Promising transparency, Repse proclaims "new era"

  • 2002-11-14
  • Steven C. Johnson

Latvia's Parliament last week approved a new government headed by ex-central banker Einars Repse, who pledged to usher Latvia into NATO and the European Union while cracking down on corruption at home.

Voting along strict party lines, the Saeima (Latvia's parliament) voted 55-43 with one abstention in favor of Repse's four-party center-right coalition.

The government will control 55 seats in the 100-seat legislature. Opposition deputies from the center-right People's Party and the left-wing For Human Rights cast the "no" votes.

As prime minister, the 41-year-old Repse will head a cabinet dominated by newcomers, including businessmen, academics and civil servants with little political experience.

Having run on a strong anti-corruption platform, the former Bank of Latvia governor comes to power promising government transparency and massive judicial, customs and tax reform.

But he also pledged not to deviate from previous governments' strong pro-EU, pro-NATO stance.

"We will maintain the foreign policy goals and honor all obligations undertaken by the last government within the spheres of EU and NATO," he said after the vote, clutching a bouquet of red roses.

Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, is expecting an invitation to join NATO when the alliance meets Nov. 21-22 in Prague.

The country has also been named among 10 candidates slated to join the EU in 2004, and officials hope to wrap up membership negotiations by the end of the year.

Repse's center-right New Era party won 26 seats in last month's general election and will hold nine of the 17 Cabinet posts, with Repse temporarily doubling as welfare minister.

Seven ministries, including Transport, Economy, Defense and Agriculture, go to New Era's coalition partners: centrists Latvia's First Party and the Greens and Farmers Union, and center-right For Fatherland and Freedom.

Latvian Ambassador to France Sandra Kalniete, an independent, will take over the Foreign Ministry. Ainars Slesers of the Latvia's First Party was named deputy prime minister.

Among the political novices moving into ministries are Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, 31, former central bank chief economist, Education Minister Karlis Sadurskis,43, a mathematics professor at Riga Technical University, and Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks, 41, a mechanical engineer.

Repse has spent most of the last decade away from the daily grind of government, serving from 1993 to 2001 as governor of Lativa's central bank.

He said new blood in the ministries would ensure more efficient government and would help him battle corruption, which the EU and NATO have both singled out as an acute problem.

Officials from both organizations have called on Latvia to do more to combat graft, smuggling and bribe-taking.

But opposition MPs have criticized the appointments, saying Latvia needs experience as it approaches EU and NATO membership.

"This is a pretty big risk at this stage in Latvia's development," said People's Party lawmaker and outgoing Economy Minister Aigars Kalvitis.

The People's Party, the biggest in the previous government, agrees with New Era on most issues. But party leader Andris Skele and Repse do not get along, and the two clashed over Cabinet appointments in coalition-building talks.

Kalvitis said the party would support the government on issues such as the EU and NATO. "But I don't know most of these new ministers, so I can't predict how they will act," he said.

Repse stressed the ministers would be kept on a short leash.

"These jobs carry a lot of responsibility and if anyone feels that other interests, business interests, are more important, he will need to resign," Repse said. "There are professional alternatives, qualified people out there who can take up these posts."

One of the new government's biggest challenges will likely be holding together as it sells state shares in the Lattelekom telephone monopoly and the oil terminal Ventspils Nafta, both slated to hit the bloc next year. Repse said the government would work "creatively" on these issues.

"We will ensure that there is vigorous public discussion of these issues before any vital decisions are taken so that nobody will have any suspicions," he said. "This will be different from the style of previous governments."

Several Latvian governments have crumbled over privatization squabbles, and allegations of rigged sales and conflict of interest contributed to the poor election showing of parties such as outgoing Prime Minister Andris Berzins' Latvia's Way, which failed to win any seats in the new Parliament.

To ensure transparency, Repse said he was sticking to a promise to keep Cabinet meetings open to the press.