Lembergs backtracks on ‘occupation’ comments

  • 2014-05-19
  • From wire reports, RIGA

Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis (Greens/Farmers) has said that NATO ambassadors have expressed off-the-record puzzlement regarding the comments made by Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs (Greens/Farmers) last week regarding stationing NATO troops in the Baltics, reports LETA.

However, the Foreign Ministry has already announced that no official complaints have been made, yet, in regard to the incidents involving NATO soldiers in Ventspils or the comments made by Lembergs. Despite this, Vejonis has had discussions behind the scenes with ambassadors from NATO countries, who have expressed bewilderment in regard to Lembergs' comments.

''No one has officially turned to the Defense Ministry. However, I have had several conversations off-the-record with diplomats, who have expressed their concerns about Lembergs' comments,'' Vejonis said.

The defense minister refrained from commenting on which ambassadors have expressed their concerns.

Asked whether Vejonis' Union of Greens and Farmers could review its cooperation agreement with Lembergs' For Latvia and Ventspils party, the minister answered that the Greens/Farmers have a cooperation agreement in place with this party until the Saeima elections, and that there have been no talks on a new agreement. Vejonis said that it is hard to tell whether Lembergs' comments will have an impact on a possible cooperation agreement after the Saeima elections, as this must be discussed within the party.

Lembergs has sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, urging him "to apologize to Latvia and the City of Ventspils" for NATO soldiers' disgraceful behavior, as he termed it, in Ventspils two weeks ago.

Furthermore, in one of his regular press conferences earlier this month, Lembergs said that an increased NATO presence and the deployment of additional allied troops in Latvia could be compared to the 1940 Soviet occupation of Latvia.

Lembergs, the allegedly corrupt ‘seaside mayor’ who is currently on trial for serious fraud and money laundering charges in Latvia, was named as one of the country's three so-called oligarchs by former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers.

The mayor now says that when commenting on the possible establishment of NATO permanent military bases in Latvia, he deliberately used the word "occupation" in order to draw attention to this matter.

He added, "I used this terrible word ‘occupation’ in the context of the possible military bases in Latvia. Why did I use this word? Maybe I should have chosen another - a much softer form. I spoke in such a manner to prompt the people to pay attention to the fact that if a foreign country's military base is set up in Latvia, its troops will be commanded by the given country's commander. They will not be under Latvia's command in any way." Thus, Latvia will practically lose its sovereignty if it is decided to station military units in Latvia, Lembergs stressed.

Lembergs, in his exaggeration of what stationing of troops would mean to Latvia, seems also to have forgotten that Latvia is a full member of NATO, and these troops would include Latvian soldiers as well.

Additionally, Lembergs said that he had supported Latvia's accession to NATO; however, he is against the establishment of permanent military bases in Latvia. "In 1990, I voted for the independence of Latvia, and I was perfectly aware of what I was doing," Lembergs said. He also supported Latvia's membership in NATO: "First of all, I supported the accession. I have never said that we must discontinue our membership, but I am against NATO soldiers discrediting the organization, and I am against the establishment of permanent NATO military bases in Latvia."

Explaining why he is against the establishment of military bases, Lembergs said he believes that it will not improve Latvia's security, and make Latvia "a military zone" instead.

But there are consequences to Lembergs’ comments, regardless of his true motivations or loyalties. Eastern European expert, researcher and lecturer Maris Cepuritis sees the potential for Russia to use the recent statements by Lembergs to "spread propaganda that Latvia is negative about NATO's presence."

Cepuritis also notes that Latvia's diplomatic corps has reacted to Lembergs' statements adequately in order to quell any NATO doubts that Latvia has changed its position. Defense Minister Vejonis has also spoken up against Lembergs, the expert points out.

Cepuritis declined to say whether Lembergs' statements were premeditated instigation or just his personal opinion, even though Cepuritis is suspicious due to the chain of developments: first - comments, then statements to the media, then the letter to the NATO secretary general.

At best, this was just a childish prank carried out by Lembergs. Worse, it could show his loyalties, or subservience, to Moscow, of which he has close ties.

Cepuritis says he is not sure what the Ventspils mayor's objective is or was, mentioning possible publicity ahead of Saeima elections. He also mentioned the mayor's meeting with the Russian ambassador before the statements were released.

Nonetheless, For Lavia and Venstpils says it will not cooperate with politicians who support ‘thugs,’ affirmed Lembergs at a press conference last week while discussing the violent incidents involving NATO sailors, who were beat up by locals in Ventspils.

The ruling coalition has demanded that For Latvia and Ventspils, a cooperation partner of the ruling coalition's Union of Greens and Farmers, formulate its position on the NATO presence in Latvia. When asked about further action in case the party's position is not in line with the coalition's point of view, Prime Minister Straujuma said: "Then we will discuss the makeup of the coalition." Later on Straujuma indicated that currently she does not want to speculate on the possible actions because the party's position must be clarified first.

Lembergs said that the board of For Latvia and Ventspils will hold a meeting today at 4 p.m., during which the party's position will be formulated. "We will, of course, express our opinion, but if some politicians support thugs, then we will not cooperate with them - be it [Artis] Pabriks or [Edgars] Rinkevics or [Roberts] Zile or anyone else," Lembergs said.

He also indicated that the government's manifesto says nothing about establishing permanent NATO military bases in Latvia: "Thus, neither I, nor the party has violated anything, but, of course, we will express a clear opinion."

Disturbances in the seaside town of Ventspils took place two weeks ago between several NATO sailors and local hooligans. Some believe that the hooligans could have been sent by people connected with the Ventspils mayor, to cause trouble with NATO operations. An official investigation into the matter is being carried out.