A new Latvian government, headed by Latvian Way’s Andris Berzins, was voted in by the parliament on May 5 and took office the following day. It is a four-party, right-of-center coalition holding sixty-nine of 100 parliamentary seats, consisting of the conservative People’s Party, the right-of-center Latvia’s Way, the right-wing Fatherland and Freedom and the centrist New Party. The left-of-center Social Democratic Workers’ Party and the leftist, pro-Russian bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia voted against the government’s composition and program.
The new government replaces that headed by People’s Party leader Andris Skele, which collapsed on April 12 amid two political scandals after only nine months in office: one scandal related to the privatization of industry, the other to the sex industry (see the Monitor, April 14). Skele, moreover, came to be perceived as a would-be authoritarian leader and saw his personal popularity nosedive in the public opinion surveys. The cabinet put together by Andris Berzins rests–as usual in Latvian politics–on delicately balanced arrangements among the coalition’s parties. The three large parties in the coalition are the same ones which had formed the Skele government. Latvia’s Way and the People’s Party have agreed on coopting the New Party in the coalition as a safeguard against any unpredictable moves by their partner, Fatherland and Freedom, which had precipitated a conflict over privatization within the Skele government. In the new government, the People’s Party holds five cabinet posts, Latvia’s Way four posts including the prime ministership, Fatherland and Freedom also four, and the People’s Party two cabinet posts. While including the People’s Party raises the government’s majority in parliament from sixty-one to sixty-nine seats, it would also enable the new government to retain a working majority of fifty-three seats in the event of defection by Fatherland and Freedom.
Prime Minister Andris Berzins, until now the mayor of Riga, is ranked in public opinion surveys as Latvia’s most popular politician. Latvia’s foreign partners will find Foreign Affairs Minister Indulis Berzins (Latvia’s Way) and Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis (Fatherland and Freedom) continuing in their posts while former Finance Minister Roberts Zile (Fatherland and Freedom) is the special minister for cooperation with international financial institutions. The government’s program underscores continuity and consistency in foreign policy, with integration in the European Union and NATO as its top priorities. Its internal program envisages completing the privatization of LASCO (Latvian Shipping Company), the Latvenergo electricity concern, the Ventspils Nafta oil transit company and the Lattelekoms telecommunications concern, under conditions of transparency and with the assistance of reputable foreign investment banks; enhancing the government’s accountability to the public; and addressing the sex scandal through curbing the sex industry and establishing an effective vice squad.
In statements which accompanied the forming of the new government, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and some of the country’s leading politicians have listed a number of chronic political problems which they expect the new government to remedy. Those problems include frequent changes of the cabinet, the lifetime of any one of which averaging barely a year; the tendency of some parties–in Vike-Freiberga’s words–to “turn the government into a battlefield of economic groupings;” a decline in public confidence in politicians and even in the political system as such; and a poor job by successive governments in building popular support for market reforms and an informed acceptance of the reforms’ immediate social costs. Skele, the outgoing prime minister, scathingly told his party’s congress–on the day when the new government took office–that Latvian politics resembles “a muddy ditch which needs to be cleaned, shovel in hand.”
Parliament Chairman Janis Straume (Fatherland and Freedom) also offered a highly critical, indeed self-critical assessment of the political situation from within the governing establishment. Addressing the legislature’s special session on May 4, the tenth anniversary of the declaration which restored Latvia’s independence, Straume deplored “the countless disputes among state institutions, cases of unlawful conduct, scandals, official corruption, legal nihilism–all of which indicate that state authorities have lost contact with society…. Political parties need to keep in mind that they represent public interests, not just partisan interests” (BNS, Riga Radio, May 4-6).
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