Issue No. 310 - February 28, 2003


1. Latvia:  100 STORMY DAYS
by Pauls Raudseps

2. Romania:  WAR IN FAMILY
by Angela Magherusan

by Asylbek Ismailov

Latvia:  100 STORMY DAYS
by Pauls Raudseps

        As coincidence would have it, Latvia's new government celebrated its hundredth day this past Valentine's Day. Sweetness and light were not much in evidence. Since 1933, when newly elected US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his first one hundred days in office to pass fifteen major new pieces of legislation radically expanding the role of the U.S. federal government, politicians around the world used this period as an important milestone in their tenure in office. While Roosevelt promised America a New Deal, Latvia's Prime Minister Einars Repse promised his country a New Era (and named his party after this slogan). Both politicians won impressive electoral victories.

        The similarities end there.

        If Roosevelt's first one hundred days are remembered for his substantive policy achievements, the most vivid events in the Repse government's debut have been a series of public relations gaffes. Repse, whose previous job was running Latvia's Central Bank, is clearly not used to the unswerving spotlight focused on the head of a government. He also has an unmistakable disdain for those "old-style" politicians who avoid saying what they really think. This, in combination with the unusual step of making all Cabinet meetings open to the press, has resulted in a series of small-scale blowups over questions like subsidies for Latvian cinema (Repse suggested eliminating them since he had not seen any good Latvian movies lately).

        More damaging to the government was the decision to triple ministers' salaries.  The size of the increase was shocking enough, coming from a government that not only had promised a new type of politics, free from the venality of the past, but also had spent the first months following the election trying to convince the public that the budget was in a crisis and had stopped serving mineral water at Cabinet meetings to save money. The way the ministers gave themselves a raise made a mockery of the government's commitment to openness and transparency, since the item appeared on the government's agenda without warning and was accepted practically without debate, suggesting that it was not at Cabinet meetings that important decisions are being made.

        A low point was reached at the end of January with a controversy that erupted around Aris Auders, the Minister of Health. Allegations surfaced that Dr. Auders, who is also a prominent neurosurgeon, had improperly charged a patient for an operation that was in fact paid for by the state and separately that he had ordered a government agency he oversees to buy an expensive car and let him use it. Both charges are being investigated and might not have been as damaging to a government made up of "old-style" politicians, for whom little slip-ups like this would not be considered extraordinary. But Repse's popularity was based on the claim that he was different, and when he publicly defended Auders, he saw both his own popularity and that of his Minister of Health plummet.

        The Auders affair has been a political nightmare for Repse's party.  When the allegations first came out, the opposition quickly tabled a vote of no confidence against the embattled physician. The coalition held its nose and voted to keep him in office, mainly to avoid supporting an opposition-submitted proposal. Then, after new allegations surfaced, public pressure forced the New Era parliamentary faction to do an embarrassing flip-flop just one week after its vote of confidence and unanimously vote to recommend that the party ask him to resign. This proposal was, however, rejected by the party's governing board. Within a matter of days one of Repse's closest political advisers quit, leaving the unmistakable impression that a split had opened between Repse and his party's MPs. And all this is at a moment when the Cabinet has finally mustered a 2003 budget (!), which it took a record long time to prepare, and  is most dependent on the MPs’ support to try to get it through parliament in a record eleven days.

        Has Repse's government done anything right? The answer is yes, but. . . . for one, it has succeeded in getting rid of a good number of government officials that should have been fired a long time ago, but they have yet to prove that they can find better officials to replace them. It also started a long-overdue restructuring of the security services, but it has not finished it. It seem less beholden of outside business interests than any other recent government, but it has yet to make any decisions regarding the privatization of that handful of big, lucrative companies that are still owned by the government.

        As Repse tries to find his footing in domestic politics, Latvia's head of state, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, has been shining on the international stage. Her speech at NATO's Prague summit in November caught the attention of the assembled government leaders. Her recent visit to Washington to meet with President Bush put her in the spotlight once again, as it came right at the moment when differences of opinion between the "old" and the "new" Europe were coming to a head. Her forceful and effective exposition in TV and newspaper interviews of the position of the Central European countries on Iraq was widely commented on. One man from Massachusetts even wrote the Latvian embassy in Washington that he was changing his summer vacation plans — instead of going to France he would visit Latvia. A journalist from Canada, where Ms. Freiberga lived as an exile after the Second World War, wrote in the Toronto Sun: "If only we, instead of Latvia, had Vaira Vike-Freiberga in charge, perhaps Canada would not be the wimp of the Western world." As in much of Central and Eastern Europe, public opposition to a war in Iraq is broad but not very deep, and the President's domestic popularity has not suffered because of her strong pro-American stand — she remains Latvia's most popular politician.

