Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 131

The controversial Vilis Kristopans resigned on July 5 as prime minister of Latvia. The step–urged on him by his party, Latvia’s Way (LW)–automatically entails the resignation of the entire cabinet of ministers after barely eight months in office. The event offers Latvia a distinct chance to turn a government crisis into an opportunity for political renovation and to carry out the mandate of the October 1998 elections, which produced a clear right-of-center majority in parliament.

Kristopans had to quit after the conservative Fatherland and Freedom (FF) party, a component of his coalition government, concluded on July 2 a political cooperation agreement with the fellow-conservative People’s Party (PP) outside the coalition. The PP had placed first in the parliamentary elections, followed by LW and FF. However, a group of LW leaders modified the party’s orientation, split the conservative majority, forced the PP into the opposition and formed a minority government dependent on the support of two smaller, left-of-center parties for its survival. Some of the government decisions tended to undercut the country’s foreign and security policies, as President Guntis Ulmanis and Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs–himself of LW–repeatedly pointed out.

A concatenation of recent developments has set the stage for a realignment of political forces and the formation of a new, viable government. Those developments include:

1. The surprise election of Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a non-party figure, as president on June 17 (see the Monitor, June 18). Vike-Freiberga was elected by the parliament after the main conservative parties–PP and FF–joined forces to support her. The left-of-center Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (SDWP) joined the winning combination, which defeated the Latvian Way presidential candidate. That vote ushered in the political realignment and the PP-FF pact which brought down the Kristopans government. While the PP and FF are natural supporters of the new president, the SDWP backs Vike-Freiberga mainly on the issue of language legislation (see below).

2. The Kristopans government decision to impose protectionist tariffs on certain agricultural imports. That decision contravened the free trade agreements among the Baltic states and risked undercutting Latvia’s quest for admission to the European Union. FF, which holds two government portfolios directly responsible for the country’s European integration efforts, objected to those tariffs.

3. Kristopans’ unpopularity. The prime minister’s ratings in public opinion surveys declined dramatically during his brief tenure. A confrontational personality, known for rash statements and the use of epithets, Kristopans was not the consensus builder required by Latvia’s characteristically complex party system.

4. Economic recession. Unemployment grew to more than 8 percent, the quarterly gross domestic product dropped by more than 2 percent, and a sizeable budget deficit developed during the Kristopans government’s lifespan (largely as a result of Russia’s financial crisis). Critics of the government consider that it has not pursued the westward reorientation of Latvia’s trade as purposefully as the FF-LED predecessor government had done.

5. The climax of the parliamentary debate on amendments to language legislation. Scheduled for July 8, the third and final reading of those amendments IN RIGA is marked by controversy, pitting a part of LW and the left against the PP, FF, SDWP and a critical mass of LW members. The draft amendments take into account most of the recommendations from both the European Union and High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Nevertheless, those two authorities unwittingly exacerbate the controversy by insisting on some provisions which would, in effect if not in intent, privilege the Russian language at the expense of the Latvian in both the public and private sectors. Such insistence shows signs of backfiring, facilitating the formation of a conservative coalition, with social-democrat support and potentially including elements of Latvia’s Way, in defense of the national language (Diena, July 3; BNS, LETA, July 3, 5-7).