Thursday, May 31, 2007

Latvia has a new president

Today, the Latvian parliament elected Valdis Zatlers as the next Latvian president. 9 days ago, Zatlers was a respected medical doctor and a complete political unknown. Then, he emerged as the compromise candidate of the four-party coalition government and, in July, he will take office as the next Latvian president.

Here are some of my past posts on Zatlers: The basic facts about him, and about the supposed scandal with Zatlers receiving undeclared payments from his patients. And, now, some quotes from people who know Zatlers (my translation from this Latvian-language source):

Bertrams Zarins, clinical professor, Harvard Medical School:
I have very positive opinion of Valdis Zatlers being the candidate for presidency. I have known him very well and for a very long time. Among others, he stands out as very capable, very well regarded and always patriotic. [...] I don't know about his knowledge of politics but I am sure he will learn everything quickly.
Nora Ikstena, Latvian writer:
Valdis Zatlers is a men with wonderful work experience who has saved many lives. From how he communicates, it is clear that he is ready to serve Latvia. [...] I have a gut feeling that, after going through all these political battles, Valdis Zatlers may develop into much more modern, democratic and charismatic president that Aivars Endzins [the other candidate] would be.
I hope they are right!

And, as a sign of Zatlers' victory, I'm changing the background colour of this blog to orange for the next 4 years... OK, this part is a joke.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Latvian presidential election: campaign notes

In 29 hours, the Latvian parliament will gather to vote on the next president of Latvia. There are two candidates: Valdis Zatlers and Aivars Endzins. The latest news from the election campaign:
  1. The mudslinging continues! Instead of having a substantive debate on the issues, both campaigns are trying to find ethics flaws with the other candidate. People's Party (which supports Zatlers) has re-published fragments from a book that Aivars Endzins wrote 30 years ago, during the Soviet period. In this book, Endzins denies that Soviet Union ever occupied Latvia by military force and claims that Latvia had joined Soviet Union voluntarily. And there is more of Soviet propaganda in his book.

    My opinion of Endzins just took a big, big hit. I know that joining Communist Party was a pre-requisite for many careers in Soviet Union (particularly, careers that invoved managing other people). But, there is a difference between

    (a) joining Communist Party and doing the minimum required amount (e.g., paying some amount in membership fees and attending meetings once in a while) and

    (b) actively producing propaganda nonsense on behalf of the Communist regime.

    I can fully understand the first but I have much less understanding for the second. If a person in Soviet Union wanted to pursue a career that did not involve writing propaganda books, there were certainly options for that!
  2. There might be yet another candidate! Egils Levits, a Latvian judge on the Court of Justice of European Communities, says that he has been informally contacted by politicians. It's possible that parties behind Zatlers and Endzins reach a deal on Levits as a compromise candidate before tomorrow's vote.
Tomorrow might be interesting. Stay tuned...

UPDATE (30/05/07): Endzins is trying to justify his past writings and comes off quite pathetically. The fellow historians are quite skeptical and say that one could work as an academic historian in Soviet Union without writing what Endzins wrote. Our current president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga also came down on Endzins quite hard, for both writing Soviet propoganda in 1970s and 1980s and for awarding bonuses to himself as the Chairman of the Constitutional Court. She was even harsher about the "Saskanas Centrs" (Harmony Centre) party which nominated Endzins:
About their funding, I, as a president, have certain confidential information that makes me worried about their loyalty to Latvia.
I read this as a hint that Harmony Centre is getting money from Russian government, through some secret channels. Vaira Vike-Freiberga did not endorse any of the candidates but she was much softer about Zatlers' supposed ethics lapses and characterized them as understandable.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Opinion poll

The Latvian president is elected by the parliament, but the public opinion can have an effect on how the parliament votes. Latvijas Fakti asked 500 Latvians, whom do they support for president?
54.3% Aivars Endzins
28.6% Valdis Zatlers
Among Latvian webloggers, it's even much more skewed towards Endzins. Peteris, Aleks and a lot of Latvian language webloggers support Endzins and I have difficulty finding any pro-Zatlers voices.

