Out with the old, in with New Era

  • 2002-10-10
  • Steven C. Johnson

Latvians opted for new leaders but old policies as they went to the polls last weekend, and election winner Einars Repse promised to work swiftly to form a government that will usher the country into NATO and the European Union.

The center-right New Era, led by ex-central banker Repse, won 23.93 percent of the vote and will send 26 deputies to the 100-seat Saeima (Latvia's parliament.)

"I am very pleased that people looked at the deeds of the government parties rather than their campaign promises and decided it was time for a change," he said after he took the lead on election night.

The biggest loser was Prime Minister Andris Berzins, whose Latvia's Way party failed to pass the 5 percent hurdle required for seats in Parliament.

The left-wing coalition For Human Rights in a United Latvia, which sees itself as the main voice of Latvia's Russian-speaking minority, was also a big winner, finishing second overall with 18.94 percent and 24 seats. But the party is viewed as pro-Moscow by right-wing forces and unlikely to join the government.

Some 72.4 percent of Latvia's eligible 1.4 million voters came out.

Heading a party of political newcomers, Repse pounded away at the current center-right government during the campaign, calling it corrupt and out of touch.

As prime minister, he said he would do nothing to jeopardize the country's progress toward NATO and the EU and would continue the business-friendly policies carried out by the outgoing government.

The difference, he pledged, would come in the form of a more transparent and accountable government that paid more attention to citizens' concerns.

Both the EU and NATO have expressed concern about corruption and the mixture of public and private interests among leaders.

By Oct. 8, Repse and leaders of Latvia's First Party, another group of newcomers who won 10 seats on the strength of their anti-corruption, Christian values campaign, said they had struck a cooperation agreement.

"We didn't sign anything, we just made a gentleman's agreement and concluded we're ready to work together," said Latvia's First Party Chairman Eriks Jekabsons.

The two have also said they can cooperate with the Greens and Farmers Union, whose Euroskeptic message won them 12 seats. A meeting with For Fatherland and Freedom, a member of the outgoing government that saw its parliamentary seats cut from 16 to seven, was scheduled for Oct. 9.

"So far talks are progressing very smoothly, so I'm optimistic," Repse told The Baltic Times.

The ex-banker has said he wants to form a "non-traditional" coalition in which he chooses ministers based on their personal records rather than their party affiliation.

He has been reluctant to turn over portfolios to career politicians, floating instead names such as Gregorijs Krupnikovs, the former co-chairman of Latvia's Jewish Community, for foreign minister and the former director of the state registry, Maris Gulbis, as interior minister.

It remains unclear whether third-place finisher the People's Party, a key member of the outgoing government, will be invited to join.

The staunchly pro-business party won nearly 17 percent of the vote and 21 seats and should be a natural fit for a Repse-led government. But scandals involving leader Andris Skele have tainted its reputation, and Repse has kept them at arm's length.

The People's Party insists on singing a traditional coalition agreement by which parties would divide ministerial posts among themselves.

"We certainly expect to be in the government. Without us it will not be stable," said spokesman Arno Pjatkins, adding he expected to arrange a meeting with Repse by Oct. 11.

For now, public sentiment seems to be with Repse and the newcomers.

"This election shows that people are willing to take a risk by having non-professional politicians run the government," said Juris Kaza, a reporter with the business daily Dienas Bizness.

"More than 90 percent of the work needed to join the EU and NATO has been done, so he can't really screw that up. People are ready to take a chance."

Long-time power brokers Latvia's Way received that message loud and clear. A staple in every Latvian government since independence, the party was instrumental in bringing the country to the threshold of NATO and the EU.

But voters judged the party and Berzins, Latvia's longest-serving prime minister, on high unemployment, low salaries and pensions and a series of corruption scandals involving dodgy privatization deals, not their foreign policy successes.

"We have been in power for 12 years, and it was time for the pendulum to swing the other way," said a sober Berzins on election night. "We got the blame and criticism for almost everything."

But outgoing Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins, also of Latvia's Way, put a happier spin on the election defeat.

"As the father of two children, the most important thing is not whether we are in the government, but whether Latvia is in the EU and NATO," he said in an interview with state TV Latvijas Televizija.

Latvia made joining both organizations a priority upon regaining independence in 1991. NATO is expected to invite Latvia and neighbors Lithuania and Estonia to join this November. All three countries hope to join the EU by 2004.

Repse has stressed his commitment to both, but some of his possible coalition partners have expressed concerns that the EU is offering Latvian farmers and small businesses a raw deal.

Ingrida Udre, Greens/Farmers chairwoman, says she's for the EU but wants to delay membership until the agricultural sector is able to compete with their better-subsidized Western counterparts.

Jekabsons of Latvia's First Party has also warned against joining the EU "at any cost," saying the government should first ensure fair treatment for Latvian farmers.

Both are concerned about proposals to give East European farmers just 25 percent of the subsidies enjoyed by farmers in France and Germany and to set strict quotas on milk and other goods.

"We don't see the EU as a new Soviet Union, but we don't see it as the solution to everyone's problems, either," Jekabsons said.

A July poll of 1,000 residents found 46.6 percent in favor of EU membership, 35.3 percent opposed and 18.1 percent undecided.