Only few days have left till New Years day. The year 2010 will end bringing new year for us all. People will remember this year as time of stabilization and time of new challenges. This year in Latvia was important as the election year and year of hopes of getting out of the crisis. Government worked hard to stabilize economy and keep good relations with international creditors. Also more steps was done to set new path in relations with Russia, will it bring something good for us – the time will tell. Year 2010 was also year of climate troubles for Latvia, the hot summer and harsh winter also the spring flooding. Luckily Latvia escaped harsher climate disasters that Russia experienced but global climate change will not spare Latvia in the future.
In this post we will see the main events in Latvia that happened here in Latvia in year 2010.
Elections was serious event for all political players in Latvia. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis from New Era party wanted to keep his seat after elections. But it was not an easy task since his strong rivals such as Harmony Centre wanted to win elections as well. The party ratings showed that current government parties may lose elections and that could mean swift changes. To prevent such outcome three parties joined together and formed party union called Unity. It was formed from New Era party, Civic Union and Society for Different policy. Ironically the Civic Union was mostly formed from deserters from New Era party now they united again. SDP was even questionable project because it was formed from deserters of Peoples Party- New Era main rival. Peoples Party was conservative right force but SDP waged leftist liberal ideology. So Unity was a project to keep current coalition in power.
The Green Farmers union lead by Major of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs felt comfortable enough to go on their own. The two nationalist parties For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK and All for Latvia! wanted to join Unity but were kept behind. So they decided to join forces together. It was a union of old and new. Fatherland and Freedom was the veterans of Latvian politics. They were part of almost every government. But because that they became bureaucratic and stagnate and lost popularity. All for Latvia! on the other hand was formed from mostly young generation idealists with no real experience in politics. For long time they were kept behind but their popularity grow steadily because of support from young generation voters. Both parties needed each other: Fatherland and Freedom needed to stay in parliament, the loss of Major seat in Riga showed bad prospects for them. All for Latvia! needed to finally enter real politics. Before they were known as marchers, singers and protesters but they strived for something more than protesting naked in frost against Latvia- Russia border agreement.
All these parties opposed the Harmony Centre- an union of pro-Russian parties. For 20 years Russian speaking politicians were left behind front politics. But now because of fall of popularity of Latvian parties and fanatical support of Russian voters the Centrer hoped for victory. They posed themselves as leftist party that opposes right party rule that could not handle the crisis. By this they hoped to attract Latvian voters with leftist feelings. However their leader Jānis Urbanovičs confused everyone when he warned of “Bishkek in Riga” if his party will be in opposition again. He was referring to revolution in Kyrgyzstan that resulted in ethnic violence. After that he had trouble to explain whether he was warning of ethnic conflict between Russians and Latvians or he was talking about social riots.
The elections brought surprise for Harmony Centre. Before the declared that are 100% sure that they will win. But it was the Unity who scored 31% of vote and grabbed 33 seats. Unity won because of promises to keep Latvia stable and get everyone out of the crisis. Also majority of Unity voters voted to keep Harmony Centre out of the government. It was an ethnic vote but the voters of Harmony Centre was no better, they stripped out almost all Latvian candidates from the party to get more Russians in the parliament. Harmony Centre won 29 seats. But Green Farmers Union won the jackpot- the 22 seats meant that they could enter any government and overthrow if they wish. In Aivars Lembergs hands now lays the fate of current government by Valdis Dombrovskis. National Union won 8 seats. But old Fatherland and Freedom won only 2 seats the rest was given to All for Latvia! Nationalist voters wanted new blood in the parliament. From them the most youngest deputy in Latvian history Jānis Dombrava was elected at age 22. Also in the same ranks the oldest deputy Visvaldis Lācis a war veteran and publicist was elected at age 86.
Latvian nation allowed Valdis Dombrovskis to keep his coalition. But it turned out not so easy as it seemed to be. Dombrovskis did not wanted to disappoint Harmony Centre and keep them loyal. At first he offered cooperation deal to them, but then allowed them to join coalition. However to this they must finally recognise the occupation of Latvia and withdraw the demand for Russian language as second official language. These were demands they were not ready to met and choose to stay in comfortable opposition where the can criticise the government as they did last 4 years. Dombrovskis had also trouble setting things with nationalists. Many people in Unity were afraid from young idealists from All for Latvia! To keep them out of the coalition their rivals made campaign against them. They were accused of cooperation with Chechen Mafia and anti-Semitism. All this accusations were false but was enough to keep them in opposition. So first in Latvian history the coalition was formed from only two political forces- Unity and Green Farmers. Biggest losers of this all was union between Peoples party and Latvia First Party who won 8 seats despite their massive costly election campaign. Ainars Slesers who was the vice-Major of Riga now became only a deputy. It was a failure for both oligarchs Slesers and Andris Skele who were man of importance for many years.