Zatlers vs. Endzins: issues and non-issues

With 4 days left until the Latvian presidential election, the candidates are finally known! It's Zatlers (nominated by governing coalition 9 days before the election) vs. Endzins (nominated by opposition 7 days before the election).

Now, Latvia is having a short but heated debate on the two candidates. In case of Zatlers, the debate has concentrated on cash "gifts" that he, as a doctor, has received from pacients (whether those gifts have been legal and whether the taxes on them have been paid). In my opinion, this issue is getting too much attention. The "gifts" from patients are common in Latvia. (They should not be but, in practice, they are...) If we disqualify candidates who have received them, we might have to disqualify every surgeon and specialty doctor in Latvia! (State revenue service, when asked to comment on Zatlers: "We are trying to check if there is any doctor in Latvia who has declared any of his gifts to the tax service...")

The coalition parties are trying to spark an equally meaningless debate on Endzins' past membership in Communist Party. Again, if the same standard is applied to every candidate for every government position, it would disqualify a large fraction of politically active people who were old enough to be admitted to Communist Party in Soviet period.

The main problem with Zatlers is not any of his gifts. The problem with him is that Zatlers was nominated by People's Party-lead coalition, which viewed as somewhat corrupt. The gifts are just an excuse to bring his candidacy down. If there was another People's Party-related candidate, the opposition would find a different excuse!

Similarly, the problem that the coalition has with Endzins is that he is too close to the opposition and too far from the coalition. So, the coalition would like to bring him down and they haven't found any other issue except for Communist Party membership.

I am a bit disappointed those "excuses" getting so much attention. Can we start talking about the real issues? When it comes to corruption, possible influence of personal business interests of Andris Skele on Latvian government decisions is a major issue. Zatlers' cash gifts are non-issue.

My previous posts on presidential election:

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Latvian presidential election: the stage is set!

Yesterday was the deadline for nominating candidates for the Latvian presidential election on May 31. And on the last day, we got another candidate!

Harmony Centre, a left-of-center party consisting mostly of ethnic-Russians, made a surprise move by nominating Aivars Endzins, the former Chairman of Constitutional Court of Latvia. On the evening of the same day, New Era Party's candidate Sandra Kalniete withdraw her candidacy in favour of Endzins, during the TV debate between the candidates. According to Kalniete, she made her decision during the debate, seeing that Endzins was the best candidate.

The cynic in me says that Kalniete's withdrawal was planned in advance and carried out in a way that would get the maximum positive publicity for Endzins. If so, New Era Party has proven that they are much better in staging events of this type than the coalition parties.

Who is Aivars Endzins? We know much more about him than Zatlers. Born in 1940, taught law at the University of Latvia for most of the Soviet period. Joined pro-independence Popular Front of Latvia in 1988. Unlike Kalniete, he was not among the top leaders of Popular Fronte, but he was quite active and was elected to the Latvian parliament in 1990 and re-elected in 1993 and 1995. In December 1996, he was appointed to lead the newly created Constitutional Court of Latvia. At this time, he resigned from both parliament and Latvian Way party to which he belonged at this point, so that he could become a politically neutral judge.

In last years, Endzins has spoken out against the top members of Latvian political elite on several occasions. Probably, the most prominent occasion was the Motte apartment case, in which a government real-estate management agency lead by Janis Motte handed out 183 government apartments in very good locations to members of political elite and their friends. The Constitutional Court reviewed the case and decided that the rules according to which the agency was run were illegal. According to Endzins, they were pressured not to consider the case by a number of politicians, including two prime ministers: Andris Skele and Vilis Kristopans.

On another occasion, Endzins spoke out against Imants Freibergs, the husband of our current president Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Freibergs family has acquired a long-term lease for land in a highly lucrative location in the resort town of Jurmala and wanted to build a house there. The problem was that the land was classified as a nature reserve and housing construction on it was prohibited! Imants Freibergs started working with Jurmala city council to remove his lot from the list of nature reserve so that he could build there. (They don't normally do that but if the lot belongs to a highly influential politician or businessman... the rules can change.) Endzins criticized that and suggested that Freibergs gives up the lease to the land.

