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Cleansing. The most noteworthy developments in Latvia’s politics of 2019

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Latvia, 2019, events, politics, business, doctors, Aivars Lembergs, dismissal, Riga City Council, Latvian Railway, Baltic Way, cartel, non citizen, cigarette, Riga Central Market, media, wages It can be said Latvia experienced something of a cleansing in multiple areas last year. For the first time Latvia’s president was elected through an open vote; Latvian Railway started throwing away poor management; skeletons emerged from all closets in Riga City Council simultaneously, creating a considerable confusion. Finally, December 2019 is especially noteworthy because with help from USA it may be possible to finally exclude Aivars Lembergs from politics.

Levitation

Latvia’s President Egils Levits

Election of Egils Levits as Latvia’s next president was a historic event because for the first time in Latvia’s history the state president was elected through an open vote. Is the era of secret talks in the zoo and trading in the Saeima’s corridors truly over?

Prior to presidential elections, Raimonds Vējonis said he would not run in presidential elections. Saeima deputy Didzis Šmits and Harmony’s proposed ombudsman Juris Jansons were Levits’ competitors in presidential elections.

Since his approval as Latvia’s president, Levits has stood out with efforts to reduce the ethnic gap among Latvia’s residents – he stresses that Latvianness is meant for everyone. He also proposed calling other people in Latvia as peers.

The end for Lembergs?

Aivars Lembergs

It seems the 90s ended in Latvia in 2019 – this is a concise description for recent developments with suspended Mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, who is also accused of committing serious crimes.

The year began rather unpleasantly for Lembergs, as the Union of Greens and Farmers, which is historically associated with him, failed to enter the government.

One positive thing of note is that 2019 marked ten years since the beginning of the criminal process against Lembergs. People joked on social media that it has been so long that a full generation of Latvian residents who have no idea why Lembergs is on trial has grown up. When lawyers and judges started falling out of the trial one after another the general impression was that the joke may end up a reality – newcomer judges and lawyers may need months to go through materials of the case.

However, US sanctions may have put an end to this stagnation. On 9 December, Lembergs and four organizations associated with him – Ventspils Freeport, Ventspils Development Agency, Business Development Association and Latvian Transit Business Association – came under sanctions from US Department of the Treasury Office for Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Now partners and banks servicing the legal and private persons have 30 days to cease all operations with them. Ventspils Freeport was removed from the list of US sanctions after Lembergs left his position there and Latvia’s government performed lightning-fast changes in the port’s management model.

Lembergs’ future is not looking very good. He has been forced to leave positions in multiple organizations, the number of members in Ventspils Developments Agency keeps reducing, and now Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) has commenced an investigation into the ties between ZZS and Lembergs and whether it can be considered a reason to withhold state funding for the party. Dana Reizniece-Ozola, who came from Lembergs party, has even invited him to leave politics altogether.

Lembergs Era is at its end.

More dirt surfaces in Latvian Railway

In May 2019, Latvia’s Transport Minister Tālis Linkaits declared that the now former management of Latvian Railway (LDz) cannot be trusted.

The board of the company was accused of wastefulness and general high-level corruption. Linkaits said «Competition Council has commenced a case for abuse of dominant market position and market distortion that created a threat of serious financial consequences for the country.» «The general feeling is that LDz board does not understand the EC and EU regulation in relation to market liberalization for free competition.»

On 25 July LDz council agreed on terminating relations with LDz president Edvīns Bērziņš and board member Aivars Strakšas. On 14 August two more board members were elected to LDz board – Māris Kleinbergs and president and Andris Lubāns and board member.

Publicly accessible information states that Bērziņš and Strakšas were paid compensation worth EUR 150 000. Latvia’s transport minister has since said he intends to ask LDz shareholder to see if the compensation paid to the two aforementioned people meet requirements of the law.

Baltic Way turns 30

23 August marked thirty years since approximately two million Latvia, Lithuania and Estonian residents took each other’s hands, forming a living chain of people connecting Baltic capital cities – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, reminding the world of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided Europe and put all three Baltic States under Soviet occupation.

In Baltic States this event was celebrated widely with exhibitions, marathons and even a motorcycle drive across all of Baltics. In Riga there was a large photo exhibition organized at the Freedom Monument. Photos shown there were taken from national archives of the three Baltic States.

Construction cartel – bribery and political cream

At the beginning of September there came news about a possible cartel agreement involving major Latvian construction companies. It is believed this cartel may have participated in construction projects co-financed by EU funds. The situation is made worse by the fact that high-ranking Latvian politicians may have known about or had even participated in the cartel.

Currently it is known that KNAB has interviewed ex-president Raimonds Vējonis about the construction cartel. Ex-prime minister Māris Kučinskis has also publicly confirmed having been aware of the cartel. Names of other well-known politicians have also been mentioned in relation to this cartel, including Edgars Jaunups, Dana Reizniece-Ozola, Jānis Reirs, Solvita Āboltiņa, Jānis Urbanovičs. There is no ending in sight for this story, however.

If authorities prove EU funding was used in some cartel project, the EU will want its money back. This will have an effect on the state budget and investments. BNN managed to find out the cartel has ties to residential homes, publicly important objects and, possibly, even projects in the planning phase.

Starting point for «eliminating non-citizens institute»

After lasting discussions in October, Latvian politicians finally agreed on automatically providing children born from non-citizen families after 1 January 2020 with Latvian citizenship.

It is considered a historic decision and the end for the non-citizen institute in Latvia. The legislative draft was approved narrowly – only 60 deputies voted in favour of it.

«Cigarette?»

It is rare to find anyone who has ever stepped on Riga Central Market territory to have never heard someone say: «Cigarette?»

