Latvia's political puppet show

The sanctioning of Aivars Lembergs by the US raises again the question of who runs Latvia and the security of this NATO ally in the Baltic, writes Steve Komarnyckyj.

On 9 December 2019, under its Magnitsky Act, the US announced sanctions against several entities and individuals globally, including Latvian oligarch Aivars Lembergs.

Lembergs is also the mayor of the freeport city of Ventspils in north-eastern Latvia and is suspected of several crimes including fraud and money laundering. He was investigated by Latvia's Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB in Latvian) between 2009 and 2011.

The KNAB apparently recorded him having conversations with two other oligarchs, Ainars Slesers, the then transport minister, and former prime minister Andris Skele in a room at the Ridzene Hotel. The recordings , which were leaked in 2017 and published in the Latvian weekly journal IR, suggest that all three men were guilty of serious crimes and work with the Kremlin. However, none of them were ever successfully prosecuted and Lembergs's continuing hold on Latvian politics places the country's sovereignty at risk.

The targeting of Lembergs, the sole member of the trio to have been sanctioned by the US, is, however small, a step in the right direction. However, both the Latvian government and the EU have remained supine as corruption rages throughout the Latvian state.

How serious is the threat posed by Lembergs and what accounts for the inactivity of both Latvia and European institutions in the face of his seemingly brazen criminality?

The US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for the sanctions, lists four organisations which Lembergs owns or controls: Ventspils Freeport Authority, the Ventspils Development Agency, the Business Development Association, and the Latvian Transit Business Association.

Ventspils Freeport Authority Port

However, the Latvian government, at least theoretically, passed legislation stripping him of control over the Ventspils Freeport Authority port* in December 2019 and the sanctions against it were removed on the twentieth of that month. This may have been naive on the part of the US because the recordings reveal that Lembergs controls much of Latvia's political life and it is entirely possible that he will effectively retain control over Ventspils via some of the politicians who have seemingly ripped the port out of his hands. If this whole manoeuvre was a geopolitical Punch and Judy show to bamboozle gullible Americans it appears to have worked.

The KNAB's original investigation which was launched in 2009 and inexplicably abandoned in 2016 sought to determine whether Lembergs and his two fellow oligarchs were the true owners of Riga Commercial Port. Such arrangements are quite routine in oligarchic societies.

Viktors Krasovickis, one of the former owners of the looted Latvian bank Parex was rumoured to be the real owner of the ABLV bank, which collapsed in 2018, via a sock puppet. Does Lembergs similarly control his masked assets via proxies backed up by his political power?

He runs and largely finances the Farmers and Greens Alliance, a party whose image might confuse a western audience with its combination of green and right wing politics. Indeed, the Green Party which forms part of the alliance was expelled from the European Green Party in November 2019 because it was deemed, correctly, to be a fake green party.

The Farmers and Greens Alliance is the fifth largest block in the Latvian parliament, the Saiema, and one of its leading members, Raimnonds Vejonis, was the Latvian president between 2015 and 2019. Lembergs himself was nominated by the party to be the country's prime minister in 2006 prior to being temporarily arrested in 2007-2008 and then, bafflingly, released. The other two oligarchs in the recordings, Ainars Slesers and Andris Skele have more or less absented themselves from the country's political life after the recordings were released but remain powerful players in Latvia's business world. The transcripts show how all three men controlled much of Latvia by various corrupt methods in 2009-2011.

Ainars Slesers

During the recordings Ainars Slesers**, who was then the transport minister, discusses how the three men can influence Riga city officials to approve the Riga Fertilizer Terminal project. He had a concealed business interest in the project. The transcripts also suggest that the three men were the true owners of the Latvian passenger airline company airBaltic.

The three men also discuss controlling Latvian politics. Lembergs is humorously congratulated for having prevented the re-election of a prosecutor Janis Maizitis by the Latvian parliament. The possibility of Inguna Sudraba becoming prime minister is discussed with one of the men noting that "Moscow" favoured her. However, Valdis Dombrovskis's party won the 2010 election temporarily thwarting their plans even if they retained control over much of the parliament.

Lembergs, however, would subsequently become a dominant player in Latvian politics with his party, as previously noted, supplying the country's president. He was never prosecuted despite the corruption revealed by the tapes but is subject to endless investigations which are never concluded for obvious reasons.

Sudraba had been a member of the credit committee at the Parex bank before it collapsed in 2008 when it approved loans to the bank's owners on outrageously favourable terms. She subsequently became the state auditor who in theory should have investigated the loans she once approved to men who had close connections to the FSB and the Tambov mafia. Sudraba was crucial to minimising the prosecutions undertaken against the bank's former owners and it is perhaps obvious why Moscow would support her candidacy.

In 2017, she was appointed to head the parliamentary commission investigating the tapes despite the fact that she was discussed during the recordings and ensured that its 2018 report named none of the oligarchs concerned on the grounds that no criminal charges had been pressed against the trio.

This leads to the bizarre spectacle of a document which affected to conceal the names of the three men when these were in fact known to the entirety of Latvia, written by a woman who had compelling reasons for concealing the truth. After all one of the trio was a man with the golden key to Sudraba's future who could either make or destroy her. More importantly, as we have seen, he and his fellow Latvian oligarchs are quite happy to seek Moscow's approval for their actions.

The disproportionate power they and their peers wield over Latvia's puppet politicians means that in effect Latvia is a fake NATO ally which could quite possibly be taken over by Moscow quite swiftly. However, the presence of former Latvian PM Valdis Dombrovskis, who was primarily responsible for sweeping the dirt from the country's 2008 banking collapse under the carpet, in the EU Commission means that no one in Brussels, whether in the EU or NATO headquarters, is looking too closely at the shadowy figures cruising Riga in their Bentleys.

They are Putin's greatest and least secret weapon and have turned Latvian politicians into a puppet show used by oligarchs to control the masses and a worrying glimpse into one possible future for western democracy.


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* Image By Mamanikas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

**Image File:Flickr - Saeima - 10.Saeimas deputāts Ainārs Šlesers.jpg

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Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj's literary translations and poems have appeared in Index on Censorship, Modern Poetry in Translation and many other journals. He is the holder of two PEN awards and a highly regarded English language poet whose work has been described as articulating "what it means to be human" (Sean Street). He runs Kalyna Language Press with his partner Susie and three domestic cats.

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