Central bank chief fails to illuminate

  • 2001-11-08
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Latvia's hottest politician, though not yet officially in politics, popped out for lunch Nov. 6 to host a press conference in which he spoke of his future party's health care program. Latvian central bank head Einars Repse has already made several political proclamations, and announced recently that if he can raise enough money to leave his job he will form a new right-wing party by the name of New Time.

"I'm here as a private individual in my lunch hour, to speak about a political party that is under formation," Repse announced.

His health program turned out to be populistic and nothing new. More people should get free medicine, he said. There should be no queues for surgery, health insurance should be patched up, and people should take on more responsibility for their own health.

Repse's statements over the last two months have been widely criticized. Even before he said he wanted exactly 500,000 lats ($805,000) for leaving his well-paid job to go into politics and another 900,000 lats to cover expenses for the party, the prosecutor general's office began to look into whether it was legal to be collecting money for a political party while still boss of the central bank.

It found that they were within the boundaries of Latvian law as long as Repse clearly separated his roles as an individual and as president of Latvia's most important bank.

In the two months since Repse announced his intention to enter politics, his more ardent supporters have donated some 60,000 lats to him and 14,000 lats to his party.

Last year Repse earned 77,101.64 lats, according to official information at the State Revenue Service. The service's Anda Krastina said she had no information about whether Repse also received a bonus for last year's performance as central bank president. But a more thorough check on Repse's income declaration is imminent.

Repse has lost credibility among politicians. Egils Baldzens, head of the Social Democrat faction in Parliament, said Repse made a big mistake when he mentioned specific sums of money for starting his party.

"Ideas and public support should be the base of forming a party," he said, adding that Repse's ideas could easily be realized with far less funding.

Latvia's Way faction head Kristina Libane said Repse's evident love of money could be a negative precedent for selfish people. "But I am not against him personally," she said.

However, assistant professor Janis Ikstens at Videzeme University's political science department, agreed with Baldzens, saying that asking for 500,000 lats was a mistake from an ethical point of view, whether the 900,000 lats for forming the party was a reasonable amount or not.

"Politicians are underpaid all over the world, but I don't think this was a good way to go," Ikstens said. "If you're venturing into something new you, especially business, you don't expect people to pamper you."

Still, Ikstens said Repse will be an alternative for disillusioned voters who have lost faith in other parties, and that among unsatisfied voters he may present a credible option.

"He will not be able to consolidate right-wing parties, because Latvia's Way and For Fatherland and Freedom have strong roots. I am no Nostradamus, but I think he will strike a cord with unsatisfied people."

Although Repse merely has made a few statements about his political ambitions and has briefly touched on the subject of how he will achieve his goals, the central bank head is a highly popular figure in Latvian society. He regularly appears in the top three in monthly politician polls.

In an opinion poll carried out in October, his yet-to-be-founded party came top with more than 14 percent of respondents saying they going to vote for it.

"Repse is considered by many as honest and straight forward because of his work for bank of Latvia," Ikstens said. "This adds to his credibility."

Should Repse decide to pursue a career in politics, it is not yet clear who would replace him as head of the central bank. Repse has pointed out that this is up to the parliament and he has expressed a hope that the best possible solution will be found.