New times indeed

  • 2002-11-28
  • Ib Alken
The winds of change rushed through the streets of Riga in the afternoon of Nov. 12. During the new government's first Cabinet meeting Prime Minister Einars Repse announced the five principles which will be the hallmark of his government's work.

For openers, the prime minister declared, that government sessions are open for the media. Honesty and a principled approach were mentioned first amongst the principles. This means transparency in public administration, as well as cooperation and openness on behalf of the administration. From now on openness will be demanded not only from every minister, but also from every public servant. Repse wants public servants to know that concealing information will be considered a very serious violation. Cooperation and openness means that ministers must forget their party membership and work united in the government.

The fourth principle concerns attitudes to duties. Bureaucrats' attitudes must change, said Repse. Every official must remember that he/she serves the nation and must become a friend to every honest resident and businessman. Unjustified bureaucratic checks hindering business activity or aimed at extorting bribes will no longer be tolerated.

The fifth principle calls for a creative and innovative approach to governing. Honest and professional people among civil servants should not wait for their superiors' orders but work creatively themselves.

Skeptics - of which there is no shortage in Riga - maintain that the prime minister's opening proclamation shows either hypocrisy (meaning that the real business of government will be done the usual way, only outside the cabinet) or naiveté. There is disagreement as to which of the two qualities is most damaging to the new government's prospects.

On the other hand, elections are still fresh in everyone's memory. The electorate severely punished the political force - Latvia's Way - which for the past decade had been seen as the incarnation of smoke-filled, self-serving backroom politics.

Hopefully, there is full realization among core ministers that Repse's opening declaration means throwing a glove to the most powerful stratum of the administration: top civil servents who head the key ministries and who could be needed like life jackets for new, untried Cabinet ministers. Several top bureaucrats have already been seen leaving command. More are probably to follow.

Which gives the impression that the new government is not going to leave its principles to "Yes, minister" tactics but intends to have its way no matter how many victims are required.

Likewise, Repse's political nerve in proposing a human-rights activist as minister for integration issues demonstrates laudable will. Nils Muizniek's qualifications in the controversial issues that he will be called to deal with are beyond discussion. His personal integrity and courage likewise. It remains to be seen if he will have a lucky hand in the political handling of his proposals, which would assure him the full support of all four coalition parties. He will need it.

A healthier political climate in Latvia could be brought about by such fairly simple measures as reducing political parties' dependence on narrow economic interests, broadening public participation in political parties, delegating technical decisions from Cabinet level to administrative ministries, which would give the government time to think and discuss strategy.

Also, the government needs improved inter-ministerial coordination, improved public access to information and finally, implementation of the territorial and regional reform which for too long has been in a political vacuum. This recipe can be found in the recent United Nations Development Program's Human Resource Report for Latvia, which profiles the views of political insiders through interviews. The report is on every minister's bookshelf, and hopefully it will inspire the new government's work, which at the end of the day the Repse government will be judged by the policies it creates and implements.

The new government's style of work serves to signal the coalition's coherence, and the motivation of its members and their political groupings. Deviations from the declared honorable intentions will not go unnoticed. But keeping the eye on the ball of getting policies right and showing the quality of leadership which for long only President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has demonstrated, should be a high priority.