So, if Endzins sees something wrong, he'll say that, even if the wrongdoers are high up in the government! His foreign policy abilities are unknown... but he has certainly communicated with foreign politicians and judges while being in the parliament (1990-1996) and Constitutional Court (1996-2006). So, he should be fine in that aspect. (If you think that's a a bit mellow endorsement of Endzins... yes, it is! I still wish Kalniete was a candidate.)

UPDATE: In comments, Pēteris Cedriņš corrects me and points out that Endzins has quite a bit of foreign policy experience:
he led the Latvian delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, was a member of the Latvian delegation to PACE, and has worked on the Venice Commission (the European Commission for Democracy through Law) and in the Baltic Assembly.
My previous posts on other presidential candidates:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

One last note on Zatlers

I'm amazed how quickly Google indexes the web! Another Latvian weblogger wrote a post on Zatlers today and, just a few hours later, when I was googling for information, that post was already among the search results! Shouldn't be too long until my posts on Zatlers start showing up on Google...

Dark horses in Latvian politics

Valdis Zatlers is not the first surprise candidate for a top political position in Latvia. Vaira Vike-Freiberga was only vaguely known for most Latvians, before she became the president in 1999. And I didn't know who Andris Skele was when he was chosen as the prime minister in 1995, after a deadlock in two-month long negotiations.

In both of those cases, the Latvian politicians chose a barely known person who did not belong to any political party. And in both cases, that person turned out to be more strong-willed than most of Latvian career politicians. Both Vike-Freiberga and Skele had a profound impact on Latvian politics, much more than it was expected when they were nominated.

I wonder if there is something deeper behind that. A weak person is less likely to become known outside of his/her own field. This may be why outsiders who ascend to top government positions in Latvia turn out to be stronger and more independent than the career politicians.

Curiously, people who know Zatlers describe him as a person of strong character. Will the parties who nominate him now be happy with him four years later? Or will they see him going in a direction that they didn't expect? As we see from the past, being dark horse does not imply being push-over.

Dark horse presidential candidate has emerged!

Earlier today, the four parties of the Latvian coalition government agreed on the doctor Valdis Zatlers as their presidential candidate. Since the four-party coalition has 58 of 100 seats in the parliament, Zatlers will become the president, unless one of parties changes their mind between now and May 31 (the election day).

My reaction, six hours ago... They nominated whom? I've heard that name but when and in that context? Let's look him up on the google. 8 pages of hits, mostly medical webpages, one newspaper interview. Hmmm, not much information...

The basic facts. Born in 1955, received a medical degree in 1979, has worked as a doctor since then. Has been the director of Riga Hospital of Traumotology and Orthopaedics since 1994. Participiated in founding Latvian Popular Front, the pro-independence coalition, in 1988, but did not stay in politics. Founded several professional organizations of Latvian doctors around the same time.

After that, the only time when he came into news, was a scandal in early 2003. A doctor from his hospital, Aris Auders, had gone into politics with New Era Party and became the Minister of Healthcare. One of Auders' first decisions as the minister was starting a corruption investigation against his former boss Zatlers and suspending Zatlers for the duration of the investigation. That was the time when New Era Party had just entered the government after campaigning on anti-corruption theme and was starting investigations against many officials.

In this case, Zatlers was cleared of all charges one month later. And the investigation against him was overshadowed by a scandal involving Auders himself. Auders became the symbol of medical corruption in Latvia and the investigation against Zatlers was forgotten by the general public.

Will he be a good president? It's very hard to say. Zatlers is probably very respected as a doctor but has almost no political experience. One negative is that he might suffer from "foot-in-mouth" disease. Diena newspaper has dug up some past quotes from Zatlers' interviews and they are quite colourful. Like this one:
People who published the anti-Mohammad cartoons had a complete freedom do to that. But they should have realized that those who pray to Mohammad, have a complete freedom to kill them for that.
And it's not the only one. Zatlers will have to become more careful if he's elected.

My other posts on Latvian presidential election:

Monday, May 21, 2007

Inflation in Latvia

Inflation has become one of main political issues in Latvia. Year-to-year increase of consumer price index is now at 8.8%, highest in the European Union. Introduction of euro has been postponed indefinitely. Bank of Latvia has raised its interest rates and the parliament has passed an anti-inflation package of tax changes and other measures.

