Tag Archives: Latvian Politics

Latvia 2013 The Year of Struggles

Another year is coming to an end and as always I will gather all what was important in Latvia during the 2013. The year 2012 was labeled by me as the year of quarrels, now in 2013 these quarrels have become a full time struggles. Struggles between various political forces and forces within the society have resulted in many calamities like the burning of the Riga Castle, the Zolitūte disaster and the breakdown of the Valdis Dombrovskis government. The results of these struggles are yet to be foreseen for next year as they are still unfolding in full strength. This was truly the year of Snake as the unpridicatbaly of the Snake was the eminent within the events of Latvia and elsewhere.

Municipal elections with a record low turnout

Municipal elections took place on June 1 a very hot summer day. Was this the reason for such a low participation of voters – 686 097 or 45,85% of all eligible voters? More possibly it was a political passivity within the towns and rural areas, the lack of new voters because of emigration. In such almost in every major city there were no big surprises. Cities such as Ventspils, Liepāja, Jēkabpils kept their mayors who had been in office for some 20 years. There were major changes in Daugavpils. The old leadership by Žanna Kulakova was voted out, as she made a poor move by joining the declining Reform Party and was caught up in corruption scandals. She was replaced by old time mayor of Daugavpils Jānis Lāčplēsis from the Unity. However, the most votes were acquired by the Harmony Center party. While securing stable win within the center of Latgalian region – Rēzekne, Harmony Center still is unable to take a clear lead over the second largest city of Latvia with the mayor Russian speaking population. Also the resort town of Jūrmala, favored by Russian millionaires, with one of the most unstable municipality with more than 4 mayors in four years, finally got a “stable” municipality with “just” five parties and Gatis Truksnis as the mayor. Despite his flamboyant arrogance and attempts of making a cult of personality he managed to secure leadership of the resort city. Harmony Center was unable to seize power in the major parts of Latvia, but one point of the Latvian map became their stronghold – the city of Riga, also known as the capital of Latvia.

Riga Municipality – a state within the state with a Tzar Nil Ushakov

When the young journalist Nil Ushakov from First Baltic Channel entered the politics he was portrayed as the new political hope of the pro-Russian parties. Seemingly good intellect, perfect Latvian knowledge skills and magnetic personality were what convinced many to elect him into parliament in 2006. However, the work in the  opposition was boring for him and so on the 2009 he was placed as a first runner for the Riga municipal elections. With the help of the massive election campaign, using the 9th May celebrations, assisted by the advisers from the Russian Embassy, he secured a first great victory for the Harmony Center. He however had to share his power with Ainārs Šlesers an experienced businessman and a political gambler. By leaving the New Era party and the Civic Union who later united in Unity party, Ushakov and Šļeser had a stable dual leadership. Some said that Ushakov will be just a puppet in the Šlesers hands. But, on 2010 Šļesers made another gamble to gain entry into the new parliament that proved to be a political disaster for his party. The Vice Mayor Šlesers was replaced with his party member Andris Ameriks an experienced politician. Ushakov now gained a upper hand in all the deals within Riga and started to rule as sole Tzar of the city with Ameriks as his faithful First Advisor.

The power changed the actions and the personality of the Nil Ushakov. After the failure of his party in 2011, when it failed to enter the coalition despite gaining the most votes, he made a crucial step by supporting the two language referendum initiated by the Russian nationalist radicals. He now alienated himself from the leading Latvian parties and set path to long run hostile opposition in the Harmony Center. With Harmony Center in hapless opposition within the parliament, Ushakov made Riga as a fortress that disobeys the central government. While Dombrovskis government desperately pursued the austerity policy looking to lower the state budget deficit, Ushakovs made populist moves like giving free public transport for pensioners and school students. A multi million flower pavilion with no toilets and screeching doors, enormous andministarive resource spending on boosting on political advertising. Also dark cases such as assault on freelance journalist Leonīds Jākabsons who uncovered Ushakov association with the Russian Embassy. There is no proof of Ushakov has been involved in this crime against Jākabons, but the cynical tweet by Ushakovs – “I have an alibi!” at the time of the assault showed the face of the Tzar of Riga.

With all this on 2013 municipal elections the coalition parties should have to devise a way to topple him from his throne. Instead all was done to allow Ushakov to gain victory more easy. Instead of making a united election list each party went on their own. The Unity first runner was Sarmīte Ēlerte a notable figure from the times of Third Awakening, former editor of the newspaper Diena and former Minister of Culture. She however picked up a poor election strategy by centering on the nationalist slogans, “If we loose Riga, we loose Latvia!” a slogan more preferred by the National Alliance. National Alliance took advantage of this and made Baiba Broka as the first runner a jurist, working in the Ministry of Justice. A charming, calm but also a cunning woman Broka instead of emotional nationalist slogans put forward argumented social policy and in the end National Alliance won more seats than Unity. However, Ushakov’s Harmony Center unified list with Ameriks new party Honor to Serve Riga gained 54% of votes and secured the fortress of Riga.

Ushakovs now a comfortable leader with two cats living in his cabinet to show his good side made two poor choices. First an attempt to make a special Riga resident card for people registered in Riga. People with such cards would have a cheaper public transport prices, while others registered in other parts of Latvia would have to pay more. A wave of protest soon followed against such segregation of the people of Riga. After all many people who live in other towns have a daily work in Riga, or those who live in Riga, but have declared address in other municipalities. Despite governmental disapproval, protest campaigns Ushakovs went against all odds, even by openly bypassing the law issued these Riga Citizen Cards. On December 18 the Riga Town Council issued a budget deficit of 35 million Lats. Obviously a Riga Card was a vain attempt to fix the deficit issue. Free public transport for elders and school children is not exactly free, but funded by Riga tax payers. Another mistake by Ushakov was an erratic response to Zolitūde disaster. First showing sings of strong leadership and responsibility, after the resigning of Dombrovskis, Ushakovs showed an erratic behavior of calling the Dombrovskis resignation as the act of populism and aggressively denied any calls of resignation for himself. In the end Ushakov just showed that he is just another Eastern type politician who sees the resignation as a sign of personal weakness and taking responsibility as a sign of humiliation. Just like Vladimir Putin in Russia whose party United Russia has signed a cooperation agreement.

The fight within the coalition that lead to collapse of the Dombrovskis government

Already in 2011 after the emergency elections were over the new Dombrovskis government were seen as short lived by some. There were simply too many different parties with different aims. Unity party kept their Prime Minister seat, the Chairman of the Parliament, Finance, Defense and tried to lead the coalition. The Zatlers Reform Party already loosing six elected members in the first of parliament working day was badly traumatized. The leader Valdis Zatlers soon lost his control over the party because of his illness. So the party was simply renamed to the Reform Party. But, the reforms pushed by the ambitious Minister of Education Roberts Ķīlis that met a strong resistance right from the start finally ended when he resigned April on behalf of his poor health. Later he was caught in making drunk driving which resulted in a car crash. His replacement Vjačelavs Dombrovskis is more known for his scandalous press secretary Anna Kononova who previously worked for Ushakovs. Another Reformist Edmunds Sprūdžs also faced his defeat against the oligarch mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs in vain attempts of removing him. He resigned and later left the party as the new leadership was now looking to work with the Lembergs Green Farmers. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edmunds Rinkēvičš, Minister of Economy Daniels Pavļuts and the Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis had better results, but since the Reform Party ratings are below 5% the Reformist struggle started by Valdis Zatlers has suffered a mayor defeat.

Meanwhile the third coalition partner the National Alliance was playing a partisan warfare against the Dombrovskis. Constantly threatening the bring down the government if their demands are not met, they never came close to actually do it. Fight against the residence permits in return of investments for non EU citizens, resulted only in partial victory. The Minister of Culture Žanete Jaunzeme Grende a business lady tried to instore order over the Latvian National Opera. Despite Latvian Opera artists being famous all over the world, the Opera had financial problems. Jaunzeme Grende decided that the only way to save the opera was the change Opera leadership. But, the longtime director of the opera was wealthy Andrejs Žagars, with too many connections with National Alliance rivals and vast support base of the artistic society. In the end Valdis Dombrovskis dissatisfied with the Opera scandal dismissed Žanete Jaunzeme Grende sparking anger from the National Alliance. However, Dombrovskis also decided not to cancel the removal of Žagars. In such he shot two rabbits with one shot. Opera was then taken over by famous composer Zigmārs Liepiņš known for his conservative views and connections with the National Alliance. A pyrric victory for the National Alliance.

The NA defended Žanete Jaunzeme Grende in the most aggressive way, but in this same way they wanted to remove their own minister of Justice Jānis Bordāns by excluding him from his party and asking him to resign. The official reason was his affiliation  with the Democratic Patriots an offshoot movement from NA. However, the real reason was the Bordāns desire to reform the insolvency process. Many of the NA leaders including the General Secretary Aigars Lūsis where an experienced insolvency administers boosting the party profit. Bordāns soon became involved in conflict with the NA jurist clan lead by Gaidis Bērziņš his predecessor. In the result he was excluded, despite his desire to continue working with the NA. But, NA could simply fire Bordāns from his office and replace him with Baiba Broka. Valdis Dombrovskis could only fire his ministers and he decided to keep Bordāns as the Minister of Justice. Confused NA declared the coalition agreement no longer in effect. Despite such calls, the coalition continued to work and even managed to issue a state budget for 2014. The coalition was like breaking building with unstable foundations and one great trigger was needed to destroy it completely- and that was the disaster of Zolitūde.

