March 11, 2007

Political observers in Latvia hailed on Sunday President Vaira Vike-Freiberga’s unprecedented decision to block amendments to the Baltic state’s national security laws.

“This is amazing news. The president was always seen as being close to the political elite and oligarchs – at last she has come out against them,” Lolita Cigane, public policy researcher at the NGO Providus, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

“It’s going to be a showdown. This is the second time that the president has stopped these laws – it looks like she’s going for broke,” added Nils Muiznieks, head of political science at the University of Latvia.

On Saturday, for the first time in her eight years in office, Vike-Freiberga invoked the constitution to freeze the amendments for two months – opening the way for a possible referendum.

The amendments “open the door to very serious political manipulation and, ultimately, influence by the so-called oligarchs, which would be very dangerous,” Vike-Freiberga said.

“I stand before you today to warn the nation directly, and to say that I invite both parliament and the government to consider their further actions carefully,” she told journalists.

The amendments were introduced by ministers during the parliamentary Christmas break under emergency legislation which allows the cabinet to pass laws without parliamentary consent in times of “urgent need. ”

One amendment allows unnamed “individuals delegated by the national security council” to launch investigations into security service activities, while the other creates a new National Security Services Council staffed only by government ministers.

The government said the urgency was necessary in the light of the precarious world security situation. Vike-Freiberga rejected the claim and refused to promulgate the laws.

The amendments “concentrate the oversight of the state security services in the hands of the executive” and could imperil Latvia’s credibility among its NATO allies, she said.

On March 1, however, parliament again approved the amendments, overriding the veto. Vike-Freiberga’s unprecedented decision is a response to that vote.

Under the Latvian constitution, if more than a tenth of Latvia’s 1. 45 million registered voters sign a petition in the next two months, a referendum must be called on the issue.

The decision pits the president against a four-party government, three of whose parties are directly linked to Latvia’s so-called “oligarchs” – self-made millionaires who are widely believed to use their political dominance to further their private business.

Experts have been warning of a “usurpation” by the oligarchs since January, when the amendments were first adopted, but this is the first time that the president has added her voice to the chorus.

“I am ready to make my fears known – namely, that there could be inappropriate interference in those of our investigations which could touch either certain political groups, or the people who support them financially and stand behind them,” she said.

The Latvian public are no strangers to political activism. Mass protests against Soviet policies in the Baltic states in the late 1980s were the catalyst which triggered the collapse of the USSR.

In recent years, however, the Latvian public has been more noted for its political apathy, with both government figures and NGOs calling for greater involvement of civil society in politics.

And with Vike-Freiberga’s term due to end this June, experts query whether her decision can do more than postpone the inevitable.

“The governing coalition has already pushed these laws through twice. They seem determined,” Muiznieks said.

But some believe that a case as grave as this could strike a chord in society.

“It’s possible to get the signatures, but someone has to take the initiative – people won’t mobilize themselves,” Cigane said.