Latvia on the Eve of a New Revolution

A023519210.jpgOn the Christmas Eve, the parliamentary foreign relation commission in Latvia decided to back the current presidential Chief of Staff as the country’s next ambassador to the United States. Perhaps more significantly, Latvia’s ex-ambassador to the US is to take up the office of Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff later this month and leaves Washington, DC, for Riga this week.
These are only the first two officially known replacements. The castling seems to be a huge change from the way things used to be in the Baltic country since it regained its independence in 1991. This is not a usual replacement of an ambassador after the end of his tenure, as the former head of the mission, Maris Riekstins, has spent only about a half of his term in Washington, DC. This is something deeper reflecting certainty of the ruling coalition and sureness of it main partner, People’s Party, on its way to reinforce its positions, also by an agreement on their candidate for the country’s next President.

Way paved to Latvian-Russian border agreement


AIA’s sources in Riga have been paying attention to the fact that the replacements are taking place simultaneously with the efforts to find solution of the scuffing Latvian-Russian border agreement that is rumoured to be signed in the nearest few months. When in May 2005, leadership of Latvia and Russia voiced their intention to sign the agreement, rightwing parties in Riga insisted on addition of a special unilateral declaration to the document, including a reference to the 1920 peace treaty between Russia and Latvia. Moscow interpreted the reference as declaration of territorial claims to the area of Abrene (Pytalovo), incorporated into the Russian Federation in the 1940s. Objections of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and her advice that the declaration could be added by the parliament after the signing of the agreement, were ignored.
Now there are clear indications that the Latvian government has decided to railroad the agreement to its signing without the ill-famed unilateral declaration. Against this background, introducing of figures that have not been directly connected with the previous position of official Riga in the jobs setting the country’s foreign policy fashion would seem a strategic approach.
Alexander Kirsteins, the rightwing former parliamentary foreign relations commission head, has already lost his mandate in the last general elections. Andrejs Pildegovics, the former presidential foreign policy adviser, will be sent abroad as an ambassador. The tenure of the country’s President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, expires this July; Russian media reported that Vladimir Putin had pledged not to visit Latvia till the end of her last term in office. Thus it is Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks who still remains in jeopardy and a near solution of political discomfort due to his presence in the Latvian foreign office is already apparent to the naked eye.

Ex-ambassador in line for big job


Maris Riekstins has been rumoured to be in line for a big job and suspension of his ambassador’s term would decidedly clear the way for this. His style of an optimistic good listener, not his political skills, in fact, has been effective and helped him to keep the previous job of the Foreign Ministry’s State Secretary (First Deputy Minister) for more than a decade. No doubt, it was also his Soviet-era functionary experience that has helped him to survive and his youthful looks that apparently had removed suspicion of his eventual collaboration with the odious old regime.
However it might be, his Communist Union of Youth (Komsomol) career between 1983 and 1991 has lagged behind almost never reminding, while other former high-ranking Komsomol officials have failed to fill higher posts under the new rule. Though the post of the Vice Chairman of the Committee for Affairs of Youth Organizations of the USSR local branch (1987-91), in fact a foreign relations department of the country’s Komsomol Central Committee, was beyond the reach of a rank-and-file Young Communist League member. The Committee for Affairs of Youth Organizations was known for its close ties with the KGB, as the contacts with foreigners were strictly controlled in the USSR, yet the Vice Chairman of the committee was a leading estimation commission member giving or denying permissions to his equals in age to travel abroad, not only an active traveller himself.
His knack of finding common language with useful people just in time partly accounts for his conundrum, sources in Riga say. Like lightning, in August 1993, Riekstins was promoted State Secretary, in fact the First Deputy Minister, from the modest post of a Foreign Ministry’s desk officer on Latvia’s relations with Germany, Austria and Switzerland. AIA’s sources in Riga explain this with his ties and affiliation with the then ruling centrist party Latvijas Cels (Latvia’s Way).
As a State Secretary, Riekstins failed to secure a favourable to his country verdict in the case of a Swedish ship’s wreck cut into scrap metal in Latvia, media say. He was criticised by the parliament as a delegation head in the sea border agreement talks with Lithuania, for bending to the neighbour’s pressure. Local media publicly censured him of involvement in a conflict of interest, as VIA Riga, the travel agency of his wife, had been providing foreign trips for the ministry employees. In spite of everything, he kept living off in his high post unless in the autumn 2004, Artis Pabriks appeared in control of the Foreign Ministry. The new Foreign Minister decided to replace Riekstins with Normans Penke, a featureless Latvia’s ex-ambassador to Russia, a former university lecturer, who had also served as a Deputy State Secretary.

