Mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs has found a way to turn the tragic collapse of the supermarket roof into an endeavour to change political leverage in Latvian government. On November 21, the roof of Maxima supermarket collapsed onto its customers and on November 22 the sitting of Ventspils City Council lacked three key figures – Lembergs and two deputy-chairmen of the Council Jānis Vītoliņš and Guntis Blumbergs – as if gone to Rīga.
Victims not yet buried as political consultations emerge
Unofficial information of the BNN indicates that Lembergs, taking advantage of the tragic accident, had decided to bring down the government in order to involve the Union of Greens and Framers (UGF) in the next cabinet. It is said that he has taken part in consultations with representatives of the Office of State President Andris Bērziņš, possibly, with head of President’s Chancery Gundars Daudze and head of state himself.
This means that the reason why Bērziņš used harsh language to describe the Zolitūde tragedy as a mass murder is likely to have been a plan to provide ground for further steps of ousting the government and not concern over disorder in the construction industry.
Perhaps, if Bērziņš would really wish to put the state in order, he would also ask accused persons and persons standing before trial to leave public office until court judgement has been pronounced.
On Wednesday, November 27, the meeting between the President and the Prime Minister, after which the latter announced his resignation from office, lasted for an hour and a half and it can be perceived it was the head of state who called on the Prime Minister to assume political responsibility for the tragedy. «Everyone, who has been involved in taking all the crucial decisions, should evaluate his or her political and moral responsibility and should decide how to act further,» the President said, perhaps forgetting himself in this aspect.
Members of his party, together with Lembergs’ «For Latvia and Ventspils» party, were in 2009 among the legislators who voted for the dissolution of the State Building Inspection that is currently pointed out as the reason why the cabinet should have resigned.
«Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and President Andris Bērziņš enter the press room. Resentment cannot be hidden in the PM’s face. The tone of voice and the actual text of the announcement acknowledge this. It seems the words do not come from Dombrovskis himself, he only voices them. «Taking into account the Zolitūde tragedy and all its aspects, a government is needed that has the support of the Saeima majority and that is capable of solving the situation, which has developed in the country,» says the Prime Minister who had insisted in a recent television interview «someone should work as well.»» Such description of the event following the meeting was provided by the daily «Latvijas avīze».
The political commentator of TVNET news portal Toms Ostrovskis has also observed that «from the facial expressions of Valdis Dombrovskis, when he announced the resignation of the government, it was evident that the Prime Minister was close to tears.» It must be mentioned that in the morning before the speech Dombrovskis had numerous interviews with the media and there was no indication of his plans to step down.
Dombrovskis’ resignation alarmed the society, which was already shaken in the wake of the largest loss of life in the history of independent Latvia. The public, including people involved in politics, has expressed concern about attempts «to play political football» abusing the Zolitude tragedy. «I am especially worried about whether Latvian politicians have gone as far as using such disaster for rearranging the government,» Mayor of Tukums Juris Šulcs (political party «For Tukums Town and District») has said. Andris Piebalgs, the European Union Commissioner for Development, has expressed a similar view to LETA news agency: «I am shocked; I did in no case expect this. The collapse of the supermarket roof was of course shocking and tragic – no doubt about that. But I do not see it as a sufficient reason for the government to step down now.»
PM’s step was also no pleasant surprise to entrepreneurs, as Jānis Endziņš, Board Chairman of the Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, admitted that businesses had to an extent got used to stability, predictability and continuation of previous work and reforms. Former state Auditor General Inguna Sudraba even fainted after she learned news on the government.
Lembergs, however, has pointed to the Ministry of Economics and the Prime Minister as being guilty of the Zolitūde tragedy and said to LETA that «in 2003, the then Prime Minister Einars Repše begun dismantling the system of administration and control of the construction industry, but the key measures of its dismantling took place in 2009», with the UGF was in the government. Moreover, at the time, Guntis Blumbergs, the current Deputy-Chairman of the Mayor of Ventspils and member of the «For Latvia and Ventspils» party, was the head of the Saeima Economic, Agricultural, Environmental and Regional Policy Committee that was co-responsible for the amendments in the Civil Engineering Law in line with which the State Building Inspection was dissolved.
