The view from outside

  • 2002-11-07
J. Michael Lyons spoke with Popular Front leader Dainis Ivans about the past, present and future of Latvian politics.

Ivans was the dashing leader of the independence group the Popular Front during the late 1980s and served in the Supreme Council, Latvia's first democratically elected legislature since the inter-war period. He left politics in the early 1990s to become a journalist. He has been called the conscious of the independence movement and often talks about Latvia's politicians forfeiting the soul of the revolution during the last 12 years in search of material wealth.

In 2000 he burst back on the political scene as the marquee name on the Social Democratic Workers' Party's list of candidates for Riga City Council. His party now runs the city council but suffered badly during last month's parliament elections, failing to secure a single seat.

Einars Repse was nominated to be prime minister. You worked with him during the independence drive. What kind of prime minister do you think he'll be?

It's difficult to say. I remember Repse during the first period of the awakening when he was one of the leaders of the National Independence Movement, but he wasn't that effective as a leader later during the Popular Front period. I remember also when he was in the Supreme Council (after independence); he was not very active. He was a good choice for the position of head of the Central Bank. I'm a little afraid, though, that Mr. Repse could be a man who has worked for the last 10 years in an insulated environment, and I'm not sure he understands the real situation in the Latvian countryside.

During his campaign Mr. Repse talked about open government with open information, but another negative sign is his practically secret consultations with Mr. (Ventspils Mayor Aivars) Lembergs. If we speak in practical terms, Lembergs is the mayor of a small Latvian city, but yet a new prime minister must consult with him. The reason is that Mr. Lembergs is one of the oligarchs of Latvia. So perhaps Mr. Repse is not as independent as he is claiming.

The President told the new parliament this week that Latvia's period as a transition country is over. Is that wishful thinking?

I'm not sure this transition period is over because no one, including Mr. Repse, speaks of spiritual values or changing the consciousness of people. All these parties during the last 10 years were, or still are, close to the mafia and to gangsters and the shadow economy. None of them spoke about spiritual values. I think Latvia's cultural life is not as active as it was even in the communist period. Intellectual processes are weaker now than they were under the communists.

Things go well in the capital, and things go well for the financial elite, but things aren't going well for 70 or 80 percent of the population, and I haven't heard any declarations from Einars Repse that he will change this situation.

In the last session of the outgoing parliament a majority of 67 outgoing members voted to triple their severance pay to 2,000 lats each. As someone who was a leader during that period do you feel that's right?

This is an example that the transition period is not over. This is the beginning of the transition period. The main thought on all deputies' minds - and I'm sure for new deputies too - is money, money, money. And it's not just politicians. I think sometimes that everyone wants to criticize the government, criticize the parliament, say all politicians are corrupt. But when these critics have a chance to participate their opinions immediately change. Even very small people.

I have an example. When I was elected to city council and made chairman of a committee I was given the use of a car and a driver. The driver was new and often complained in the beginning about corrupt politicians and everything else. But that didn't prevent him from using the car, the city's car, for his own personal use. So I had to get rid of him, and now I drive myself.

How do you think integration has gone since independence? Has it moved along the way you thought it would?

In all this last decade integration, real integration, has not been a result of state policy. What we see is Russian parents trying to send their children to Latvian schools, and in the younger generation we haven't observed any problems related to language because young Russian people know the Latvian language.

What wasn't successful in this process is that our politicians and our leaders have not encouraged in the last 10 years real political integration of society. Things have become worse. In these latest elections the Latvian population voted for Latvian parties and Russians voted for Russian parties though their political opinions may be different. I think this is wrong because I don't believe every Russian believes necessarily in (Janis) Jurkans or Alfreds (Rubiks) or (Tatyana) Zhdanoka's parties, but they voted for them.

I think this is the mistake of Latvian politicians. They have not worked on real integration and not worked on recruiting members of the non-Latvian population to their parties. The best example of this political integration in the Baltics is Estonia. Really there are no Russian parties there because existing parties reached out to Russian voters and it worked. No Latvian politicians have shown the courage to do that.

You were out of politics during the 1990s. What made you decide to come back?

I worked during the 1990s as a journalist. I [eventually] understood that as a journalist it would be impossible for me to influence processes in the state because of the level of corruption in journalism. It was incredible for me to learn 10 years ago that journalists could ask for money for a story and that the article's style depended on money. This is not journalism; it's paid advertising .

The only field where I felt I could be independent was politics because I'm elected by people and I'm responsible only to the voters and not the owners of newspapers.

You stood for parliament this year. Should we expect you to stand again in four years?

Yes I think so. I knew before the election that our party could have problems. They're internal problems. The party was split a year ago, which was one reason I think we got 4 percent of the vote and did not get a seat.

I think the most important thing for our party now is our congress later this month. I'm planning to run for chairman of the party, and my idea is to call back those that split from the party last year and to forge a cooperation agreement with another center-left party to make one big party. Latvia is now without an influential center-left party.

Where does Juris Bojars fit into the party?

I think Mr. Bojars has become a symbol of the past in our party. His leadership role in the party was one of the reasons we lost in the elections. The people identify him with the old communist regime and the KGB. We need young people, a new team, and we must change the image of our party. I'm not interested in criticizing Mr. Bojars, but I would like to see him leave with honor.

What caused the split in the party?

I think the reason of the splitting of the party was the ambitions of Mr. Bojars and (Egils) Baldzens (now head of the Union of Social Democrats). I tried to tell Mr. Baldzens that he must wait and discuss it inside the party and wait for the next congress of the party and change the leadership. But he didn't agree. He wanted to do it fast and I think people don't trust a party that could split so fast.