I suspect the effect of those measures will be quite limited and not because the Latvian government does not want lower inflation. In 1960s, Canadian economist Robert Mundell came up with an economic model of small open economies, for which (together with other achievements) he would win Nobel Prize in Economics in 1999. A consequence of Mundell's work is that a country cannot simulteneously have the following three things (known as "Impossible trinity"):

Canada (Mundell's homeland) has capital moving freely between it and United States (in 1960s) and it and the rest of world (now) but the exchange rate between Canadian and US dollar is not fixed. It has fluctuated widely, from 65 Canadian cents for one US dollars to 90 Canadian cents for one US dollar, in just last 5 years. As a result, the Bank of Canada is able to set its monetary policy independently of United States.

Latvia has made a different choice. The money is moving freely between it and the rest of EU and beyond and the exchange rate between the Latvian lat and the euro is fixed. That's the first and the second of three conditions of Mundell's "impossible trinity". So, we can't have the third.

Latvia's monetary policy is effectively in hands of European Central Bank, instead of Latvian authorities. Bank of Latvia can change the interest rates for loans in lats, but if those get to high, everyone will start borrowing in euros. (That is, everyone who is not already borrowing in euros...) And if the current policies of European Central Bank result in high inflation in Latvia, there's not much Latvia can do... It's not a satisfying answer but I'm afraid it's true...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

More presidential candidates

Latvia First Party/Latvian Way coalition has nominated the deputy speaker of the Latvian parliament, Karina Petersone (born 1954) as its presidential candidate. Petersone has been in Latvian politics for 16 years but not in high-profile positions. She started in early 1990s as an aide to Anatolijs Gorbunovs, then-speaker of the parliament and then gradually moved into more significant roles, serving as the minister of culture from 1998 to 2002 and the deputy speaker of the parliament from 2006 to now. She has a reputation of a careful politician capable of compromises and political manuevring but hardly ever takes a leading role on important questions.

Her main negative is the lack of foreign policy experience. Latvian presidents usually have a significant foreign policy role and the outgoing president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga was very good at that. Petersone will have to learn foreign policy on the spot, if she is elected. She might be able to do that, but I would prefer someone who already has experience.

Social Democrats have nominated Dainis Ivans (born 1955), a prominent independence activist of late 1980s/early 1990s. Since Social Democrats have no seats in the current Latvian parliament, it is unlikely that Ivans will become the president. I interpret his nomination as Social Democrats trying to gain positive publicity by nominating a popular candidate.

Ivans started his political career as a journalist and enviromental activist, opposing the construction of more dams on Daugava river in late 1980s. This brought together enviromentalists who opposed the destruction of landscapes and nationalists who were opposed to the possible influx of a large number of ethnically Russian construction workers. The construction project was shelved and Ivans would go on to become the leader of Latvian Popular Front, the pro-Latvian independence political coalition.

He was outstanding as a protest figure but did not fare so well after Popular Front winning the election and become the ruling party. Protesting things and making positive contributions from a position of power requires different sets of skills and I suspect Ivans had skills for the first but not the second. I've also read multiple rumours of his personal life improprieties in Latvian tabloid press. Given those reasons, I would prefer not to see Ivans as the president.

On a second thought, his rhetorical skills may be good for promoting Latvian causes abroad. Still, I prefer almost any other candidate.

Still waiting for candidates from Union of Farmers and Greens and Fatherland and Freedom.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Latvian presidential candidates, update 2

With so many candidates from the previous shortlist no longer running, who is on the candidate list now? Parties in the parliament have nominated some previously unknown candidates.

Tautas Partija (People's Party) has nominated Maris Riekstins (born 1963) who is currently the Chief of Staff of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis.

Foreign policy experience? Check. Riekstins was the secretary of the state (the highest civil service position) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 11 years and then he was the Latvian embassador to US for two years.

Undesirably close links to powerful Latvians with a lot of money? Unclear. Latvian-language blogger Maris Zanders says that Riekstins' candidacy was pushed through by Andris Skele, the multimillionaire businessman who founded People's Party but no longer has an official position there. I'm not privy to inner workings of People's Party but let's have a look at Riekstins' resume... He became the secretary of state for MFA in 1993, years before Skele became influential in Latvian politics and he lasted in that position for 11 years, most of which the government was not run by the People's Party. Does not look like a protege of Skele at all... And he joined People's Party just a few months ago.