Latvia 2013 A year of disasters

When Latvia is mentioned on the first page of any international news page? A) Election event, B) major sports victory, C) a major disaster. Sadly enough on 2013 C) variant was the most frequent. The first event was in March during the Good Friday on March 30 223 under ice fisherman became stranded on the ice cap that was washed away from the coast. Navy ships and army helicopters were involved to get them back on the land. Fishing on frozen ice is a tradition in Latvia for decades, and every year at least 2 fisherman is lost because of unstable ice. But, when they start to fish on the ice of the frozen sea the trouble begins. Rūdolfs Blaumanis already at the end of the 19th century wrote a novel called “In the Shadow of Death” of ice stranded fisherman in the open sea. This shows how long Latvia had dealt with this issue. For news agencies like CNN this might had been amusing, but for Latvia nothing unusual and rather shameful.

The frosty winter took away 23 lives of Latvian citizens. But the hot summer was not only hot in temperature, but also in the flames that destroyed the Castle of Riga. The Medieval Castle surviving many wars, renovations had never caught a fire in his history. But on the night of June 20, when the repair workers had gone away the castle roof erupted in massive flames. The Castle again had renovation works, the Presidential residence was moved to the House of Blackheads in the main Old City Square. But, the Museum of Arts, and the Museum of National History were still working there. The whole night of June 20-21 was spent in the heroic struggle of extinguishing the flames. In the end the museum collections survived, but they will be moved to other places next year. The Presidential block however suffered the most.

The November 18 the Latvian Independence day seemed very happy and full of patriotism. Most could not imagine the calamity that took place on the late evening of November 21. A roof over crowded Maxima supermarket collapsed burying many people under the ruins. Safety services again tried to rescue people from the rubble of blocks, 3 firefighters were lost in the process. 54 people died resulting the biggest disaster in the Latvian history.

The rescue works were not over as the struggle to find the responsible begun. One blamed the Re&Re company that was responsible for the building, others blamed Maxima shopping chain because it continue to work while there was buildups of artificial garden on the roof. And also for making evacuation because of alarms that for some reason went off an hour before the roof collapsed. The Maxima response was a communications disaster when its arrogant and cynical Latvian Maxima director Gintars Jasinskis made comments that angered the whole Latvian society resulting boycott of the Maxima shopping chain. Jasinskis was later fired.

As Ushakovs and Dombroviskis was unwilling to take political responsibility that is where the President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš came in. In his first speech after the disaster he called the event as “murder” and called for political shakeup. And then he realized his words with actions. A week after Valdis Dombrovskis the longest serving Prime Minister resigned after a long conversation with the president.

Andris Bērziņš now turned everything into even greater confusion by his inability to pick up a new candidate. The Unity put forward Artis Pabriks the Minister of Defense, but since Bērziņš disliked the strong anti-Putinist Russia stance by Pabriks he was turned down. Bērziņš then added even more confusion by asking to make people elected president, with full powers over all controlling state offices like the Bank of Latvia, The Anti-Corruption Bureau, Constitutional Defense Service ect. A president with such functions will be almost Vladimir Putin in Russia. After that some even asked about the mental state of the aged president. As Bērziņš is continuing to play games by not calling an exact candidate for the Prime Minister; it makes a question – are his actions dictated by the foolishness or a rafinate political cause. After all Bērziņš was from the Green Farmers party, the party of Aivars Lembergs is looking for revenge after the dismissal of the parliament in 2011. Or an old time Communist Party official is looking for a slick way to allow the Harmony Center in the coalition. The answer for this question will reveal on next year.

The next year may be labeled as the year of changes. The new Euro currency, the parliamentary elections and many other things that will happen along the way. There were many positive things of 2013. The Song and Dance Festival, many achievements of our sportsmen and international cultural achievements. Latvia became more closer to Catalonia by its Prime Minister acknowledging their legitimate struggle for independence. A connection that must kept within the next year as Catalonia will hold a concluding referendum next year. The Dalai Lama visit was inspiring for many.

Next year is the year of the Wodden Horse for it may be a good omen fast victories, unexpected adventure, and surprising romance. It is an excellent year for travel, and the more far away and off the beaten path the better. However, as the Trojan Horse was made from the wood we must let to make 2014 go off that way. Let’s work, act and pray to make the year 2014 as the year of our personal and mutual victories!

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Latvia 2013 November Political Crisis

Collapsed Maxima Superstore that shaked the Latvian political system

It’s rather sad and frustrating to see all the events that have taken place during the last week since November 18, the day that most Latvians held dear. It also not pleasant to write about these things, but its my duty to report and say my opinion about what’s happening now in Latvia.

It was November 21, a rainy and dark day in contrast to bright and sunny November 18. Beautiful military parade was held involving NATO planes. Great fireworks display ended the rather positive and patriotic Independence day. And then on November 21 a tragedy happened that shocked the whole nation.

On 17:48 local time the State Fire and Rescue Service received news about roof collapse in Maxima supermarket Priedaine Street 20 at Zolitūde suburb. Maxima is shopping chain service from Lithuania. Entered the Latvian market in the economical growth years the Maxima soon became key player in Latvian shopping market. Its rivals are Rimi from Norway, Stockman from Sweden and other smaller shopping chains. As the name implies Maxima company is focused on maximum profit. And that was one of the reasons for this tragedy. This medium size supermarket was located in Zolitūde suburb on  the left side of river Daugava. Zolitūde named after word solitude soon became the center of national attention.

The roof had partially collapsed over the busy supermarket. As it was end of workday it was filled with people and for the worst the most part of roof had collapsed right on checkout counters.First rescue unit arrived and issued a state of severe danger. Reports described a large numbers of suffering people. Then on 19:01  the roof collapsed for the second time burying more people and rescuers under the rubble. And there was another more shocking thing: around 16:21 a fire alarm went off in the crowded supermarket asking people to evacuate. According to eyewitnesses no  proper evacuation by the shopping center administration was made. According to later statements by Maxima representatives the fire alarm was caused by welding construction in the basement. So it was considered a false alarm plus they also found unable to turn it off. However, other smaller shops like Narvesen and Drogas within the building ordered the evacuation of their employees. Maxima instead kept everyone inside that was crucial mistake. According to western safety standards even in case of false alarm the building should be evacuated until the reason for the alarm is determined. Instead only few rushed out, while others continued to shop under the breaking roof.

As enormous numbers of rescue service was brought to action, the size of rescued grew, but more worse the number of victims grew even steadily. At the end of third rescue day the final report was 29 injured and 54 dead. Along with them 3 firefighters lost their lives.

What was the cause of this tragedy? First we must describe this supermarket building project for its a unusual one: The building was completed on November 3 2011. Architectural design was by Zane Kalinka and Andris Kalinka from the local architectural firm of KUBS. It was developed by Homburg Valda and built by the company Re&Re. When the building was finished, it won the Latvian Building of the Year award. Just several months after its opening, a fire broke out in the market in which nobody was injured. At the time of the collapse, there was construction taking place, also by Re&Re. The area of supermarket was 4,750 m2 (51,100 sq ft). and cost around €1.4 million. The part of the building where the Maxima supermarket is located is owned by SIA Tineo, but originally was owned by The Homburg Group, which still owns the apartment building next to it.

The construction that took place on the roof of the working building was attempt of making winter garden with kids playgrounds. The Riga Building Administration had allowed to make construction works on the top of working supermarket. Originally the project just included green roof, however then the focus came to build garden with stone pathways. Plus the large residential building that was connected to the supermarket may have extorted its wall and destabilized the supermarket roof foundation. If this true then the building is in a danger of collapse that would bring even more tragic consequences.  More speculations follows about integral flaw in design and construction. But, the bottom line was that not one of the involved sides declined to take any responsibility until the end of investigation. Plus also they started their own investigations. And that opened door to widespread criticism and calls for resignations and swift changes. As its widely known in Latvia the investigations are slow and bring no clear results.