Village professor with no chance to become president


Pabriks, the ambitious parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission Chairman, was appointed to head the Foreign Ministry thanks to direct and indirect support of the opposition’s leftwing parties. Initially, the leftwing People’s Harmony Party actively criticised Pabriks for his allegedly exaggerated nationalism and lack of respect towards Russia, then changed its mind and voted for him together with the coalition parties, while the rightwing For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK abstained and leftist Latvia’s Socialist Party did not participate in the vote.
Almost after two years, last May, AIA’s Simon Araloff, talking to Latvian online paper Novonews, noted: “Pabriks is a European-level politician, known and respected in the world of diplomacy. Besides, Washington is looking with favour on him”.
However, Pabriks was not held in such respect at home. When he was still a university lecturer, he was reproached of taking his stand in his articles that was promoting his getting into the ruling elite. Pabriks’ opponents claimed the assistant professor of a newly founded regional college used to adapt his analysis to the aims of the People’s Party he was one of founding members as he joined politics in 1998. In March 2004 he became a member of Saeima, the Latvian parliament and the Chairman of its Foreign Affairs Commission.
Local media say that as a minister, Pabriks, had been willing to prove to himself and his country that a pushful professor of a village Alma Mater may become a maker of big politics. He was also named a political stylist of the export version of Latvia’s image. And one should admit Pabriks has been a hard worker exercising his unenviable functions like explaining to international community the aftermath of Soviet occupation and problems of Latvia’s non-citizens, politically sensitive issues of restricted marches of ex-SS legionnaires, and gays and lesbians. Uncharacteristic to the country’s foreign ministers, though in issues related to his academic essays, Pabriks paid much attention to the country’s increasingly acute problem of prejudice against minority groups, going so far as to say last February that Latvians needed to get “vaccinated” against racism and intolerance. However, his foreign policy repeatedly earned criticism, and was characterised by the European parliament rightwing member from Latvia, Inese Vaidere, as ‘vale of tears’, ‘puny’ and a row of failures.
As recently as in 2005, Pabriks announced that he could be the official signatory of the bilateral border agreement with Russia, during the EU-Russia summit. Simultaneously he actively supported addition of the unilateral declaration to the agreement and after the failure of the planned ceremony he marked in an interview to the daily Telegraf that there’s no hurry with the agreement.
AIA wrote about a meeting last April between Pabriks and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, arranged within the framework of the informal forum of the NATO foreign ministers in Sofia. However, this meeting had not so much to do with Latvia’s foreign policy, as in fact it was determined by Russia’s efforts to get invited to the NATO summit in Riga later the same year.
Minister of Culture, Helena Demakova, also from the People’s Party, expressed her opinion one day that she would like to see exactly Artis Pabriks, “a young vigorous man with Clinton’s haircut”, a heir to the country’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Last October, rumours were spreading behind the scenes in the Latvian parliament that Pabriks, following his ministerial post replacement by Maris Riekstins, might become a Vice Chairman of the parliament, to be nominated to the post of the President next year. However, the fact that after the last elections Pabriks failed to get the parliamentary Vice Chairman’s chair, evidently shows that this version, even if it was true to certain extent in October, had been played anew by the ruling coalition frocks, and Pabriks apparently has no chance to be nominated to the presidential contest by the coalition parties.