Political views? Unknown, since he has been a civil servant and a diplomat, rather than a politician.

Overall? Not a well-known figure but I don't see anything that obviously makes him a bad candidate.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Latvian presidency candidates: update 1

Eight months ago, I wrote about a supposed shortlist of seven candidates for the Latvian presidency that was behind discussed behind the scenes. With one month left until the election, there is not much left of that shortlist:

  • Sandra Kalniete: New Era Party is fully behind her. The bad news is that nobody else in the Latvian parliament likes New Era Party. Unless our current president dissolves the parliament between now and the election (given the confrontation between the president and the parliament over last few months, this is clearly a possibility) and there is a new parliament electing the next president, Kalniete is not going to win.
  • Andris Piebalgs: claims that he is not running. Prefers to stay in European Commision instead.
  • Ojars Kalnins: still on the list but is rumored to be closer to the end of it. His supposed disadvantages: fatigue with Latvians from abroad being in key decisionmaking positions and he might be easy to manipulate for political parties. Hmmm... I don't want a president who is manipulated by others, but wouldn't that actually increase his chances with parties in parliament? After the recent confrontation with Vaira Vike-Freiberga, they might like it!
  • Ivars Lacis: was offered a nomination by The Union of Farmers and Greens and he declined. One more candidate whom I liked is off the list.
  • Artis Pabriks: declined, after an analysis of his chances to gain a majority support in the parliament. Expressed discontent with the lack of transparency in the election process. Why are all candidates whom I like running away from being the candidates??
  • Janis Jurkans: I was very surprised by seeing his name on that shortlist eight months ago! I haven't heard about him running again...
  • Zaneta Ozolina: claims that she is not running and has not even been offered to run by any of the parties. I hope so. Eight months ago, she was an unknown. Over the last months, she has been more actively speaking in public and I don't see enough competency in her speeches. (The main gain from Latvia being in EU is being able to participiate in decision-making?? What?? Have we affected any significant EU decisions at all in the last three years??) Also, she was teaching "scientific communism" at a university during the Soviet era... former propaganda worker for the Soviet regime as a president is the last thing Latvia needs.

Riots in Estonia

One week late... this is my perspective on what happened in Estonia. In terms of facts, I don't have much to add to what Aleks and Justin wrote.

Why did this happen in Estonia and not Latvia? There are a few curious stories that I've read over the past months. The first was in Nedela (The Week), a Latvian newsmagazine, last December. A certain pro-Russia activist organization was planning to organize a "conference" in Riga on World War II and Latvian history. Given the organizers, the conference would have been a sequence of speeches proclaiming the positive role of Soviet Union, denying that Latvia was ever forced to join the Soviet Union, downplaying the extend of Stalinist crimes against humanity... They got a phone call from Russian embassy in Latvia asking them to cancel the conference.

The next story came in March. March 16 is a date when the Latvian legion of SS was founded in 1943 and it usually results in a number of marches and counter marches in Riga, by older veterans who were part of Latvian legion, by younger Latvian nationalists (a lot of them from quite dubious nationalist organizations) who want to honour the Latvian legion and by Russian groups who hate the legion and try to obstruct the march, proclaiming that "freedom of speech does not apply to Nazis". In past years, things have gotten quite confrontational, to the degree that Riga City Council deliberately scheduled repair work in the city centre in March 2006, to push the marchers away to more remote locations.

This year, there was a new twist! A few phone calls from Russian embassy to "anti-Nazi" groups asking not to get "too unruly" with their "counter-march" because Russia did not want to inflame tensions in Latvia. The organizers were hinted that, if they disobey the orders, they might run into some dificulty getting Russian vizas next time when they go to Russia.

If Moscow wanted to stir up tensions in Latvia, they could easily find an excuse... but they seem to be working in the opposite direction! Why are they interested in confrontation in Estonia but not Latvia? I wish I could understand the logic of Moscow puppetmasters...