Ones asked to boycott or even ban Maxima chain. Others pointed their fingers at Re&RE. The company responsible also for many other grand projects like the repair works of Riga Castle, that went in flames in July during the repair works. It also turned out that one of the Re&Re built supermarkets Alfa had suffered a roof collapse on October 25 2012.  Since it happened in the night when the shop was closed the supermarket was not evacuated and the very event was kept silent. Yesterday in the State TV interview two owners of Re&RE company stated that they were not informed about it. And another roof collapse took place in Riga school also maintained by Re&Re, luckily it happened in the night right before Autumn semester. Meanwhile many were talking about the systematic incompetence and corruption in the building process that is widespread. It is no secret that many new buildings in Riga and other parts of Latvia are built in low quality. Many experienced flaws in quality just few months after unveiling, as they were built by incompetent builders. With large part of experienced builders emigrating to Western countries the Latvian building sector suffers of lack of skilled builders in all levels. Also the RE&RE as other such companies do not build themselves – they give job to lover level companies, but takes the most profit. What is worse the building companies enjoy very light control from the building inspections. On 2009 the Latvian parliament Saeima in the spirit of austerity policies closed the State Building Inspection. Since then the building inspection is only carried out by local municipal inspections. In such way the control over the buildings were weakened, and on 2013 more changes were made within the Building Law to ease the administrative control over the private builders.

This lead to question is the government of the Riga municipality responsible? Latvian President Andris Bērziņš sent a strong emotional message calling the tragedy as “murder” and called for statewide responsibility. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in his usual slow tempered style called the event as “crime” and demanded a fast investigation. The Chairman of Saeima (Parliament) Solvita Āboltiņa compared the disaster to 9/11 in America. Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual style rather blamed government and fired some members of Riga Building Inspection that signed the documents approving the supermarket construction. He however, did not saw much blame for himself.

On October 27 Valdis Dombrovskis after meeting the President Andris Bērziņs issued a resignation. Longest serving Latvian Prime Minister who survived the hardest years of crisis and the dismissal of Saeima of 2011 now made a decision to resign. It may seem that he was forced to resign by the president as he was meeting him in smile, but the left the meeting in unusual emotions and in tears issued his resignation. An event that surprised most including his party members, ministers and advisers.

Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual arrogance declined that he should resign too as he was supported by 55% of voters and he needs to finish his job, not to quit. A typical gesture of pro-Kremlin type politician who sees the resignation as the sign of weakness. Instead he would just put others to blame not himself. It’s a systematic belief caused by post-soviet thinking that taking responsibility is a sign of weakness and  vilingful resignation is a sign of humiliation.

Valdis Dombrovskis came to power when Latvia was deeply hit by the economic crisis. The previous government by Ivars Godmanis had left an inheritance of flawed state budget, nationalized PAREX Bank and International Monetary Fund connection. In his first government Valdis Dombrovskis managed to hold a government filled with hostile Peoples Party who was one of the blame for the crisis. He pragmatically pushed tough austerity measures and won the 2010 election. He led the coalition with the Green Farmers Union lead by Aivars Lembergs accused of corruption charges.  Despite heavy pressure from Green Farmers he kept his seat and was left unscarred by the dismissal of parliament on 2011. Despite his party Unity that came in third he again took the Prime Minister seat and took over a complicated coalition with Reformists lead by former president Valdis Zatlers and National Union that constantly opposed him. His third government was in constant struggle, two of the Reform Party ministers had resigned because of great criticism from the society. National Union Minister of Culture was asked to resign by Dombrovskis, while the National Union had excluded their own Minister of Justice from their party. As Dombrovskis decided to keep him, the National Union called that they no longer apply to coalition treaty. His coalition was slowly collapsing, but most predicted that it will last till the 2014 elections. Because there was no one good enough to replace him.

What is the political future of Latvia? It will be tough work to find a proper candidate, most parties have seldom choice of leaders especially National Union and the Reform Party. As Dombrovskis has stated that he will not lead the next government the Unity will had to wage struggle to keep the power. Green Farmers will probably try to enter coalition. Harmony Center actions are unpredictable as their may ally with  Green Farmers to secure power or will stay in opposition to gather forces for 2014 elections. And the responsibility of the President Andris Bērziņš in this situation is crucial.

In the eve of 2014 elections such situation is unbearable. The political rivalry could overshadow the Maxima disaster investigation. The stable currency change from Lats to Euro may be strained. A national ethnic rhetoric may again rise as opposing nationalist groups will try to gain attention. Russia who has become excessively hostile to most Western countries may try to take advantage of this situation. And new political forces lead by re-emerging politicians as Einars Repše and former state  controller Ingūna Sudraba will use to boost their political capital. Latvia is in for political rivalry and social instability. Rationality and carefulness can bring us to better while irrational and dubious politics may bring us in to nowhere.

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Modern day Latvia

Latvian Government lead by Māris Gailis on 1995

Latvian Government lead by Māris Gailis on 1995

It’s a bit too early to write a history of the last twenty years of the independent Latvia. Many things that happened and happening right now needs a greater period of time to objectively understand them. Only now Latvian historians are starting to understand the period of the Soviet occupation that was not so long time ago. And me who spent most of youth in the 90ies and 2000ies are not the one to fully describe this time.

Latvia began its second period of independence on a rocky road. The transformation from Communism to Capitalism was a painful experience for many. The difference between Latvia and Russia that Latvia actually had an experience of capitalist economy. So it was Latvian will to restore the former glory of pre-war Latvia.

To enter the free market economy many things had to be sacrificed. Most of the Soviet industry including VEF and Radiotehnika went bankrupt leaving thousand of unemployed people.  There were many reasons for this – 1) the Soviet industry was only made for the Soviet market that broke down completely 2) large part of the civil industry was actually secretly used by the Soviet army 3) Latvian government made an insufficient privatization program that allowed many to do schemes and ruin the enterprises that could be saved. Similar problems happened in the countryside where long hated collective farms were disbanded. However, the new local landowners could not accumulate all of the cultivated lands. In both cases the new private owners of factories and farmland lacked recourses to develop them. Lack of money and working force was the reason why so many things made during the Soviet times went to waste. The new Latvian government could make a pragmatic slow transition to free trade market like Slovenia. However, the newly elected Saeima was again caught up in endless multi-party struggle. A banal reason for the failures of the 90ies was simply the incompetence of the ruling people and will to gain easy money.

Until the new elections in 1993, the official government was the Higher Council of the Latvian Republic a relict from the Soviet past. The leading Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis started a wave of reforms and was best remembered for his portable stoves he introduced for houses without no central heating. The time of 1991 to 1993 was the time of the great lack of recourses and rather chaotic privatization.

Latvian politicians did not learn from the past experiences of the too many political parties. In 1993 the Saeima was elected again since 1931. The Latvian Popular Front that led the independence movement had broken into many movements. It did not even make it to Saeima.  Instead the ex members of the communist party and new born politicians formed a “Club-21”. It was a political interest group that formed a new mass party called “Latvian Way”. It was a right wing centrist party that scored 36 seats in the parliament. The Latvian National Independence Movement (LNIM) scored 15 seats, “Harmony of Latvia, Rebirth and Economy” won 13 seats, Latvian Farmers Union 12 seats, The Russian minority party “Equality” 7 seats, For Fatherland and Freedom 6 seats and Latvian Christian Democrat Union (LCDU) 5 seats. 15 other parties did not gain a single seat.

The fragmented parliament opened the way for the governmental instability that was present before the war. Two short lived Latvian Way governments by Valdis Birkavs and Māris Gailis failed to meet the expectations of the people. Māris Gails ended his reign in 1995 when the country was caught in its first major bank crisis. The Banka Baltija was a large holder of deposits that collapsed because of the scams of their owners. In result large number of people lost their money and the government was unable to return it. For many years the people responsible for the bank collapse was not sentenced showing the impotence of the Latvian juridical system.

The elections of the 6th Saeima on 1995 was even more frustrating. It was the rise of the populism caused by the economic crisis. The Democratic Party Saimnieks (Landlord) gained a 18 seat lead by Ziedonis Čevers, a Minister of Interior during the Godmanis government. Latvian Way scored 17 seats. The Party lead by eccentric German national Joachim Zigerist won 16 seats. Fatherland and Freedom 14 seats, LNIM and Green Party union – 8 seats, Latvian Union Party -8 seats, LFU, LCDU and Latgalian Democratic party-8 seats, Peoples Harmony Party-6 seats and the Latvian Socialist Party -5 seats. That was the apogee of the political instability. No one was able to form a stable government. Then the president of Latvia Guntis Ulmanis elected in 1994 a relative of Kārlis Ulmanis step in proposed and independent candidate – successful non party businessman Andris Šķēle. He managed to lead the country from 1995 to 1997 with two cabinets. During this time certain stability was reached and people started to lose faith in populist parties.

 Latvian people came across on a very sad reality. First: many leaders of the independence movement had lost it’s place in Latvian politics right after the restoration. Instead the political arena was taken by the new born businessman, functionaries of the ex communist party and people who had no connection with the struggle for independence. Second: Latvia inherited heavy burden from the Soviet past – the Soviet immigrants. They did not want to leave and Latvia was unable to force them. The ex Soviet forces now the Army of the Russian Federation was still in Latvia until the full withdrawal in 1994. In so the attempts of decolonization could cause similar bloodshed as in Moldavia and Caucasus. The first instance of the Citizenship law made in 1994 was very strict granting citizenship people born before 1940 and their descendants. That left a large part of the Soviet immigrants. This made Russia to start a constant campaign against Latvia who accused her of discrimination of the Russian speakers. The citizenship law had been improved many times allowing people to naturalize more easily. Until this day some 326 735  people are still without proper passport. The process of naturalization has slowed down because many have chosen the Russian citizenship instead and those remaining are simply unable to pass the language laws. Others want automatic citizenship.

