On 14 November 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first president of the independent Republic of Latvia. Since then Latvia had elected eight presidents. They could been more but because of the Soviet occupation the presidential institute was not working from 1940 to 1993. These presidents Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis, Kārlis Ulmanis, Guntis Ulmanis, Vaira Vīķe Freiberga, Valdis Zatlers and the present day president Andris Bērziņš have all been and are interesting personalities and played important role in Latvian history. This article will tell more about them and about the presidential institute in Latvia.
When Latvia became fully independent after wining the war of independence at 1920 the new republic needed new constitution. So an interim parliament called Satversmes sapulce (The Constitutional Assembly) was elected to write new constitution and rebuild the post-war state. One of the questions of the new constitution that Latvians called Satversme was the presidential post. How the president must be elected? What will be his authorities is Latvia going to be a presidential or parliamentary republic? However, the leftist Social democrat workers party thought that Latvia don’t need a president at all, since it resembles monarchy and Latvia did not have such tradition in the past. They said the presidential institute will be too expensive and ceremonial and will be not in the interest of the worker masses. Instead they proposed to keep the Chairman of Saeima (Parliament) as the first head of the state that will not cost so much and will not be too aristocratic. But, the center right wing parties objected this and declared that Latvia as democratic state needs a president that could in the case of need limit the parliamentary powers and keep balance in the country.
Another question was if the president was supposed to be elected in popular state wide elections with high powers or elected by parliament with representative powers only. The right wing parties feared that the people could elect left wing populist candidate like popular writer and poet Jānis Rainis. The leftists on the other hand feared that the Kārlis Ulmanis the first Prime Minister of Latvia could be elected putting great obstacles for their goals. So in the end it was decided that the president will be elected by the parliament in three years in office for maximum of two terms. The presidential candidate must be older than 40 years to be able run for office. To start his office he had to give ceremonial oath. The president had to represent Latvia in the international scene, appoint diplomatic representatives in foreign countries and meet with foreign diplomats. President was the number one commander of the armed forces. President had rights to give amnesty to sentenced criminals, summon and lead the cabinet meetings, propose laws, and dissolve the parliament. However a referendum had to bee called to dissolve the parliament completely, if the people vote in favor of the parliament the president must stand down. Also the parliament also had rights to remove the president from his office and all of his orders had to be signed by prime minister. Nothing much has changed today and the presidential authority is still strictly limited today despite numerous calls to make people elected president or to strengthen its powers. Such calls have always met opposition from coalition parties who don’t want to give up its powers.
Jānis Čakste 1922-1927
Jānis Čakste was likely candidate to take the presidential post. Born in 14 September 1859 in Liesesava parish in Semigallia He finished the Juridical Faculty at MoscowUniversity and worked in Jelgava as a secretary in Courland provincial prosecutor’s office however he was dissatisfied with his job and started personal practice as lawyer. He took great activity in social life lead the Jelgava Latvian society and was member in other societies. In 1888 he took the job as the editor of the newspaper “Tēvija” (Fatherland) where he defended the Latvian farmers against the misrule of the German barons his newspaper became the most popular in Courland.
His great speaker skills and national position made him popular and he was elected in First Russian State Council in 1906. His work in there was short lived as the Czar of Russia Nicholas II dissolved the council. Čakste joined the public protest and was arrested and jailed for three months. During the World War I Čakste took active role in leading and organizing the Latvian refugee live in Russia.
In 1917 after the February revolution he took work in Latvian interim national council foreign branch where he assisted to make memorandums for foreign countries. In 17 November 1918 he was elected as the chairman of the Latvian Peoples Council the front institution of the new state. He however received this news with delay and could not join the proclamation ceremony of Latvian republic at 18 November 1918. In 23 November he was summoned to represent Latvia in foreign countries first in Paris peace conference. He spent there a half of year and returned with positive news that he managed to make goods foundations for international state recognition of Latvia. At home he took the lead of the Latvian Peoples council that was sovereign interim power in Latvia and had rights to appoint governments.
In 1920 1 May Čakste was elected as the president of the first Latvian elected parliament the Satversmes Sapulce (Constitutional Assembly) beating social democrat Rainis with 83 votes to 48. His great reputation the wise rule was enough to elect him as the president of Latvia in 1922 14 November. With great majority of 92 votes and six abstaining with no votes against he was given unanimous trust from the parliament. Kārlis Ulmanis and Jānis Rainis resented this as they wanted to be presidents themselves.
