Vike-Freiberga picks Repse to head government

  • 2002-11-07
  • Steven C. Johnson

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on Nov. 5 nominated ex-central banker Einars Repse to head a new government and urged him to focus on leading Latvia into NATO and the European Union.

Speaking at the new parliament's inaugural session, Vike-Freiberga said the new government and parliament "will have no time to warm up" before completing EU membership negotiations by the end of the year.

"This is a historic moment for Latvia and you will be required to work very fast....there will not be any honeymoons before you start to undertake your duties," she said.

Latvia is expecting an invitation from NATO at its Prague summit this month and hopes to finish EU talks by December, with an eye on joining in 2004.

Repse, whose center-right New Era party won the biggest share of votes in last month's general election, has promised to continue the country's pro-NATO, pro-EU stance.

"We have very many obligations to fulfill," Repse told The Baltic Times. "We have a hard job to do, but not an impossible one."

An adviser to Repse said the prime minister designate is expected to present his proposed Cabinet to the parliament for approval by Nov. 8.

If it fails to win at least 51 votes, the president will have to nominate a new candidate to form a government.

Repse's proposed government includes the centrist Union of Greens and Farmers and Latvia's First Party and rightist For Fatherland and Freedom, the only holdover from the outgoing government. It would control 55 of the parliament's 100 seats.

Ingrida Udre, chairwoman of the Union of Greens and Farmers, was elected parliament speaker, the first woman to hold the post in Latvia's history.

Among the most pressing problems on which the new government and parliament must focus, Vike-Freiberga said, are cracking down on corruption and judicial reform.

She specifically addressed beefing up customs controls to limit smuggling and decreasing the pre-trial detention period in Latvia's prisons.

Human rights groups have long lobbied for judicial reform, and the European Court of Human Rights is reviewing a number of cases filed by Latvians kept in long pre-trial detention.

After more than a decade of independence, Latvia, she said, is moving out of its "transition period" and must square away such problems if it is to join the rest of Europe.

"We have exhausted the time given to us for transition," she said. "Now we must take our place as a full-fledged member of Europe and the modern world."

Repse, who ran his pre-election campaign on an anti-corruption platform, said he is confident the new government will be able to address these problem areas while wrapping up negotiations with the EU.

He also promised not to slow down on military reform after the Prague summit of NATO leaders on Nov. 21-22 at which Latvia, with Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia, is expected to be invited to join the alliance.

In a bid to ensure stability in that sector, his government is expected to retain outgoing Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis.

Most ministerial posts have been set aside for newcomers who have little or no previous political experience, a device Repse has said is aimed at putting professionals into the government.

But Aivars Ozolins, a columnist with the daily Diena, said the inexperience of many ministers and lawmakers will make the government vulnerable.

"The opposition will be quite strong and it will not forgive mistakes, and there are bound to be mistakes," he said. "I don't think this government will have an easy time."

The center-right People's Party, which holds 20 seats, and the left-wing For Human Rights, with 25, will comprise the opposition.

Some lawmakers and analysts have also questioned the long-term stability of the government and predicted it could be threatened by squabbles over privatization.

Fixed-line monopoly Lattelekom and oil terminal Ventspils Nafta are expected to hit the privatization block in 2003.

Several previous Latvian governments have crumbled over privatization disputes, and the country has run through 10 different ones since independence in 1991.