These two problems also the economic failures because of it made many protest groups. The ones who resent the current political system and strive for more national authoritarian government, others who want to revise back to communism. And the third part of people who oppose the government by simply leaving for another country.

The most important decision made by the early leaders was the goal to join the European Union and NATO. It was a door to both economic and political stability and most external security from Russia. The path to integration was hard as Latvia had to fill many obligations, but it was a logical step. Knowing the pre-war experience when Latvia was mostly on its own the membership of the EU and NATO who were seemingly strong at that time was a right move.

The elections of 1997 was a victory for the new Andris Šķēle party known as the Peoples Party (PP). Second came the Fatherland and Freedom, third Latvian Way. Russian Peoples Harmony Center, Latvian Farmers Union, and Latvian Social Democrats the New Party lead by emerging businessman Ainārs Šlesers. This was the landmark election as it sets a new order of the parties that was lasting for many years. The top political leaders – Andris Šķēle, Ainārs Šlesers and the major of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs who supported the LFU became the main political players. Later they were called oligarchs, the A team and was associated with corruption and state forgery. Aside from them the old timer nationalists gathered around The Fatherland and Freedom. In theory they believed in the ideals of the independence movement, but in practice they were caught up in the corrupt political games. The other side growing stronger over the years was the Russian party lists that were born out of remnants of the Interfront movement and new generation of the Russian speaking politicians. As the most Latvian parties except the Social Democrats was right wing, these Russian speaker parties posed as leftist. As the amount of naturalized soviet immigrants rose up this political fraction became stronger to the level until this day. And not without the help from Moscow.

Allegoric painting showing Andris Šķēle as the new God of the Latvian politics

Allegoric painting showing Andris Šķēle as the new God of the Latvian politics

Andris Šķēle won elections, but lost the Prime Minister seat. The nationalist Guntars Krasts became PM, but was replaced by Latvian Way Vilis Krištopāns on 1999. Andris Šķēle finally took back the PM seat in 1999, but May 2000 lost it to New Way Andris Bērziņš (not to confused with the current President of Latvia).

The elections of 2002 brought new political faction in the Latvian politics. The president of the Bank of Latvia Einars Repše decided to stand against the oligarch parties. His new party The New Era achieved 26 seats, Peoples Party 20 seats, Latvian Farmers Union 12, the Ainars Šlesers Latvian First Party – 10 seats, Fatherland and Freedom 7 seats. The Russian party “For Human Rights in United Latvia won 25 seats marking first great success of the Russian fraction. The old timers Latvian Way was voted out of the parliament.

Einārs Repše became the PM and issued ambitious reforms and austerity policy. During his reign, Latvia finally joined the EU. The referendum results was 67,5% for and 32,5% against. Some say since the treaty for joining was signed before the referendum, it had no real effect. However, Norway had signed the treaty for joining EU twice and twice it was rejected by the Norwegian people. And Norway never became the member of the EU. Latvia officially joined the EU on May 1 2004.

In the same year on April 2004 Latvia joined NATO. Latvian National Armed forces were finally found eligible for such organization. Latvia had taken part in the peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Consequently Latvian Armed Forces joined the peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali.

NATO summit in Riga 2006 Vaira Vīļķe Freiberga in the middle

NATO summit in Riga 2006
Vaira Vīļķe Freiberga in the middle

From 1999 the new President of Latvia was Professor Vaira Vīķe Freiberga an exile Latvian from Canada. With her great intellectual skills and charisma she gained much respect and admiration in the Western world. Her efforts boosted the joining the EU and NATO. Her tough stance on justice and corruption also made many politicians worried.

Repše did not manage to hold until the official joining in both EU and NATO. He was forced to resign after inter-coalition conflict. The leader of the Green Farmers Party in union with Latvian Farmers Party Indulis Emsis took power. He however made a minority government since the New Era party was against him. On December 2004 his coalition member Aigars Kalvītis from Peoples Party deposed him by voting against the state budget. In a conspiracy a period of oligarch influenced politics followed. Aigars Kalvītis took the PM office, three A – Team parties PP, LFU/GP and Latvian First Party made the monopoly of power for years.

The entry into the united European market opened doors to many goods and many evils. Latvia was overblown with foreign investments; Swedish banking took over most of the local bank sector. Latvia received EU funding. Areas such as education and road building benefited. Soon it also became the source of corruption to gain EU funds for scam projects.

The evils were the completely opened European workforce. Latvians slowly started to travel to places as Ireland, the UK and Germany for better paid work. Latvia reached the EU levels in prices, but not in pays. Another old problem that came from EU was the “servant syndrome”. The servant attitude to foreign powers was inherited from the times of serfdom and became pathologic during the Soviet occupation, when local communists were the most zealous of all to meet the Moscow demands. In the same way the Latvian bureaucracy was eager to meet every EU obligation and recommendation. Sometimes such diligence was disastrous as in example of ridiculous restrictions in the fishing industry that was struggling for years. And also the completely incompetent full liquidation of the Latvian sugar industry. However, it was not 100% strict order from Brussels to destroy all the sugar companies. The owners had a choice either to limit their production and make adjustments or sell their companies. They choose the easy way and sell the companies for large sums of money. Estonia, Lithuania and Poland on the contrary had many times defied the EU demands, interpreted them on their own and used the EU as practically they can get.

The modern Riga skyline - The Swedbank headquarters. Symbol of the so called fat years

The modern Riga skyline – The Swedbank headquarters. Symbol of the so called fat years

The 2006 election was the victory for right wing A team parties. Peoples Party and Latvian First Party used holes in the election law to make a large scale election campaign funded by third party organizations. The massive deception using notable personalities who praised the ruling candidates resulted that in the first time after the regaining of the independence, the ruling parties received a mandate to rule further. The 2006 was also the first election for the Russian party block The Harmony Center.

Aigars Kalvītis took the PM seat again. The economics were booming, real estate market and bank credit business flourished. Kalvītis made an infamous New Year speech where he declared “If no foolishness be done, then we are awaited by seven rich years, fat years if we remember the story about the Joseph!” He promised that Latvia will achieve the European levels of prosperity and Latvians will not work in foreign lands, but be the masters of own land.

The ruling coalition tried to achieve this with little interference in the free market. Swedish banks and local as well encouraged people to take loans for their new homes as the real state market was doing well. From 2006 to 2008 an illusion of prosperity came to many. The austerity was in the past, as Ainars Šlesers declared “It’s time to push the gas pedal!”

However, already in 2003 the British historian Niall Ferguson predicted that the real estate bubble in US will someday burst starting the global economic crisis. As the time went by more people in Latvia also warned of the impending burst of the Latvian economic bubble. People such as the president of the Bank of Latvia Ilmārs Rimšēvičs were ignored by the government. An eminent problem became the inflation that the government was unable to tackle.

However, it was not the faulty economic policies that lead to downfall of Kalvītis. It was an arrogant abuse of power. First such abuse was done in 2007. Vaira Vīķe Freiberga finished her second term in office. Kalvītis felt resentment after she blocked the provisions in the security law. So he needed a loyal president. And in the secret meeting in the Riga city zoo, a famous surgeon Valdis Zatlers was chosen as the right candidate. The fact that a man with no political background was put forward for the highest office of the state was seen as arrogance of the ruling parties by many. The Russian party Harmony Center placed their candidate – Aivars Endziņš – the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, but Zatlers was elected sparking great resentment.

Then Kalvītis went further and tried to remove the head of Anti-Corruption Bureau Aleksejs Loskutovs who was inconvenient for him. However, Loskutovs saw this as an illegitimate act and seek legal action. He was supported by massive protests and people went against Kalvītis corrupt arrogant government. After 3 years of rule Kalvītis resigned on December 2007.

The mass movement against the Kalvītis government was nicknamed the "Umbrella revolution" because of the bad weather that made protesters to bring their umbrellas

The mass movement against the Kalvītis government was nicknamed the “Umbrella revolution” because of the bad weather that made protesters to bring their umbrellas

The Ivars Godmanis came back as PM. He was a long time member of the Latvian Way party and took part in the Saeima. After the Latvian Way went decay and joined with the Latvian First Party Godmanis continued to work in politics as the Minister of the Interior affairs.

Godmanis started good; however he excluded the New Era party from his government that was the instrumental of so called “Umbrella Revolution” that achieved the downfall of Kalvītis. Latvia marked the 90 year anniversary on November. But the long predicted global economic crisis started in the US in August and later reached the EU. At autumn the Latvian locally owned bank the Parex went bankrupt. Godmanis took the step and went to bailout. The bank was nationalized. Again there were certain elements of unlawful activities and two former owners of the bank are in court.

