Lavian PM Kalvitis quits after 3 years in charge

By bne IntelliNews December 6, 2007

Mike Collier in Riga -

Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis made good on his promise to leave office on Tuesday, December 5, leaving behind him a power vacuum that may not be filled for weeks and the chance that whoever does take over will be blown away by a new political force come the next elections.

After a 45-minute meeting with President Valdis Zatlers at Riga Castle, Kalvitis emerged to confirm that he had handed in his written resignation and the resignation of his government. Kalvitis tried to look cheerful during his brief question and answer session, but was clearly more emotional than his usual combative self.

Despite leaving under a cloud, the larger-than-life politician is the longest-serving PM since independence was restored in 1991, having taken office three years ago. During the early years of his government he was widely praised as a stabilizing influence.

However, Kalvitis ruined that reputation with an ill-judged and very personal attempt to remove anti-corruption chief Aleksejs Loskutovs from his job. Both the manner in which the attack on Loskutovs was conducted and the suspected motives behind it raised serious doubts about the accountability of Kalvitis' government and the influence of Latvia's cadre of oligarchs.

Mass demonstrations on the streets of Riga made it clear that something had to give, despite the fact that the next government elections are not due until 2010. In the end Kalvitis chose to fall on his sword rather than face the possibility that Zatlers might dissolve parliament and force new elections which would be likely to wipe out his People's Party, given their dismal poll ratings.

By quitting Kalvitis has probably saved the ruling coalition - at least for now. Coming days will see the four member parties plus the opposition New Era party trying to thrash out a new arrangement. Chances are that most of the faces comprising the next government will be curiously familiar. The current administration will remain in place until the composition of a new administration becomes clear - a process that could take weeks rather than days. Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov is due to visit Latvia on December 18 to ratify a border treaty, and it is unlikely that anything will happen to put his visit in jeopardy.

The king is dead, who is the king?

Although Kalvitis announced his intention to resign back in early November, remarkably little progress has been made in preparing a successor. Despite a spate of party conferences, only New Era has officially confirmed its candidate in the form of the European member of parliament Juris Dombrovskis.

Other possibles for the post are Interior Minister Ivars Godmanis (Latvia's First Party/Latvian Way), Finance Minister Oskars Spurdzins, Culture Minister Helena Demakova and Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins (all People's Party). bne's money is on Godmanis, if only because he retains some residual respect for his role in the independence movement of the 1990s, has managed to keep distance between himself and the oligarchs and has been pro-actively in raising his profile in the media.

Whatever deals are cut in smoke-filled rooms, the biggest potential threat to the continuation of the usual suspects in government - and indeed New Era - is a new non-governmental organisation headed by former ministers Aigars Stokenbergs and Artis Pabriks.

Tellingly, the reason given for Stokenbergs' expulsion from both government and the People's Party was an accusation that he was planning a new party. Pabriks later resigned his own membership of the People's Party and it would be a simple matter to turn the catchily-titled "Society for Different Politics in a Law-based State" into a political force to be reckoned with. Stokenbergs and Pabriks are two of the smartest operators in Latvian politics as well as having reputations for honesty. If they could persuade former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to give them her backing, they would be shoo-ins for government.

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