Mike Collier in Riga -
While a great deal of speculation has been taking place among policy wonks about whether Vladimir Putin will try to re-occupy the Baltic states given its successful incursion into Ukraine, according to one prominent local politician the Russian army is already 10 years too late.
What Aivars Lembergs, the diminutive mayor of Latvia's port city of Ventspils, lacks in stature he makes up for in public profile, somehow managing to combine the sartorial style and court cases of Silvio Berlusconi with the did-he-really-say-that quotability of Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The pint-sized kingmaker, who bankrolls the ZZS political party (part of the current governing coalition), has run Ventspils as his personal fiefdom for more than 20 years, as well as acting as chairman of the Ventspils Free Port, the Latvian Transit Association, the Neatkariga newspaper and being ZZS' regular candidate for prime minister. He's also one of the richest men in the country.
Lembergs caused jaws to drop on April 8 when, in a lengthy interview with the Diena newspaper, he lambasted Nato – of which the Baltic states have all been members since 2004 – saying: “When Nato troops are here, it is essentially a foreign occupation, the same as in 1940,” adding for good measure that the likes of US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are mere puppets in the hands of a “world financial oligarchy” that really controls things. On April 22, the US announced it would send about 600 soldiers to Poland and the three Baltic states for infantry exercises.
The next day he lectured students on his supposedly brilliant marketing strategy to attract business and tourists to Ventspils, before holding forth in a radio interview on April 12 that the main beneficiaries of an increased Nato presence in the Baltics would be “hotels, cafes and prostitutes”.
To top it off, he appeared on the major Russian channel 1TV on April 16, declaring: “Europe's biggest threat comes from Nato member states, not other countries,” citing the example of the UK “occupying” Gibraltar – notwithstanding the fact that it took place in 1713.
Remarkably, the current Latvian defence minister is Raimonds Vejonis, a party colleague of Lembergs. He wearily distanced himself from the comments – but stopped short of saying the party would no longer cash Lembergs' cheques.
The chance of Nato cargo now passing through Ventspils is not great, one suspects.
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