Soon it became apparent that because of the burst of the real estate bubble and inability to cover all the costs the Latvian state budget is in real danger. Kalvītis declared that he has achieved the only surplus state budget in history. Now it turned out that Latvia may be heading for default. Godmanis was forced to ask for International Monetary Fund support. Whole Europe and especially Sweden were desperate to save Latvian economy.

On January 13 2009 the anger about the crisis erupted in full scale riots in the streets of the Old Riga. Valdis Zatlers issued a tough warning on Godmanis to make political changes or risk the dissolving the parliament. Godmanis survived however on March 2009 national resentment and mistrust by the president forced him to step down. Finally the New Era party had a chance to revenge on the oligarch parties. Aivars Lembergs had been already infamous about his corruption charges that lead him to temporary arrest and removal of the major powers of the Venstpils city. However, he has kept his major seat until this day and still holds great influence despite the charges. Andris Šķēle had already left the active politics in 2003 and lead the Peoples Party from behind. Ainārs Šļesers was in active politics. All three parties experienced the great downfall of the voters support. So they were not ready to take responsibility. The new PM from the New Era party Valdis Dombrovskis said: “Other parties had thrown the power upon our feet!” Contrary to eccentric Einars Repše, arrogant Kalvītis and erratic Godmanis, Dombrovskis is cool and well balanced man who could keep calm in most serious situations. Under his guidance Latvia went trough hard austerity reforms that made many unemployed and cut pensions. Latvian Education system and health care suffered greatly.

On 2009 historical turnout was reached in the Riga Municipal elections. The Harmony Center together with the Latvian First Party secured wins in Town council. Nils Ušakovs became the first Russian major of Riga. On 2010 The Harmony Center was wowing to win the Saeima elections and enter the parliament. Since the Harmony Center was union of many Russian parties, the Latvian parties also decided to gather forces. The outcome was rather strange: Unity was formed from New Era Party, Civic Union that actually broke away from New Era and also Fatherland and Freedom, and breakaway party Society for Different Policy that from dissenters of the Peoples Party. Two nationalist parties – the old Fatherland and Freedom/LNIM and new All For Latvia!, Joined to form a National Alliance. And two failed oligarchic parties – the Peoples Party and Latvian First Party/Latvian Way joined in For Good Latvia Block. 3 Latvian party unions against one strong Russian party union, plus the Green Farmers block lead by Aivars Lembergs. Harmony Center declared that are they firmly sure that they would win the elections. However the Unity managed to score 33 seats, Harmony Center – 29, Green Farmers – 22, For Good Latvia – 8 seats and National Union – 8 seats. Unity and Green Farmers formed a two party coalition that proved to be unholy union. Unity politicians and Dombrovskis himself soon found that the coalition work is heavily influenced by Lembergs, who was still in court (and still is). The relations between those two parties became volatile, but nobody was ready to finish them, because there was no real alternative.

Then one of the most decisive moments took place. President Valdis Zatlers looked for support for re-elections. During his four years in office he tried to wash away the reputation of oligarch elected president. He was no longer respected by the Peoples Party that went decay, Green Farmers also sought to remove him. The Unity was reluctant but openly declared support for his re-election. As the re-elections were heading close an unprecedented event occurred in the Saeima. Ainars Šlesrers received as a search order from the corruption bureau.  However, his deputy immunity required a parliament vote to allow the search and persecution. Saeima voted against. The vote was secret, but it was obvious that the oligarch parties and the Harmony Center voted against. Valdis Zatlers used this as a pretext to fulfill his long desire to dismiss Saeima. On May 28 in historical speech Zatlers issued an Order Nr.2 to issue the referendum to dismiss Saeima. He explained that the oligarchic rule is enough and it’s time to elect new parliament that defends justice.

The reaction from the ruling coalition and the parliament was not overly positive. To revenge on Zatlers, the dismissed parliament proposed new candidate Andris Bērziņš from the Green Farmers fraction. He started as the chief of the executive Soviet of Valmiera, later joined Latvian Peoples Front and voted for the restoration of the independence. He achieved great wealth by working as the chief of the Unibank and Latvanergo. He is the wealthiest retired person in Latvia. As Zatlers was still candidate for presidency he was voted against and Andris Bērziņs became the new president. Seen as stooge by the dismissed Saeima Bērziņs was booed by the angry crowd and still has not attained significant support.

Zatlers however did not back down. After the absolute majority voted for the dismissal of the Saeima, he founded a new party. Zatlers Reform Party was the mixture of the members of the old presidential administration, careerists and idealists. However, Zatlers failed to gather popular intellectuals in his party. The election of the 2011 was another turning point. Harmony Center won the elections, Zatlers Party came in second, Unity third, the National Alliance and Green Farmers also made it.

Harmony Center was unable to form the government themselves. They even lacked proper candidates for the Minister posts. The overall standpoint was not to allow Harmony Center into the government. But, then Zatlers came out with an imprudent proposal to form the government with the Harmony Center. In the time of one day the national hero turned into national traitor. It is possible that during his visit to Moscow where he met Russian leaders Putin and Medvedev, Zatlers had privately promised to support Harmony Center entry into the government. To put a more misery to his action Zatlers even said that his decision can only be changed with tanks, sparking memories of June 17 1940. After large opposition from National Alliance and Unity and protests within his own party, Zatlers withdraw his decision. A new government lead by Valdis Dombrovskis, a third time in office was formed. A “Justice Coalition” made of Unity, Zatlers Reform Party and the National Alliance were formed.

The initial battle against the oligarchs had been won, Andris Šķēle and Ainars Šlesers was voted out of the parliament. Ainars Lembergs Green Farmers had been placed into deep opposition.

But, a new national battle was called by the Russian national radicals and the Harmony Center. An ex national Bolshevik Vladimirs Lindermans and his henchmen managed to gather petitions for Russian as the second national language. After it was officially supported by Nils Ušakovs the major of Riga and the leader of the Harmony Center the referendum had to happen. On February 2012 more than 80% of people turned down the two state language solution. But, the radicals had achieved to spark an ethnic confrontation. Similar referendums took part in Ukraine and the Russian occupied territories of Georgia.

The Russian influence of Latvia has been growing steadily over the years. If the Latvian government had given citizenship to all soviet immigrants in 1994 the ethic confrontation had begun earlier. It’s doubtful that the new citizens would support the Latvian right wing parties. The majority of the naturalized citizens vote for the Russian parties anyway. If the ethnic confrontation on the parliamentary level had already occurred after 1994 Latvia would have a harder time to join the EU and NATO. However, because of the help of the Russian soft power and local unwise Latvian politicians the ethnic confrontation steadily formed. Latvian media are filled with Russian radio and TV. The local Russian press is one sided, their cable and satellite TV is filled with Russian retranslated TV sparking Putinist propaganda. Russia has installed many so called “compatriot NGO’s” who supports Russians outside Russia. Russian Foreign intelligence has proven connections with many parties including Latvian. Latvia is one of the weak spots on the EU and NATO map who is prone to even greater intrusion from Moscow.

Book by Dombrovskis and economist Anders Aslund explaining the Latvian crisis policies

Book by Dombrovskis and economist Anders Aslund explaining the Latvian crisis policies

On 2012 -2013 Latvian government declared that the recession has been ended and new growth has been begun. The International Monetary Fund mission ended in 2013. The heavy austerity policies, tax raise and pension cuts that averted state bankruptcy, but made many unemployed and boosted the immigration was called “a success story”. After all the relative recovery and growth was reached. To justify his long years in office and his policy Valdis Dombrovskis pushed for Latvian entry into the Eurozone. This was achieved in 2013 and on January 2014 Latvia will change Lats to Euros. This was done regardless of the opposition and skepticism, Dombrovskis managed to escape from referendums and stiff parliamentary opposition. We will see how good will be this step in Latvian future, but it will be beginning of the New Era.

The true Latvian success story is not made by the government, but by our people. Our talented opera singers, movie directors, actors and sportsman who have brought positive outlook about Latvia. Creativity, willpower and physical strength used for wise and just means are what can bring Latvia forward.

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Kārlis Ulmanis Authoritarian Regime 1934-1940

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol for future single state party

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol of future single state party

Latvia as many other nations were the pioneers of the parliamentary democracy. The hopes for political freedoms were high as Latvian politicians made one of the most liberal constitutions of those times. The election law was also very generous as no percent cap was made and  only 100 signatures were needed to form a party. The good intended policy soon turned into a chaotic political struggle between various parties. Two largest political forces – The Latvian Farmers Union and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party never managed to achieve political prominence because they had to mingle with the small parties. This caused resentment in many and opposition against the parliamentary democracy grew stronger every year.  Obvious opponents of the parliamentary system were  radicals both left and right wings. Latvian Communist Party worked in underground by the guidance of the Comintern and various nationalist movements also strived for dissolution of the parliament (Saeima). However, as in many cases abroad the people who destroyed the parliamentary democracy were the ones who actually helped to make and took part in it. They were so called founding fathers – the leaders of the wars of independence whose ambitions were limited by the parliamentary democracy. For Poland it was Jozef Pilsudsky, for Lithuania Antas Smetona, for Estonia Konstantin Päts.

