Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
"They're All Paid Off in Cash,
Top Offices and Girls"

Has the ugly truth about Latvian
politics finally been revealed?
Mel Huang

Hell Hath No Fury Like an Economic Minister Scorned. The sacking of Latvian Economic Minister Ainars Slesers by Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans has unleashed a barrage of unfortunate and inflammatory remarks by all parties involved. What is most intriguing about the public war of words is that usually taboo topics in Latvian politics, though discussed in the press and among the public, are finally being confronted by the politicians. And finally, this could be the long-anticipated death knell for the ailing Kristopans government.

No surprises

The sacking of Slesers came as little surprise to Latvian political watchers. A war of words between the two individuals during the recent consideration of large privatisation projects fuelled speculation of the prime minister's short fuse. It hardly helps that the already fragile minority coalition fell into the same argument, as the prime minister comes from the liberal-centrist Latvia's Way and the economic minister from the centre-left New Party.

For weeks, various politicians, among both the coalition and the opposition alike, leaked stories to the press about possible no-confidence motions, back-room negotiations over a new coalition, strategic re-alignment of parties for the upcoming presidential election and animosity among some of the most prominent political figures in the country. Every day featured a new battle between parties and politicians. The outgoing President, Guntis Ulmanis, scolded the government for their disunity and criticised the constant bickering.

Then it happened

Speculation is rife on the exact reason Kristopans sacked Slesers. Officially, the Prime Minister stated that he was dissatisfied with the organisation of the economic ministry's work. He mentioned, for example, its inability to curb growing unemployment and unsound privatisation proposals. Chairman of the New Party, Raimonds Pauls, called the explanation inadequate and demanded further clarification from Kristopans. In response, the Prime Minister's office sent an 84-page document detailing the critique to the New Party.

The press was willing to speculate on the motives behind the sacking. Though some hinted at it being related to the fiasco concerning the privatisation plan for power utility Latvenergo, most linked the sacking to the accusations Slesers launched at the most powerful politician in Latvia: Aivars Lembergs. Lembergs is the powerful mayor of the port city Ventspils, which effectively controls the oil and transit business upon which Latvia depends for survival. Slesers publicly questioned whether the positioning of Lembergs both as mayor of Ventspils and government proxy over the huge company Ventspils Oil was a conflict of interest.

This apparently was the last straw for Kristopans, whose party, Latvia's Way, has been linked intimately to transit interests. Kristopans asked Slesers to resign, but the young minister refused. Kristopans then informed the New Party that he was to sack Slesers and they should propose a new candidate for the job.

One hitch: the coalition agreement among the three parties required a 48-hour consultation period before any official sacking. During this period, Slesers performed his final duty as minister and ordered the removal of Lembergs from the post as state proxy to Ventspils Oil. The sensitivity of this entire issue was clearly demonstrated when Kristopans officially sacked Slesers within hours, before the mandated 48 hours.

Then it REALLY happened

The scorned minister, being only in his late 20s, did what few politicians in Latvia dared: he spilled the beans to the salivating press. A series of juicy quotes erupted from the deposed minister, such as:

"The truth must finally be told that the real government leader is Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, and Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans is merely continuing the work of former Minister of Economy Laimonis Strujevics."'

Remarking on why he was really fired, he stated that concerning privatisation, he "would not listen to the dictate made by the sponsors," adding, "I made my decisions myself."

He stated that among the confrontations with the primng back at Ke minister, Kristopans ordered:
"If you don't remove (Head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency Janis) Naglis, I will remove you."

Slesers also noted that, during vital meetings, the prime minister would ask, "Does Mr. Lembergs agree?"

Finally, Slesers concluded, "Latvia's Way must evaluate whether it is worth sacrificing stability in Latvia for the sake of one man." Clearly Slesers is not a happy man and was bent on getting Kristopans and friends.

Then came the inevitable challenge from Lembergs. Tying Slesers to the powerful centre-right opposition People's Party leader Andris Skele, Lembergs said:

"Slesers is mere cannon fodder for Skele, and the latter makes use of Slesers's private interests, his thoughtlessness and rashness, in order to gain power."

Many consider Skele, who heads the powerful Ave Lat Group of food and drink producers, as the main rival of Lembergs and the Ventspils oil transit concern. Lembergs then accused Slesers of "robbing" the state via his privatisation schemes, which he quoted Slesers responding: "Aivars, we'll do it without your help." Finally, Lembergs took another dig at Skele by suggesting that he gets his way by paying off officials "in cash, top offices and girls."

That set off another barrage from Slesers, who threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against Lembergs. Slesers concluded that "Lembergs doesn't like the truth."

This war of words is far from over, and more could be exposed over the next few weeks.

The government, of course, attempted damage control. Officials from Latvia's Way explained that Slesers made the accusations and comments while emotional: "Now the emotions prevail, and it is understandable, as he has had a hard day," said Kristiana Libane, the chairwoman of the Latvia's Way faction in the Saeima. The third part of the ruling coalition, the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom, is quietly siding with Latvia's Way. There is no official word from the New Party as of yet, but many analysts believe that it would be surprising if they remained in the government after such a reproach. The centre-right opposition People's Party plans a no-confidence motion in the near future. With all this, the prime minister takes a final swipe using the metaphor of a theatre:

"The Latvian people and state do not deserve such an attitude and the directors of the Sleserists have to undertake the responsibility for it."

Will the government fall?

Most commentators believe the question is not if, but when, the government will collapse. The three-party coalition is kept alive right now by the whim of the Social Democratic Alliance. The remaining two opposition groups in the Saeima - the centre-right People's Party and the left-wing For Equal Rights in an Integrated Latvia - both would take the first opportunity to strike down the current government. People's Party leader Andris Skele on a personal level would do what he can to spite the current coalition for locking him and his largest parliamentary faction out of power. The left-wing would be more cautious, since a new coalition would likely not benefit their cause.

Even if the government survives for the time being, it could be on its last legs. What may cause the final collapse is the upcoming presidential election. With less than a month left, the slate of candidates is still not clear. A simple majority in the Saeima of 51 votes (of 100 seats) elects the president. However, for this current coalition, even when it was healthy, 51 votes already presented a problem.

Going back to the very first Amber Coast several months back, this columnist already noted that the Kristopans government was on life support and would not last a year. If somehow the government survives beyond the coming summer, it would be a major surprise and would actually reflect poorly on Latvia. Frankly, keeping the coalition together for unity sake loses its effectiveness when most of the attention is placed in bickering and mutual retribution. Perhaps what Latvia needs yet again is a strong, non-party leader to take over as prime minister. After all, Guntis Ulmanis will be unemployed in a few weeks...

Mel Huang, 17 May 1999


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