas said it was a routine visit that had nothing to do with the renewed debates about restitution or compensating the Jewish community for the former Jewish properties.
Solving the problem is part of Latvia’s internal affairs, and it should be resolved by the Jewish community and the government of Latvia, said Bivas, adding that Israel was closely following these developments.

Returning the properties to their lawful owners would mean restoration of justice, stressed Bivas, adding that it was an important matter to the entire Jewish nation, and that solving the problem would be seen as a statement against racism, anti-Semitism and all those wrongs that caused the tragedies of World War II.
Properties that lawfully belonged to the Jewish community must be returned, that is a simple and universal principle that must be observed, said Bivas, adding that he believed that such was also the position of the Latvian government.

Returning property that historically belongs to the Latvian Jewish community will mean liquidation of the consequences of the crimes committed by the Soviet occupation, therefore VL-TB/LNNK’s position on the problem is inexplicable, as the party claims to support liquidation of the Soviet occupation’s consequences, believes the Council of the Jewish Communities of Latvia.

The Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia is not blaming the state of Latvia for seizing these properties, nor for the Holocaust, but the Council believes that it would be ethical and fair if public properties that belonged to Jewish organizations before June 17, 1940, when they were nationalized by the Soviet occupation authorities, and became property of the state of Latvia on Aug. 23, 1991, were returned to the Jewish community, said the Council’s executive director Gita Umanovska.

This only concerns public buildings - schools, orphanages, hospitals, culture centers - that the Jewish organizations had built or purchased with their own money and which they owned until June 17, 1940, stressed Umanovska.
After the restoration of independence of Latvia, there were no laws or regulations stipulating that ethnic organizations may reclaim public buildings, said Umanovska. Other ethnic communities’ organizations are having similar problems; therefore it is not a problem of only the Jewish community.

Umanovska also stressed that this matter does not pertain to private property because Latvia’s Jews, just like all other residents of Latvia, had their legitimate property returned to them during the denationalization process.
The Council of the Jewish Communities in Latvia has established that Jewish organizations owned a total of approximately 270 buildings and land parcels in Latvia before June 17, 1940. “If there were any doubts about the property rights to a property, it was not included on the list. The list was submitted to Saeima already in 2006, although at that time it included around 300 properties, as private property was also listed - which have now been removed from the list in accordance with the international practice that heirless owners’ property goes to the state,’ said Umanovska.
Delegating decisions

If Prime Minister Dombrovskis had openly visited Saeima with a proposal to return Jewish organizations’ pre-war properties to the Jewish community, or compensate them for these properties, that would have been a fair offer, yet the prime minister wanted someone else to take the unpopular decision, believes VL-TB/LNNK co-chairman Raivis Dzintars.

In an interview with the daily Diena, Dzintars says that the prime minister was putting great pressure on former Justice Minister Berzins in this regard. “The methods were the same as usual in such cases - frequent meetings, phone calls, calls to the people who work with him, hints of what may happen if something is not done, repeat resolutions by the premier, which is against the coalition agreement, untrue interpretations when speaking with the media,” explains Dzintars, noting that the pressure was coming from Dombrovskis, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, and others.
Under the coalition agreement, any coalition decision moves forward only if approved by four-fifths of the coalition. “First there was the prime minister’s resolution ordering Gaidis Berzins to start the process. It may be said that the first stage is a pure formality, but it is clear to everyone that a bill was concerned, a bill on revising the denationalization process in favor of one certain ethnic group,” claims Dzintars.

VL-TB/LNNK informed the coalition partners that it deemed such a decision unacceptable, and it could not order its minister to do this task.
“The prime minister, who in fact violated the provisions of the coalition agreement, ordered the justice minister to do what was against his conscience, contrary to the decision we made as a partner of the coalition,” emphasizes Dzintars, explaining that Berzins could either step down or refuse to perform the decree, which would lead to escalation of the conflict. “The minister realized that this would cause problems for the justice sector, because the funds that the justice sector representatives are waiting for require the prime minister’s support.”

Dzintars confirms in the interview that there also are other disputes within the ruling coalition. “The other reasons are very similar to the current incident, only in a wider context. You may just take a look at how many of the nationalist alliance’s proposals have been supported, and how many have been turned down in every possible way. Matters that are very important to us are being rejected, although our partners knew about them even before the coalition was set up. We find it hard to accept that the will of our voters is seen as less valuable than the Unity or  Reform Party.”
“This is not about bargaining, we want to put an end to those problems that have led us to the current situation,” added Dzintars in an interview with Latvian State Radio, stressing that the nationalist alliance had no intention to haggle over ministerial portfolios, or that it may have some secret motives.

In Berzins’ opinion, Dombrovskis has ignored VL-TB/LNNK’s political stance – to not support revision of the denationalization process in favor of one ethnic community’s interest over others. He said disagreements with the prime minister over the proposed restitution of Jewish properties was, therefore, his reason for departure, as his further efforts as justice minister would be impossible.

Keeping the coalition together
Saeima speaker and Unity leader Solvita Aboltina told members of the press on June 21 that all attempts will be made to retain the current government coalition. She emphasized that politicians should get together to discuss the situation, adding that there is enough division within Latvia’s political environment already, and that the coalition must find a solution to their problems.

At the same time, the Saeima speaker believes that the “author of the current scenario” is not just All for Latvia!-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK. Asked whether one of Latvia’s so-called oligarchs - Ventspils Mayor Aivsars Lembergs - could be involved, Aboltina said that she does not have such information. She said that others could just as likely be involved, but did not wish to mention who they might be.
The Unity leader also added that it is irresponsible to deceive the Latvian public by saying that the Jewish restitution issue is the reason for the current situation.

Culture Minister Zaneta Jaunzeme-Grende (VL-TB/LNNK) will be the acting justice minister until a new one is appointed.