Kārlis Ulmanis was born on September 4 1877 at a Bērze parish house called “Pikšas”. He was the third son in a wealthy land owner family.  As a third son, he was sent to various educational facilities. He studied at Zurich and Leipzig universities and earned an agronomist diploma. His entry into politics begun with the revolution of 1905. Czarist authorities sent him to Pskov prison where he spent a few months. After release he went to Germany where he worked as a teacher in Agricultural school. From 1908 to 1909 he was at Nebraska University Lincoln Industrial Agricultural college. After graduating it, he opened his milk farm in Texas.  But, his homeland was more dear to him, so he returned to Latvia in 1913. He resided in Valmiera and worked as an agronomist and the editor of the newspaper “Zeme” (Land). During the First world war he  worked in the refugee support committee. After the February revolution of 1917 he again could start his political career. His biography was perfect: son of a rich farmer family, diplomas from foreign universities, took part in the revolution of 1905 and took part in the important refugee support work.

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

So no wonder his designed political force was called the Latvian Farmers Union. Founded by his own initiative and him as the chairman the LFU soon became the leading force. By scoring support with his charisma and willpower, he took the role of the Prime Minister of the Provisional government in 1918. He led Latvia during the War of Freedom from 1918 to 1920 and became widely recognized by the Latvian nation.

 He continued to take part in the Latvian politics and was elected in every election. Many times he again took the role of the Prime Minister, he also served as foreign, war, welfare and agricultural minister. Ulmanis also tried his hand in the business, by founding the Latvian Farmers bank that turned out to bee short lived project. As the years went by his political image faded. Many blamed him for corruption, others noted that Ulmanis was too friendly with national minority party leaders especially Mordehai Dubin the Jewish orthodox politician. The last election results showed a dreadful possibility for Ulmanis not to be elected in future elections.

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

The opposition against the democratic system started to rise in the late twenties. In the first discussions were merely about changing the constitution (Satversme) or the election law. However, the leading parties especially LFU discovered that making the election law will hurt them too. Then in early thirties various proposals for changing the constitution appeared. The  usual call was for the president elected by the people not by parliament and making his powers stronger. The idea of a strong personality that would replace a quarreling parliament of 100 men was stronger than ever. The right wing Nationalist Union and the Ulmanis supportive block of the LFU was for this notion.

On October 24 1933 the LFU fraction proposed a radical change in Satversme. 100 parliament seats should be minimized to 50, the age of voting raised 21 years and president is elected by the people for five years. The presidential powers could allow him to dissolve parliament, remove ministers and suppress civil and political liberties. The proposal was not rejected but in usual style sent for examination at the parliamentary commission. That would take long months and that is what Kārlis Ulmanis needed. He was already plotting a coup and long unearthly discussions to divert attention is what he required.

Kārlis Ulmanis was a believer of the strong, solid government with the complete support of the people. He predicted the coming of the new age of unity. His ideal politician was the British dictator Oliver Cromwell, who was the leader of the English civil war and later deposed the parliament. His two close aides were Vilhelms Munters and Alfrēds Bērziņš.  Important ally was General Jānis Balodis also an independence war hero. With his high rank and influence in the Latvian army he devised the plan for the coup. Two other affiliated supporters were Marģers Skujenieks an ex moderate leftist now a nationalist and long time nationalist leader Arveds Bergs.

Conspiracy has begun in summer 1933 and continued until spring 1934. Ulmanis was also a Prime Minister that time that made the job easier. His military supporters took time to gather loyal army units. The most significant achievement was the support from the Aizsargi – civil guard a popular paramilitary organization. They would act as police and ensure order in rural areas.

There were also conspiring forces like nationalistic movement “The Legion” lead by “kopvedis” Voldemārs Ozols.  Their inspirations were uncovered by the secret police and their leaders were arrested few days before the coup. Another nationalist movement “Thundercross” despite sparking anti-governmental agenda was actually preparing for elections. Ulmanis was actually quite sympathetic to them, however their negative stance on LFU proposed changes in Satversme was a negative surprise for him. Eventually the “Thundercross” movement turned out to be the most active underground resistance movement against Ulmanis regime. Meanwhile Latvian Social Democrats that had the most largest arsenal of weapons and supporters was warning everyone  about the coming danger against democracy.

A similar coup took place in Estonia few months ago, Lithuania had already deposed of democracy in 1926. Nazi’s came to power in 1933. The heated rumors about communist/nationalist/military conspiracy was good enough for Ulmanis to call a cabinet meeting on May 15  to inform about expected riots by “the criminal elements”. Therefore an extra security was needed for main governmental buildings including Saeima and the House of Cabinet and also the Postal and Telegraph center. At 19:25 the last parliament session ended. Social Democrats were joking to Ulmanis to treat them as nice as could if he really makes a coup. Ulmanis replied: “Sure as best as I can!”

The conspirators went to jachtclub to play a card game. There Ulmanis said that the time has come. In 23:00 the telephone communications were shut down. At the same time police raided the Social Democrat headquarters. The only shot that was fired during the coup was made by social democrat Bruno Kalniņš that fired his pistol at the ceiling as a protest to his arrest. Despite having arms social democrats were taken by surprise and did not resist. Conspirators moved to the Foreign Ministry. At 8:00 in a morning Ulmanis visited the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis to inform about the coup. With resentment Kviesis accepted the  coup. This was one of the most civilized coups in Europe despite the heavy army and police involvement.

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

The official explanation for the coup was that other radical organizations were intending to seize the power, however the parliament was too weak to resist them. Also the unstable international situation was blamed. The reaction against the coup was passive. LFU elected deputies were quite sad about losing their jobs so as the other right wing parties. However, they seen Ulmanis as the lesser evil and silently resigned from their posts. Radical socialists decided that resistance is useless and decided to ally with the Communists and go underground. “Thundercross” was utterly surprised and was angry that Ulmanis had stolen their ideas. In so decided to go against Ulmanis. National minority leaders were worried about loosing their status. Mordechai Dubin called Ulmanis and said “If I am no longer needed here, I will leave!” Ulmanis however talked him out of it. The overall reaction from the people was passive and even welcoming.

The new authorities made arrests. The social democrats were arrested the most. With almost no use of violence, expect broken doors and windows people were taken to Riga Central Prison or the Liepaja Concentration camp. The target groups were social democrats, Thundercross, Jewish socialists and German and Austrian socialist emigrees that werre exiled from Latvia. 503 social democrats, 128 Thundercross members, 15 Jews, 2 Belorussians, one German, and a few members of the right wing parties were jailed. The main scapegoats for the coup – the Legion members were already jailed before May 15 and only six of them were taken into custody after it. Only a few people were actually put on trial and sentenced. The usual sentence was four months in the correctional facility.

The so called Liepaja Concentration Camp had 369 prisoners. The purpose of the camp was to keep the people from making trouble for some time then let go. The conditions of the camp were fine comparing to Nazi and Soviet camps. Until the end of the year nearly all people were released from the prison. The camp was closed in 1935.

Ruling regime fired many people from state sector considered unloyal. All 109 official political parties including LFU  were closed. 113 societies were either closed or demanded to close themselves. Most closed societies were leftist based. A censorship was issued and 50 newspapers were closed. Newspapers were banned from discussing social and national issues. For the first time it was banned to write bad remarks about other ethnic nations.

The press analysis of the 1933-1934 shows relative rise of antisemitism and social tensions within Latvia even in the rural areas. The growing radicalization on both wings was halted by the Ulmanis regime. We may suggest that political radicalization inspired by the Nazi Germany and the falling popularity of the ruling parties may cause greater danger than on May 15. If so then Kārlis Ulmanis had actually saved Latvia from possible problems in the future.

The new government issued a state of emergency for six months. A declaration was issued that stated that parliament is dissolved and constitution has lost its effect until a new one is made. All regional municipalities were fired and replaced with loyal councils.

Although Kārlis Ulmanis was talking about the Latvian national unity and placed Latvians first, he did not dare to suppress the national minority rights completely. However, he changed the liberal education law, by removing minority school councils. He replaced them with a single desk officer for each minority. The number of minority schools dropped, but not in the critical level. Even if some schools were forced to include more Latvian language and history lessons than usual it was nothing that could be compared with countries like Poland or Romania. Ulmanis continued to be a good friend to Jewish leader Mordecai Dubin. Ulmanis only suppressed Jewish socialist activities, he was very found of the Zionist ideas. Consequently from 1934 to 1940 Ulmanis helped thousands of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria to escape to Palestine, Australia and US.

Even with this light approach to things the Kārlis Ulmanis regime can be called exceptionally radical.  Instead of Estonia and Lithuania, where the new dictators passed new constitutions, Ulmanis never bothered to do that. The Satversme was simply taken out of effect to a “better times”. Because of this Latvia still uses the 1922 constitution while other two Baltic States had to pass a new one.  While other two Baltic States had a single official ruling party, Ulmanis simply ruled with his own loyal government. There are however speculations that Ulmanis was actually intending to make his own party, but the war canceled this. Ulmanis only took the president post once Alberts Kviesis had officially finished his days in office in 1936.  The presidential title was just a decoration for Ulmanis. His true  title was the Leader “Vadonis” that was almost a God like figure.

