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Raimonds Vējonis: What to expect from new president of Latvia?

New Latvian president, Raimonds Vējonis. Photo: DELFI

Recently, the Latvian Saeima has elected the new president after daylong discussions and five rounds. Raimonds Vējonis, the minister of defense, is now the president of Latvia. Previously, Vējonis headed the state department on environment protection. It is high time to speak of what Russia should expect from the new president of its western, traditionally unfriendly neighbor.    

The successor issue

At first sight, the president of Latvia plays little role in governing the state, as Latvia is a typical parliamentary republic. Even the presidential nominees are elected by the Saeima, not the people.  Nevertheless, the president in Latvia has access to rather important levers of power: the president has the right of legislative initiative and the right to block any bill.  The president is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and can convene and chair over emergency meetings of the Cabinet, determine the agenda of those meetings, and dissolve the Saeima (in 2011, Valdis Zatlers used that right).

With such wide powers, it does matter who is the president.  When after long hesitations, in April Andris Bērziņš announced that he would not run for a second term, news analysts were seriously concerned wondering who will head the country next. It must be understood that four years ago Latvia obtained rather a wise and moderate president as Andris Bērziņš. Unlike many representatives of the political elite, he did not have propensity for either tough nationalist rhetoric or complaints about “perpetual pain and occupation.” As to the relations with Russia, Bērziņš tried to act pragmatically. He was the only leader of the Baltic States to agree to visit the Olympic Games in Sochi at the beginning of last year. He was very different from his Lithuanian and Estonian opposite numbers, Dalia Grybauskaitė (from the Soviet elites) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who have always supported the anti-Russian rhetoric relishing the opportunity to hurt the neighbor with word and deed. As the ruling parties named the possible presidential nominees, many were disappointed – there were some indigenous nationalists among them. Lawyer Egil Levits had the highest chances to get the cherished post. He is the author of the Saeima-approved preamble to the Constitution saying that modern Latvia is a nation state, not the country of immigrants. Nominated by VL-TB/LNNK, Levits yielded to Raimonds Vējonis only after a long and hard fight. However, the defense minister managed to gain the majority of at least 51 votes. 55MPs voted for him, while only 26 supported Levits.

At a certain moment, stars aligned for Vējonis. The case is that the coalition of three parties rules the country distributing the posts equally. The coalition Unity Party has already received the prime minister’s post (Laimdota Straujuma), the National Bloc VL-TB/LNNK received the parliament speaker’s post (Inara Murniece), and the coalition Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība - ZZS) did not want to have its trouble for nothing either (after all Andris Bērziņš was from ZZS too). According to ZZS, it was possible to restore the justice only by giving the president’s post to an insider.  The Unity - the most influential party in the coalition - did a favor to its partner Party and supported its nominee - Raimonds Vējonis.

Pragmatist’s rise to power

Enlisting the support of the two most powerful political parties in the country, Vējonis has become the new president of Latvia. He will take office in July.  What we know about him? Raimonds Vējonis, 48, born in Pskov region (father – Latvian, mother – Russian), speaks English and Russian, married, has two sons.  Having a master's degree in biology, Vējonis worked as teacher at school. “I know Mr. Vējonis, we studied at university together,” Miroslav Mitrofanov, co-chair of Latvia's second biggest Russian-Latvian party, told the author. “I must say that he left behind his student-fellows: he is very clever, pragmatic, knows what he wants, and does not like idle talks…”

Raimonds Vējonis started his political career as member of Madona city council. Pragmatic and hardworking Vējonis promptly carved a career and became a government member. He was appointed as minister for environment and regional development on January 7 2012. After the structural changes at the government, he became “solely” the environment minister on January 16 2003. On January 1 2011, he again became the minister of environment and regional development, this time, for a shorter term – till October 25 of the same year. He served as minister for a record-breaking long term.  After the elections to Saeima of the 11th convocation, his Party of the Greens and Farmers “fell out of” the coalition and he temporally left the government. Not long after, in 2014, he became the Minister of Defense. Such “kaleidoscopic” change of positions is a usual thing for Latvia, where the government posts are distributed based on the party affiliation, not profession. Biologist Vējonis as defense minister was not the worst ever appointment. One of his predecessors – Vinets Veldre – was… a vet!

At the beginning of 2008, the author of this article interviewed Vējonis, who created an impression of a calm and clever utilitarian – just as described. Radical nationalism was alien to his nature. Never before, he made any aggressive statements against either local Russians or Russia. Nevertheless, after taking such a high post, he could not but yield to the dominating sentiments. Taking the defense minister’s post 1.5 years ago, Vējonis began to do things he never did before: anti-Russian rhetoric has become a usual thing for him.  Now, Vējonis is an ardent supporter of permanent presence of the military contingent from other NATO countries. He demands more funds for acquisition of weapons, looks to buy ‘stingers’ from the United States, and urges the country to prepare for possible encroachment by “little green men” from Russia.

“Security is above all!”

Raimonds Vējonis’s most popular recent statements:

— “Seventy-eighty out of the one hundred pieces about Latvia on the Russian television are hostile.”

— “I was once asked what I will do if ‘green men’ emerge in the streets of our cities. My answer was: we will be shelling at them!”

— “Unfortunately, I must say that Russia is our long-term problem, and we should expect no changes either in the situation inside Russia or in its actions at the international level.”

Elected as president, Vējonis shared his political priorities (by the way, he did not avoid answering the questions by Russian reporters in Russian), saying the national security is the highest one. He is sure that NATO’s presence in the Baltic States should be increased. “It is necessary to continue the intensive negotiations with the NATO secretary general for the Warsaw Summit to adopt new decisions on how to strengthen the presence of the Alliance’s forces in the region. In addition, it is important that the negotiations on the state budget result in an increase in the defense spending, as we need to develop and strengthen our army. It is of utmost importance for our country,” he said. The ex-minister of defense explained that no new NATO strong points will emerge in the Baltic region, as all the military bases in Latvia are inherently the NATO forces.  Instead, the number of the NATO soldiers may be increased in Latvia.

The new president put the economy and creation of well-paid workplaces to the second place saying it depends on geopolitics.  “It is obvious that people leave abroad for lack of well-paid workplaces in the country. Therefore, the government must help creating such workplaces. How is it possible? We must improve the labor efficiency, and, of course, it will require investments. The president can have a very important part in raising investments. If our country is secure from a military point of view, investments will be made in Latvia. The president can speak with potential investors at all formats of international forums and during bilateral visits and invite them to Latvia,” Vējonis said. He accepted that a “fight for the budget” is ahead. We will have to consolidate many millions of euro to reduce the budget deficit. “It will not be easy, of course. Anyway, the government and the parliament must perceive the new budget expenditures from the viewpoint of both foreign and domestic security. I think, it will be very difficult, because all sectors need financing, however, security is above all.”

It is symbolic that Vējonis’s election nearly coincided with the start of Saber Strike -2015 - the NATO large-scale drills in the Baltic States.  Although, such drills are held regularly, but only this time, the A-10 Thunderbolt fighters will be making law-level training flights over the populated areas, not over the polygon. Simultaneously, tactical exercises will be held in Ādaži, near Riga, involving over 1000 people from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the United States, Great Britain, and Finland.

If this trend of Latvia’s foreign patrons from Washington and Brussels continues, Vējonis may well turn into a “president of war,” though he will not be doing it with furious fanaticism. This is quite possible, as Latvia can be called an independent state only symbolically, and Vējonis is by far not a “rebel.”  Even if he were such, the “senior friends” would find a method to restrain him.

Vyacheslav Samoylov, EADaily analyst in the Baltic region

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