Since 2008 Latvia had signed deal with International Monetary Fund, EU Commission ad World Bank that summed credits to save the government from bankruptcy. Surely the creditors interfered much in Latvian affairs and some parties wanted to change the deal. First of them was Peoples party that wanted to cancel the deal or at least revise it. This was an election trick to attract anti-creditor voters. Peoples party voted against the authorization for the government to deal with creditors, but since Harmony Centrer did not participate in the vote, the authorization was accepted.
Since than Peoples Party and Latvia First Party that joined in the union called For Good Latvia strived to cancel deal with the creditors. Similar propaganda came from Harmony Centre who offered the “vast economical possibilities”" from Russia. In short they wanted turn Latvia from West to East. All of this was bitterly opposed by Unity who promised to keep contacts with creditors. In the end Unity opinion won.
But the main concern was the state budget. Last time in 2009 right after the municipal elections the government made sudden changes and made big cuts in pensions and social payments. Unity promised not to do this again in after next election, but it was a hard promise to keep since it was clear that large cuts are still needed to balance the state deficit.
After the elections despite promising not to rise the taxes government raised value added tax from 21% to 22%. Also the tax for private property was also raised. However, there should be no illusions that this would not happened if Harmony Centre would be in charge. They would do the same because economic situation would not allow any other option. That is a reality in politics that before the election there is one reality, after them there is other.
Hard situation in economy has led to bitter problem- “the shadow economics”. Business companies and taxpayers choose to not pay punitive taxes and make large illegal fortunes.
Despite all of that last year brought the growth of 2,7 % of the GDP. Industry has started to grow in Latvia also. However in fields such as book publishing and culture things are not so good because of taxes and cuts in education and culture. National book publishing is at risk in Latvia today.
It would not be Latvia without scandals and affairs. One of the most scandalous ant-government protest was so called Neogate. It all started when one gifted PC specialist discovered a hole in the State Revenue Service database. He then decided to publish the payment register of state owned services. He called himself Neo and communicated with the public using Twitter. He revealed that despite government calls to cut pays in state sector , state officials still received large pays despite the crisis. It was another let down by the government who could cut pays for teachers and doctors but could not cut their own spending. State police declared that Neo is a criminal and caught him after three months. But not only the Neo was arrested by the police but also a state television journalist who first revealed that there is a leak in the Revenue Service database. It turned out that Neo is academic worker in University of Latvia Ilmārs Poikāns. He was freed very soon but the police search in journalist apartment left a shadow on the freedom of press in Latvia.
Another scandal took place in The Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau. The director of the Bureau Normunds Vilnītis had been know for his authoritative job style and was hated by other top workers in the bureau. Finally the accused him of attempting to destroy the bureau and wrote a report containing 60 accusations for him. It was clear that Bureau is not capable of doing their task because of deep mistrust between boss and his colleges. However Vilnītis sees no problem in his work and is not ready to step down. In January parliament commission will decide what to do with the bureau workers.
During the year the media constantly watched the events in state airline AirBaltic. Its director Bertolds Fliks is an attractive businessman from Germany who is know for making scandalous schemes all year round. First he secretly bought the AirBaltic brand after it was revealed the Minister of Transportation demanded to give it back. He also wanted to make his private airline in Lithuania that would be rival for AirBaltic. He used airline planes for his private flights. In this all he saw no problem and why should he? The airline legislation is so good to him that only Fliks can remove himself from the office.
Most important matter in Latvian foreign affairs was relations with Russia. Russian government had invited Latvian president Valdis Zatlers to Moscow and all year round preparations for the visit was underway. Since Latvia regained independence there has been a tensions in both country relations. In 1994. Russia and Latvia agreed on withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Latvia. On 2006. both sides signed border agreement. It was met with angry protests since Latvian government lead by Aivars Kalvītis decided to give up all claims on lost city of Abrene now known as Pytalova. Abrene was border town that Soviet Russia handed over to Latvia in 1920. However, after occupation of Latvia in 1944 Abrene was annexed in Russia Soviet Socialist Republic and after 1991. remained in Russian side. Despite this rather shameful agreement the situation on Latvian-Russian border is worse. Transit trucks going on route from Russia to Europe always gets stuck on border checkpoints. Eastern side of Latvia is plagued by Russian contraband that is harming Latvian economy.