Čakste choose his office in the Castle of Riga. He started his working days early waking up at six of clock and taking walks across the streets. He had no enemies and he walked across the streets with no guards meeting the people walking by. His workday begun at nine of clock where he gave instructions to his adjutant and secretary. Once a week a Prime minister and ministers visited him to inform him about the state affairs. President competent enough always gave recommendations and nothing was done without his word. He took time to receive private visits from ordinary people and always left good impression on everyone. He appointed 7 prime ministers, signed 402 new laws and took two diplomatic visits to Estonia and Finland.
Čakste was elected again in 1925 but did not live till the end of his second term; he died at 68 years on 14 March 1927. A great national grief was among Latvians and 150 thousand people attended his funeral. In 1931 a great grave monument was erected at his resting place in Riga at ForestCemetery that became national symbol for years to come. In 2003 in Jelgava a monument dedicated to him was reveled in Jelgava.
Gustavs Zemgals 1927-1930
After the Čakste’s death his seat was temporary taken by Saeima chairman Pauls Kalniņš. Already in 5 April a new elections were held. The right wing proposed Alberts Kvieisis the member of the Latvian Farmers Union who received 44 votes, the left wing candidate Pērteris Juraševskis the minister of interior from Democratic Center got 41 votes. Since both of them did not get the required minimum 51 votes a second vote took place with 45 to 41 making Juraševskis to call of his candidacy. In third attempt Kviesis received 45 votes with 51 abstaining. Another Saeima extraordinary meeting was called in 7 April. Kviesis now headed against non party member Voldemar Zamuel with 43 votes to 44. In second vote they went tied at 47 votes and same tied at third attempt 43 to 43. Now Kviesis fought Fridrihs Vesmanis the first chairman of Saeima now an envoy in London, 47 to 39 votes was again not enough. In second try 44 to 47 and at third try with Kviesis dropping out Vesmanis received 45 votes. Again not enough.
The nine unsuccessful votes meant that a compromise figure was needed. Social democrats found it in the person of the Defense Minister Gustavs Zemgals. First Zemgals declined such offer thinking he is not suitable for such job. He however was talked into by foreign minister Fēlikss Cielēns and in 8 April he was elected by 73 votes to 23.
Zemgals finished the same Juridical faculty as Čakste and worked for 32 years as the head of the Riga craftsman support society savings and loans bank. He also took role in Latvian Theater building construction and edited many newspapers. After 1918 as well know figure he was member of the Latvian Peoples council and deputy of Jānis Čakste. He took important role in state matters.
Zemgals kept all the Čakste administration members and had good relations with them. He appointed two governments and widely used his amnesty rights amnestying 648 persons. He was the first president who took visit to Sweden to meet the king of Sweden Gustav V in landmark visit. Gustav V in return also visited Latvia. In his years of office he was meditative figure between the various political forces and did not allow any extremes.
In 1930 Zemgals declined offer to run for second therm. He however later decided to run for parliamentary elections and was elected in all following parliaments until 1934. He was a minister of finance from 1931 to 1932 and was active member in parliament. He died in the age of 68 on 6 January 1939.
Alberts Kviesis 1930-1936
Same as Čakste and Zemgals, Kviesis was from Semigalia and was a jurist. He graduated the TartuUniversity and took active role in Latvian refugee affairs. He became a member of Latvian Peoples Council and later the deputy of the chairman. In 1920 he was elected in Satversmes Sapulce and later in Saeima. From 1921 to 1923 he took the office of Interior Minister. He was deputy of Saeima chairman in second Saeima. He already run for president office in 1927 but was defeated. Now in 1930 he run again and again a 10 voting sessions were held until he was untimely chosen. He faced social democrat Dr. Paul Kalniņš. The far left party Workers and Peasants made things worse by proposing their member Miezis simply because Kviesis in Latvian means “wheat” but Miezis means “barley”.
Kviesis during his two terms of power resembled with his inactivity. He did not propose any new laws; he never took back any law back to parliament and never called any cabinet meeting. He only fulfilled his representative duties and was the most unpopular president of all. Kviesis was great fan of music and took part in the organizing the Latvian Song and Dance festivals and opening them.
