Sunday, October 31, 2010

Latvia patches together a two-party coalition government

Outgoing and incoming Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis Vienotība or "Unity" party alliance has managed to patch together a two-party coalition government that clearly reflects the emerging political tensions inside both the alliance and the coalition as a whole.
Vienotība will get seven of thirteen ministries, including Defense, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance, with the remaining posts going to the Zaļo Zemnieku/Green Farmers alliance, a political faction strongly influenced by Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, an oligarch under criminal investigation for money laundering, bribery and other crimes.
The two-party coalition was formed after effectively pushing aside the nationalist Visu Latvijai/Tevzemei un Brīvībai LNNK (All for Latvia/Fatherland and Freedom) alliance, which was included in coalition talks immediately after the election. This was a result of internal conflicts in Dombrovskis' alliance, with the centrist Sabiedrība citai Politikai/Movement for a Different Politics objecting strongly to the present of what it considered radical nationalists in the government.
This development confirms predictions this blogger has heard for months that once in power, "Unity" would soon dissolve in "disunity" as latent political and personal ambitions rip apart the fragile electoral alliance. It is also unclear to what extent Lembergs, threatened with prosecution for numerous economic crimes (but still the Green/Farmer choice for Prime Minister in the recent election campaign), may use his influence to disrupt the new government. A "worst case scenario" could be that the Green/Farmer coalition deserts Dombrovskis to ally with the second place, pro-Russian Saskaņas Centrs/Harmony Center, leaving (dis?) Unity in opposition with its spurned partner, the nationalists and the Par Labu Latvija/For a Good Latvia alliance representing oligarchs Andis Šķēle and Ainārs Šlesers.
The choices for ministers that have come to light so far are not impressive. Despite tens of thousands of negative (minus) votes, Linda Mūrniece has been nominated to continue as Minister of Interior. In the outgoing government, she angered police unions, sent the riot squad against protestors in Bauska and was caught driving her children to school in a government car.
Artis Pabriks, a former foreign minister, has been suggested as minister of defense, replacing the otherwise competent British-Latvian Imants Lieģis, who, after working hard on reforms and spending controls at the ministry, is now returned to a seat in the parliament or Saiema, thank you very much... Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, a former nationalist and former defense minister, has been nominated for the post of foreign minister.  Artis Kampars, whose English-language skills proved second only to "Nothing Special"  former finance minister Atis Slakteris,  has been nominated to continue as minister of economics a outward facing ministry if anything.
The emerging government also faces its first major scandals. The website "Pietiek.com" (meaning "Enough, already") led by hatchet-job journalist Lato Lapsa, has disclosed that Silva Bendrāte, a "Unity" parliamentarian, has been secretly financed by Lembergs, who used here as an intermediary to buy a radio station in the western Latvian district of Kurzeme. Bendrāte says she didn't know of Lembergs' possible criminal activities when she agreed to the deal some 13 years ago, having perceived the Ventspils mayor as a dynamic, capable politician.
Also under attack from "pietiek.com"  is newly-elected "Unity" candidate Lolita Čigāne, a former head of the anti-corruption group Delna (the Latvian affiliate of Transparency International). Čigāne and her husband Nils Students, who own a boutique in Riga, paid an administrative fine several years ago for bringing items such as kerchiefs and other textiles from Turkey through customs without paying import duties. Čigāne says this was inadvertent and the matter was settled after she paid a fine, Moreover, the fact of having an administrative violation does not create a dependency on outsiders, as may be the case with Bendrāte's relationship with Lembergs.
"Pietiek.com" is a strange website, using the skills of investigative journalist (formerly of Diena) Baiba Rulle and Agnese Margeviča, as well as the controversial Lapsa. The site publishes copies of documents backing its allegations of corruption, duplicity and incompetence, and it seems to show no political favoritism, especially considering Lapsa's almost foaming-at-the-mouth editorial attacks on Bendrāte and Čigāne. He accuses both women of ethical depravity and calls them liars.
This is a bit harsh -- I would give the benefit of the doubt to Bendrāte's claims that, back in the late 1990s, Lembergs was not seen as an evil, manipulative oligarch. If Lapsa's harsh judgement of Čigāne were to be applied across the board, then no one with a parking ticket, a speeding violation or a youthful citation for public drinking or littering should every run for elected office. "Pietiek.com" is doing a remarkable job of publishing documentation of corruption and depravity -- it is a sort of Latvian "Wikileaks", but its editorializing crosses the line as far as being fair, balanced and giving some leeway to  the possibility that people in politics can make honest mistakes.
As for my take on the new government -- it is starting to look a bit half-assed, to use an American term, and I don't see it lasting the next four years. Dombrovskis faces the almost impossible task of cutting another LVL 1 billion from the budget over the next two years, turning Latvia into a nightwatchman state at best, with drastic cuts (public statements notwithstanding) in pension, medical care, education, as well as sharp tax rises just around the corner.
The government still believes it can join the Eurozone in 2014. I think this is highly unlikely. 2020, perhaps. The pauperization of the population by wage cuts and unemployment will negate any effect from tax increases (who can afford them?) and the targets for a reduced budget deficit will not be met. Emigration is on the rise -- official statistics indicate that over 7700 Latvians left the country in the first nine months of 2010, which is probably only the tip of the iceberg (I would guess that in reality, two or three times as many have left and will not return in the foreseeable future).  There is also an economic logic to tax avoidance or evasion -- the population has experience and will continue to experience a drastically falling "return on taxation" -- more taxes, worsening public services.  So why, purely in terms of economic calculation, should anyone make an effort to pay?
The new government, most likely, will be formed in the next few days, but it will continue to preside over a failing state lite. I see nothing that will change that.

1 comment:

Vic said...

The exodus of Latvians abroad is painful, and the only benefit of it as I see would be the spread of the Latvian Culture. And getting the needed money outside the Country of course. As for the taxes, yes, if you do not feel you are receiving what you deserve in services and still pay taxes, you can feel tempted to cut that expense out of your budget...