Latvia: Why Not The Best Candidate?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 67

Latvia’s Prime Minister Indulis Emsis has made an abrupt decision to remove Sandra Kalniete, an internationally respected diplomat, from the post of European Commissioner in Brussels. Emsis wants to free Latvia’s seat on the European Commission for Ingrida Udre, chairwoman of the Latvian parliament, and like Emsis a leader in the Green and Farmers’ Union (GFU).

“Do not awaken the authoritarian personality in me,” Emsis warned critics of his controversial decision when unveiling it (BNS, August 3). The warning seems incongruous with GFU’s standing as the smallest component of the three-party coalition government, itself a minority government. GFU leaders have long-standing connections with oil-transit magnate Aivars Lembergs. This group’s interests are widely seen as the source of Emsis’ decision to replace Kalniete with Udre on the European Commission. While technically a prerogative of the prime minister, this decision has met with disapproval from parties in government and opposition, as well as the mainstream media. Emsis’ move is seen as hurting Latvia’s international image.

Kalniete not only possesses unrivaled professional qualifications for the Commission seat, but she is in many ways symbolic of the reborn Latvia on the international scene. Born in Siberia, a survivor of the Gulag, she was among the founding leaders of the Latvian Popular Front, which spearheaded the national liberation movement. As Popular Front Executive Secretary in 1988-91, Kalniete handled the movement’s international contacts, in effect helping prepare the rebirth of Latvian diplomacy before the actual restoration of national statehood. Subsequently she served as ambassador to France and as Foreign Affairs Minister, with a major contribution to bringing Latvia into NATO and the EU.

Kalniete is the author of a widely cited Gulag memoir, In Ballet Shoes to Siberia (the title alludes to the practice of snatching middle-class families with children for instant deportation to the camps). At the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair Kalniete sparked what turned out to be the first post-World War II substantive discussion by Germany’s intelligentsia and media about the communist-perpetrated holocaust in Soviet Russia and the occupied countries. She is also a fluent French speaker, an obvious asset in Brussels.

Kalniete assumed the post of European Commissioner in May (with Latvia’s official accession to the EU), and was confirmed by the European Parliament, in what witnesses described as an “impressive hearing” in Strasbourg (BNS, August 3). Latvia’s conservative government nominated her on the basis of qualifications; she has no party affiliation. That government has since been replaced by the three-party coalition, within which the GFU seems to treat Latvia’s seat on the Commission as a political plum.

Udre, an experienced public accountant, who played no role in the popular movements of the glasnost era, entered parliament in 1998 and became its chairwoman in 2002. In each case she represented an oligarch-controlled small party. In the 2002 elections she cast herself as a Euro-skeptic, voicing reservations about Latvia’s EU candidacy. Even at that late date, certain GFU figures were musing about Latvia functioning as an “off-shore zone of Russia.” Ultimately, however, EU agricultural subsidies helped to convert GFU’s Euro-skeptics.

Emsis’ decision to replace Kalniete after only a few months has raised eyebrows in Brussels, not only because of her high personal standing, but also because it may set an undesirable precedent. Given the fact that Latvia’s coalition governments have an average lifespan of one year or less, prime ministers ought to show special restraint about exercising their prerogative to nominate Latvia’s European Commissioner, so as to avoid a rapid turnover in that post. Latvia’s interests would be ill served if partisanship or patronage triumph over stability and continuity in Latvia-EU relations.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Durao-Barroso received Udre in Brussels on August 3. Barroso is due to announce this month the full lineup of the European Commission, whose five-year term of office begins in November.

Latvia’s incumbent government, barely four months old, is divided over this and other issues. The coalition’s largest component, the People’s Party, represented by Foreign Affairs Minister Artis Pabriks, strongly supports retaining Kalniete. So does the largest opposition party, New Era (whose leader Einars Repse, had originally nominated Kalniete for the Brussels post). These two conservative parties, along with Fatherland and Freedom, have begun negotiations toward forming a three-party conservative government. Such a coalition would hold 53 seats in the 100-seat parliament. The incumbent coalition government, holding only 47 seats, and survives with the support of a moderate leftist-Russian faction (BNS, August 2, 3, 4).