In 1933 he decided to run again facing Pauls Kalniņš as competitor, but won in first round with 52 votes to 25. Despite that Kārlis Ulmanis was from the same party as Kviesis (Latvian Farmers Union) he never informed him about his coup plan. In the night of 15 Mat 1934 he was playing cards with his friends in the palace and was informed by plotters about the coup that has taken place. Kviesis despite being the high commander of the army and all the contacts never stepped against Ulmanis. Therefore he was kept as the official head of state while Ulmanis being the real ruler. Last time when he appeared in the public was in 1935 18 November when he reveled the new Monument of Freedom. In 1936 his official term ended and he Ulmanis took the presidential office for himself. After that he again practiced jurisdiction and went off from politics. He stayed in Latvia during the Soviet occupation, was not deported but stayed under the soviet house arrest. After 1941 German occupation he took different step by joining the Latvian Self Government Juridical general direction in other words he became the Nazi collaborator. He led the general direction for one year until abstaining. In 1944 he with his family took on board the German ship to escape to Germany. He died on the ship on 9 August 1944 while leaving the shores at Daugava river. He was berried on the Latvian soil at Forest cemetery.
Kārlis Ulmanis 1936 -1940
There is a need for many separate posts about the life of Kārlis Ulmanis, his political carrier and Authoritarian rule. He was born in 1877 in Courland Bērzmuiža parish. He took the agricultural education and traveled across Europe. He was arrested in 1905 during the revolution and exiled to US. He returned in 1913. Taking important post in agricultural sector and scoring serious man reputation he achieved political recognition and became the Prime Minister of Latvia during the War of Independence.
He was elected in all parliaments and led many governments. But he was frustrated in democracy and feared the loss of power as his popularity shrink by every election so he gathered enough supporters to overthrow the government at 15 May 1934. He was successful, the coup was bloodless and the Latvian people in majority did not resist him. After Kviesis left the presidential palace all Ulmanis needed was to issue a law that made him acting president until the constitutional reform. No such reform ever took place so Ulmanis stayed as president until 1940.
The presidential post was only ceremonial and prestige for Ulmanis much of the time was still spent in the Cabinet of the Ministers. He finished is presidency in 1940 with infamous speech saying “I will stay in my place you will stay in yours!”. In reality he was in house arrest and was forced to sign every law that occupation government issued. He then was deported to Soviet Union and died in Krasnovodosk, Turkmenistan 1942 20 September.
The presidential post was restored in 1993. The modern day presidency despite having nearly the same powers as before often has a different meaning and impact society.
Guntis Ulmanis 1993-1999
His grandfathers brother was Kārlis Ulmanis making him relative of the legendary leader. G. Ulmanis was born in Riga 1939, but in 1941 he along with his family was deported to Krasnoyarsk Siberia. In 1946. they were allowed to return. He graduated the Economy Faculty of the Latvian State University. He was conscripted in the Soviet Army were he took duty for three years. After that he took office in Riga Administration in Trams and Trolleybuses, later in Riga city executive committee from where he was fired because of his surname. In 1965 he joined the Latvian Communist Party he departed from in in 1989. At seventies he took offices in consumer services.
In 1992 he was appointed as the member of the Latvian Bank council. In 1992. he joined the Latvian Farmers Union after his election he canceled his active membership in the party and became honorably chairman. He left the party in 2001. His surname was kick start for his run for presidency, he was seen as a candidate of compromise that had no political influence during the process of regaining independence.
So in 1993 the new parliament elected him as the new president. One his main achievements of the first therm was the signing the Russia – Latvia agreement of the withdrawal of Soviet Army from Latvia in 1994. He took active role in diplomatic matters and went to many countries. At his years of office he however got in peculiar situation in US when speech saying “the politicians are good liars” while actually trying to say “the politicians are good lawyers”.
In 1996 he was elected again. He took steps to abolish the death penalty. In 1998 he actively supported the changes in Citizenship laws. In 1999. G. Ulmanis formed the Latvian Historian commission to research the totalitarian regimes and their crimes in Latvia. He was active in legislation by proposing 12 laws, and turning back 18 laws.
After his second therm he continued to actively contribute to the society. He took active part in the organization of the international Ice Hockey championship in 2006 taking the head post of championship executive direction. He was one of the founders of the ice hockey club Riga Dinamo was the chairman of the club council.