        Not so long ago, Mr. Repse's popularity rivaled hers. But after another 100 days like the first,
Latvia may be looking for a new Prime Minister.

• • •

by Angela Magherusan

        "Make the devil your brother until you cross the bridge." It's an old Romanian saying, frequently adopted during Romania’s history, and also accepted in the mentality of the people. Exceptionally, this was not the principle applied in the last fifty years towards France. The special relationship between the two countries was always based on common linguistic origins and a certain spiritual affinity. Latin became the bond connecting Romanians and French within the vast territory of Francophony. That's why the two countries used to refer to one another as "sisters." Until recently.

        The declaration made by the French President, Jacques Chirac immediately after the Brussels summit regarding the policy adopted by the Eastern European countries towards the Iraq crisis caused a deep rupture between Paris and Bucharest. But it was also the first clear proof that things are not how they used to be between the two countries. Politically speaking, this attack on Romanian external policy did not surprise many people in public life. But for ordinary Romanians, it was a total surprise and deception on the part of "Sister France."

        The fact that the president of a country like France can lose control in such a manner shows the real proportions of the European crisis regarding Iraq. Still, under these circumstances, big and important EU members such as France expect small aspirant countries, such as Romania, to show more maturity than they themselves display. Eastern European countries missed a great opportunity to shut up, Jacques Chirac said, and chose to openly support American policy toward Baghdad. In this way, added the French president, these countries proved they had quite bad manners and an ignorance concerning their own interests in joining the EU. But how could they have behaved otherwise? After all, the countries we are talking about have only ten years or so of practicing political manners. Just like a ten or fifteen year old child, they are being condemned for not being mature enough. You have to live through fifty years of communism to understand their behavior to take a chance to go against the most powerful ones.

        The French declaration pointed especially at Romania and Bulgaria, countries which, according to President Chirac, are already in a very delicate situation concerning their chances of entering the EU. To quote the very plastic expression used by Jacques Chirac, "if they wanted to diminish their chances, they could not have found a better way."

        The Romanian reaction attempted to save what could still be saved of the French-Romanian relationship. Romanian President Ion Iliescu tried an appeal to reason, by saying that it is not healthy to separate countries into pro or anti-American according to the ancient [Leninist] principle of "who is not with us, is against us". This was interpreted to mean: “You did not want to help us, so we searched for help somewhere else.”

        Perhaps, in the vast global analyses and estimations being made, Romania is not indeed a desirable relative. And this is a sad fact to admit for everyone, especially after 1989, when Romania hoped for a lot from France. Romanians knew all along that their country was poor, undeveloped, and small, but as always in history, they hoped they could find an ally powerful enough to protect Romania on its difficult journey from communism to freedom. And for a few years, France posed as such an ally. But France’s help, as many simple Romanians began to see, was more declarative then substantive. Even so, Romania proved soon to be a disappointment, given its always-postponed reforms, corruption and poverty. In this situation, Romanians had to find a more reliable relative and, for the right price, they found him in the U.S.

        Romania will have to live with her choice. Although the frisson could be felt between Bucharest and Paris already for a few years, the official recognition of this fact is a no-turning back road.

        So, countries like France should understand that Romania is neither pro-American nor anti-French nor anti-German. Romania is just desperate, like any other country that has lived at the edge of the civilized world for the last half of century. This kind of desperation is hard to understand in the context and in the equations of the world’s great politics, but has France forgotten how pro Paris was when American and English disembarked in Normandy? For Romania, the United States represent at the moment the most powerful guarantee that it will never be forced to go back into the swamp. That is why it struggles so hard to go along with the American policy, with no conditions, no reason or democratic considerations. A possible counter argument would be that Romania chose to do so because of a national and local interest, not because of some political principles. But, after all, in regards to Iraqi issue, who makes choices based on principles?

        A highly respected Romanian journalist, Cristian Tudor Popescu, compared Romania to a character in a once popular Russian movie, "Railroad Station For Two.” This character, a former pianist, is being released from a concentration camp and when set to a normal meal for the first time in freedom his first reaction is to take some bread and cheese when he is not being seen and stuff them into the pocket. He is not revealed to the police as a thief, just as Romania is not to be condemned for its precociousness, given where it has been for so long.