Latvian authorities found enormous volumes of contraband cigarettes at the market in November – not just illegal cigarettes but also money, forearms and ammunition. Justice Minister Bordāns said the inability of law enforcement institutions to handle illegal circulation of cigarettes points to possible cover-up of the operation from «up top». What happened there may mean stricter penalties for illegal traders are in the works.

A total of 89 searches were performed at Riga Central Market – 8 210 units of tobacco products and approximately 11 litres of alcoholic beverages without Latvian excise tax labels were confiscated.

Police also confiscated EUR 40 560, GBP 80, 20 dinars, KZT 500, UAH 60 and CNY 50. On top of cash in different currencies, police also confiscated six firearm-like items and 249 units of ammunition, different data storage devices and accounting documents, as well as BMW X3 and different other items of interest for the investigation.

Currently there are several suspects – SIA SIA Tirdzniecības nams Latgales priekšpilsēta board member Vilnis Visors, businessman and security officer Kaspars Ungurs and others.

Shocks in the media space

Even the media did not avoid shocks this year. Latvijas Radio News Service came to blows with Latvijas Radio board, blaming members of the management of negligence and efforts to weaken the News Service. Excessive work load, small wages, high rotation of employees – these are the problems Latvijas Radio journalists mentioned when voicing distrust to the radio’s board.

The National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) was also pulled into this dispute, but even they received a couple of hits from journalists over poor performance. After a long period of indecisiveness over what should be done, NEPLP chairperson Dace Ķezbere left the council. She was replaced by Ivars Āboliņš, who was not entirely warmly welcomed by the media.

The biggest scandal regarding NEPLP negligence revolved around the search for LTV board members. The candidates picked – Eva Juhņēviča and Pēteris Giels – left their posts quickly after public accusations of lack of experience, but the damage had been done already. In the end, NEPLP decided to leave LTV board in the state of a single-member.

But all other events were overshadowed by the closure of LNT television channel. At the beginning of December, LNT and TV3 news services were merged. This change did not come as a surprise to people in the know – for years LNT mostly showed Turkish series and cheap content generally. Why should All Media Baltics sustain two news services that do the same job? Politicians already cry crocodile tears over the variety lost for Latvia’s media space and promise to never allow something like this to repeat. But nothing can be done at this point. The 23 year old part of Latvia’s media environment has ended.

Partial wage increase for doctors

Latvian Young Doctors Association board chairman Kārlis Rācenis

While the 13th Saeima was working without a coalition or opposition, a law was adopted for a considerable increase of funding for healthcare. This meant bigger wages for healthcare workers. But one calculated if the budget can handle a massive increase of funding. The government later faced the consequences of such reckless decisions later at the end of 2019.

Voicing their dissatisfaction with low wages in healthcare, medical personnel from all over Latvia gathered outside the Saeima for a protest on 7 November. Another protest took place between 8 and 14 November.

In response to the growing discontent in the industry, Latvia’s government reviewed previously approved priorities. As a result of budget scrounging the government found an additional amount of EUR 18 million, securing a total of EUR 60 million for doctors’ wages next year.

Saeima speaker Ināra Mūrniece later apologized to the medical industry for last year’s reckless decision regarding funding increase. «We cannot fulfil our promise in this situation. At the same time, we are aware funding for healthcare is insufficient. We are prepared to work with the industry to resolve this problem in future years.»

Doctors, however, remain adamant – all healthcare workers’ wages should be increased 20%. So a new protest was organized outside the Saeima on 28 November.

It is likely there may be new protests during next year’s budget composition process.

Cleanup in Riga

It seems that not a single week passed in 2019 without some scandal involving Riga City Council or one of its companies. This has led to the Saeima discussing the topic of dismissing the city council at the end of the year.

It is possible all the problems started with the diagnosis of a tumour in Rīgas satiksme at the end of 2018. The process went so far that KNAB performed a search in the office of then the Mayor of Riga Nila Ušakova.

Possibly sensing no good would come of it, Ušakovs decided it would be better to protect the rights of Riga’s residents from Brussels, so he decided to run in European Parliament elections, leaving his colleague Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis with nothing again. And so Ušakovs and Andris Ameriks left for Brussels, leaving others to untangle the mess they left in Riga.

Following Ušakovs’ departure, Riga City Council was engulfed by a fever – split, fight for positions, trade and intrigues in the coalition and opposition. Ušakovs’ successor Dainis Turlais remained Mayor of Riga for only two weeks before getting sacked. His successor Oļegs Burovs’ grip seems stronger – managed to remain in power since mid-August.

News about dismissal of Riga City Council was taken by both sides with relief, because the coalition and opposition managed to agree on at least one topic – working in the current state of Riga City Council is impossible.

Currently political forces hope for electing Riga City Council for a term longer than five years. The opportunity is so tempting that Ušakovs says he may consider running in elections.

Not even the countless consultants in Riga City Council and results of the audit performed at Rīgas satiksme, no one knew about but knew anyway, could lead to dismissal. This was nothing.

At the last moment, however, the Competition Council halted the creation of a monopoly that was in the works in the corridors of Riga City Council in regards to the signing of a contract for waste management services for 20 years with a single service provider. The whole situation was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency in Riga.

The city council failed to secure any improvements in the two months given to resolve the situation, because members of the city council instead decided to focus on fighting over postings, not caring for the interests of the city’s residents. Following this failure Environment Protection and Regional Development Minister Juris Pūce suggested dismissing Riga City Council.

But it’s not as if there were only problems and scandals over the entire course of 2019. Some public transport stops were provided buttons to help light up the list of routes and timetables. Hurray! Riga has entered the 21st century.


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  1. Gunar says:

    Thanks for the Good summary!

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