In 201o he returned to politics by joining the political union “For Good Latvia!” that was made from two parties “Peoples Party” and “Latvian First Party”. Since both parties had bad reputation as the oligarch parties he damaged his reputation in the eyes of many. He was elected and worked in European and Foreign affairs commission. After the dissolution of the parliament in 2011 he left the politics and now lives a peaceful live.
Vaira Vīķe Freiberga 1999 – 2007
Vaira Vīķe Freiberga was born in Riga on 1 December 1937. Her family leaved Latvia in 1945 and went to West Germany later Morocco. Later they moved to Canada. Freiberga graduated the Toronto University in Psychology. Later she received PhD. in experimental psychology. At Montreal University she worked as lecturer in psychological studies. She also studied the structure Latvian folk songs. She has published 10 books and 160 publications.
In 1988 after being elected as the emeritus honorably professor of the Montreal University she moved to Latvia to become the first director of the Latvian Institute.
In 1999 Freiberga was again chosen as a compromise figure between various political parties. Her high intelligence and great international reputation scored main part in her election. Her main achievement was the active role in Latvian entry into NATO and European Union. She scored a great sympathy from foreign leaders especially the US president George Bush Senior. In local affairs she took larger role than ever placing pressure on parliament and putting hold on government proposed changes in security laws. Some called her a Baltic Iron Lady. She was elected again without any opponent in 2003. Liked by many and disliked by some she managed to strengthen the presidential office.
Valdis Zatlers 2007 -2011
A surgeon without any political past Valdis Zatlers was unusual choice for presidents office. Born in 1955 22 March Zatlers graduated as a doctor and worked in medical sector for large part of life. Before the presidency he lead the Riga Orthopedic and Injury treatment center scoring great reputation as surgeon. His good connection with politicians made him a candidate for presidents office. The opposition proposed much respected candidate Aivars Endziņš who was the Chairman of the Constitutional court. Zatlers was elected with 58 votes to 39. Later it was discovered that the ruling parties have chosen him as their candidate in the Riga Zoo.
Zatlers firs years in office was unconvincing, because of his poor experience and many poorly made public attendances. He accidentally said to media “Who am I?” making his phrase historic. However later he started to show himself as a serious statesman who do not obeys the party interests. He is known for his visit to Kremlin in his last year of rule at 2011.
In his years of rule he many times toyed with threats to dissolve the parliament. First time he made a ultimatum agaisnt the crisis driven government to fulfill his demands unless he dissolves the Saeima. His demands were met and he did not made this move. However in the last year of rule, it was a great possibility that he will not be elected for second therm. In 28 May 2011 few days before the election after the scandalous vote by parliament to prevent police search in one of the deputies Ainārs Šlesers also known as oligarch home, Zatlers officially dissolved the parliament. However, he still wanted re-election from the parliament that dissolved him. He was beaten by candidate from Green Farmers Union Andris Bērziņš.
After leaving presidential office Zatlers formed his own party to enter the emergency election. His party came second, but faced great failures right from the start by making unpopular moves in coalition forming process and having party split at first day of new parliament. He is now a member of the parliament and leads the Security and Defense commission. His bid to became Chairman of Saeima failed. Recently because of ongoing health problems he has resigned from his party leadership.
Andris Bērziņš concludes the long story of the Latvian presidents for now. Born in 1944, 10 December Bērziņš has education in Radio engineering and economics. He was director of industrial company RA “Elektrons” from 1971 to 1988. From 1988 to 1989 he was deputy of Latvian Soviet Republic consumer service minister. He was elected in Latvia High Council from 1990 to 1993. He then took job in business by leading the Unibank (now SEBbank) from 1993 to 2004. From 2007 to 2009 he was as working Latvanergo the energy company council chairman. From 2006 t0 2010 he was a president of Latvian Trade and industrial camera. In 2010 he was elected in Saeima from Green Farmer Party list.
Having elected as Latvian president he already was one of the richest man in Latvia with the biggest pension in whole country. His first days were infamous as he met a large opposition from the society that was supporting Zatlers. To improve his ratings he made some populist moves like giving his pay to cities and social services, giving up the escort sirens and not giving speech on Christmas and New Years Eve.
Bērziņs however has gotten into trouble for his bad speaking skills, abrupt statements making him compare to Bush Jr. or even Brezhnev. Many of his actions and spoken opinions have caused a great resentment and there campaign to asking him to resign going out right now. However, Bērziņš still has three years to prove that he is a worthy president of Latvia can live up to spirit of Jānis Čakste the first legendary president.