The man who almost became prime minister

  • 2004-03-25
During the culmination of the recent government crisis, Krisjanis Karins, parliamentary faction leader of New Era, was nominated by the party to form a new government.

Rather than watch the country slip into the hands of centrist-leftist forces, outgoing PM Einars Repse stepped aside in favor of Karins. But the move came too late, and now Karins and New Era, Latvia's most popular party, are sitting in the parliamentary opposition. Last week he spoke with Aaron Eglitis about corruption, Russia and the current minority government.

How did you end up entering politics?
When Mr. Repse stated that he was going to start a political party with the primary goal of cleaning up the house in our country, fighting corruption, getting the various governmental systems to work properly, I felt I really wanted to be apart of that. And as a person who has worked in business for years I had encountered in very close proximity the corrupt nature of low-level bureaucrats. I wanted to be involved in this new political party. One thing led to another, and I was asked if I wanted to be a candidate for [Parliament]. Once elected, the MPs of our group wanted me to be their chairman.

You spoke of "cleaning up the house" in Latvia in terms of fighting corruption. Are you concerned with what looks like the imminent removal of [head of the anticorruption Bureau] Juta Strike?
I am extremely concerned - if the current government follows through on its plans. I think we will be moved back five years. The anticorruption bureau is something that has been fought over for years. It took a lot of time to find a leader, and the leader they did find was not able to keep his post because he was physically ill.
During the selection process, by all accounts Strike was the best candidate. There were many other very qualified candidates, but she was the best. I was very happy that [Strike] was not from our party, because actually I thought that would be a bad thing for us politically, since it is not supposed to be a political post.
Juta Strike was turned down in Parliament because the coalition at the time was fighting New Era, or Mr. Repse as they like to say. I think they were actually fighting our whole organization, and I think one of the reasons is that when we came to power all of our MPs were new to politics. And our organization's sincere wish to improve these things seems to be in contradiction to other parties and the main powers that are behind them.
What really makes me concerned is this new government. [Prime Minister Indulis] Emsis said before he formed this new government that what we really have to do is not talk about people but about how the oversight is going to look. But once he is in power he says his main focus is on Europe and getting these structural funds. Then all of his actions focus on removing [Strike] and replacing her with another individual that he handpicks out of the blue - apparently single handedly without any kind of selection process.
I think that there is a strong power in the current government that does not want the fight against corruption to proceed. And the reason that could be is there might be some interest that this government has - money interest that it wants to invest - feeling that it may not have very much time, it seems to be rushing everything.
On Janis Domburs' program ["What's Happening in Latvia?" - ed.] he asked Mr. Emsis, "Why don't you hold a competition, and Strike could compete as well." And Mr. Emsis said, "If I'm told to do that I could do that as well."
And that's the key. That shows what goes on in that political party. There are people - and I don't know who they are, but I have suspicions - who tell the acting politicians what to do.

How was the decision made for Mr. Repse to step down and for you to become this party's candidate for prime minister?
We had a board meeting where we were looking at the situation as it was unfolding. The rhetoric at the time said Mr. Repse is the culprit. We are the good party; he is the bad leader. Change the leader and everything will be rosy. I didn't have any belief in that because of private conversations I've had with members of the People's Party. Mr. Repse said we needed to make this change to give it a chance, because maybe it's true. The board agreed, he recommended that I take this post and the board also agreed. The idea was to do everything that we could to not allow this current government to be formed.

In the run-up to the forming of the coalition, your party took out ads warning about the possibility of left-wing parties influencing national questions.
It's already happening. I think there already is a majority government; they just haven't admitted it publicly. Mr. Jurkans' organization, which gave its nine votes to the coalition, has also received posts - and not to just any commission but to the commission on national security. The national security commission secretary is now Mr. Klementjevs, who is a member of the National Harmony Party. He has given speeches in Europe that are against our national interest. If the chairman and vice chairman are out of the country, which is not a very rare occurrence, he will be present at the national security meetings, which are the highest security meetings we have. His organization has very clear ties with Russia, and that means that he is a potential security link.
I have already understood that there are signals coming from our NATO allies that they are concerned about this. If NATO deems that our system is not secure then they won't give us information.
The second posting which has already been given is to Mr. Dainis Turlajs, a MP that left Mr. Jurkans' organization who is now parliamentary secretary, the liaison for the Ministry of the Interior. This is not the left, socialist left; this is the pro-Moscow left. It's not getting positions in the committee on social affairs, the committee on economic development or the budget; they are getting positions in security and internal affairs, and that is very worrying.
Put all that together with Moscow's stated interest in two official languages: they are going for a split society. Our party believes in having an integrated society based on the Latvian language. This pro-Moscow side does not want to accept this and is now pushing for Russian as an official language in the EU.

Speculation in the past focused on your party and Jurkans' party working together much as it is now, supporting while outside the coalition.
[Jurkans' party] is formally not in the coalition. Our party was not linked with Mr. Jurkans. When our government became a minority government we had meetings with the People's Party and with Mr. Jurkans. But the price of that option was too steep for our party. The price was: "Let's talk about the language law and voting rights for noncitizens."
Mr. Jurkans is a very wily politician. He has been here a very long time. I am a young sapling compared to him. I don't possess his guile or his cunning. He has a very strong need politically to get power - apparently with the support of Moscow behind him.
It's a very tragic thing for our country; a great deal of our energy is being spent on keeping our country sovereign and independent. The reason that is happening is that there are political organizations in our country that are fighting our basic interest.
It's a fight over how our country is going to be composed.

We talked before about the attempt to ban former members of the KGB and members of the Communist Party after independence was regained. What is your party's stance on the issue?
Our party had a discussion three weeks running; it was a very hotly debated issue. It's a question of equity and a question of justice. In this case what is equitable does not seem just. Equitable is to let the voters decide, but the justice side says: How can these people who directly represented the power that oppressed this country for 50 years just be allowed now to represent our country in Europe.
It seems absurd, and I agree it does seem absurd. When our party went through all of the pluses and minuses on all sides, we decided in our view the best interest of our country, as a whole, is to not have these bans on the European election. The reason being is that the difficulties that our country would face time, money and emotions, is a higher price than keeping five or six people from standing in the European elections.
The problem is that all the previous governments have not tackled this issue of justice of what happened during the Soviet regime. Our party has worked with the European People's Party in Brussels, and we helped to push through a motion where the EPP accepted a declaration condemning communism as a totalitarian regime.
We are going to work so that such a declaration is accepted by the EP as a whole, where the communist regime of terror is equated in kind to Nazi terror, because it is. In my view it is. It is simply not known or accepted. We feel we have to fight for justice but not with this law.

Krisjanis Karins
Born Dec. 13, 1964 in Delaware
Visiting lecturer at University of Latvia
in social linguistics (1995, 1998)
1996, graduated from Pennsylvania
University PhD in linguistics
1997, moved to Latvia
Co-founder of ice company Lacu Ledus
Co-founder of New Era
Married, two children