• • •

by Asylbek Ismailov

        On Sunday, February 2, 2003, Kyrgyzstan finally conducted an international plebiscite: a referendum which many Kyrgyz people had placed high hopes on.

        The story of the referendum started in August 2002, when a Constitutional Conference was organized at the initiative of President Askar Akaev. Here, various layers of society were able to participate, including Akaev’s political opponents.

        Until then, the south of Kyrgyzstan was in a crisis for many months after March 17, 2002, when six peaceful demonstrators were killed near the Aksaisk region as the result of police confrontation. Protests were held throughout the entire South following this bloodshed with demands for punishment of the guilty and justice. This pressured Askar Akaev into agreeing to constitutional reform that would allow for the balance of all branches of government and most importantly would expand the possibility of developing democratic institutions. Through such reform it was hoped that the legislative branch of the government would be truly independent.

        The beginning of dialogue with the opposition brought numerous political dividends for the country's leaders. In October of last year, a meeting between western donors took place in Bishkek that noted the accomplishments of Akaev’s administration in strengthening democracy and promised Kyrgyzstan 700 million dollars within the next few years. Forty percent of the money will be presented in form of a non-repayable grant.

        Once there was no longer a need for them, the representatives of Akaev's opposition were no longer welcome to participate in the final stages of the constitutional reform. During a Security Council meeting on December 21, 2002, Akaev reported that the main threat to national security came from the political opposition inside the country. On January 2, by his own decision and decree, he barred the Constitutional Conference from further deliberations on the reform, replacing it with an expert academic group that was called to summarize the country's national needs in the new constitutional text.

        On January 13, 2003, the date for the Referendum was announced for February 2. Only two questions would be brought to the public for consideration: "Do you agree with the Constitution’s new amendments?" and, second, "Do you agree that Askar Akaev should remain the President until December, 2005?"

        The opposition and other leading human rights organizations protested the proposal for the new Kyrgyz Constitution because the final document was significantly different from the project worked out by the Constitutional Conference, because it limited the Parliament's powers and freedom of speech, and because it created a series of obstacles for the development and functioning of political parties. NGO leaders stated that the new Constitution would seriously limit the freedom demonstrate peacefully, freedom of speech, and any act of protest, which under the new constitution must be approved beforehand by government representatives. The leader of the opposition, Adakhan Madumarov, emphasized that new Amendments to the Constitution will greatly expand presidential power at the expense of the Parliament and other democratic institutions. Leading human rights organizations, the Monitoring committee for the Referendum, the Coalition for Democracy and Society, as well as leading journalists, did not doubt that the results of the Referendum were predetermined by the government long before February 2, 2003.

        "Yet another shameful page has appeared in our history", stated one of the leaders of the Monitoring Committee, Zhipar Zheksheev, during a conference on the Referendum's results. The Monitoring Committee unified twelve political parties and around ten NGOs, the task of which was to monitor law observance. The leaders of the Monitoring Committee made the following statement during a press conference in Aki-Press regarding their Results Report that was presented on February 7, 2003: "We have not seen a dirtier campaign in Kyrgyzstan than with the current referendum. The ruling government, headed by President A. Akaev, used all administrative and financial power, informational and psychological resources, and dirty technology to carry off a referendum without democracy to the Kyrgyz people and the rest of the world. According to materials from independent observers, journalists and citizen reports, 40 percent of citizens participated in the boycott of the Referendum. The results of the referendum are invalid and falsified by the government, which is why the Monitoring committee does not recognize the Kyrgyz Referendum to have taken place."

        At 10 p.m. on February 2, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Sulaiman Imanbaev, announced the result. He stated that more that 84 percent of registered voters came to voter booths on Referendum Day. On February 3, it became known that an amazing majority of the Kyrgyz citizens - 75.5 percent - approved the new Amendments to the Constitution. The question regarding Askar Akaev's leadership until December 2005 was answered affirmatively by 79 percent of the referendum’s voters. So, who and why was a referendum without democracy needed in Kyrgyzstan? The answer to this question we will receive shortly. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan are now advised to invite a European Committee of law (the so-called Venice Committee on constitutional referendums) of the Council for Europe for the study and examination of the Kyrgyz Constitution and to receive recommendations that would help to achieve the government-stated goals of strengthening democratic institutions and human rights.