Mike Collier in Riga -
Latvia's parliament voted in a new president on June 3 as the small Baltic Nato and Eurozone member weighed security concerns amid heightened tensions with Russia.
Four candidates were in the race, but after a gruelling series of five votes in which candidates were eliminated one by one like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, it was mild-mannered Defence Minister Raimonds Vejonis who carried the day, winning backing from 55 of 100 deputies.
Vejonis will succeed President Andris Berzins in July. Berzins took office in 2011 and was not standing for re-election.
The Latvian president is commander in chief of the armed forces, nominates the prime minister and has the right to propose and return legislation to parliament.
Vejonis, 48, told bne IntelliNews before the vote that he was nervous but confident. “At this moment Latvia needs a president, we don't have time to wait longer. I hope the parliament will choose the right person,” he said.
Speaking to the chamber immediately after the vote, Vejonis joked that he needed a stiff drink. “I will do my best to continue the work I have been doing [as defence minister] to increase Latvia's security and promote the welfare of the country as whole.
"I believe that today we have grounds to be optimistic about our future, we can be proud of what we have achieved.
"I will do all I can so that we the Latvian people, the political parties and parliament act together as a team so the decisions we make lead to a more prosperous Latvia. It is an honour for me to serve Latvia," he said.
Born near Pskov in Russia while his father was serving in the military, Vejonis trained as a biologist at the University of Latvia in 1989 while teaching biology in the small central Latvian town of Madona. He also studied in Estonia and Finland, specialising in environmental engineering.
In 2002 he was appointed by reforming Prime Minister Einars Repse as environment minister, without being elected to parliament, while serving as a local councillor in Madona.
In 2006 Vejonis was elected to parliament for the Greens and Farmers Alliance grouping which includes the Latvian Green Party of which he is a member.
He is one of the longest-serving of all Latvia's current crop of politicians despite his relatively young age, keeping the environment minister's portfolio through successive coalitions until 2011, when he resumed duties as a regular member of parliament, sitting on foreign policy and national security committees.
That led to a recall to front-line duty in January 2014 when Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma appointed him defence minister. It was widely speculated at the time that he might be too weak, particularly in comparison with his hawkish predecessor Artis Pabriks. However Vejonis has managed to disprove the doubters by taking a tough stance on Russian aggression and even blasting Greens and Farmers Alliance kingpin Aivars Lembergs as a “threat to national security” after he described Nato troops in Latvia as “occupiers”.
Speaking to reporters after his election Vejonis said he hoped to improve relations with Russia, but that it would be impossible "while Russian rockets remain on Ukrainian soil".
Despite being a Green Party member for 25 years, Vejonis - who lists his religious views as “pagan” on his Facebook page - should not be seen as a typical left-leaning environmentalist on the western European model, according to Iveta Kazoka of the Providus centre for policy analysis.
“It seems to me he's in the Green Party as a matter of political convenience as a career politician rather than principle or strong ideological convictions. He's quite fond of the environment but I would struggle to name anyone in the Latvian Green Party who would fit the profile of a regular European Green Party member,” Kazoka told bne IntelliNews.
“He's quite understated as a politician. As a president he would not be as visible as leaders of some other states, but he definitely represents progress when compared to [current president] Andris Berzins. People don't really have bad things to say about Vejonis, but nor will you meet people who praise him as a charismatic politician. He was elected on the principle of the lesser of two evils rather than being the best person Latvia's ever seen.”
Political scientist Filips Rajevskis was more succinct, describing Vejonis as “Rather like President Berzins, just younger.”
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