Knocked down by the 'rich right'

  • 2004-02-26
Head of the center-left National Harmony Party Janis Jurkans, who recently lost five deputies from his ranks in a mass defection to Latvia's First Party, has long been a controversial personality since stepping down as Latvia's first foreign minister and joining the left-wing coalition For Human Rights in a United Latvia.

Nevertheless he continues to be a dominant voice in politics, even after the NHP split away from other left-wing parties. Recently he spoke with Aaron Eglitis about education reform, corruption, the recent defections and his party's future.
Why do you think members of your party jumped to Latvia's First?
Well, first of all I think this action belongs to a big plan to derail Repse and his government. And I think that those who were scared and frightened by his anticorruption campaign came together and said we have to unite our ranks and to topple his government. So I think they devised a plan where Slesers has to become the new prime minister. I think the plan is now to leave New Era and For Fatherland outside the coalition. And so for this plan to be carried out they needed some five or six MPs, so they decided to buy people from our party. And they did.

You have said in the media that one of the reasons that the five MPs left your party was because of money changing hands. Do you have any proof of that?
No. They didn't do it in front of me; they did it behind my back. I've spoken afterwards to some of those that left, and of course it was money or other bribes like offering political positions.
Many critics have derided the education reform, saying it's been handled poorly and is contributing to the antireform rallies. How do you think it's been handled by the government?
Well, I think all this business was handled very clumsily. I think they should have talked more to the opposition parties. They could have found a solution that would not have been so irritating psychologically. Otherwise no one is denying that the Latvian language should be taught properly. It's a crying shame that for almost 13 years Latvia has been independent, and the language training in Russian schools has been very, very poor. You cannot do it by forcing the language like they are trying to do. Sixty-forty percent is psychologically unacceptable to many people. I would say if the government said, "Let's teach five subjects very properly in minority schools," I don't think anyone would be against it. This plan looks like revenge.
Do you think the antireform rallies will continue to get larger?
I don't know. I am not in that business, but I am convinced that this is only the beginning. If the state or government doesn't start negotiating or making these reforms more understandable to these people, it should go to the table and compromise. This is a two-way street. So far nobody has done that. And of course one can blame the Russian schools [that] during these years did very little to teach [Latvian] properly. That is also true, but at the same time we have had plenty of years to introduce a normal system that
wouldn't create these hostilities, like Estonia did.

Latvia is one of the more monitored countries in Europe when it comes to minority rights. The human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Alavaro Gil-Robles, recently rele-ased his report on Latvia. Do you support any of his recommendations?
Well, what he said has been in our party program for years, so this is nothing new. Unfortunately, the slogan for integration of society is just lip service - nothing more. This policy has created two communities in Latvia. Now to just wave the flag and say we are successfully integrating people - this is not so. I don't believe that we are integrating people. Because maybe they have created institutions, but at the same time there is no spirit of integration.

At his press conference, Gil-Robles singled Latvia out of all 10 accession counties, saying it lacked the political will to change the situation.
Of course we don't have it. We are facing European parliamentary elections, we are facing these municipal elections, and so parties are competing for Latvian votes. And since they couldn't deliver more in economic aspects or social aspects they are still trying to put forward this issue, this national issue, we will defend our language and so forth. I think the European Union and NATO have not done enough to persuade Latvia to be more tolerant, to start a real integration process. I think the West, especially Americans, have been too preoccupied with other problems.
Four or five years ago I thought it would be inconceivable that Latvia could become and EU member or NATO member state with our noncitizens. Now today it's already a reality, and no one cares about it.

What were some of the main reasons for your party distancing itself from the left-wing coalition For Human Rights in a United Latvia?
Well, when we formed For Human Rights in Latvia our point was to bring the left more to the center, and I think we succeeded. The fact that we had in our program EU membership as a goal shows that. I think it was a big success because the Socialist and Equality Party didn't have it.
But in December Latvia was invited to the EU and NATO and things changed. We had to change the union's policy, NATO and EU memberships became fact, and we had to address the issues. We had to offer to our electorate some tangible things, [like] how people would survive entering the EU because poor people will feel it in everyday life. At that point [leftist Tatyana] Zdanoka had different plans, and she started breaking away from the new program. So we were forced to leave them and start our own independent party. Then those rich guys started to crumble us.
Janis Jurkans
* Born: 1946, Riga
* Elected National Harmony Party head, 1993
* MP since 1993
* President, Latvia's Support Fund, 1992-1993
* Foreign Minister, 1990-1992
* Speaks Latvian, Russian,Polish and English