The then member of the Saeima – current Deputy-Chairman of Lembergs – Guntis Blumbergs and other UGF MPs, apart from Leopolds Ozoliņš, decided on June 12 2009, in the procedure of urgency that the State Building Inspection must be closed. The then MP – current mayor of Rīga – Nils Ušakovs also voted in favour of the amendments.
Last week, Ušakovs said to the LNT television programme «900 sekundes», that Dombrovskis had been «kicked out of office», but was fast to announce that he does not intend to step down from his position at the City Council, and insisted with self-confidence that there is no-one better for representing the interests Rīga’s residents.
«Ušakovs is directly politically responsible for the supervision or Rīga Building Administration. It is directly subordinate to him and he is the first higher official that exists in this institution – in line with these criteria Ušakovs should resign from the office,» political expert Iveta Kažoka has explained. She predicts that mayor Ušakovs and deputy-mayor Andris Ameriks will face a massive pressure for them to resign.
In the Zolitūde tragedy, when the roof of Maxima supermarket collapsed onto its customers, the 54 victims were not yet buried, when the fight for power had begun.
While Unity leader Solvita Āboltiņa has urged politicians to wait until the week of mourning has passed, the UGF has announced already that it has three potential candidates for the office of the Prime Minister and that it has no demands it would not negotiate on. As if bringing down the government would not be enough, Lembergs has even suggested that early Saeima election should be held – apparently being worried that the UGF could again be left out of the new government.
Why is it advantageous to Lembergs?
Even though the new Cabinet of Ministers will have a short term in office – only until next Saeima elections in 2014 -, ousting the government seemed now a vital necessity. Rumour has it that Lembergs is getting short of financial resources being used for ‘feeding’ politicians, funding his public relations’ campaign and maintaining the infrastructure built in Ventspils. In addition, law enforcement bodies are closing in on him.
People familiar with the politics of Ventspils said to BNN that the mayor annually spends around LVL two million to cover his expenses. It is important for Lembergs to have the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development ‘under his wing’, as by controlling the Ministry, he would have the opportunity to stop the move aimed at banning persons facing court charges from holding public office.
Lembergs might also be concerned that former Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development Edmunds Sprūdžs has appealed against the decision of Liepāja Court in the case of removing Lembergs from the office. It is likely that the second court decision will be unfavourable to the current Mayor of Ventspils.
People familiar with the matter say Lembergs needs control in the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Economics so that state officials allied to him could return to work in the Free Port of Ventspils Authority and so that the commenced port reforms would be stopped.
«The basketball and football clubs managed by Lembergs and his aides annually receive from the free port between 0.5 and 0.75 million LVL. For advertising purposes, including the promotion of Lembergs image, the free port spends around a million lats a year. The free port generously supports agencies of the Ventspils City Council, including municipal police and public service administration, and it does so on the basis of inadequately expensive contracts on the provision of services of dubious efficiency. In addition, the free port financially supports investment projects which are not linked to the transit sector but are linked to Lembergs and his deputy-chairmen.
These projects bring losses to the free port and cannot cover their financial liabilities assumed in relation to the free port. Companies Arbo and Dendrolight are among such investment projects. The latter is already seeking legal protection in court,» people familiar with politics in Ventspils said to BNN.
«In case these free port payments would be stopped, the empire of Lembergs would no longer be able to sustain itself and would start crumbling fast. Likewise, it is of vital importance to Lembergs to reach European Union funding, even if it is acquired at the expense of other regions and municipalities. If government ministries would commence to allocate this money fairly, Lembergs would again face financial difficulties, as construction companies linked to him would not receive assistance. Companies such as Ostas celtnieks and Pilsētbūve transfer a part of the sum to the society «Ventspils Attīstības aģentūra» represented by Lilita Seimuškāne.
This way providing for the public image of Lembergs and paying to the city mayor – being the head of the society – a monthly salary in the amount of around 10 000 LVL,» anonymous sources told the BNN news portal.
Prior to the Zolitūde tragedy, attempts to gain power were predicted by Andris Vilks in an interview with the weekly Ieva. The statesman, who was virtually persuaded to take the position of the Minister of Finance, has said repeatedly that he would leave politics to return to a fairer environment.
