Eyeing another shot

  • 2002-09-12
  • Steven C. Johnson
After a short stint as prime minister, Guntars Krasts is ready to take the helm again. Interview by Steven C. Johnson.

When Guntars Krasts was unexpectedly promoted from economy minister to prime minister in late 1997, he became the first member of the nationalist Fatherland and Freedom party to head the government.

His short tenure, which lasted until parliamentary elections in 1998, was a rocky one. Krasts' Fatherland and Freedom has scored poorly in public opinion polls ahead of the Oct. 5 election, a result, perhaps, of its continued presence in a flurry of failed coalition governments.

Still, Krasts thinks the party has a chance to remain in the driver's seat of national politics.

Since independence, Latvia hasn't been able to keep governments for very long. Do you think that will change with the next Parliament?

I think the next Parliament will look similar to the current one, with center-right groups winning the majority of seats. This gives flexibility in forming governments.

In transition economies like ours, (government change) is not such a bad thing. To some extent, the many changes mean the instruments of democracy are being used. If there's too much power concentrated with one party, it will be misused. We need only look at Latin America or Southeast Asia to see this.

With NATO membership all but assured, what is your party's position on the other big question for Latvia: joining the EU?

In spite of public perception, we have always supported EU membership, but we are emphasizing that NATO membership is necessary as soon as possible, while the EU should remain a policy goal.

But the EU is important because I think membership will improve our democratic credentials, it will make customs and tax collection more transparent and problems like smuggling easier to tackle.

Why is NATO more important than the EU?

NATO is simpler, joining is more straightforward. It will bring psychological security. People won't feel as threatened by Russia and our relations with Russia may even improve. Also, it will prove that joining a big, international organization does not mean we give up all our sovereignty and in the long run, it will make joining the EU not such a nervous issue among voters.

Indeed, euroskeptisicm is growing and farmers and small businesses who fear they won't be able to compete in a common market are making their fears known. How dangerous is this for Latvia? Can you imagine losing an EU referendum?

I don't see it as a huge threat. The truth is, people are just starting to pay attention to the EU and to think about it, so it's normal that there are some negative opinions. There will be some sacrifices. There are some tough issues - like farm subsidies - and solutions must be found. But I think these issues will be solved with compromises between the EU and candidate countries.

People are skeptical in general about the government. A recent United Nations Development Program poll found 79 percent of Latvians trust their leaders "very little" or "not at all." What would you, as prime minister, do to change this?

Something is really wrong in our political climate. Relations between government and society and levels of corruption resemble Latin America.

Our number one task should be administrative reform. We need to dramatically improve the administrative system by cutting staff, raising salaries, improving education and professional levels of state employees. This will do a lot to change things. Otherwise, people feel the only way they can get anything done is with bribes, and that leads to more and more corruption.

Since the last election when citizenship laws were softened, very few non-citizens have naturalized. Do you see this as a problem and do you think it's important to convince them to do so, lest Latvia become a segregated society?

We are not interested in a segregated society, of course, but we want Russians to naturalize because they want to and are interested to be citizens of Latvia. It should not be artificial, nobody should have to persuade them by using some primitive stimulus.

Actually, I think social segregation is more troubling than ethnic segregation. Economic reforms here have caused such polarization in society, and in the countryside employment sometimes reaches 20 percent. Social inclusion is needed more than artificially stimulated integration.

How would you address this problem?

Educational, infrastructure and tax reform. By improving infrastructure and lowering taxes, I think we could attract serious capital to some 30 Latvian towns and cities that can become centers of development. Corporate income tax should be reduced to zero in certain areas for companies that reinvest into the country. If there's infrastructure and a labor force, the capital will follow it. We need to do this to stay competitive with Estonia and the Scandinavian countries.

Your party has been in government for a long time. What do you say to voters who ask why you haven't done more to solve these problems?

We can point to the good work we've done in particular ministries - defense, for instance, where we've been in charge and done quite a lot. And when I was prime minister, we had many achievements, including tax collection. Excise tax collection was at its peak in 1998. Today, it's 8 million lats (13.55 million euros) less.