But, there are no reasons to label the Ulmanis regime as “fascist”. Soviet propaganda has created myths about the fascist nature of the Ulmanis regime. No political prisoners were ever sentenced to death. Antisemitism in the mass media was suppressed.  There were no single leading party. It’s true that Ulmanis went to Germany in 1933 to rehab, but that he met Hitler there who instructed him do make a coup is highly questionable. Even wilder tales of book burning marches that are still echoing in the modern Russian historiography are no more than fantasy. The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was a simple authoritarian regime with the featured cult of personality.

Ulmanis regime did a semi-centralization of the Latvian economy. Corporate economic chambers were made for every state sector. Six of them were made for trade and economy, agriculture, manufacture, labor, arts and writing and professions. Corporate chambers worked as a consultative body to the government and controlled associated societies and enterprises. Trough the Ulmanis rule many large enterprises were nationalized and the size of the public sector doubled. In later years plans were set for collective farming. The Latvian economy that already had recovered from the Great Depression experienced an upswing. It’s hard to say whether this was because of Ulmanis policies.

Ulmanis regime ideology was based on holy trinity- The Leader, national unity and Latvian nationalism. The Ulmanis nationalism was to achieve the Latvian national dominance in economy and culture. The Latvian culture and language was regarded as the uniting factor. National minorities were not excluded, nor was it possible to do that, however they experienced a minor reducing of their national rights. Greater importance was added to national unity. The solidarity, unity and common thinking were put in first place. Latvian farmer was placed as the main symbol of the Latvian nation.

The personality cult of Kārlis Ulmanis himself reached high level. He was called the “most wisest statesman in Europe” a “double genius”. His rights of dictatorship were given by the God himself. In the last years before the war Ulmanis had issued to make silver coins with his portrait on it and even new order with his face on it. The propaganda gave rapid dose of positivity and gave one sided look of the world outside and within. The fact that Ulmanis even suppressed to write negative comments about the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union proved to be highly unproductive during 1939-1941.

Ulmanis had vivid ideas in architecture. He planned to demolish much of the Old Riga buildings for being too German. His achievement was the creation of the Dome Square – before there were many small streets with buildings that were removed. He even wanted to remove more buildings. On 1936 The Monument of Liberty was finished (the project was started before Ulmanis rise to power) marking great celebrations. But Ulmanis wanted an even larger monument to the Victory in the War of Freedom. His wish was to build a 25 0000 seat stadium and 50 meter tall tower of victory. 3 million lats were already gathered in public charity, but WW2 halted these plans. Later in that same spot Soviets built the infamous Monument of Victory.

The Grand project of the Victory park

The Grand project of the Victory park

Ulmanis and his foreign minister Vilhelms Munters proved to be far less successful in foreign policy. The neutrality policy was not working in practice. Latvia became far too close to the Soviet Union. Ulmanis despite knowing the context of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact  may have hoped that the Soviets would keep him as a satellite state leader. On 17 June 1940 Ulmanis said a rather shameful speech urging not to resist the invaders and said a historic phrase: “I will stay in my place, you will stay in yours!” He was under the house arrest until 21 July and then deported on the next day to Stavropol. After the German invasion he was accused of anti-Soviet activities and jailed. On July 1 as the German army was approaching he was loaded on a ship to transport him to Krasnoyarsk prison. He fell ill on the ship over the Caspian Sea.  He died in the Krasnovodsk prison on September 20. His resting place is unknown, most probably in the modern day Turkmenistan city of Türkmenbaşy (Krasnovodsk).

The cultivated positive image of the Karlis Ulmanis regime has stayed in the minds of many. What happened after 1940, made a myth of the “good Ulmanis times”. From one side they were good times of stability and relative prosperity, from the other side the removal of democracy and the delusional positivism made Latvians totally unprepared for the greatest shock of the 1940-1941 and the Nazi invasion afterwards.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks and Šcerbinskis, Valters. (2012) Apvērsums : 1934. gada 15. maija notikumi avotos un pētījumos.Rīga : Latvijas Nacionālais arhīvs : Latvijas Arhīvistu biedrība.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1992) Kārļa Ulmaņa dzīve : Ceļinieks. Politiķis. Diktators. Moceklis. Rīga : Zinātne : Lana.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.

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Latvian Parliament and Governments 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it was indented as a democratic republic with free elections and equal political rights for all. But, Latvians had no experience in this as they never had a real chance for the sovereign government for many centuries. Despite all the difficulties Latvians managed to make one of the most democratic constitutions in whole Europe. Five parliaments were elected without serious voting violations. The governments however were another story as rivalry between numerous political parties made short-lived governments and political instability. The intrigues, treachery and personal ambitions lead to end of Latvian democracy in 15 May 1934. However, we cannot say that Latvian parliamentary system was deeply flawed as Latvia managed to achieve many successes and could achieve even without the coup of 15 May.

During the war for independence the official pre-parliamentary body that was responsible for the Provisional government was the Peoples Council. On December 2 1918 council gave the order to its Constitutional commission in two weeks time to make provisions for elections of the Constitutional Assembly. In Latvian the constitution is called Satversme the word that originated from the early days of the Latvian ancestors. However, the Bolshevik invasion halted these preparations for elections. After Latvian Provisional Government returned to Riga on 16 July 1919 again a new order was made to prepare a special draft for the election law.

The law was issued on September 27 1919. The Constitutional Assembly was to be elected in general, equal, direct and proportional elections by voters of equal gender from 21 years. Citizenship was given to those persons and their descendants who lived in Latvia until 1 August 1914. Latvia was divided into five electoral districts with defined number of elected seats in Riga 22, Vidzeme 37, Semigallia 26, Courland 26 and Latgalia – 39.  The elections were set for a time when whole Latvia will be liberated from the enemy. There were still Bolshevik forces in Latgalia.

The liberation came in 1920 and Provisional governments issued the elections for the Constitutional Assembly on 17 -18 April. Two main contestants were the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) and Latvian Farmers Union (LFU). LSDWP had its roots since 1905 and after falling out with Bolsheviks they supported the independent Latvia. LFU was lead by Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of the Provisional government. However, it was not a two-party contest as the liberal election law allowed only 100 petitions to form a party list and there was no percent barrier. Because of this numerous Latvian parties also took part, along with Baltic German, Russian and Jewish national lists. Also many regional like Latgalian parties took part. A two-party system in Latvia was impossible as there were too many personal interests and ambitions in many Latvian, not to forget the national minorities.

Despite the fact that some areas in Northern Latvia were unable to vote because of the presence of the Estonian forces, the election turnout was high: 84,88% of registered voters took part. There was some interference from Bolshevik activists, even failed assassination attempt of Kārlis Ulmanis. However the elections were successful and the LSDWP won by 38,66%, LFU gained 28,36%. Third came the Latgalian Farmers party. Many Latvian parties won three to single seats. Jews gained eight seats from different parties, six Germans and four Russians and one Pole also were elected. Six female deputies were elected including notable writer the wife of Jānis Rainis Aspazija (E, Rozenberga). Later in November after the Estonian army left the elections were held in areas where they originally could not be held. With that the first Latvian parliament had 152 members.

The new parliament was called to work for the first time in  May 1 1920. Jānis Čakste was elected the president of the assembly. Kārlis Ulmanis resigned from his head of the Provisional Government post. The main goal of the Constituent Assembly was to write the Satversme – Latvian constitution. The working place for the Assembly was the former house of Riga Chivalry at Jēkabs street 11.

The first session of the Contutional Assembly

The first session of the  Constitutional Assembly

On  June 11 1920 Kārlis Ulmanis again took the post of the Prime Minister. The first goal was to finish the peace talks with Soviet Russia and Germany that resulted in success. Then next and most important target was the Agricultural reform. Land had to be distributed to the Latvian nation to rebuild the country. Before the war the major part of agricultural lands belonged to Baltic German nobles. Now the Latvian government took away the most from them leaving only their mansions and land of 50 hectares. It was painful but right decision as Latvians at last could freely maintain their own land. That however left a rather hateful Baltic German minority.

The Satversme was passed on  February 15 1922. It stated that Latvia is a democratic republic in where the sovereign power belongs to the people of Latvia. The parliament was named Saeima and was to be elected for three years in the same matter as the Assembly. The size of the parliament was 100 seats. During the work of the Assembly first government change was witnessed as Kārlis Ulmanis was forced to step down leaving his college Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to take charge. The LSDWP split in two fractions as more progressive right wing social democrats left the main party. Kārlis Ulmanis deeply regretted his loss of power and that was the beginning of his year long disappointment of the parliamentary system.