«A politician must like power and fame. The political scene also provides the opportunity to gain money dishonestly. We have enough former politicians who know no modesty in their lives after holding a public office. This is the reason why many people fight hard to engage in politics. Next year, when the position of the finance minister will be open, many people will seek office, not being interested in the salary. I see many MPs in this Saeima, who are living from their salaries. But it will be different in the next composition of the parliament. The feed bunk is ready, the economy is growing power is necessary for the allocation of funds».
Vilks warned in the interview that the public should keep its eyes open as in the summer of 2014 a surge of generous populists can be expected. And now it is already visible in this dark time after the unfortunate death of 54 people.
Some notes from the past
Finally, it must be explained how come it is so easy for Lembergs to control State President Andris Bērziņš almost as a puppet to serve his whims. When Bērziņš, being a member of the 10th Saeima, was elected the state president, rumour had it that this had happened with the support of Lembergs. Bērziņš himself said at the time that before running for the office he had discussed this issue with Lembergs. The latter, some say, also influenced Bērziņš’ stepping down from the leadership of the bank Latvijas Unibanka (currently under the name of SEB).
Bērziņš – famous with his poor knowledge of English – has acknowledged that his goal at the presidential election was to compete with Valdis Zatlers, who sought a second term in office.
Also, Bērziņš was elected by the Saeima on June 2, 2011, the dissolution of which was announced by Zatlers on May 28 2011. 94.3% of Latvian residents voted for the dissolution of the Saeima on the referendum held on July 23. Zatlers explained this step with a wish to combat the rule of oligarchs, even though three publicly named oligarchs – Lembergs, politicians Andris Skele and Ainars Slesers openly admitted that they do not see any point in dissolving the Saeima. Lembergs did not hide that he would vote against the dissolution of Saeima. Lembergs did not hide that he would vote against the dissolution of the Saeima.
According to a popular joke, Bērziņš has proved the state can do without a president and his move to donate his salary to country-side schools failed to reverse the negative attitude he has been met with. Nonetheless, public opinion poll results show – Latvians believe this “noble act” to be a mere attempt to create a positive public image, thereby attempting to save himself from the negative information, which started circulating in the mass media shortly after his election.
Recently, there have been no news on the donations and the President’s Chancery have not unveiled the beneficiaries or sums of possible donations saying that charity is a personal matter not subjected to public disclosure.
Additionally, after Bērziņš was elected as the head of the state, Lembergs dared to run for the post of Prime Minister on behalf of the Greens’ and Farmers’ Union. However, an agreement was reached between other parties that Zatlers’ Reform Party (now Reform Party) would form a coalition along with Unity and the National Union (Visu Latvijai-Tēvzemei and Brīvībai/LNNK (VL-TB/LNNK)), and Valdis Dombrovskis would become the Prime Minister.
Before taking the position of the State President, Bērziņš had one of the largest, if not the largest pension, in Latvia. In 2007, in full accordance with his official’s declaration, he became a pensioner with a monthly pension just below 4,900 LVL. It is possible that Bērziņš used the controversial regulations of the 1996 State Pension Law to achieve his large pension.
Shortly after his election as President, law enforcement bodies unveiled their intention to check the 178 000 LVL expenses of EU fund money by the company owned by Bērziņš’ children. Suspicions were raised about possible scams with the allocation of money from the Rural Support Service – resources were transferred for the construction of a recreation complex, but nothing indicated that the impressive complex and its surroundings would expect any guests, except Bērziņš’ family members, relatives and friends.
Despite many allegations and court sanctions, Lembergs officially remains the Mayor of Ventspils. He has held the post since the beginning of the 90s and on this year’s note, is the richest official in Latvia, possibly because of being the secret owner of Ventspils’ transit businesses.
As to his ongoing charges, the Prosecutor’s Office has accused Lembergs of accepting bribes and money laundering, counterfeiting at public service, for participation in property transactions illegal for persons in his position, as well as of abuse of power and other crimes. Prosecutors have also brought charges against his son, Anrijs Lembergs.