Big cheers, but few changes for new team

  • 2000-05-11
  • By Philip Birzulis
RIGA - It was quite a change from the bickering and mudslinging that normally passes for business as usual in Latvian politics. Moments after Parliament voted to approve his government on May 5, Andris Berzins got a welcome from the people that has not been seen since the days of the independence struggle 10 years ago.

Greeting him outside the legislature were about 1,000 screaming teenagers who sang patriotic songs, waved flags and otherwise displayed their love of country with a mass of red and white jerseys, scarves and painted faces. When someone handed the new prime minister a flag, the crowd rapturously chanted his name: "Andris, Andris!"

In truth, this unnervingly warm reception had less to do with politics than with pucks. The Latvian ice hockey team had just scored its first ever major victory over Russia, and some of the exuberant fans had gone to the Parliament to share their joy (See Page 24.)

It was Berzins' jolly good luck to get elected at this moment of triumph over the Old Enemy; making the tough decisions needed to fix Latvia's economic and political stagnation will probably get him as many boos as cheers.

But it may be a fitting entree for a man touted as a skilled diplomat and communicator. Following the collapse of the previous administration on April 12, former Riga Mayor Berzins pieced together a coalition of four right wing parties that easily won the Parliament's approval 69-24. It includes all three factions which made up the last government: the People's Party, Latvia's Way, plus For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, which signed up only at the last minute, because it disliked the share of cabinet posts given to it.

The small New Party has also tagged on, giving the new government an overwhelming 70 seats in the 100 member legislature, and fixing a firm left-right divide, with the Social Democrats and For Human Rights in a Democratic Latvia faction in opposition.

But the large Parliamentary majority is unlikely to guarantee stability, given that feuding within the governing coalition has brought down several previous governments.

The leaders of the ruling parties seem less than confident that things will be different this time, and they are placing a lot of pressure on one man's shoulders.

Valdis Birkavs of the Latvia's Way faction, a former prime minister and senior minister, said Berzins' experience of running the Riga City Council which includes 17 parties is good preparation for national politics.

"This government is different only in having a prime minister who is very experienced, tolerant and capable of leadership. All hopes are on Berzins' ability to find compromise and to find the right way," he said. "But I don't see any other difference."

Fatherland faction leader Maris Grinblats said he hoped things would be friendlier in the new government. He cited its bigger Parliamentary majority, new mechanisms for intra-coalition negotiations, and the personality of Berzins, whom he described as "more collegial and willing to listen to his colleagues than his predecessor," as reasons to believe it would last until elections scheduled for October 2002.

But is he certain it will hold out?

"No one knows that. Even Mr. Berzins doesn't know that," said Grinblats.

With the same parties in power, the government's domestic priorities of economic reform and desire to join the EU and NATO abroad are unchanged. But Berzins has already given indications that the style may differ somewhat. For example, it would be difficult to imagine his predecessor Andris Skele, whose stubborn and head-on leadership style alienated colleagues, surrrounding himself with delirious hockey fans as Berzins did.

The new PM's speech before the vote also gave hints of a new approach. Calling for a "market economy rather than a market society," Berzins said his government would make economic reforms understandable to people.

"Society is tired of unexplained change," he said.

"We must speak to people more carefully, more clearly, more understandably, and more qualitatively. The most valuable thing in the country is every person," he said.

The opposition was quick to point out the many areas of life where government practice differs from these ideals. In their speeches before the vote, Social Democrat MPs cited numerous daunting problems in the country: high interest rates for farmers, poor roads, industry producing less than in 1990, and health problems such as tuberculosis and the lowest birth rate in Europe.

And they claimed that internal bickering about how to share the spoils of privatizing big state enterprises such as the Latvenergo power utility, the Latvian Shipping Company, the Lattelekom phone monopoly and the Ventspils Nafta oil transit group, was the real reason behind the collapse of the last government.

"This government has been formed only for the sake of privatization, so politically it is crippled," said Egils Baldzens, the Social Democrats faction head. "Will a child conceived by force be loved within its family?"

Before May 5 the Latvian media publicized meetings between government leaders and the bosses of powerful economic groups who are thought to have a big say in national decision making. In late April, former PM Skele, who amassed a fortune from Ave Lat Group, Latvia's biggest food processing group, sat down with his old enemy Aivars Lembergs, Ventspils Mayor and chief of the oil transit business. Latvia's Way MP Inese Birzniece told The Baltic Times there was no attempt to hide this meeting in the hope that by being open, public speculation about the excessive power of big business would die down.

However, Skele and Lembergs do not appear to have reached a peaceful settlement. On May 8, the daily Diena reported more public exchanges between Skele and Lembergs in which the two gave opposing views of what had been discussed during the meeting. Skele claimed that other factions besides his People's Party are in the pockets of Ventspils, and a major reason for his government's collapse was his refusal to allow powerful interests in the port city to rob the state of 15 million lats from one proposed privatization model for Ventspils Nafta.

Lembergs denied the accusations and accused Skele of using his political position to further Ave Lat interests.