Latvia's Parliament rejected the government's nominee for a new anti-corruption czar for a fourth time Sept. 19, dealing a blow to the country's bid to join both the EU and NATO.
Latvia's anti-corruption efforts have emerged as one of the more serious concerns about the former Soviet republic's bid for membership of the European Union and NATO.
Only five deputies voted for the nominee, Janis Jonass, while 45 voted against and 46 abstained.
The failure comes less than a month before the EU executive issues its annual report on the readiness of 13 EU candidates. It was highly critical of Latvia on the issue in last year's report.
The report, due Oct. 9, is expected to be influential when EU leaders meet in Brussels later next month to decide which countries are ready to join the bloc in 2004.
The anti-corruption office, which will not begin operation until a boss has been named, was established to meet concerns from the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about Latvia's readiness to join.
"The quality of the legal system and the robustness of anti-corruption measures are of enormous importance to NATO countries and to your application," NATO Secretary General George Robertson told lawmakers during a visit earlier this year.
Latvia and its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania hope to get an invitation to join the military alliance in November.
The government nominated Jonass, a 35-year-old attorney and former high-ranking Justice Ministry official, earlier this month after three failed attempts to find a candidate to head the new bureau.
But his candidacy was badly damaged when Ainars Platacis, who heads the law firm where Jonass works, suggested in a state television interview that the legal profession was not the place to seek an anti-corruption expert.
An aide to Prime Minister Andris Berzins played down the defeat in Parliament, which had been expected, saying NATO and EU countries preferred Latvia to take its time over the selection process rather than appoint someone inappropriate.
"In this case there's plenty of doubt (Jonass) would be competent. Now the general opinion is let's slow things down and find a candidate of good reputation and a qualitative candidate," Berzins adviser Peteris Elferts said ahead of the vote.
But Anita Brauna, who covers corruption for Latvia's leading daily Diena, said the string of failures to find a candidate called into question the government's commitment to building an effective anti-corruption force.
"In all of the procedure the government hasn't been too careful. Appointing (Jonass) showed a lack of attention to the issue," said Brauna.
In several recent high-profile cases, prosecutors have failed to pursue top law enforcement officials whose family members possessed property far beyond their declared sources of income.
Latvia ranked as the second most corrupt EU candidate in Transparency International's index last year but improved its score this year, rising to 3.7 points out of 10 from 3.4 points in 2001.
Jonass is a former deputy state secretary in the Justice Ministry who has been in private law practice since 1998.