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Staying power

  • 2002-09-26
  • J. Michael Lyons
Andris Berzins has been prime minister for two-and-a-half years, the longest serving head of government since Latvia regained independence. The following is part of a discussion he had about the upcoming election with J. Michael Lyons.

Berzins was mayor of Riga when he was asked by his party, Latvia's Way, to lead the coalition national government. He had a reputation as a man who could hold together a fractious coalition as he had done in the Riga City Council.

But Latvia's Way faces the possibility of not getting the 5 percent of the vote needed to get a seat in Parliament in the Oct. 5 election.

Latvia's Way received 5.5 percent in a Sept. 25 poll by the private firm Latvijas Fakti and trails Andris Skele's People's Party and Einars Repse's New Era party by a sizable margin.

With you as prime minister, the longest-serving prime minister in this country, Latvia has come to the edge of joining NATO, to the edge of joining the European Union and there's a stable economy. But your poll numbers have dropped. How do you explain this?

Maybe it's because I haven't got too much time to travel around and campaign. I have to work. (Laughs). I think a lot of people have yet to chose their position. I think it's more than one-third who are still undecided. I feel more than sure that we will be in the next government, and that we'll play a leading role in the formation of a new coalition. My forecast is a coalition government again with three or four parties.

Where in your opinion does Mr. Repse fit it? He's doing well in the polls.

It is a Latvian tradition that before every election we have somebody, a newcomer, that comes and promises everything. This is Mr. Repse. His position is quite similar to ours, he's a center-right politician. Therefore, I'm not surprised with his popularity. I think he will be elected to the Parliament, but I'm not going to forecast how many seats he will get. I don't think the polls have showed us the reality yet.

He's the only person in his party that has served in elected office ...

As the governor of the Central Bank, he had the right to participate in all the Cabinet meetings but unfortunately, I did not see him too often there. He sent some deputies who are members of the Central Bank board. Now he sometimes looks like a man who wakes up in the morning and doesn't know anything about the past. For instance, the banking crisis in some cases is his responsibility because the Central Bank was responsible for supervisory functions over the commercial banks.

But he's positioning himself as an outsider. Is he?

I think it's convenient to say that I'm an outsider, and I don't know anything.

We've seen Tautas Partija (People's Party) advertising heavily and surge in the polls. Latvia's Way has begun advertising more. Is it going to be enough?

We expect to be in the next government.

How big of a role are EU and NATO membership going to play in this election. Are you using them in your campaign?

We are the only party that is using them. But we always say that these two things are not the goal, but they are a way to achieve the goals of stability and security. In general people recognize this position, but sometimes they need more explanation.

But do you think that society's impression of EU and NATO membership will be reflected in this election? Will people vote for the current coalition parties based on NATO and the EU or will it still be more about pensions, education, health care and those types of traditional issues?

Not only EU and NATO. Of course everyone here thinks about their salaries like (everywhere else in) the world. They think about jobs, about pensions. Education is a sensitive issue. But in my mind the coalition has succeeded in that regard as well as (in NATO and EU preparations). We have increased the salaries for teachers and for all people involved in the education system. We developed a study-crediting system in the university and the number of students taking courses in the universities today is higher than in European Union countries. We changed the pension system and the way they are indexed. For instance for pensions over 90 lats (150 euros), the increases take into account inflation. But for pensions below 90 lats we take into account inflation and the growth of the average wage.

Corruption is an important issue. Repse has talked a lot about it. He's not shy about accusing people in the current government, though he doesn't name names.

It's an easy position to take. It's easy to say everyone is corrupt. I've quite often said to him and explained to the public that it's my government that changed practically the entire package of legislation in the struggle against corruption. We developed a new strategy for fighting corruption and the legislation to go with it and passed it through the Parliament. The last thing we need to do is put someone in charge of the anti-corruption bureau who has investigative control like it is in Hong Kong.

This is the model Repse says he would like to implement, the Hong Kong model.

It's done. The question now is finding the person to lead it, not about the principle. He took this flag and says he's the biggest fighter against corruption. We all are fighting corruption. We recognize that it's a real need to fight corruption. But I sometimes think that maybe it's more society's perception than real corruption. But if society thinks that they need more protection then it's the government's responsibility to protect them.

How do you envision the next government?

My forecast is that it will be a very similar coalition. And the most important thing is that if there are changes that they do not influence the country's progress. The country must continue to move toward democracy and toward a liberal market.

Repse says he won't settle for anything less than your job - to be the next prime minister. Is that a reasonable expectation?

Who knows? The tradition before me was a new government every nine months. Maybe this is why we had so many problems with revenue, with the growth of GDP and so on and so forth. Business needs stability. And that's exactly what I've seen in the last two-and-a-half years. First of all, it's the first government that didn't raise taxes. In fact, it's completely the opposite. We decreased taxes. Every time we decreased taxes we received more revenue in the budget. With the decrease in taxation and the improvement of the business environment.

Is that because businesses are actually paying taxes because they're lower?

It's true a lot of businesses came (on the tax rolls) from the so-called grey area. In two-and-a-half years in Latvia there have been more than 104,000 new jobs. More than 2,500 more business are on the register as taxpayers.

How have you managed to stay in power for two-and-a-half-years?

It's not easy. (Laughs) Before this I had the experience of serving three years as mayor and in the Riga City Council where there were 17 political parties representing 60 seats. I headed a coalition of seven parties. It's, of course, a question of how to find compromises and not stop the (momentum) of the country or its economic aspirations. Somehow we succeeded.