Latvia 2001: riding the red wave to Riga 800

  • 2001-12-20
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - After pondering over all the events, spectacles, scandals, accusations, apologies and everything else that happened in Latvia this year, The Baltic Times finally decided on the following five landmark events for 2001. Later, we asked some of Latvia's key decision-makers what they thought were the most important things that took place during 2001.

1. "Social Democrats take Riga": During the municipal elections this spring, what many observers called a red wave swept across the nation, giving the Social Democratic Party more seats than ever before throughout the country since independence was restored in 1991.

Riga saw a complete shift of power as Gundars Bojars, by the smallest majority vote possible, 31-29, snatched tËe mayoral position for his Social Democrats.

The unlikely coalition between left and right that followed crumbled before long. But Bojars has confounded experts by keeping his track record clean.

2. "Riga throws party to history": August saw the celebration of a lifetime, which went off without a hitch - Riga's 800th anniversary. Well over a million people celebrated over a long weekend. At one point, police were forced to seal off the entrances to the Old Town in an attempt not to overcrowd it.

The same team of pyrotechicians who were responsible for the spectacular fireworks at the 2000 Olympics in Sidney, Australia, were drafted into Riga and gave a truly memorable display of explosions, colors and sounds.

Virtually every bridge in the city crossing the Daugava River was filled to the brim with awestruck spectators. The success of the year.

3. "Flower girl faces 15 years in jail": When Britain's future monarch Prince Charles visited Latvia in November, he got his royal snout slapped with a red carnation. Alina Lebedeva, the 16-year-old responsible, became an overnight celebrity as images of the incident flashed around the world.

It looked for a while that she would face 15 years in jail for the stunt, which she said was done in protest against Britain's participation in the war in Afghanistan.

But the prince, who kept his cool during the floral attack, asked Latvian officials to be lenient. The officials meekly obliged. Lebedeva is now waiting to be charged on the minor charge of hooliganism.

Not long after the assault on the dignitary, central banker-turned-politician Einars Repse had a cactus thrown at him by a woman, since said to be mentally unstable, during a publicity walkabout. Like the prince, Repse remained calm and afterwards explained that the woman had merely wanted to hand it to him as a gift and was forced to throw it because the hall was so overcrowded.

4. "Kalejs dies amidst prosecution controversy": Long time Nazi-era-war-crimes suspect Konrad Kalejs, 88, died in Melbourne, Australia, in November before he could be extradited to Latvia to stand trial. By dying, Kalejs took away the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center's hopes of ever catching a living Latvian war-crimes suspect alive.

"Kalejs deserved to die in prison after a long prison term and not in a ritzy old people's home in Melbourne," Efraim Zuroff, the director of the center's Jerusalem office, said. "To date neither Australia nor Latvia has ever successfully taken action against Holocaust suspects."

The Latvian prosecutor general's office denied allegations of being sluggish with the case, although the case had been on the desk for more than three years.

5. "Privatization failure offers tough choices": The third attempt to privatize one of Latvia's most valuable assets, the Latvian Shipping Company, failed in April after no bidders paid the necessary $5 million security deposit by the set deadline.

The failed privatization as well as the company itself have been riddled by various scandals throughout the year. These scandals have added to an image Latvia is desperately trying to shake off, that of one of the most corrupt countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Recently, the Latvian government adopted a new plan on how to sell its shipping giant, the privatization of which is required by major international financial organizations like the IMF and World Bank.

The 68 percent share that was planned to be sold to a strategic investor in the spring has decreased to 51 percent, to be sold through a floatation on the stock exchange.