Monday, March 12, 2007

Constitutional Crisis in Latvia

According to a report being circulated in the European Parliament some serious stuff is going on in Riga.

A surprise Saturday press conference by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, was called to "sound a serious alarm" to the nation regarding a "hastily adopted law" increasing centralisation of intelligence and covert operations oversight for the Cabinet and expanding access to security information to Cabinet appointees. The President used her powers to delay publication of the law for two months and has initiated the process for collecting signatures for a national referendum.

In the words of the respected former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Aivars Endzins, "The government is attempting to grasp control of all security (and intelligence) institutions.(...) Everything points toward the fact that a large majority of (Saeima) deputies have in fact been well-bought" (11.03.07."Diena" newspaper).

New Cabinet regulations also permit a recently created Cabinet Information Analysis Department to give top security clearance to external ‘advisors’, thereby allowing access to criminal investigation information and other covert operation material. The proposed norms also allow a four minister panel to review intelligence matters without the involvement of the President or the parliament as until now.

The security legislation was first adopted by the government as an emergency measure without parliamentary confirmation and without consultation with the National Security Council as required by law. The President's veto of the legislation was later rejected by the parliament with virtually no debate.

The President asserts that the law will allow ‘oligarchs’ and political party sponsors to interfere with covert (including criminal) investigations. National security – as well as internal security – will be threatened by the new law, according to the President. The traditional inter-institutional checks and balances are ignored in the new law, she maintains.

Prime Minister Kalvitis (EPP-ED) has responded that he has "no information" regarding the role of oligarchs in government and said that the new law simply increases parliamentary oversight.

The opposition "New Era" party (EPP-ED) has called for the government to step down.

Although a parliamentary committee has subsequently agreed to begin revising the legislation to exclude security information relating to NATO and the European Union, the President maintained that the changes were only cosmetic.

When asked to name the "oligarchs" referred to by the President, Endzins named the widely presumed "powers behind the throne" of two coalition parties, Andris Skele, founder of the People's party (EPP-ED), Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, prime ministerial candidate of the Farmers/Greens Union, as well as the head of the coalition partner First Party, Ainars Slesers (in electoral block with Latvian Way, ALDE). Endzins hailed the President’s speech as ‘a serious warning to the Cabinet and to the parliament’.


Mr. Skele contributed over 500 000 EUR to an ‘independent’ election campaign group that supported the People's Party (EPP-ED), thereby violating the campaign finance law according to Transparency International (‘Delna’) and many academics. Legal challenges are still being resolved. Mayor Lembergs is being tried for criminal misuse of the powers of his office and is under criminal investigation for illegal receipt of funds. Mr. Slesers and Mr. Skele were involved in telephone conversations discussing alleged vote-buying in the voting for the Jurmala mayoralty.

Considerable tension has been brewing between the Government coalition members and Latvia’s Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office. Prime Minister Kalvitis has had several differences of opinion with the Head of the Anti-Corruption Bureau and Mayor Lembergs has denounced the ‘aggressive methods’ of the Bureau that is investigating businesses associated with the mayor..

Much political discussion has addressed a possible centralisation of power by the Cabinet’s executive branch. Commentators have raised fears that the imminent end of term for the Chief Prosecutor J. Maizitis and the Anti-Corruption Bureau Head A. Loskutovs may result in the appointment of considerably less independent officials, thereby hindering investigations against persons associated with the governing coalition parties.

Many observers have already sharply criticised the appointment of two new Constitutional Court justices as indicating a move to create a Constitutional Court with inadequate professional credentials, subservient to ruling coalition parties (People’s Party, EPP-ED, Latvia’s Farmers/Greens Union, the "First Party", Latvian Way/ALDE and "Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK" (UEN).

The President’s term ends in June. Governing coalition parties have refused to name any candidates for the position. Parliament Speaker Emsis has stated that an early announcement is only likely to lead to public criticism and withdrawal of the candidacy, while critics have called for a more open process prior to the parliament’s vote in June.

A new term for J. Kazocins, head of the top intelligence gathering institution, "The Constitution Protection Agency", also is to be reviewed within the next year.

And we think we have constitutional issues?

As an aside I note that Jānis Kažociņš, is a British subject, a Brigadier in the Army with an OBE no less. He was granted Latvian nationality on taking up the job, he maintains his British nationality and his wife and children still live in the UK.
His job includes, "intelligence, counterintelligence, protection of the Secret(sic) of State as well as protection of classified information of the European Union and NATO". Interesting chap.


Mike Wood said...

Keeping a close eye on Latvian affairs?

Elaib said...

I have my reasons...

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

One of the best summaries I have seen, thanks -- but who is the author of the paper? At this point, things are moving so fast that it's fairly impossible to say what will happen -- the PM has backed down, but the President's term ends in 3 months (meaning that this coalition can put a more pliable figure in place). What happens to the process that has been set into motion is not yet certain; how can you have a referendum if the legislation is withdrawn, i.e., "a referendum about nothing"?

Elaib said...

The summary was written by the Parliament's office in Riga, who, I agree have given us a pretty good short brief, and fair for that matter, on the whole affair.

A referendeum about nothing - that is the arguement against granting the promised referendum in the UK about the Constitution...