Brilliant sinologist sent to US


Speaking at the People’s Party’s congress, Pabriks denied a possibility he might leave his post, as well as rumours about his candidacy to the presidential nomination. Daily Neatkariga commented last month that Pabrik’s positions both, keeping his ministerial post and joining the presidential race, have been eventually strengthened by the renewal of influence of the People’s Party puppet-master, millionaire entrepreneur Andris Skele, as Pabriks has been considered a member of Skele’s closest entourage.
However, returning of Riekstins from Washington, DC, evidently will not spoil any plans of the ex-Prime Minister. Riekstins, scrupulously constructing his future career, has become a member of Skele’s People’s Party this February, thus presenting his respects to the party founding father’s guidelines. The fact of his dining out together with the influential ex-Prime Minister, revealed by the Latvian Public TV channel, demonstrates the steadily growing understanding between Skele and Riekstins. Public asseveration of the latter that he is not ‘Skele’s man’ has done nothing but persuaded observers of the contrary. The latest developments have been showing that Skele might have no objections against Riekstins, instead of Pabriks, filling the Foreign Minister’s post. Simultaneously, Riekstins has evidently won favour of the People’s Party formal leader, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, who has proved it by dismissing his current Chief of Staff, Janis Dzanuskans, who has worked in this post only less than a month, as the post had to be vacated by the year’s end for Riekstins. Recall of the country’s ambassador in the US may formally seem a demotion, though for Riekstins, beyond all question, it is a planned-in-advance jumping-off place in his future career.
According to an AIA sources in Riga, in the nearest months, Riekstins will replace Pabriks as Latvia’s Foreign Minister, and the latter will leave with his German wife for Berlin as the Baltic country’s next ambassador. Back in early March, People’s Party politicians mentioned Pabriks their presidential candidate. The nine months that followed have obviously feed different considerations owing to Pabriks’ domestic and foreign policy activity. The AIA source indicated that President Vike-Freiberga had taken an instant personal dislike to the arrogant Pabriks. In his turn, her loyal Andrejs Pildegovics, until recently the Foreign Affairs Adviser to the President, currently her Chief of Staff, has deserved the trust and favour of Vike-Freiberga and in that way has been rewarded with the ambassador’s post in Washington, DC, when an opportunity had flashed to replace Foreign Minister Pabriks by Ambassador Riekstins in the near perspective. In fact, as one may guess, the opportunity did not flash itself, and was created by joint efforts and horse-trading between the Presidential Chancellery, parliamentary factions of the ruling coalition and the Prime Minister’s Office. Full support to sinologist Pildegovics, the ‘Chinese brain’ of Latvia’s foreign policy, as AIA put it, as Latvia’s next ambassador to the US, showed at the closed session of the parliamentary foreign affairs commission December 19, once again proved the premeditated coordination of actions. Local observers are confused with the appointment, coming down on the authority that in the times when all developed nations send their most able diplomats to flourishing and significant Asian countries, the country’s best sinologist is sent to the US.

Half a year without ambassador in US?


AIA’s source in Riga alleged that after 11 years in the cushy job of the Foreign Ministry’s State Secretary, Riekstins captured his largely unexpected posting to Washington as almost unlikely sacking. Even after his departure for the United States, his family remained in Latvia, simply showing that the ‘honorary exile’ of the ex-State Secretary will not last long. The source underscored Pabriks’ direct contribution to the replacement, as the minister had reportedly disrelished Riekstins’ ‘concreted’ status and his irksome assuredness. Apparently immediately after his dismissal from the de facto First Deputy Minister’s post, he had turned for advice and support to the Prime Minister Kalvitis. No wonder that a little later Kalvitis made no secret of his personal invitation to Riekstins to become his Chief of Staff. “If a person is willing to enter politics, this is the best post to start from,” Latvijas Avize cites Kalvitis. The Prime Minister explained his agreement with the current Ambassador to the US that way back they both had established “a very good relationship”, had spent much time together during the visits abroad and “solving many questions of national importance”.
Precisely a year ago, commenting on admission that following the 2006 parliamentary elections, he might take Pabrik’s seat, Riekstins told the Diena that “nobody in his life can give any guarantees to anybody, though such a question is not on the agenda [at the moment]”. At the same time already then Riekstins acknowledged he had had serious talks with the People’s Party leadership “on engaging the political process”. He claimed he was not about to leave his new ambassador’s post, simultaneously observing in his mealy-mouthed manner that there might be an exception “if the state would see that his experience should be used somewhere else”.
After joining the People’s Party Riekstins called this “a new challenge”. Asked by the daily Telegraf about the reasons of his new political sympathies, Riekstins replied, “Firstly, I got an invitation. And then I thought, why not?” He maintained he did not plan to hold higher posts or to stand as a parliamentary candidate, so there would be no obstacles to keep doing his ambassador’s job. In June, asked about his political preference, Riekstins told the press that he had chosen People’s Party, as the party, its people and activities throughout Latvia seemed sympathetic to him.
According to Kalvitis, Riekstins will assume his new office in mid-January, thereby leaving the embassy on Sheridan Circle without an ambassador for even around six months. After all, Andrejs Pildegovics, Presidential Chief of Staff and his successor in Washington, DC, can be sent to the Unites States only in June, closer to the final days of President Vike-Freiberga’s last term in office.
It may mean that till further notice Maris Selga, Deputy Chief of Mission, unfamiliar to wider public, will serve as an acting ambassador. Selga, former Director of the 2nd Political Department of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, earlier a First Secretary at Latvian embassy in Denmark.