Russia has always troubled Latvia with claims of harsh discrimination of Russian minority. Life for Russians in Latvia certainly is no harder than Central Asia of Chehnya were Russians are fleeing to Russia. Russians can watch Russia TV channels in Latvia and use of Russian language is not prohibited. In fact Russians are eagerly enforcing Latvians to speak Russian causing conflicts on both sides. This means that Russia is using Latvian Russians as tools for their geopolitical games. Russia certainly hoped for Russian party victory in elections, but after their failure it seemed that Zatlers will not be going to Moscow this year. However, with help of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Zatlers with large delegation of 120 people went to Moscow right before Christmas. He was greeted warmly, but no important deals were signed. However both sides praised this visit and Russian gas giant Gazprom even lowered gas tariffs for Latvia. It is question what vent on behind the scenes on Latvian-Russian talks. Lets hope they were more civilised than talks with Stalin in 1939, when Molotov declared that Latvian foreign minister will not leave Kremlin until he gives up to Soviet demands.
Next important question was Latvian partnership in international mission in Afghanistan. Just right after the elections the parliament had to decide whether to continue participation in the mission. Leftists and Green Farmers wanted to remove troops from Afghanistan. It was important theme in election campaign but right after the election the parliament decided to extend Latvian partnership in the mission. Latvian soldiers are doing various tasks in the war torn country. Last task was to educate Afghan soldiers. Latvian men took part in rough battles with Taliban and received public praise from parents of US soldiers whose life’s were saved by Latvians.
Mysterious and loud event happened in December in Sudan. Latvian civil support helicopter crew was taken hostage by local insurgents. Latvian government showed stiffness in handling the crisis. It was because of lack of experience in such situations. After few weeks it was declared that crew was rescued in international rescue mission. However, soon media spread rumours that crew had broken out of the captivity themselves. The managed to grab weapons from the captors and get to nearest rescue point on their own. Latvian Foreign Ministry is still reluctant to reveal the truth. This event shows the weakspots of Latvian diplomacy.
Climate extremes in Latvia
The year of 2010 was the year of extremes in Latvia. A very cold Winter replaced with never seen before hot summer disrupted the usual temperate climate in Latvia.
The winter was cold and lowered the temperature by 27 Celsius. Last 10 years winters were usually moderate. But this time it brought terrible cold and lots of snow meaning transport troubles. It also froze many water pipes in Riga. Most notoriously it was water pipe breakdown in March when German Rock band Rammstein arrived at Riga. They planed to stage great concert with stunning fire effects. But on the same time water pipe broke down removing anti-fire support at the concert hall. Fire department demanded to cancel the concert or at least not to use thefire effects. The band and concert organizers resisted and concert went on with all the dangerous fire works. It all turned fine but fire department was shocked of such risky event.
The next biggest trouble occurred in Spring. All that snow and ice started to melt starting floods in lower areas. Jelgava was flooded completely other areas were flooded also. Luckily most riskiest areas at Pļaviņas and Jekabpils were spared.
The airport of Riga was also disturbed by volcanic ash from Iceland. Flights were cancelled for a long time.
The cold winter and hot summer was an paradise for mosquitoes who showed up in thousands. All summer they disturbed everyone who wanted to spend time outdoors at summer sun. The summer was hottest in decades. Temperature rose up to 30 degrees. Luckily Latvia escaped the hellish forest fires that occurred in Russia. Latvia send fire brigade to help Russians to extinguish the forest fires.
Right now the winter has returned, it is not yet as cold as the last one but is has again brought tons of snow, disturbing the traffic. A never seen before phenomenon the freezing rain that showed up in Christmas brought trouble for electric lines and communications.
These were the most interesting events in Latvia at year 2010. There is more to write about culture and other things in Latvia. Latvia has gone trough crisis in past two years and is hoping for recovery. The next year is Cat year, Cat is calm and smart animal lets hope his wise and calm temper will help Latvia next year.