Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 94

Beset by constant squabbles over policy and personnel issues, Vilis Kristopans’ minority coalition government is currently experiencing one of the most trying internal conflicts in its six-month existence. On May 11, Kristopans dismissed Economics Minister Ainars Slesers from his post. A successful young businessman before joining the government, Slesers is the main sponsor of the left-of-center New Party. He was considered highly qualified for the economics portfolio when selected for it last November; his party’s eight parliamentary seats are crucial to the minority government’s survival. Yet both of these considerations seemed secondary when Slesers ran afoul of interest groups which are widely thought to be linked with some leaders in Kristopans’ party, Latvia’s Way.

Slesers cooperated with attempts to remove Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs from the post of trustee of the Ventspils Nafta oil-transit company and to prevent Lembergs from becoming a trustee of the Latvenergo electrical power company. Slesers, furthermore, resisted pressure from Kristopans to dismiss Privatization Agency chief Janis Naglis from that post. Naglis is considered close to People’s Party leader, former Prime Minister Andris Skele, head of the AveLat conglomerate. The conservative People’s Party placed first in last year’s parliamentary elections, but was denied any role in government by leaders of Latvia’s Way–reportedly under the influence of Lembergs and his Transit Business Association. The result was the present minority government, made up of fractious parties and sometimes dependent on leftist support.

Following his dismissal, Slesers articulated what many in Latvia had said earlier–namely, that Lembergs and associated business circles exert undue political influence on Latvia’s Way and the government. Slesers portrayed Lembergs as “the real head of the government,” who uses his political influence in order to promote the interests of the Ventspils Nafta and the Transit Business Association in the privatization process. Several key state enterprises are about to be put up for privatization.

Lembergs has dismissed the charges, ascribing some of them to machinations by Skele and his supporters who–Lembergs charged–had sought to obtain political influence with “cash, top offices and girls.” Lembergs is imputing to the People’s Party the intention to destabilize the present government in order to return to power and maximize the prosperity of the AveLat concern. In equally acerbic language, Kristopans, for his part, insists that Slesers proved incompetent as minister and was dismissed for no other reason.

The People’s Party has drafted a parliamentary motion of no-confidence in the government. The outcome may ultimately depend on the decision of the bloc “For Human Rights in a United Latvia,” comprised mostly of Russian leftists including former hardline communists. This bloc is signaling that it prefers to see the present government continue in power. For Human Rights in a United Latvia seems to have ended up holding the balance of power in parliament in a crunch situation. This is a paradoxical and counterproductive result of the formation of a minority government and the split in conservative ranks after the last elections, in which the three conservative parties had triumphed (BNS, May 9-14).