Six months to think over

Latvia’s foreign policy will suffer no changes in case Riekstins replaces Pabriks, local experts believe. It does not seem that the leading daily Diena is right saying that [then]“it would be more complicated to reach an agreement on the works to be done”. On the contrary, in case the President, Prime Minister and the ruling coalition find common language on Riekstins as Foreign Minister, they would have to more easily find mutual agreement also on other pending matters. Coalition agreement on Riekstins, the same as the parties’ agreement on the presidential nominee, may only contribute to their aspiration to keep down differences on some other aspects, preferring overpowering the disaccord.
Daily Neatkariga admitted last month that the latest unity of the ruling coalition, naming and approving in higher positions persons, who are publicly affiliated with a certain political party or whose political neutrality has been called into question, created ground for speculations about a probable nomination of a political candidate to the office of the President.
No doubt, the executive power in Latvia, and very likely the majority of the MPs in Riga as well, will prefer a less active in domestic and foreign policy making successor of Vike-Freiberga, a person who would be content with a formal representative image and could be easily subjected to influence of the executive and MPs. At least a half of the currently known eventual candidates may conform to or agree to such requirement in face of possible selection for the highest post by the ruling coalition.
When only less than a year is spent in the MPs seat, members of Latvian parliament would be ready middle next year to vote for their presidential candidate without a twinge of conscience, however, the personality and the contribution of the country’s current President has already put certain standards which could be hardly violated even by the self-assured MPs. The successor of the multilingual ex-university professor Vike-Freiberga should be able to speak at least a few foreign languages and have some foreign policy experience, in addition, not to leave Latvia in the last place in the private contest of the Baltic troika leaders. Even in this respect, the stumpy, rich-peasant-like, bearded ex-Prime Minister and millionaire Andris Skele, named by an analyst of daily Neatkariga, devoid of linguistic brilliance of Vike-Freiberga or American English accent of Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania or Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, does not look more favourably in comparison with other figures, mentioned in this capacity in the media, such as the ex-Foreign Minister and ex-Ambassador in France, Sandra Kalniete, Foreign Minister, Artis Pabriks, European Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, or ex-Ambassador in the US, Director of Latvian Institute and ex-immigrant, Ojars Kalnins.

Only MPs have a say 


It is the People’s Party that has the levers of political influence in Latvia today and this political force will beyond doubt have the decisive saying designating the coalition’s presidential candidate.
While the sympathies of the People’s Party bosses are reportedly leaning towards the next Chief of Prime Minister’s Staff, Maris Riekstins, the AIA sources in Riga assure that at present at least three if not all four ruling coalition parties have come to terms on putting forward Andris Piebalgs, the current European Commissioner from Latvia, as their presidential candidate.
Piebalgs, born in 1957, has graduated from the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics, University of Latvia, and started his carrier as a teacher in native Valmiera. He has also worked as a Director of a department at the Ministry of Education, in 1990 – 1993 he was the Minister of Education. In the early 1990s, he was one of the top politicians of the ruling centrist party Latvijas Cels, and was mentioned among the candidates to the Prime Minister’s post.
Piebalgs has been a Member of the Parliament as well as the Head of the Saeima Commission of Budget and Finance. Since 1994 he worked as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, later – as the Minister of Finance. After suffering a painful fiasco in politics, Piebalgs resigned owing to the banking crisis in Latvia, in 1995, and he was taken into foreign service, to serve as Latvia’s Ambassador in Estonia and later in the European Union, playing a prominent role in the country’s accession talks.
In 2003, he was Undersecretary of State of the European Union Directorate in the Foreign Ministry of Latvia and in 2004 he left for Brussels to run the Office of the first European Commissioner from Latvia, Sandra Kalniete. The same year he was nominated for the European Commission by the Latvian government as a replacement for Ingrida Udre, who failed to win the support of the European Parliament in her selection hearing for a Commissioner’s position and then became the Energy Commissioner.
For all that he relatively rarely appeared on the front-pages of daily papers and has not been a man about town in Latvia, Piebalgs, a capable proven pragmatist and problem solver, has played a rather significant role in all the late events, connected with Latvia’s joining the EU. According to Latvian Public TV, “it is difficult to find anybody among diplomats, politicians or academicians who would speak negatively about Piebalgs’ skills and insight in the European politics”. Local experts, polled by the television, admitted that he was one of those who minded the shop best of all.
Results of the latest OMD Snapshots opinion poll, carried out in Latvia on December 25-27, 2006, have arranged nine eventual presidential candidates in the following order: Sandra Kalniete (20%), Ojars Kalnins (11%), Maris Riekstins (7%), Artis Pabriks (3%), European Parliament member Girts Valdis Kristovskis and Head of Presidential Strategic Analysis Commission Zanete Ozolina (both 2%), Aigars Kalvitis, ex-Hansabanka CEO Ingrida Bluma (both 1%), Andris Piebalgs (0%). It goes without saying that this is just a public opinion poll and it is most believable that there were no MPs among the polled residents. However, those are only they who matter.
Simple majority, votes of 51 out of 100 members of parliament, is needed to elect the country’s President. Big political bargain is to be expected in Latvia at the summer’s beginning at the farthest.

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