The first Saeima was elected in 7 -8 October. It was rumored that originally the election date was set for September 30, however because of the Jewish festival Sukkot the date was moved to October. It has been the official election month since then. 82,2% people took part in the elections. LSDWP won by 30,56%, their splinter party social democrats “minors” gained 6,26%. LFU won 16,77% seats. Their main rivals were the Democratic Center (DC) and Latvian New Farmers party (LNFP). Also Nonparty nationalist block and Christian Democratic Union gained scores. The Germans gained the most seats also Jews, Poles and Russians were elected. The Germans had united party list while Jews and Russians had many rivaling lists. No female candidates made in parliament.

The first Chairman of Saeima also the formally second man after the president was social democrat Frīdrihs Vesmanis. He was later replaced with party member Pauls Kalniņš. On November 14 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first Latvian president.

Čakste was responsible for nominating the Prime Minister; the parliament had to approve his proposed government. After many failed talks with party leaders, the independent Jānis Pauļuks was chosen as the compromise figure. His government included LSDWP and worked for five months. After right wing activists caused riots in LSDWP lead demonstration, the social democrats left the coalition in protest. He was then replaced by LFU leader Meierovics on June 28 1923. After few months social democrats deposed him in revenge for assault against their two deputies done by the officers of the Latvian army. Social Democrats arranged government by independent Voldemārs Zāmuels, he was supported by them, but they did not part in the government. His government lasted from  January 24 1924 until  December 19 1924 when LFU again won the upper hand by installing their member Hugo Celmiņš as the PM. Despite the rivalry First Saeima managed to form the provisions for ministry work and passed the Conscription law. Also laws regarding unions, societies and political organizations were finished. The new law of the press was liberal and friendly to the emerging Latvian press industry.

The elections for the Second Saeima took place in 1925 3-4 October. The activity dropped to 74,89% 141 electoral lists were submitted and only 48 of them entered the parliament. That was usual for those times and nobody wanted to change that. LSDWP won again in 31,36%, the “social democrats minors” gained 3,61% much lower than last time. LFU won 15,3 %, Catholic and Christian Farmers Union was second in the right wing party list. DC and LNFP gained some seats along with many other single mandate right wing parties. Five Germans, five Jews, four Russians and two Poles were elected. Belorussian and Estonian lists failed to enter the parliament.

New parliament elected Jānis Čakste as the president for the second term; he died in office on March 14 1927. After many failed attempts an independent Gustavs Zemgals was elected.

The new parliament had problems forming a government as in the same night of 22-23 December two governments were proposed. First was Voldemārs Zāmuels who was declined and then Kārlis Ulmanis government formed a minority government. He could hold office for only four and half months. On 4 May 1926 LFU managed to form government lead by Arturs Alberings. On December 17 1926 he was replaced by the leader of the “social democrats minors” Marģers Skujenieks who formed the leftist government. LSDWP with the help of their splinter force again entered the government. After the DC who supported the leftists switched sides the government collapsed. On January 24 1928 DC member Pēteris Juraševskis formed the right wing government and included Baltic Germans in the coalition.

The greatest test for the Saeima was the amendment in the citizenship law that allowed people and their descendants living in Latvia before 1881 gain citizen rights. That sparked large protests from nationalists who feared that large numbers of Jews will gain citizen rights. Protests caused referendum against the amendment that was labeled “Jew law”. However, the protesters could not gather necessary votes to halt the citizenship reforms. Another issue was a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that caused large controversy. Achievement was reforms in social policies and healthcare.

Third Saeima was elected in October 1928. Despite obvious flaws in the election law little was done to stop the influx of the mini party lists and fragmentation of the Latvian political system continued. LSDWP gained 24,5% a great drop in popularity caused by failed government and appearance of more radical leftist movements. Leftist workers list gained 5%. The radical socialist movements were actually legal covers of the Latvian Communist Party that was illegal. Its main goal was the breakdown of the Latvian state. Right wing parties kept their ranks, LFU and DC had relative successes. The Latvian New Landowners and Small Landowners party (LNLSLP) became more stronger while LNFP fell out. National conservative lists gained strength. Russians and Germans gained six seats, Jews five but Poles two.

This was unusual Saeima as there were only two governments both lead by LFU. Hugo Celmiņš managed to lead the government for three years, a record only to be broken in the second period of independence. Kārlis Ulmanis took after Celmiņš government collapsed. The work of Saeima was severely disrupted by the radical Workers and Peasants fraction that openly supported the Soviet Union and condemned the independence. Calling for the establishment of the Worldwide Socialist Republic and singing the anthem of the Soviet Union in the parliament sessions, communist deputies made it difficult to make decisions. The Latvian legal system was struggling to find ways to stop them. In return far right wing nationalist members formed a National fraction.  The last legally elected president by Saeima was Alberts Kviesis in 1930.

The caricature depicting constant party struggle.The young woman representing Latvia wonders: "Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?"

The caricature depicting the constant party struggle.
The young woman representing Latvia wonders: “Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?”

The elections for Fourth Saeima took in the height of the Great Depression of 1931. Crisis took Latvia in 1929 along with the rest of the world. The economical situation worsened in 1931-1932. However, instead of greater gains the crisis only weakened the positions of LSDWP and their radical counterparts.  LFU also had losses. DC and LNLNSLP gained more votes. Many smaller crisis themed parties like Former depositors and the debtor’s party entered Saeima. The nationalist parties also suffered losses, the main force National Union fell out while Christian Democrats lost many mandates. Germans and Russians gained six seats, while Jews only three, and Poles two. The election turnout showed great dissatisfaction with all the leading parties and path to radicalization as former supporters on both left and right-wing official parties turn to support anti-governmental movements. This was the first and only Saeima with elected female deputy Berta Bīpiņa from DC list.

Instability returned to the governments. First government was formed by Marģers Skujenieks, an ex social democrat minor who shifted to progressive nationalism. On May 22 1933 he was replaced by LNLNSP leader Ādolfs Bļodnieks. The growing danger of right-wing radicalism became stronger as Germany was taken over by the Nazis. Latvian nation radical movement sympathetic to the Italian fascist regime “Thundercross” filled the society with anti-Semitic propaganda and national hate. They openly declared that they desire to overthrow the parliamentary system. Many other smaller radical Latvian movements as United Latvian National socialist Party and colonel Ozols movement also strived for this. Latvian Communist party on the other hand also took an active fight. In the end their elected deputies under the guise of “Leftist workers block” were removed from the parliament. The exposed Communists including famous writer Linards Laicēns moved to the Soviet Union where they perished in Stalin’s purges in 1937. Even more dangerous where the Baltic German Nazi movement.

In the end it turned out that destroyers of the Latvian democracy were the democrats themselves. Kārlis Ulmanis in 1918-1920 was the national hero. Leader of the Provisional Government he was one of the most influential politicians ever. However, the failure of becoming president and short-lived governments lead by him scorched his popularity. He was involved in many scandals and was the constant laughingstock of the Latvian journalists. The last elections showed a great danger for Ulmanis to not to be elected again in the next elections. Ulmanis was the example of what they call a “political animal” a man whose life is all about politics. Ulmanis had no wife and children and no other hobbies beside politics and financing. But his ambitions were still strong and seeing authoritarian regimes springing up all Eastern Europe, he saw no wrong by taking all the power himself.

So begun the plot that lead to coup in May 15 1934. Before that Ulmanis legally deposed Bļodnieks and become the Prime Minister. Using his administrative power and support within the army and Civil Guards (Aizsargi) he gathered enough power. To keep his actions in secret he derived the public attention to LFU proposed changes in Satversme that would greatly expand the presidential powers and weaken the parliament.  While parliament was caught up in heated arguments about this proposal for months, Ulmanis and his supporters without any causalities and heavy resistance deposed the parliament and forced president Kviesis to accept his power.

The May 15 1934 was bright and sunny day. Tired from the quarreling parliament the majority of the Latvian society welcomed or at least did not mind the coup. Kārlis Ulmanis stopped the work of Satversme and the parliament and formed his own government. He promised to cancel the state of emergency and rewrite the Satversme. None of these promises were ever made and Ulmanis was the leader of Latvia until 1940.

What could happen if the coup never took place? Latvian parliaments would probably work the same way with constant inner rivaling. The pressure from the radical movements of both the wings would become more dangerous. The reports from local newspapers on 1933 show rise of anti-Semitism and national hate that would grow larger if not sustained by Ulmanis regime. The parliamentary system likely would adapt to these threats and find legal ways how to stop them. The falling popularity of the old parties may open doors for new movements. But, how would democratically elected Saeima would respond to threats of occupation by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940? As Saeima was always caught up in quarrels it could lead to all kinds of things. The outcome would be even more complicated as Saeima was already entered by the Soviet agents that would stir up the process. Also if the national radical movements and Baltic German Nazis would enter Saeima the reaction to Soviet threats would be even more dramatic. However, it’s doubtful that Latvia would rather silently submit to the Soviet Union, like Kārlis Ulmanis government. But as in case of Czechoslovakia the democratic parliament was not enough to rescue the country.

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